I was raised and schooled in the inland city of Baotou, Inner Mongolia from age 0 to 19. In the school system I went through, English was not a mandatory subject until Junior High (or the 6th year of formal education when the student is 12), and was taught in very much the textbook way.
I was relatively successful in catching up to speak it well. I scored 141/150 on the English test of College Entrance Exam (AKA gao kao 高考), and later 112/120 on TOEFL. I also won a few awards at different English speaking contests, and later worked as a TOEFL instructor at one of the large companies.
Here are some of my reflections and recommendations transferable to other learners.
1. After having some foundation, native-speaker teachers would be immensely helpful.
In my case, it’s not exactly always native speakers. While we had teachers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, one of our teachers was from Nigeria, and another from Pakistan, speaking English with an accent. But that’s actually not important!
It’s important to be in a classroom where the students and teacher can only communicate in English, even if everyone has an accent. However, I think it’s important that the class should be small enough for the teacher to know each student by name. I was once in a class with a foreign English teacher and 45 other students. It was a very unproductive learning experience.
2. Grammar class might be boring, but extremely important!
Many people accuse English teachers in China of teaching too much grammar and of being too dogmatic in their approach. I don’t completely agree. I always believed grammar is important, and liked my grammar class. My experience is, if you master grammar, it will allow you to express yourself in more precise and impressive ways. My point is, if your goal is to eventually master English and express some of your more sophisticated thoughts, then grammar is important to you. You no want talk English like this.
3. Use newly learned phrases to express your own thoughts.
Here’s a small secret I have used. Every time I learn a new expression in English, even though there is always a sample sentence in the dictionary, I would try very hard to come up with another sentence by myself. I picture myself in the middle of organizing my thoughts on a certain topic, and using this new phrase not for the sake of mastering a phrase, but to get my message across. It’s my sentence, something that I will want to say as part of my opinion. Next time I want to say something with that meaning, the newly acquired expression would always come up naturally. It turned out to be an extremely effective way to build my active vocabulary.
4. Work on pronunciation as early as possible to gain confidence.
It’s a very virtuous cycle: If you acquire clear and precise pronunciations the teacher would always give you more opportunities to speak in front of the class. The more you speak, the more confident and motivated you are to practice and improve your accent. In my case, although I had been a good student in most subjects, English became my favorite subject because it earned me recognition of a totally different type – a different kind of ‘smart’ that made me stand out from other smart students around me.
5. At the end, I think it is curiosity more than anything.
Many people have pointed out that their secret is simply being very interested in English. I cannot agree more. It takes a curious mind to genuinely want to learn the international language, because it opens oneself to a much, much larger world of thoughts and people. Remember that feeling when your own personality feels very different when thinking in a different language? That feeling to my brain is like chocolate to a three-year-old. You don’t need your teacher to tell you how good it is.
You can contact Rony Gao at firstname.lastname@example.org.