Why is English writing so difficult for ESL learners?

Why is English writing so difficult for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For most of us who come from a local background or studied under the Hong Kong education system, we have probably always wanted to avoid taking subjects where you have to do writing tasks, such as English and humanities subjects. When it came to choosing subjects for our senior years in high school, we would also choose Math and science subjects rather than the language and humanities subjects. So the question is, why is it that we tend to think that we can pride ourselves in Math and science subjects to the extent that we can completely forget about other subjects?

As a person who had switched from a bachelor’s degree in Engineering to a bachelor’s degree in Translation at university, it seems as though the most attractive reason for choosing Math and science subjects was that they could easily earn you the highest marks to get into a decent university. After I had gotten a decent grade for my GCSE English at year 11, I thought that I could totally abandon English and humanities subjects altogether, in order to focus on the Math and science subjects that I’d chosen for my A Levels. But as I look back now, I kind of regret. Why is that? Since I’ve started working in the real world, I’ve learnt even if you have a lot of knowledge, language and presentation skills seem to be the foremost thing that companies look at when deciding whether they would hire you. Even though those years at high school only constituted a small part of my life, the subjects that I chose nonetheless shaped who I have become today, and I wish that I could have chosen another foreign language or humanities subject to broaden my horizons.

But the question is, even if we now know that writing skills are useful, why do we still want to skip it? Whenever we get a writing task, it seems so easy for us to procrastinate and not know how to start. It seems as though it is impossible to score all the marks, unlike for Math and science subjects where you can memorise facts and find past papers for model answers to learn from. But for English writing exams? It is just incredibly difficult to find any past papers with model answers! There are marking schemes and criteria, but it seems as though there are no structures of model answers to follow. Hence, if we don’t pay enough attention to the teacher in class, it can just be so difficult to revise when the exam comes, and therefore we would rather not choose such a subject.

However, the crux of the matter is that from the perspective of a person learning English as a second language, it is just so difficult to write in English because to begin with, we do not even have an adequate English-speaking environment at school. The real problem is that our teachers may have only taught us how to write, but not tell us why we should do it! Even when we have been taught the rules and techniques in writing, such as starting each paragraph with a topic sentence, it still seems incredibly difficult because writing seems to be more than just knowledge, as there is also the art of structuring your ideas in order to deliver them well to your target audience. So whatever ideas we put onto a piece of paper, they also have to flow smoothly from one idea to the next in a logical manner.

But have we completely forgotten about what knowledge actually is? It is like trying to convince a friend why you prefer or prefer not to watch a movie, not just because the box office figures can tell you a lot or the movie critics have a certain opinion. Or it can be like trying to predict the result of a science experiment with just book knowledge and not being aware of the environment that could affect the result in the real world. So without the words to communicate what we know, we may never be able to analyze our knowledge to the greatest extent in order to put knowledge into practical use effectively. Otherwise, we would be no different than a computer whose job is just to present information. But in any case, it is now time for us to think about who we are as homosapiens (a.k.a the thinking being, or wise man in Latin), especially now that we are living in a technological world where artificial intelligence is becoming more and more powerful…

Why is it so difficult to master English grammar for ESL learners?

Why is it so difficult to master English grammar for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? To people who are native English speakers, it seems as though they were born with the correct English grammar at birth. This tends to arouse the envy of ESL learners, who often stumble on the usage of English grammar in their sentences. As we non-native English speakers grow older, we tend to forget about the importance of English grammar in our lives, even after years of rigorous grammar exercises starting from kindergarten, to primary school, to secondary school, and even to university. So the question is, can we still go back in time to learn English grammar for those who have finished school?

In our Asian culture, people often say that the only opportunity that you get to learn English well is when you are small and young. Like scientists have said about language learning, our minds are more softly wired when we are young, and thus we can ‘mould’ it into any shape we want, like marshmallow. Then as we grow older, our brains become more hard-wired and much harder for us to ‘mould’ it into the shape that we want. We may still increase in knowledge, but the way we make utterances in English seems to be inevitably affected by our mother tongue language. But why do we see many adult and senior ESL learners still having a desire to improve their English skills at English learning centres?

The reality is that even when we study English at an older age, teachers don’t tend to focus on grammar anymore, but rather, on increasing our knowledge as long as we get our messages across. Everybody seems to think that nobody would go back and take out all those grammar books to do all those rigorous grammar exercises when we were young because it just seems a very awkward thing to do. Whenever we make a grammar mistake in a sentence, teachers would also seldom point it out to us. Even if they do, they would do it in such a polite way, as if we should all treated with respect like adults. But after all, what is the importance of grammar if you can already get your message across to the other person?

Grammar, grammar, grammar – It seems like the word ‘grammar’ can sound a lot like the word ‘grandma’ the more we repeat saying it, especially for those of us ESL learners who don’t pronounce the ‘r’ as much or like to follow the British pronunciation. But in fact, grammar is a bit like our grandma, who is verbose and likes to keep nagging at you all the time to serve the food when it is cooked, even though we would often like to do our own things in our bedroom until the food is really ready. Just like our grandma, grammar can nag at us to get it right with the same level of verbosity, even when we don’t think it is that important. But if we can understand the underlying importance of doing something such as getting ourselves ready to serve the food cooked by our grandma, then maybe we can also fully understand the importance of grammar…

Why is it so difficult to nurture yourself to have a habit in reading English books as an ESL learner?

Why is it so difficult to nurture yourself to have a habit in reading English books as an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner? This may sound like a very simple question to native English speakers, but for ESL learners who never had the opportunity to study overseas or in a native English-speaking environment, nurturing yourself to have a habit in reading English books seems to be extremely difficult to do. However, as ESL learners, whenever we see these brand new English books looking attractive in the bookstore, we tend to end up buying them because we think that would read them in our spare time. In fact, I have heard so many times in my life that we English learners like to buy books, but not read them, which makes it seem like nurturing yourself to have a habit in reading books is actually not a simple matter. After all, why would anyone want to buy books and not read them? So to answer this question that is somewhat like a conundrum, I would like to share a personal story with everyone.

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I remember when I first moved to Canada at the age of 7, when I could barely speak English, my family always brought me to a shopping mall where there’s usually a bookstore that I could hang around in, while my parents finished buying the groceries. Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine were very popular at that time, and since the kids at my school liked to read them, I always got my parents to buy me one Goosebumps book every month or so. However, every time I got a new Goosebumps book, I usually just finished the first or second chapter, then told my parents that I finished it, so I could get a new one. Now that I look back to it, I laugh hysterically and think, “Why was I like that? I just don’t understand my behaviour in childhood at all.” But it seems as though I really loved the covers of Goosebumps books and the smell of brand new books! They always had nice artwork and bumpy designs on their covers so they just felt irresistable to touch and feel with my fingers!

Image result for university of toronto

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Years later when I went back to Toronto for university, I had a good laugh at the pile of Goosebumps books still sitting on my bookshelf at my grandparent’s home. I took out one Goosebumps book and read a few chapters, then realized that the stories weren’t all that cool and amazing, even though it was cool to see all those English words come alive. Back in those days as a kid of age 9 or 10, it just came across to me that Goosebumps books were very cool because every kid in my class thought the same way, which can be understood as a kind of fashion trend that was somewhat contagious. This may sound silly and laughable, but don’t people also have the same kind of behaviour with smartphones nowadays? For example, in addition to getting a good smartphone, everybody now wants a smartphone protective case that is durable and chic-looking.

So what is the solution to this problem? On one hand, we certainly need good educators and teachers to nurture our reading habits. But on the other hand, we need to be aware of the distractions that are affecting us in our daily lives, especially now that we have transitioned to a world where technology is ubiquitous. These distractions may be affecting us without us knowing, but if we keep finding ourselves procrastinating and not doing anything useful, then that is definitely the result of distractions affecting us severely. You may think I sound like your grandpa, but I’m here to tell you one important thing: “Stop looking at your cellphone and watch where you’re going!” But of course, I’m not really your grandpa.

Why is it so difficult to gain confidence in speaking English as an ESL learner?

For most ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, the first barrier to learning the language, above all else, is probably the difficulty in uttering the sounds of English words correctly and confidently. As a person who used to be an ESL learner, I can still remember how nervous I was when I spoke in front of the class in primary school when I just moved to Canada from Hong Kong years ago, even when it was just supposed to be a small sharing session. (you may refer to my earlier post) So when it came to a real presentation where I was being assessed, you can imagine how nerve-wracking it could get. Also, the best that I could do was to have the entire presentation script memorized, making sure that I included every point possible to attain the marks. As I look back now, I actually have this thought: “Was anybody even listening? I seem to have left the audience out of my equation entirely!”

It seems as though for those of us who grew up in an Asian classroom setting, we had all been programmed to answer questions in a way to attain the highest marks as possible because if we don’t, we tend to get the image of getting a “big cross” (大交叉) or a “zero chicken egg” (零雞蛋), as translated word-by-word from Cantonese. Most of us ESL learners seem to forget that doing a presentation is also about connecting with the audience and establishing a rapport with them. But why do we often forget about this? Perhaps, we tend to think that the phrase for “studying” in Chinese (讀書) means “to read book”, and hence we may often get the idea that we should focus on “the book” in our studies.

But the question is, “Is our mode of studying, that is – focusing on the book, really not such a good idea?” When it comes to doing a presentation, we may not sound as natural and confident as the native English speakers, but we certainly sound a lot more pertinent when answering questions because we had all been programmed to do such a thing through rigorous written exercises. However, that is not to say that native English speakers like beating around the bush, but the reality is that most of us ESL learners were expected to keep silent throughout the lessons in our Asian classrooms, and seldom had opportunities for academic discussion. Thus, when we give a presentation, we tend to jump straight to the point of delivering our answers to the presentation topic, without spending much time to relate to the audience, which can be like jotting down bullet points for an essay but not writing in paragraphs to express what you want to say.

So what can we do about this? Are most of us really stuck at gaining confidence in speaking English? As already mentioned in my previous article, different education systems and cultures have their own strengths and downsides in shaping the character of a student. So if the Asian education culture is superb at nurturing discipline in students, we ought to be proud of ourselves if students really grow up to respect seniors and not have too much personal opinion when working in a company in the future. However, it is still probably extremely difficult to define what is considered as an ideal, talented individual. But for now, we should definitely realize that the two Chinese characters “讀書” (to read book) is not the entire picture of the word “studying”, especially in the Western world. Perhaps, “進修” (to advance studies) is a better phrase to use when we refer to studying, as it takes our eyes off the book and focus more unto the real world…