Why do we need to put on our thinking caps as ESL learners?

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , Leave a comment on Why do we need to put on our thinking caps as ESL learners?

feb22-19-1.png

Why do we need to put on our thinking caps when we are learning English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For many of us ESL learners, it seems as though all kinds of English grammar rules and vocabulary need to be explained to us before our brains can retain a decent memory of them. To understand an English word, especially a long one, it can be very difficult for us, as English is unlike Chinese, which is a pictorial language. For example, how can we know what the word “prosperous” means by just looking at it? Even worse, when we read an English book, it can take us a considerable amount of time to understand what is happening, as we have little or no English language environment to refer to. So the question is, are all of us ESL learners really stuck at relying on our English teacher to explain things to us?

feb22-19-2.png

If we look at famous figures like Bruce Lee in the past, we can probably pick up a quote such as “Don’t think, feel.” Even though Bruce Lee was not a linguist, there is certainly some correlation between martial arts and language, as language is also an art. So if we were to apply his learning philosophy to English learning, what would be the result? On one hand, it can still be very difficult to feel what a word means by just looking at it, as English letters are nothing but a bunch of ‘雞腸’ (meaning chicken intestines in Cantonese, like a bunch of meaningless curly lines) to us. But on the other hand, the method of ‘feeling’ to understand a language makes a lot of sense because language is form of human expression. However, without a native English speaking environment, how are we able to feel what a word means, especially when the word is not commonly used, or may only have a slight difference with another word that is much simpler and easier to utter?

feb22-19-3.png

Perhaps one way of looking at this is to ask ourselves to ‘put on our eating cap’ when we eat a meal. Even though there may not be such a phrase in English, I would define it as being able to have an appreciation for different kinds of food. For example, when we’re so used to eating a certain type of dish, we would probably want to change to eating another type of dish to develop our taste for food. So if we were to look at English words as different types of dishes, we can probably better satisfy the appetite of our brain if we know how to use different vocabulary for expressing the same meaning in our conversation. Eg. Kind, nice, benevolent, and generous, for describing people of good character. However, we can also lose our appreciation for simpler words if we try to use too much advanced vocabulary all the time, and we can end up sounding pretentious and snobby. Likewise with food, in order to maintain the appreciation for expensive foods, one must also try the cheaper foods.

feb22-19-4.png

When it comes to learning a second language, there is certainly a level of difficulty involved. But have we ever thought that the process of learning can be enjoyable as well? We may not be taught such a method of learning while studying under our education systems, as most systems focus on the end goal of doing well in the exams. Even if we attain a decent grade in an exam, our teacher might still say to us that there is still room for improvement. So with other people’s expectations set so high on us all the time, how can we ever truly grasp the joy of learning? Therefore, whenever we face enormous pressure in our studies, we would probably want to put on our eating cap, playing cap, doodling cap, or whatever cap one can think of, in order to escape reality for a while. But let’s not forget that we should put away any irrelevant caps when we are back in study mode…

Why is it so difficult to adapt to speaking English as an ESL learner?

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , , Leave a comment on Why is it so difficult to adapt to speaking English as an ESL learner?

Why is it so difficult to adapt to speaking English as an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner? From the most basic standpoint, if we are not in an environment where everyone speaks English, it can just be very difficult for us to feel natural about speaking a language that has foreign culture embedded within it. So if the problem is that if we have to be in an English speaking environment in order to learn English well, then what can we do about this? To answer this question, I would like to share an experience of my own of how I have adapted to speaking English in my childhood when I just moved to Canada.

Surprisingly, I still have some vivid memories of myself when I moved to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of 7. I can still remember what it was like when I entered the grade 2 classroom on the first day of school at a public primary school in Toronto. When I walked into the classroom and the teacher asked me something that I could not understand, I simply said ‘I don’t know’ over and over because they were the only words that I knew at that time. All classmates were looking at me and I felt kind of embarrassed. Then through out the course of that year, I remember I did not speak much English and only hung around with Cantonese friends who were just like me and moved to Canada from Hong Kong. When it came to doing a presentation homework, I can even remember the teacher asked us to do it in Chinese instead of English. So as strange as it may seem, we actually wrote out our scripts in Chinese and read it out in front of the class. As I look back now, it just seemed incredibly hilarious.

For most of you who must be wondering whether that experience I just mentioned was real or not, I can tell you that I am wondering about the same thing too. Even though I can now speak English in a Western native accent and have had people asking me whether I was an American/Canadian Born Chinese(ABC / CBC), the truth was that it really took some time for me to adapt to the English culture when I was small. So even though I did well in school and was even the form representative back in the local primary school in Hong Kong, I was transferred to a Catholic primary school afterwards, due to my poor overall academic performance that year. Since then, there was an ESL teacher who nurtured me in English and I started speaking English ever since.

So if most of you are thinking that I was lucky enough to transfer to a better school with better teachers, I’d say you might be right. But as I look back now, the real reason why I did not speak English in the first place in the public primary school was that there was no Chinese person speaking English at all! There were a few smart Chinese kids in the class who spoke English, but the problem was that they did not speak Chinese and were most likely born in Canada. So it wasn’t until I met the ESL teacher in the Catholic primary school that I finally started speaking English because not only was she Chinese, but also she actually gave me English tasks that catered to my needs.

So what is my bottom line as to how a person adapts to speaking English? There are certainly different factors that affect a person’s willingness to speak it, but as a child, I didn’t want to speak a foreign language because it seemed weird for me to do so if other Chinese people don’t do the same. Also, if no one made me work hard, I’d probably just continue playing with my Chinese friends. Moreover, common sense told me that I better not listen to someone who doesn’t look like me! In other words, which planet do these people with blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin come from? They all seemed friendly, but they had completely different physical features, which made them looked like complete strangers to me. But as I look back now, I’m really glad that I had a teacher of my own descent who nurtured me in English because it is actually a very useful international language, especially now that we are living in a world that is getting a lot more multicultural, where bilingualism seems to be the base requirement for jobs.

Why is English writing so difficult for ESL learners?

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , , Leave a comment on 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 nurture yourself to have a habit in reading English books as an ESL learner?

Posted on Categories EnglishTags , , , , , , Leave a comment on 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.

Image result for goosebumps book

Image Source

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

 Image Source

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.