As English as a Second language (ESL) learners, we tend to hear a lot from people around us that we should read a lot of English books when we are small, in order to become fluent in English. As the term for ‘studying’ in Chinese is ‘讀書’, which means ‘to read a book’, it undeniably makes a lot of sense that studying should always be revolved around ‘the book’. So even when parents would really like to send their children overseas to study in an English-speaking environment, the Chinese term ‘讀書’ still seems to tell us that we should always stick to a book whenever we study, as if it is the ideal, traditional way of doing it. But if that is the case, does it mean that we should always spend a lot more time reading a book whenever we study? Or is studying so much more than that?
Whenever people ask me why my English seems so fluent or why I have a native English accent, people tend to get the impression that I must have studied English in a foreign country at a very young age, as if I never needed to spend much effort in studying English, like the language was spoon-fed to me entirely. However, even though I had the privilege to study in an English-speaking environment at the age of 7, it actually took me a lot of time for me to develop an interest in books. In fact, it wasn’t until my senior years of high school when I became very interested in reading books as a hobby, such as Sophie’s World and books by Steven Hawkings. As I was brought up in a family where hardly anyone had the privilege to finish school and knew much about education, it just always occurred to me that homework was more of a chore than anything else, even though I always tried my best to finish them. So the question is, if you had the privilege to attain fluency in an English-speaking environment at a young age, does it mean that you can get away with reading books?
While language fluency may be a God-given gift bestowed upon us, language proficiency may still be something that one needs to earn through studying hard, especially by reading books. But at the same time, one can be very proficient in English, while fluency can still be a struggle. So what is it that we should focus more on when we study? First of all, we should know that fluency comes from interacting with people because by definition, it is the ability to speak or write a language well. In other words, it is essential to have fluency in order to communicate well with others. However, a person may still be lacking in proficiency even if they have fluency, if they lack a certain level of vocabulary. So is reading books an essential thing for ESL learners to improve in English? Or is practicing English conversation a better option for developing both fluency and proficiency?
The reality is that all education systems tend to have a ‘good student model’ that expects students to do well on tests and exams. However, in order to avoid rote-learning and to put our knowledge to good practical use, we must constantly stay connected with people around us. Thus, we can have all the proficiency we can attain in a language, but if we do not have adequate fluency, we may still fail to communicate with others. On the other hand, having great fluency to a native level can make a person feel prideful and forget about the importance of learning from books because at times, we may not be immersed in an environment where there are bright minds or teachers who know how to instill wisdom unto their students. So what is the most effective way of learning English as an ESL learner? It may be a difficult question as each and every one of us prefers a different learning style, but if we can look at all the learning styles as a colourful spectrum that is fun and appealing to explore, we may get closer to finding the answer within ourselves.