A good English class is a valuable means for acquiring and practicing English, but still the reality is that much of your progress will arise from your own self-study strategies. As a teacher for close to 10 years now, I am often asked for advice on how best to self-study English for fast results. I suspect sometimes my students are looking for that magic shortcut or panacea1 which can deliver them from all the "blood, sweat, and tears" that often surrounds the process of learning a second language.
There is, of course, no magic, but on the other hand, there may also be no need to engage in self-torturous2 activities that drain3 your energy. Part of the self-torture that students inflict upon themselves results from misconceptions formed along the way. I would like in this article to discuss a few of these misconceptions and offer some alternative advice for self-studying English. A.H. Whitehead once said, not ignorance but the ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge. In other words, it is important to understand misconceptions before they inhibit your self-study.
If I communicate with a Chinese partner, my English will get worse. There is a common perspective here in Beijing that the only way to improve your English is by speaking with a native speaker. It stems from the perception that speaking to another second language learner has a negative effect, since the partner speaks Chinglish.
Consequently, many desperately look for native-speaking partners, some paying a small fortune for the luxury of speaking with inexperienced expatriates4 who do little more than chat. Worse yet, opportunities to speak regularly with a Chinese partner at little or no cost are ignored out of fear. In short, the "native speaker‘s English" craze is somewhat synonymous with the "chinglish"phobia5.
The view that communicating with another student somehow damages your English rests on the age-old, erroneous6 assumption that language acquisition is a linear progression, with the native speaker at the top of the hierarchy7. Perhaps native speaker teachers are guilty of feeding this perception by labeling courses, students, textbooks sequentially in terms of levels (i.e. beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate etc); in the arrangement of grammar structures from simple to complex; and in reading and listening passages selected by the number of words they contain (i.e. easy, moderate, difficult).
Linguists who have studied the actual process of learning a second language know that developing a second language is * anything but8 a linear process. It can follow patterns and steps but these steps and patterns frequently break down. Language learning often progresses randomly and chaotically9. We sometimes progress rapidly, at other times we learn slowly, there are areas we seem to master easily, and areas in which we never seem to * make any headway10. Sometimes the words and sentences come easily; sometimes they do not.
Moreover, when we talk about the quality of English we must be prepared to acknowledge that it is very much a subjective and contextual evaluation. We know that formal standard professor may find her English very effective in front of her peers, but * next to11 useless with inner city teenagers in New York. Therefore, can we still say that her English is better than the teenagers? Obviously, it would depend on who was judging. With English, quality is often an issue of appropriateness as well as grammaticality. Researchers who have studied English language learning have found that people progress as they practice, and ultimately they self-correct what they say. It is unnecessary to have someone correct your English constantly, because mistakes most often derive from a lack of English instincts rather than a lack of awareness or knowledge of the correct grammar structure. The same student who never makes a mistake doing grammar exercises on paper will make them while speaking but ultimately he will adjust his structures as he continues to use them.
Moreover, researchers who have conducted studies of various groups of learners have found that learners who communicate with partners of a similar level tend to progress faster than learners whose partners‘ levels are much higher or lower. One can understand why this is so when a learner communicates with someone at a lower level, but why is it also true of those who communicate with someone at a higher level?
The reasons are mostly psychological. Having a partner whose English is much more developed discourages the speaker and the fear of making mistakes tends to stifle smooth conversation. However, the researchers found that those who communicated with partners who were near their own level progressed faster. Thus, in fact your classmate who is at the same level of English as you may indeed be your finest teacher
If I want to learn American English, I should learn form an American teacher or my English will not be understood when I go to the U.S.A.
I have seen many good teachers here in China, both expatriates and Chinese, run into problems because of the way many students judge their accents. Students believe that the best chance of speaking like a native speaker is by having that ideal accent. If the teacher has an accent that is not form the target country that certain students want to go to, they are either rebuffed12 or rejected.
Part of the misconception stems from ignorance of the distinction between pronunciation and accent. Pronunciation involves the stress, rhythm, intonation, and phonetic sounds that facilitate communication. An accent is the distinguishable set of sounds that derives from cultural or regional phonetic patterns. Accents are essentially habits formed at a very early age and very difficult to change after the age of six. This has been verified13 by researchers who studied the tongue and mouth positions of Israeli children at an early age of 5-6, and find that even after heavy immersion14 in American English for about 10 years, their mouth and tongue positions change very little when speaking, and thus their accents change only slightly. In other words, forget about trying to change your accent in a year or two, it is just not going to happen. Pronunciation can be changed and improved. Accents are entrenched15 and need not be changed. There is no shortage of superb English speakers and writers in my native country, Canada, who have excellent pronunciation, but heavy accents from their countries of origin. In fact, two great Indo-Canadian writers Michael Ondaatje and Rohinton Misty both have slight non-Canadian accents in English, but are * Booker Prize16 winners. Do we say that their English is substandard, because they have accents? No, it would be absurd to make such a suggestion since their pronunciation is excellent and no one has any trouble understanding them. As I mentioned earlier, pronunciation is not the same thing as an accent.
I tell my students to give up their hope of developing an American accent, since it is very unlikely to happen unless they stay in America over a very long period, and even then, the are still likely to retain some part of their Chinese accent. An accent is par of your character and heritage.
That is not to say that the student shouldn‘t devote time to improving his or her pronunciation. A student should focus on those pronunciation aspects that make their communication more effective, not trying to mold their accent into another. Developing pronunciation skills that are universally learnt is a much more worthy pursuit of your efforts than trying to copy an accent that is unnatural for your tongue and mouth.
I need a rich vocabulary before beginning to speak.
Often I hear students complain that they become tongue tied, meaning that they can‘t find the right words. Students will attribute it to a lack of vocabulary and memorize more words to compensate. Then they find after a few more thousand words that their English improves only slightly. Why?
Your memory is a key element to learning a language and no one should minimize its importance. Without a memory, you wouldn‘t be able to speak. However, it is also true that a lack of vocabulary is not the culprit17 of communication problems in many instances. It is important to look at other issues, before blaming it as the source of these communication difficulties. I have observed a great many CET-6 graduates who still have a great deal of trouble even uttering simple sentences, while other CET-4 students can speak with much greater ease. How can that be, you might ask?
We do not need a complicated linguistic answer to this question. When we think about it the answer is simple. The quantity of vocabulary has only an indirect relationship to the quantity and quality of speech. To illustrate, children learning their first language start out with a limited vocabulary, they do not know half of the words that a Chinese CET-6 student knows, but still they are able to make rapid sentences and communicate with ease. This makes common sense, for we all know that in English we can often substitute a simple word for a more complex one. For example, the word "facilitate" can be substituted with "help". Thus, the key is to learn the most useful functional words in English first and apply them often in a variety of circumstances, before trying to learn words that are more complex and used much less often.
I have studied English grammar for too long, so the last thing I need is more grammar.
Chinese students attribute their lack of communication in English to an overemphasis on grammar and thus resist grammar practice and reviews in their self-study programs. They tend to want oral English vocabulary, phrases, expressions, and pronunciation practice. Above all, they want an English environment. However, it soon becomes apparent that students struggle when they try to create sentences and their grammar is typically riddled18 with errors. Nevertheless, students want to have nothing to do with grammar structures while doing self-study. They ignore it completely, and concentrate instead on other aspects.
A good knowledge of grammar rules and patterns is absolutely necessary because the transfer of structures from one language to the next is anything but smooth. It is true that direct written grammar exercises, where students merely manipulate sentence structures to fit a pattern, may be unnecessary if you are aware of the pattern already. However, grammar definitely is an important part of your self-study program when it is used for communicative purposes.
What students often fail to do is to integrate grammar study into the process of creating English, rather than just manipulating sentences in exercise books. For example, with the structure "If I were you, I would…" a student should be thinking of the occasions he can use this structure and create as many sentences as possible that might be appropriate. Using English requires knowledge of the rules and patterns, just as a painter needs some conventions and boundaries before he can start his work, but ultimately both need a creative process before skill is developed.
Advice for the Self-study Learner
What then can I offer as advice for a motivated self-study learner? For starters, if you have no English environment, then create one. Find q partner to speak with regularly and do not worry if that partner is from China, Korea, Africa, or Europe. It is often better if your regular meetings can center around a topic or theme. For example, you could both read a different book and use the time to talk about the book you are reading. Perhaps you could use the time to exchange information about something you both want to learn.
You may also wish to * become accustomed with19 the types of clubs and activities that expatriates here in Beijing like to get involved with and join them. English corners are also funny ways to link with others who share your desire to learn English. Chat lines in English and * pen pals20 are also great ways to interact in English provided that you do not rely on them exclusively for your English development.
Secondly, you need to find a time of the day to expose yourself to various kinds of meaningful and interesting English stories, dialogues, programs, etc. that can hold your interest. If there is one pattern that shows up in all the studies of language acquisition it is this. The quantity and quality of English you expose yourself to is a key variable21 in determining the speed of your progress. The key issue should be to find a variety of interesting English sources that will not tire you out. Researchers have unanimously concluded that English that is meaningful and interesting is recalled and integrated into a learner‘s speech far more rapidly than English that is deemed appropriate by teachers and textbooks.
Finally, pace your energy and keep a positive attitude towards learning English. Acquiring a second language is a long-term journey that is not always smooth. Reward yourself with praise and begin to trust your communication powers. My students who have treated themselves with self-encouragement become more able to communicate and it is their fast progress that further motivates them to challenge themselves.
Nevin Blumer (M.Ed, TESL cert.) is an English as a Second Language teacher in Beijing who specializes in oral English and IELTS preparation. He has been teaching for almost 10 years, in Japan, Canada and Singapore and has spent over 2 years in Beijing. His particular interest is in the special problems that Chinese students have while learning English. One of his recent publications is American Culture: A Coursebook.