When you are learning a foreign language you may discover as you progress that the hardest part is not the tedious repetition of reciting vocabulary or the innumerable exercises for practicing grammar. It is to finally summon the courage to speak and use the language. Before I came to the United States to attend the Pre-College Program at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2011, I never had a “real” conversation with a native English speaker, despite the fact that I had been learning English for approximately ten years. During the first few months of transition into a new culture, I struggled to improve my English in terms of speaking, listening, and pronouncing, eventually achieving what my teacher described as, “the best English as a second language learner I have ever encountered in the college level.”
The Chinese I
Back in my Chinese high school, which specializes in teaching English, I had to read English textbooks aloud for an hour on a daily basis in addition to taking three distinct courses in English every semester. However, even though I used to be the one who could finish reciting a reading in the shortest time, when it comes to speaking instead of reading or reciting, I still found myself, from time to time, desperately hunting for a precise word to express myself. I was not the only one faced with this problem. Like the experience of obtaining the literacy to speak English aloud Maxine Hong Kingston writes about in “Tongue-Tied,” “reading out loud was easier than speaking because we did not have to make up what to say” (Kingston 403). Kingston’s words speak to my heart. In the middle of “Tongue-Tied,” she poses a question: “The Chinese “I” had seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American “I”, assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes?” (Kingston 403). Just as she observes, I also felt the two languages were essentially so different that I often could not find the direct translation of my thoughts. One of my teachers, having noticed my confusion, enlightened me with something said by Mark Rowswell. Though relatively unknown in the West, Mark Rowswell was the most famous foreign freelance performer in the Chinese media industry. Fluent in both English and Mandarin, Dashan (his Chinese stage name) nonetheless stated that he could never be a translator. When he was speaking a language, he said, his mind was so fully occupied by that language that there was no space left for another. Not until that point did I realize I focused so much on the direct translation that I ignored the fact a thought could be articulated in various ways. For instance, instead of going for the fancy way of saying “I am starving” and trying to memorize the word “starve,” I could simply say, “I want to eat” or “I need food.” I have improved tremendously in my spoken English since this revelation.
In spite of my breakthrough in spoken English, there were problems waiting for me as well outside the academic environment. Among more than 10,000 college level vocabulary words I had recited in the past, I found nothing related to “homie”, “swag” or “two peas in a pod,” especially when they were pronounced with a strong accent. Meanwhile, I realized I also spoke with an accent. Since there is no pronunciation of /th/ in Mandarin, rather than saying thanks, I would usually pronounce “sanks.” In order to apprehend various accents and different slangs, I bought a television and turned it on as long as I was in the room. Whenever I encountered a new word, I quickly referred to Urban Dictionary. At the same time, I tried to pronounce the sound /th/ by repeating the sentence “ These three brothers threw their things” every day. After a few months, I had no trouble using English as my primary language.
I used to be envious of Asian Americans, since they seemed naturally to have a good command of both languages. After reading Maxine Hong Kingston’s “Tongue-Tied” and other books like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, however, I realized they went through the exact same process of obtaining their literacy in the usage of English and I started to appreciate the efforts they put into such work. Right now, when I am in an English-speaking environment, I have no trouble speaking aloud or expressing my thoughts. As I reflect on my process of gaining literacy in mastering English, it occurs to me that it doesn’t really matter whether I can speak perfect American English or not. English, like all the other languages, is simply a tool to help one present oneself. What is important is always having the confidence to voice one’s ideas and putting efforts into the goal one wants to achieve.
“Amy Tan.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
“Dashan.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “Tongue-Tied.” The Norton Reader: An Anthology of Nonfiction. 13th edition. Eds. Linda Peterson, John Brereton, Joseph Bizup, and Anne Fernald. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2012. 401-04. Print.