As a foreign English speaker, I constantly wince with my impoverished English ability, which encompasses desperately finite words and expressions, hindering myself from truly conveying my will to my native friends.
But then my Hong Kong or my non-native English speaking fellows will suddenly metamorphose themselves into green-eyed monsters with unfathomable envy upon hearing how diffident I am about my illiteracy of this second lingua franca.
“You fibber!” one of my Chinese friends bellowed, followed by a similar remark I made to her.
Frankly speaking, I can generally comprehend news and articles in English, and occasionally my word bank enables me to crack few jokes to my London friends. My capacity for being a fairly good user of the world language, however, neither means that I am an inborn linguistic talent, nor that I spend most of my time every day acquiring new words by rote. Instead, in all endeavours I amalgamate this language into my quotidian life.
When I was a junior school kid, I faintly recall, almost every weekend my parents took me to a nearby library where I would borrow about one or two illustrated English books. As days went by, I completed most Ladybird simplified versions of classical story tales. Definitely there had been unfamiliar words to me as a five-or-six-year-olds, but I did not look up the dictionary too often (I think on average I checked, in each book, the meaning of around three or four words which I was so dying to know) for doing so would just kill my interest.
[Photo source: “Ladybird Books: All Your Favourite Covers Re Published”Huffingtonpost. Web.]
Just as what Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky said “after we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it”, I learnt to remember words repetitively appearing in different books. The more I can understand the story, the more jocundity I possess in reading more.
Probably because of having early been accustomed to the joy of reading English books, unlike my other classmates, I was not impervious to spelling exercises, dictation and reading comprehension. Somehow I looked forward to them instead, as they helped me to indulge myself more deeply in the world of fairy Godmother and the giant beanstalk.
I became an avid writer (though I wrote loosely and I am even now), thanks to my English teacher M who had enlightened me, a then junior high school student, the right way of learning English. She always made her teaching dogmas, some in Cantonese and the rest in English, in the form of pithy rhymes and songs, and reiterated them again and again so as to permit me to digest them more easily. Just to list a few:
- Put ‘i’ before ‘e’, for example believe; unless an ‘c’, put ‘i’ before ‘e’, for example receive.
- To show you are an excellent English user, try to change any words which carry a similar meaning for the second time onwards.
- Why don’t you put more “sweets” – words – into your own “pocket” – your word bank – so that they become handy when it comes to immediate use?
- The meaning of one word (normally a verb) is tantamount to that of three words (a compound of nouns and prepositions) For example, I lack money, but I am in lack of money; I emphasise this point, but I put/lay emphasis on/upon this point.
Later when I learned about the syntax and audited in courses about comparative grammar, one professor told me the language of English allows less word tolerance than its Chinese counterpart, which immediately rang a bell because what M taught me has proved to be true.
Despite my not ever being a young, celebrated and awarded writer, my English writing did win some applause from my college English teachers. Meanwhile, I began, when I was in my year two junior high school, to read unabridged versions of English stories. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Emma and many others were once my favourites. My exultancy went high when I knew that Darcy and Elizabeth were finally a couple; my tears went down when Rochester lost his eyesight in the fire; consternation and agony roared in my heart when Emma always interfered in others’ marriage affairs and failed.
As if books are on par with oxygen to me, I could not and cannot live without words. M is the first English teacher who stresses that language is not unidirectional but, like a two-way traffic, you give comments about what you read and heard, too. Reading English newspaper thus became my daily habit too. And whenever my powerful emotion was spontaneously overflown, I assembled and organized my thoughts and wrote some commentaries to give my own feedback to the newspaper.
The above few paragraphs may summarise, helter-skelter, my English learning in the old days. But just as men naturally grow up, so does a language too evolve when time goes by. As English has been established as the world language, while we acknowledge the existence of World Englishes, it also means that we have to keep up learning, regardless of whether we are native speakers or not.