“Read after me: helpful, helpful, h-e-l-p-f-u-l, cook, cook, c-o-o-k…… Then turn to page 56 and recite the first 5 rules at top of the page every day until you finish the whole book.” I am Chinese, and that’s our typical English class in China, in recitals of numerous words and rules. I even started feeling pity for native English speakers, who have English class daily. However, one day, my Chinese English teacher told me, “That’s the Chinese way, not the American way.” Learning in a Chinese way seemed stupid, and I did not need to pay effort in English if I studied abroad. Since then, I always dreamed of learning like an American.
When I had the opportunity to study in Idaho as an exchange student, my dream arouse again. “No reciting words, no learning grammar like a Chinese person, I will learn English automatically in an English environment as American do.” With this fantastic expectation towards learning English in an American way, I started my journey.
“Abske,clekljga kejlkhg jkehk Joshua, OK?”
“Well, j-k-e-h b-i-e-u j-i-t-y…..”
My brain crashed. Those codes couldn’t be deciphered.
Yes, this was the most common ending of my conversation with native English speakers in the beginning. Among them, I was isolated. To me, the bird chirp, the dog bark, and the English were the same—they were indecipherable. With the strong belief that I would learn in the “American way”—learning English in the environment automatically—I refused to pick up the Chinese way of learning English and continued to live whatever the way I did, leaving English as the random noise.
It was just a start, and the real difficulties came when the school began months later. Listening to the class reminded me of listening to my grandmother’s dilapidated radio with an unstable network connection—there were always random signals out of my comprehension between words. “Class begin…zzzzzzzz…turn to next page…zzz beautiful zzz song, zzzzzzzzzz…” The signal was so bad that I could barely decipher 50 percent of the content in a class. Math class was my favorite, not because how passionate I felt toward math, but because dealing with numbers did not require using English. People considered me “gentle and quiet” because I just did not know how to talk. Many of my attempts for communication such as “Give me the rubber (means eraser in British English)” and “I want the sour milk (direct translation from ‘yogurt’ in Chinese)” yielded nothing but confusion to listeners. Time had passed after using “the American way of learning English”, but improvement didn’t come along.
The belief that being immersed in an English environment would automatically teach us English was proved ridiculous, as if putting a person in jail would automatically teach him the way to get out after sitting there and musing. I felt upset when this “American way of learning English” did not work, but I knew some actions were needed. Maybe I need to go back to “Chinese way” of learning.
My first attempt was to improve my vocabulary. I drew out my vocabulary list I used back in China and started to put down any word I would like to learn in daily life. “Poop? That’s interesting” I put down the first word; oh, it’s called “fart!” I jotted down another word with epiphany.
In order to capture the words in my listening, I recorded down the class everyday under teachers’ permission and replayed it at home, trying to capture every syllable and decipher every word. For some inscrutable sentences, I would consult my host family and listen to it so repetitiously that sometimes I just rattle some sentences off naturally: “looky here, don’t gimme no homork,” I spoke out the sentence to my peers. “That sounds very Mr. Robert (our history teacher)!” they laughed.
All these methods above are “Chinese” methods; maybe I should, as many people argue, learn in the native way. With this mission in mind, I knocked on Mrs. Shearea’s door, my English teacher in the age of 40s. “If you want to learn English, you need to practice grammar. That’s how we taught our kids,” she spoke slowly and drew out a grammar sheet, “our class is going to start our grammar quiz after December.” Object, Verb, infinitive… Oh my God, I was definitely in a fake America! Those are the Chinese ways, not the American ways of learning English! It’s not true. I must have made a mistake in listening. “Sorry, were you talking about grandma or something?”
“NOOOOO, it is grammar, g-r-a-m-m-a-r.” It seemed as if my Chinese English teacher was in front of me again, but in white skin and brown hairs. In the conversation afterward, I could not listen to a word she said.
Getting up early in the morning, I plopped against the grass in the garden and started reciting the words, practicing grammar exercise at school, and listening to the class record or news radio at night. The word list was growing, from one whole page to one whole book. The exercise pile accumulated into a big stack. The voice record was occupying a larger and larger portion on the storage bar on my phone, eventually contributing to the running out of the storage. My ability to decipher words became stronger, enabling me to even intercept messages delivered through whispering between others. When I understood “holy cow” had nothing to do with cow, and “hot potato” had no connection with “baked potato,” I felt rewarded.
One day, when my morning alarm went amiss, I jumped off the bed, grabbed anything I could remember on the way out of my house, and rushed to the class three seconds before the bell rang. Interestingly, I was faster than ever before—it only took half of the time to get to my school. Having no time to consider this phenomenon, I took notes, listened to class, and chatted with friends, doing what I always did. That day, I felt surprisingly relaxed without a reason.
“Joshua, where is your super heavy Chinese-English dictionary?” On my way home, my friends asked.
The reason for the abnormal phenomenon I encountered today revealed itself: “Well, I forgot to bring it,” I said.
“Oh, good for you to get rid of it!”
Other than embarrassment, I was soon overwhelmed by the joy for being independent to the dictionary. I decided to not bring it to school ever since.
I met other non-US citizens across the state throughout the year, and we found out the “Chinese way of learning” is also American, Canadian, German, and Japanese way of learning. In short, it belongs to the world. Learning English without paying effort is just an unrealistic hope, and “the American way of learning” is not equivalent to excuses and laziness. In fact, it means the opposite.