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My painful experience in learning English [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2003-10-7 06:40:18 |Display all floors
Dear friends,

I am trying to share with you my painful experience in learning English. Successful or not, it is valuable. I will post my experience in a series of postings as they become available.


Sound American?

I am shocked to learn from newspaper reports that it is not uncommon for people in Beijing and Shanghai to spend a fortune to surgically modify their tongues in the hope that they would speak like Americans or English. In my college years, many students, myself included, would spent endless hours practicing the pronunciation of a few particular sounds so as to sound more American while on the other hand we could hardly speak or write one single complete sentence. We squeezed our mouth and nose to make our voice deep and smooth. The objective of such efforts is not to communicate effectively but to impress other people with an American accent. How many man-hours have been lost in this endeavor? Probably only sky is the limit.

Now I realize that such a desire to sound American is unnecessary, unattainable, and is therefore a waste of time. In fact it is harmful!

This desire misleads people to focusing on a wrong goal. English is a tool for communication. We learn it for the purpose of obtaining and presenting information. The priority clearly is the transmission of contents. In many cases, such transmission can be accomplished perfectly without ever making one single vocal signal. In various business activities, often it is the reading and writing business letters or other documents that communicate best.

This desire is also unnecessary even when oral communication is involved. What is most critical in effective oral communication is not whether you sound American but whether you can clearly understand what is said and are able to give an appropriate response.

Learning to swim may be a good analogy. In the beginning stage you should not waste your time on learning the style of a professional swimmer. When you are thrown into water, your most critical skill is the one that keeps you afloat regardless of the style you use.


I almost drowned in a river when I was 8 years old . The river current swept me into a deeper part, and before I had time to call "help' I was fully submerged into the river. However, my instinct to survive miraculously taught me how to swim in that ugly 'doggy style' instantly. Since then I learned how to swim in ‘doggy style'. Although I have become a much better swimmer now, I sometimes still playfully try the 'doggy style' when nobody else is watchhing. Ugly it may be, but it  once saved me my life.

Similarly, when asking for directions in a crime-infested inner city in the US, what you need is not an American accent but the ability to ask a question and the ability to understand the answer given, for a mistake here could potentially cost your life. Before you can swim with style like a professional swimmer, you obviously should devote your time to other far more critical skills that are essential to your very survival.

The ones who are or soon to be thrown into sea are more concerned with their practical surviving skills. Only those who remain on the land can afford the luxury of discussing which style is more fashionable. Similarly in English study, the ones who are trying to sound American are typically the ones who do not have a real need to use English. After I left China I stopped trying to sound American or English because I have far more urgent needs to deal with, such as that to understand my PhD advisor, my fellow students, technicians, and the people in the street or in shops. I was far more concerned with making myself understood and express myself with appropriate vocabularies.

The desire to sound American is also unnecessary because English itself is spoken in many different tones or accents, American, English, Scottish, Irish, Canadian, Australian, African, Indian, and other Asian accents. In England alone, there must be tens or hundreds of very different accents, many of which can be hardly understood by Americans, yet are no less perfect English than American English. In fact many Americans are quite admiring English accents and the ones who have such accents are trying hard to retain them.

Accent sometimes is also regarded as a symbol of cultural heritage and is thus a pride to retain. For example, it is perfectly normal for black Americans to speak with a strong black accent, and in fact they almost are expected to speak with such an accent. Many black Americans view that as their identity and their pride. Similarly, Americans immigrated from other countries usually have a strong accent however long they may have been in the US, and most do not make a great effort to hide that cultural identity. It is fine if one can speak like an American, but one is not expected to do so. What is far more important is that one can effectively communicate and such effectiveness has very little to do with accent.

The desire to speak like Americans is also unattainable. If you have been in Beijing and are associated with people from others provinces, you will find that few of these people from others provinces can ever speak like a person born in Beijing. Similarly in the US, a person from Japan typically sounds Japanese, one from German sounds German, and one from Indian sounds Indian despite the fact many Indians were educated in English since their time in elementary school.

By certain age, the way one speak is formed and is simply too hard for most people to change. Since it is unattainable and unnecessary and in fact very harmful to your English study, the first thing you should do is stop wasting time on trying to sound American.

Thanks for reading if you ever get this far :)

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Rank: 4

Post time 2003-10-7 10:17:22 |Display all floors

How to learn

  Thanks a lot for your article, especially your viewpoint, which, in general, I agree with. I admire your idiomatic text very much.
  In your text, you say it is unnecessary to try every means to imitate Americans when speaking English, but you give no advice on how to learn English(this, of course, is a large topic). This,however, interests me a lot, for I am a high school English teacher, graduating over ten years ago with a degree majoring in English. And I learn English in my leisure time, but I don't have an impressive command of English as you do. Would you be kind enough to give me some practical tips on how to learn and teach English from your own experience?
  Thanks a lot.
  

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