Good at English: A Conversation
Students at Duke Kunshan University respond to Austin Woerner’s open letter, “Good at English.”
As you note in your open letter, many foreigners including yourself receive much applause when learning Chinese. You asked us whether we’d be more motivated to learn if we received more credit, which really struck me. I think the answer is yes, absolutely. Though it’s compulsory for us to learn English since primary school, we all neglect the fact that we seldom get credit for speaking English, which is actually of great importance for us to keep moving forward. A small gesture makes a difference. I can still remember the moment when my teacher gave me a warm smile because I did great in English reading. Therefore, I hold that if more praise were given, we would become more motivated.
Then, you imagined a person who has most of the characteristics we mentioned for being good at English. However, he “speaks with a thick accent, and not particular fluently.” You raised a thought-provoking question: whether we’d like to be someone like this. As for me, I do appreciate becoming such a person. Since we were born in China and brought up in China, it’s natural that we can’t speak “real English” as a native speaker does. I believe it’s much more interesting when a person has an accent, which just indicates our different origins. On the flip side, the “roughness” of his English really makes no difference if he “manages to connect well with foreigners.” Conveying his ideas clearly and confidently, he fits in with foreigners well, which has reached the purpose of being good at English—to communicate, to read, to fit in, to have fun. What’s more, he really enjoys speaking English. From my perspective, enjoyment is the final goal of everything.
You describe your experience of learning Chinese as a pleasant journey and applause as an important source of motivation. You also imagine "a big-hearted, extroverted person" with "broken" or "ugly" English who "speaks confidently, gets their meaning across, [and] manages to connect well with foreigners." You ask whether praise can be our motivation and whether this kind of person can be seen as "good at English." The answer to the first question is obviously yes, but I disagree with the second one.
In my point of view, you are so lucky to have learned Chinese without any stress and force. For you, learning Chinese was because of passion, you were eager to learn it and enjoyed doing so. In my childhood, my motivation for learning English was exactly the same as yours. I still remember the pleasure I felt when I helped an American to find a cigarette lighter in the lobby of an Italian inn at the age of nine. The American praised me, and the receptionist and my parents did too. At that time, I felt I was "good at English" and had the intense passion to continue practicing it. However, as time went on, my goal of learning English shifted from using it in the real world to achieving a high score on exams. I had to struggle with complex grammar, such as numerous subordinate clauses. Also, I had to enlarge my vocabulary quickly by just memorizing words. These boring ways to learn English helped me improve my written English at the cost of dampening my passion for learning.
As my English improved, I no longer thought I was "mastering English," and my goal for continuing to study English changed at the same time. Now, I think I will be "good at English" if I don’t need to "wait… for the language to catch up with my thoughts," as Peter Hessler put it. To be specific, my ideal person who has mastered English should have the capacity to express his thoughts explicitly and fluently. He must be able to have a deep conversation with a foreigner through speaking instead of using body language. If the guy with “ugly English” treated language as a hammer, then the motivation for me to learn English is to have "a beautiful hammer."
I'm willing to use this "beautiful hammer" to "pound in a nail" which contains Chinese traditional culture into the international "board." And, I greatly admire those scholars in the 20th century, such as Feng Youlan, who used their "beautiful hammer" to express our "cultural roots" like mindset and philosophy, instead of superficial traditions like food and customs.
Would praise improve my English? I’ve thought a lot about what would have happened if I got enough praise for using English. But it’s not real—what good does it do to think about it? I feel sorrowful when I think of this question. I think any way things could have gone would be better than how it is today. I could have done better.
I didn’t like English when I was a little kid. Why should I learn it? I often asked myself. Since the first day I began studying English, I can’t think of any time I was praised. All I knew was that I had to study English to pass the exams. I thought English was useless because outside of the classroom, we never used it and didn’t want to use it.
But English was very, very useful in class. The teacher liked the students who were good at English. They could get praise such as “excellent!” (I didn’t know the meaning at the time, I just knew that the teacher said it with pride) and they could get into a better school. I knew, at the time, that society was punishing the students who were not good at English.
I hated it, but I had to love English. I had to study the grammar, remember the words many times and at last transcribe them many times, only for the test. I don’t know why I had to suffer like that. Would I use English after college? Maybe I would never touch English again for my whole life, and I wouldn’t have the chance to use it. So why was I forced to study so hard only to answer those useless questions on the exams?
I also remember how once I went to Japan and I spoke to the waitress in English. After a moment of awkwardness, she asked me, “Do you speak Chinese?” She didn’t say “Could you speak English?” There were so many setbacks on my path of studying English because of its uselessness.
But in high school, I experienced the power of praise when studying online. That was the first time I found there were so many people whose English was worse than me. The teachers said I did really well. “You are the first one I met who can speak fluent English with me,” they said. “Don’t worry, you can express yourself well and understand what I say.” That was the first time I wanted to use English and wanted to study English. The teachers from other countries were very interesting: someone who used to work at IBM, a university student working to get money for the tuition fee. It was like hiking through a beautiful landscape. No one likes a difficult climb with ugly scenery. Praise gives you the motivation to go forward and gives you a reason to climb the mountain.
In your open letter, you describe a kind of person who speaks confidently and always enjoys the interactions with his native-English-speaker friends, ignoring his heavy accent. And you wonder whether we would be willing to be this person or not.
My answer is absolutely yes. As an explanation, I want to share two stories with you. The first story happened during a vacation I spent in a language school in Cambridge when I was at the age of 13. Actually that was the first time I had been exposed to a no-Chinese environment so I had to speak English with my classmates all day. A 13-year-old Argentine girl asked me, ”Do you like the weather here?” I replied, automically,“Yes, I do,” without thinking whether I actually liked the weather or not. The girl looked confused.
Before that experience, it seemed to me there were only two answers to a question starting with “do you”: "Yes, I do," and "No, I don't." These were to the two possible sentence patterns my teacher told me to use to respond to a "general question." Even though my answer was not wrong, I realized I had always been learning English focusing too much on grammar instead of considering English as a tool to communicate. However, I think the reason why the Argentinean girl was so confused was that in their language learning system, it was more important to express their thoughts clearly instead of using sentence patterns mechanically.
The other story is about a boy in one of my classes here at DKU. He is always trying to convey his ideas “despite the roughness of his English,” and sometimes he cannot even squeeze out a word in a few seconds. At first I felt kind of embarrassed for him, I thought it must feel shameful. If I were in his position I would never stand up to say my opinions. Because I’m afraid of making grammar mistakes, and it keeps me silent when I want to say my point of view. However, he never cares about this. Besides, neither the professor nor the students present laughed at him. After reading your question, I thought about him first thing and began to admire him a lot.
Reading the lines, “How many times have you ever been applauded for speaking English? How often are you praised for the effort you put into learning English?” brings tears to my eyes. I am wondering, what makes me so emotional? Am I feeling wronged? Am I looking to get as much appreciation as you do from speaking Chinese when I am speaking English? Or am I just happy for your achievement? Maybe because of all of them.
Which raises the question, do I wish I could receive as much praise for speaking English as foreigners do for speaking Chinese? Would I be motivated by it? My answer is definitely no. For me, getting praise for this reason would be embarrassing and stupid, especially in front of other Chinese people who speak fluent English. It is because, speaking English is regarded as a basic skill, or in other words, a requirement for human beings in this global world. It is the same with eating and walking. The only difference between them is that speaking English is more complicated. I think, in the near future, not knowing how to speak English could be something to be ashamed of. So I do not hope for any praise.
Besides, it would be hard for English native speakers to praise someone who speaks awkward English like me. When they praise my English, this odd behavior makes me feel strange. Praise is mostly for people who set and achieve a goal for love rather than utilitarian ends. But as far as I know, in many foreigners’ view, Chinese students learn English for scores, for well-paid jobs, for opportunity. (I have to admit it is an important reason, but I want to argue that it is for much more than this too: a sense of achievement, and a gateway to the wider world.) So I never urge or push English native speakers to do this. It would also make them embarrassed, I think.
You write about a type of person who has the confidence to converse with foreigners and enjoys it although his or her spoken English is not so good or “ugly,” because he or she does not care what others think of him. I do not think this person can be defined as “good at English.”
For one thing, this person would not have the capability to do English reading and writing well due to a lack of mastery of basic grammar. I believe this person would not enjoy reading or writing. In my view, the abilities of speaking, writing, and reading in English are essential to be “good at English.” For another, foreigners who talk with this person probably would not feel comfortable and sometimes wouldn’t clearly understand him or her. People who are “good at English” should be able to smooth the communication and create a pleasant atmosphere. Therefore, I would not want to be this person.
This reminds me of my own experience studying in Australia and Denmark. During these two trips, I surrounded myself with foreigners and conversed with them confidently. I didn’t care if they completely understood what I said; I just enjoyed myself. However, later, I asked myself: Do they enjoy talking with me? Actually, my English level was far from “good” at that time. These experiences make me believe that this person is not “good at English” and is not what I want to be.
Secondly, regarding the difference between a Chinese-American and a Chinese person who speaks and acts “like a native speaker,” my answer is as follows. A Chinese-American is a native English speaker, and he or she unconsciously speaks and dresses like an American does. However, speaking and dressing like an American are not a reflex of a Chinese person. What this person does is an imitation, to make himself or herself feel better among Americans. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to be this person even though he or she could make foreigners feel comfortable. Because I don’t want to lose myself and change my lifestyle to be like a native speaker. To me, English is a friend who can help me a lot, but not my life.
In your open letter, you ask, “What is the difference between a Chinese-American and a Chinese person who has ‘mastered’ the English language?”, and “Do we want to be that kind of person?” I understand that you ask these questions in response to our letters, where most of us define “mastering” a foreign language as being “able to speak like a native speaker.” I also learn, from your open letter, that we all have the desire to communicate with native speakers fluently and freely, “…[to be] at ease with native English speakers, [able to] dive into conversations with them like a fish into water….” As far as I am concerned, there does exist a difference between the two types of people mentioned in your open letter, and I don’t want to be a “master” of the English language in the way you describe: someone who speaks English so well that a native speaker would forget that he/she is not “one of them.”
According to my life experience, someone like this must have successfully switched his Chinese way of thinking into an English one, like putting a mask on his own face. Victor Hugo once said, “Strictly speaking, the human visage is a mask.” Here, I understand “visage” to mean “external personality.” The great modern Chinese writer, Lu Xun, further said: “If the mask is worn for too long, it grows onto the face; it cannot to be pulled off without causing injury.”（面具戴太久，就会长到脸上，再想揭下来，除非伤筋动骨扒皮。）In other words, when someone falls into the model of one particular language, he is kind of trapped in it. And that model will conflict with his inner personality and cause mental confusion.
I would imagine that Chinese-Americans who are totally brought up in an English-speaking environment have seldom or never had this kind of confusion about their inner personalities. Since they have grown up in American culture and living environment, it would make them become thorough English speakers.
I would imagine that, for someone who has “mastered” the English language in the way you describe, it would create a sense of dislocation in time and space. To take one of my own experiences as an example, when I first entered high school, I always felt like I was still sitting in the classroom in junior high, even though I was already a high school student. I would describe that feeling as a sense of dislocation—a kind of mental confusion. We can regard "external personality" as myself in high school, and "internal personality" as my memory of myself in junior high school.
In general, I think the biggest difference between Chinese people who have mastered English and Chinese-Americans would be that the former have to make efforts to cater to the habits of English speakers, while Chinese-Americans do not have to do so because they themselves are English speakers. I think that this kind of conflict would make one dazed and tired. I do not intend to put this kind of mask on my face, but to wear it at my belt.
In your open letter, you talked about getting applause for speaking Chinese while we Chinese students rarely get praise for trying hard to learn English. You asked in sympathy, “How many times have you ever been applauded for speaking English?” “How often are you praised for the effort you put into learning English?”
It is true that under most circumstances, we seldom get applause for speaking English. As a result, the rare applause is especially precious. Once, when I was attending an “English corner” where students of different levels would get together and talk about one interesting topic, the teacher posed the question, “What is sleep?” Silence fell for a while.
I gave a specific, scientific definition of sleep which I learnt from a book. The pronunciation was accurate and the tone was fine. The teacher, who was from England, paused for several seconds and began applauding me for my explanation. Then the classmates started applauding too. I flushed with shyness for a few minutes, then everything went back to normal. That moment still exists and glitters in my memory until now. I recall that with satisfactory and happiness, feeling like the effort I put into practicing speaking English was worthwhile.
Exciting and pleasant as praise is, it would not make me more motivated to learn English. Praise might give us positive feedback but it should not be a main motivation. We should still try hard to learn English even without praise from others. Learning itself is meaningful and interesting. We should be learning English for ourselves.
Some Chinese people can seem like “native speakers.” This means, not only have they mastered the language, but they also seem like someone who was brought up in an English-speaking country from every aspect of their behavior. They could be mistaken by Americans for Chinese-Americans or people who have lived for a long time in the U.S.
This raises the question, what’s the difference between this kind of person and a Chinese-American? In my opinion, the primary difference is that although they might think and behave like a “native English speaker,” they would also know how Chinese people normally behave. They might prefer not to “look like a Chinese person” and it might not feel natural for them, but they know how Chinese people are expected to behave. I think there isn’t any big difference except for this one.
I somewhat admire this kind of person, as it’s hard for me to reach their English level although I have tried hard to. And I think it would also be cool if I could understand the American way of thinking. I would love to have these abilities as well because I think it would help me to think widely and wisely and make it easier when I communicate with foreigners. However, I wouldn’t want to be this kind of person. I live in Chinese society, and I feel comfortable speaking Chinese and thinking in the Chinese way and I think the Chinese language is beautiful and there is a philosophy in the Chinese way of thinking. I am very satisfied with who I am now, so I do not want to make a change. But acquiring the ability to be “like a native speaker” would definitely do me good in some specific situations.
Posts have been lightly edited for clarity and accuracy of language.