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Two Cents

An online journal of opinion

Good at English

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An open letter to my students at Duke Kunshan University.

Austin Woerner  Lecturer in English Language, Duke Kunshan University

Austin Woerner

Lecturer in English Language, Duke Kunshan University

Dear Students:

I asked you to tell me what it means to you to be "good at English" or to have "mastered English," and I noticed some interesting similarities in the things you said. Many of you wrote of wanting to communicate without a "barrier," of being able to express yourselves "freely" and "spontaneously," and to feel calm and comfortable while doing so. Some of you equated skill in English with being able to communicate like a native speaker, or being able to "fit in" with native speakers -- in particular, to understand their jokes! Lastly, quite a few of you mentioned a desire to read and write quickly and extensively, often linked to professional or career aspirations: to read quickly in your profession or academic specialty, to write papers and reports, present at conferences, and so forth. Many of you expressed feelings of awkwardness and inadequacy, of wanting to close the gap between what you can do now and what you wish you could do. "What embarrasses me is that... my nervousness makes me so unconfident," one student writes of her desire to connect with her American roommate. "The gap between her and me, the gap between the two cultures, is still not bridged. My fault.... It is still painstaking for me to step out of my comfort zone."

Reading your letters felt like entering an echo chamber of yearning. In particular, I was struck by how many of you describe what you want to achieve as a kind of feeling: to have the act of speaking (or reading, or writing) English feel fluid, natural, and unconscious. "[From] my perspective," writes Wendy, "to be 'good at English' means... speaking without thinking.... The greatest barrier I have encountered and [am] always suffering from when I use [the] English language is the long and painful process of mentally translating." Not needing to mentally translate was something many of you mentioned, as was the ability to "think in English," or simply not think at all. I thought Kelsey summed it up well when she explained how, for her, true fluency would mean English becoming a reflex, something that comes second nature: "Just like when you’re [on] the bus and focus[ing] on your mobile phone, you don’t need to stop checking your phone to concentrate on the bus station broadcaster just to hear what’s the next station." In other words, mastery of a language is a bit like what practitioners of Zen meditation aspire to: the feeling of one's self evaporating, of not being "there" in between what you think and what you want to say.

I also found it interesting how many of you mentioned pleasure as a key component of being good at a language. To paraphrase what many of you wrote, you'll know you're good at English when it feels good to speak it or read it. In addition to enjoying conversation with English speakers, I was struck by how many of you mentioned appreciating literature as a criterion of success: to understand not just the meanings of the words in a book but also the deeper subtext, the things implied but not said, and to really experience the beauty and the fun of it. "For reading ... if I find myself hav[ing] trouble putting the book down... my English must have gotten to that point," Chunxin writes. Isabella echoes this sentiment, saying: "I may [feel] touched while reading... feel what the characters are feeling and understand the real meaning."

How many times have you ever been applauded for speaking English? How often are you praised for the effort you put into learning English?

Lastly, I was intrigued by the handful of you who equated skill in English with being a particular kind of person. "I strongly admire... people who are really good at English," Raina writes. "They all have... fluent [s]poken English and beautiful pronunciation... so they can confidently give... a speech or report in public.... What’s more, they can consider some question or social events around the world [from] the angle of [a] foreigner and comment wisely and logically. If one day I can be like them, maybe I can say I [have] mastered... English." Which makes me wonder: who are these people you look up to, exactly? Who exactly would you like to be like? If you were to define "mastering English" as being like a certain person you know or know of, what specific person, or people, would that be?

Reading your responses made me reflect on the differences and similarities between your language-learning experiences and my own. I can very much relate to those of you who described -- or aspired to -- speaking English as a kind of pleasurably unconscious state. When I think about those times that speaking Chinese has brought me the greatest pleasure, it's not necessarily when I‘m saying something complex or sophisticated. Rather, it's those moments when a Chinese person who also speaks excellent English unconsciously slips into Chinese: say, when a coworker appears at my office door and asks me a quick question in Chinese not to give me an opportunity to "perform" but because it's easier for them in that moment to speak their native language, and they know I'll understand. I enjoy those moments because of how intimate they feel, like a secret handshake.

That said, when I've confronted difficulties, I can't say I ever felt as "down" or frustrated or bad about myself as many of you seem to feel. Which makes me realize how lucky I am: when foreigners attempt to speak Chinese, even badly, Chinese people will often eagerly applaud their efforts. (Sometimes quite literally: remember when Section 1 broke into applause after I spoke Chinese on the first day?) How many times have you ever been applauded for speaking English? How often are you praised for the effort you put into learning English? To my eyes -- tell me if you disagree -- it seems that you're putting vast amounts of effort into acquiring a skill that many people simply take for granted. Do you think that if you received as much praise for speaking English as foreigners do for speaking Chinese, you'd be more motivated to learn?

A lot of people, including many of you, equate ‘mastering’ a foreign language with being ‘like a native speaker.’

Here is a provocative idea. I can imagine a certain type of person who possesses most of the characteristics of being "good at English" that you mentioned. This person has never mastered basic English grammar, speaks with a thick accent, and not particularly fluently. However, he (or she -- though for some reason I often imagine this person as a man, but it could be either) speaks confidently, gets their meaning across, manages to connect well with foreigners despite the "roughness" of his/her English. This is a big-hearted, extroverted person who heartily enjoys friendships with people from other cultures despite his/her "broken" or "ugly" English -- in fact, this person simply does not care how his/her English sounds, because for him/her it simply doesn't matter: English, for this person, is like a hammer, and it doesn't matter what a hammer looks like as long as it can pound in a nail. In a word, what this person has is confidence. He/she enjoys speaking English, uses it unconsciously, and frankly doesn't care what other people think. Isn't this person, according to your criteria, "good at English"? Would you be willing to be this person? Why, or why not?

Second, here's another thought. A lot of people, including many of you, equate "mastering" a foreign language with being "like a native speaker." A person who's mastered English, many of you write, is at ease with native English speakers, can dive into conversations with them like a fish into water, understands their jokes and cultural references, their perspectives and worldview. (I assume many of you mean people from Anglo-American countries, so Americans, British people, Australians, and so forth -- for the sake of simplicity I'm going to just say "Americans" here.) Let's imagine that Americans, when hanging out with this Chinese person who has mastered English, feel very comfortable around him or her, for this person's body language, accent, vocal mannerisms, and even clothing are so similar to the Americans that the American people can easily forget that this Chinese person isn't American. What's the difference, then, between this person and a Chinese-American -- a Chinese person who has grown up in, or spent most of their adult life in, the United States? Is there any difference? Would you want to be this person?

That's all for now. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on any of these questions, and would be eager -- if you are willing -- to publish a few of your responses on this website. 

-- Yours, Austin