Whenever me and my tutees talk about language learning during free conversation lessons (I often initiate the topic because I’m interested to know their opinions about it, at the same time I’m quite comfortable about the topic XD), they often asked me how I learned English. It’s quite difficult to answer because I have never really given it a thought. But I’ll try to recall my English learning journey. I hope that it could also help me in learning Korean.
English is not my native language. And I still don’t consider myself fluent. I still make mistakes – lots of them! But I can read novels and academic books, watch movies, write essays and academic papers, talk to native English speakers, pass job interviews and yes, even teach English (!) without the aid of a dictionary.
My parents never talked to me in English when I was a kid (unlike some kids these days that I can’t even talk to in Filipino because they are not allowed to). I preferred the local version of Sesame Street (Batibot) and I never liked cartoons. I learned reading through local comics. I loved watching television and there’s no such thing as cable tv then. My world revolved around local variety shows, dramas, old movie re-runs and commercials. And these shows where mostly in Filipino (except for the commercials wherein a big percentage is in English). And though I listen to English nursery rhymes, I prefer the local ones.
But I love reading. After I learned how to read, I remember I read everything that I saw. Be it labels of boxes or pineapple juice cans. I also love coloring, thus I read all the English labels on my crayons and my coloring books are all in English.
The thing is, I can’t remember much from my kindergarten days anymore. But I know I have an English textbook and my Math and Science books are all in English too. English nursery rhymes and some posters are plastered all over the walls. And once in a while we have loads of English words in our blackboard and we were called one by one to read all of them. I don’t really know how we were taught, but I remember my teacher often corrects us with our pronunciation. I also remembered joining a spelling bee contest in English. And that my teacher reads us short stories in English, thus I prodded my mom to buy me a similar book.
I guess it was my fondness for reading that helped me a lot. When I started elementary school, my mom bought all the books I needed in advanced and I read all of them, Filipino and English, before school even started (and I did that every summer before school starts until the 6th grade). I discovered the heaven called library on 1st grade and I was so overwhelmed with the number of books inside. They have in glossy papers with pretty illustrations. I was more overwhelmed by the fact that I can bring them home. I don’t remember seeing my classmates in the library. Most of them prefers playing while I face the dilemma of choosing which book to borrow first. Most of the books that are appealing to kids were the imported books, and of course they are all in English. They were all either nursery rhymes and very short stories with big illustrations. I remember we have grammar lessons on the first grade, but I don’t remember how it was taught (I wish I still have my notebooks) and I also don’t remember having problems with it. We also have spellings all the time.
Then on my second grade, our school librarian prohibited me from borrowing the children’s book. She said I’m “too old” for that. She introduced me to young adult fiction. I was reluctant at first, especially when I opened the books and there were no more colored illustrations inside. No, there were no illustrations at all except for the cover. And I’m lucky to come across some books with illustrations every 50 pages or so. But I would always be thankful to our school librarian for pushing me into reading more difficult books. Before I know it I was hooked. I also worked hard on reading fast because I want to read more. And I guess that’s when I became really comfortable in English.
Before I started 3rd grade, my aunt noticed that my English pronunciation sucks (when I read bucket as [ba:ket]), so she had me attend a summer speech workshop. I learned intonation, stress and gliding. So on the third grade, my English teacher often asked me to read in front of the class. We continued grammar lessons during elementary. We have lots of reading and writing exercises. I also joined and won some spelling bee and declamation contests.
It was not until High School when I started getting interested in watching English tv series and movies. I hate it because it’s difficult to understand. But I discovered the series E.R. and 7th Heaven. I enjoyed watching both of them and our television can detect closed captions for both shows. CC made watching easier for me, then eventually I don’t read the caption anymore and got comfortable listening to fact dialogues (especially in E.R.).
I already have a strong grasp of English when I entered the university. But we have a bilingual policy in our university wherein students can choose their communication classes to either be in English or Filipino. And we are free to choose either English or Filipino in answering essays and writing papers. The lazy me often prefers everything in Filipino. I thought, why bother with the spelling and grammar of English when the subject is already difficult? Thus I gained more fluency in writing formally in Filipino and since I never get to practice English aside for leisure and some academic readings, I didn’t improve… or I may even have gotten worse.
Then I started working as a call center agent for an American company. I was very nervous when I was applying for the job because I’m not confident in English speaking skills. I brushed up on my English by reading a lot and watching lots of TV. I have a tendency to mimic things, so it did help me and I got the job. Basically we answer calls (aka complains) from Americans for 8 hours a day. We had a few weeks worth of English training. Just very few grammar review for things that we often had mistakes on. Most of the time was spent in free conversation and exercises that allows us to talk and express our opinions. We were taught to think in English, not to transliterate, and avoid fillers.
The first time I picked the phone up, I was very nervous. I could barely understood the American guy calling me. He glided everything together as if his sentences were just one complete word on its own. But as day passed by, after hours and hours and hours of talking and listening to English, I gained my confidence and can even talk to a native English speaker in my sleep (literally! because I’ve fallen asleep on the job a number of times!)
I guessed fangirling also helped me. I’ve been a resident of soompi for a long time and we all know that they have an “English Only Policy” there. I also met a lot of new friends (fellow Kim Sun Ah fans) from different countries and we have no other option but to talk in English with each other (though these days Korean is starting to be our lingua franca).
When I quit my job, I stopped practicing English again and as I study Korean further I sometimes feel my English is going down the drain (especially when I switch from Korean to English suddenly). But it’s not difficult for me to get back on track in English. Just a new book or a new movie and I’m comfortable with it again. Also, tutoring in English is a good practice too since I need to exert efforts in speaking well. And of course blogging in English is also a good practice.
Looking back, I think I never really exerted effort in learning English. I never voluntarily picked up an English grammar book since I stepped into college. I’m in such a comfortable level of fluency, thus I never thought of learning more. Thus I’m never improving and I keep making the same mistakes.
Now, where do I want to be with my Korean? I admit translations interest me so much and it’s nice to dream about being a translator. But I know being a translator is damn difficult. And given my English proficiency level now, I don’t even think I’m in any way close to becoming a Filipino-English-Filipino translator. So, for now I don’t want to pressure myself just because I want to be a translator or something. My subconcious will only keep nagging that I can never be one. So for now, my goal is to be fluent in Korean as fluent as I am in English. Where I could watch movies and dramas without subs, enjoy a novel, speak to native speakers with ease, write my thoughts, and think in Korean. I guess that’s not a bad goal after all. 🙂