Wai Kiu College 

When it comes to learning English…..

English is a language that you either love or loathe. It is like the breakfast spread Marmite which also happens to be a British brand, but is not everyone’s cup of tea because of its strong “yeast-y” smell. But if you happen to be a Marmite lover, you might get addicted to it. 

Over the years I have grown to like the language. It has not become my first language, but it is a valuable tool that I can use to convey my thoughts clearly and effectively. The effort required to become fluent in English can, however, deter some people from learning it as a second language. Let’s face it, English is not the easiest language to master. Had it not been the most commonly used language in the business world, it would have been confined to being just the native language of the English-speaking countries.  English is in many ways very different from Chinese in terms of grammar and sentence structure. Its pronunciation adds another complexity to those who struggle to learn it. Take the word “one”. Adding a “T” in front of it becomes “Tone”. The two sound completely different. Yet “Our” and “Hour” have the same pronunciation as though the letter H is a waste of space! Indeed, I found it mystifying to learn and confusing to use when it was first introduced to me many years ago.  On a few occasions, I almost gave up on it. At times, I wished the language had never crossed my path. 

So, what are the main obstacles that we all come across in learning a language? Most of us would agree that when learning English, vocabulary (or rather, a lack of it) remains the biggest hurdle. A poor grasp of vocabulary would deter one from holding a conversation beyond a one-line sentence, let alone writing an essay. To increase one’s vocabulary, some would resort to learning words from a dictionary. This might seem diabolical, but I did exactly that when I was a young boy, and this was indeed what some of my peers did at the time. Through this, they managed to pick up a lot of words, enough to score well in their English exam papers. Somehow, it didn’t work for me and that made me feel stupid, to the extent that I began to question my IQ level. How absurd! Is the dictionary the best tool for building up one’s vocabulary? I doubt it. Not in this day and age anyway.  But the environment then was very different from now. We did not have popular English-speaking programs on our radio or Television channels, and contact with Native English speakers was rare. The dictionary was perhaps the only channel one could access to build up one’s vocabulary. Nowadays, English-speaking TV channels are plentiful and NET (Native English Teacher) teachers are stationed in almost every school in Hong Kong for students to practice their oral skills with. A far cry from the world I grew up in.

But how many, and which words should one pick from the dictionary if you believe dictionary reading is a way to do it? Well, there are over 170,000 words in the Oxford Dictionary with nearly a third of them being obsolete. You would have to have the brain size of Albert Einstein to be able to absorb all of them. But the good news is that, out of this vast library of words, only about 100 words are frequently found in 50% of adult and student writing, and no more than 1,000 words are used in 90% of everyday writing. Yes, only 1,000 words are enough for anyone wanting to write a reasonably comprehensible article, and to hold a decent conversation. So, statistically, having a vocabulary in excess of the 1,000 basic words may not seem to be necessary, not at the beginner’s level anyway. There are text books that list what these 1,000 words are. They can also be found, for instance, in this website  https://www.ef.co.uk/english-resources/english-vocabulary/top-1000-words/  My advice is that one should try to get familiar with this shorter list of words before venturing to expand further.

Having a decent knowledge of vocabulary certainly helps with the learning, but it is by no means the only way to improve one’s speaking or writing. In English, it is very common to see one long sentence with multiple phrase modifiers – a modifier is an optional element in phrase structure or clause structure. It can be removed without altering the grammar of a sentence. It makes beautiful sentences, but is a pain for any beginner as it could divert the readers’ attention from the main theme of the sentence.  Here is an example, an extract from an article in the BBC website discussing the environmental issues at the boundary between some urban and rural areas: “…. I have learned to read the article, and have come, if not to love them, at least to arrive at an intimacy with them and a fascination for them ….”  What it means is that the author found it fascinating reading the article. Trying to get a novice English learner to guess at what this sentence means would be a mammoth task. But this is exactly the difficulty I found when I moved to the “second stage” of my English learning. For some reason, good English writing seems to have long sentences, interleaved with even longer modifiers, because it needs to be specific. In contrast, Chinese seldomly use long and complicated sentences and prefer to use simple and short sentences. 

To overcome this, one needs to unpick those phrases or modifiers that are not relevant to the central meaning of the main sentence, those whose contribution is merely descriptive or decorative, in order to work out what the sentence really means. I compare the situation to a French dish called Blanquette de Veau which I had the other day. It was served in a huge plate containing a large variety of vegetable such as lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, green beans, olives, anchovies and even prawns surrounding a tiny piece of veal which was supposed to be the main focus of the dish. If one is not careful, one may mistake the vegetables and prawns as the central ingredient and leave the veal uneaten, thinking that it was the decoration. 

Once you have overcome these two main problems, the rest is easy peasy. To me, the path of learning English has not been straightforward. I did, and still do, pay a lot of attention to how people choose their words when they speak. The best way to do that is by watching politicians’ live debates on English-speaking TV channels. There, the camera always focuses on the facial expression of the speaker, and not anything else, unlike, for instance, a travel programme where the fast-moving pictures distract your attention from the narrative. I also pay a lot of attention to the way people write. A good article engages one’s imagination. It is that undefined and unbound imagination that makes English such a mysterious language to fall in love with. 

To me, English is a beautiful language if and only if you are good at it. To anyone who has not yet reached that stage, more practice and further readings are the best way to get to know it better.

by Dr W. Lau

Wai Kiu College