Hacking the learning of English – my story

Posted on: March 14, 2017, by :

Commentary (Mar 14, 2017)

I wrote and published this article in November 2015 in Han Chiang News. I think the inspiration for this article came from a conversation I had with my wife a few weeks earlier. We were reminiscing our time at our tuition teacher, Mr. John Lee’s class and how bad my command of English was back in 1975 and we also wondered if we would be husband and wife if not for Mr. Lee’s tuition class!

My wife and I first got to know each other (she was aged thirteen, I was fourteen) at Mr. John Lee’s tuition class. Mr. Lee is a family friend as well as my father’s neighbour. I did not feel comfortable speaking to my future wife back in 1975, not because I was shy, but because I was not confident of my command of spoken English.

There are many ways that one can improve on one’s command of English. Different people will have different level of success using one method of learning English or another. For me, reading English novels was the main component of my success formula. But there is another crucial success factor which I had omitted in the original article!

Along with the reading that I had to carry out, Mr. Lee also compelled me to speak English in his class. And for many, including this author in 1975, the biggest impedance to learning English is the feeling of embarrassment and inadequacy when one has to converse in English. By being “forced” to speak to my fellow tuition class mates and answer questions in English in Mr. Lee’s class, I had inadvertently (but intentionally on Mr. Lee’s part!) overcome my lack of confidence in speaking English. My feeling of inadequacy vanished after a couple of weeks too. Perhaps some of my former colleagues and former students who have been “forced” to speak English with me now know the reason for my demand. I was just taking a leaf from Mr. John Lee’s tried and tested method!

My late mother told me that I was a talkative toddler. My mother-tongue was Cantonese which I picked up from my paternal grandfather. I soon learned to understand a bit of Hakka due mainly to my late mother being a Hakka herself (she would at times speak Hakka to my siblings and I). My parents would also speak in English when we were young every time they had things to discuss that they did not want us to know. Thus I took it upon myself (I think I was about four) to learn the keywords, “going out”, “cinema”, “the kids” etc. for obvious reasons.

Until I went to kindergarten at the age of four, my playmates were mainly Indian kids who came from the then Lembaga Letrik Negara (now TNB) staff quarters just a street away from my father’s house. I remember having a rudimentary vocabulary of Tamil back then, of course now all I remember are the profanities! Learning languages was not so difficult, so I thought!

I went to SRJK Sam Tet (a Chinese mission school in Ipoh) for my primary years and I did pretty well and did not shame my late father who was a Chinese primary school’s deputy headmaster, staying in the “A” (top) class all the way. But as I entered “Remove Class” in SMJK Sam Tet (back then all SRJK students had to spend one extra year before we were allowed into Form 1 of secondary schools) I realised that I could not understand my teachers that well. Although my cohort was the pioneer in having all subjects (except for English and Chinese) taught in Bahasa Malaysia (BM), most of our teachers were in fact not comfortable in delivering their lessons in BM and resorted to using English to explain complicated concepts to us, especially in integrated science.

As my lack of proficiency in English was shared by most of my classmates, it did not ring an alarm bell about my poor command of English at all. Anyway, my classmates and I were learning to improve on our English proficiency collectively and hence I did not have anyone besides my peers at school to benchmark against. It was not till I completed Form 1 that I was told by my childhood friend and neighbour, Sek Fatt who was studying in an “English” secondary school that my command of English was really below par. Sek Fatt referred me to Mr John Lee, a secondary school teacher who used to live on the same street as us. Luckily for me Mr Lee took me into his small tuition class at his home a few kilometers away.

Mr Lee made me read an English novel and a BM novel every month. As my command of BM was average, I did not have much of an issue reading BM novels. Trying to read an English novel a month was a different matter.

Mr Lee loaned me a few of his son’s collection of Enid Blyton books. But what he said to me was devastating; I was to start with reading Enid Blyton books for 5-year olds! At that time (aged 14), I was already reading adult novels in Chinese and BM!

“This is your current level of English, but you will soon move on to something more reflective of your age,” said Mr Lee. Apart from a dented ego, I had to come to accept that my command of English was that of a 5-year-old!

Mr Lee made us write a review of every book we had read, giving us a format that he expected us to adhere to so that he could gauge our progress.

“Don’t even think of cheating by not reading the entire book,” said Mr Lee while pointing at his son who was about 3 years my junior. He added: “Mr Bookworm there has read and remembers the story of every book, he will tell me if you have cheated!”

Under Mr Lee’s guidance, I soon, as he promised, “graduated” from Enid Blyton’s novels for 5-year-olds to those for early teens. By the time I completed Form 2, I was reading Agatha Christie’s novels. By Form 3, I moved on to a wider range of novels, including the adult oriented Harold Robbins!

At secondary school, we were taught very well by Mr Wong Ming Fah (who was the receipiant of 2016 Sim Mow Yu’s Teacher Award) to memorise the 12 tenses in English. Mr Wong was very brutal in the way he marked our homework, giving us F9 (failed) grade for the slightest of grammatical error.  Mr. Wong did not have much time to teach us how to write stories but only to make sure that we “watch our grammar.” By not reading novels, one will not be able to learn the different styles of writing and have a chance to improve on one’s vocabulary.

I tried very hard to make use of the new vocabulary and writing styles that I had learned and of course at times I “forgot” my grammar, often scoring F9 grades from Mr Wong. Nevertheless, the F9 grades did not put out my desire to improve, rather they made me more resolute to prove to myself that I could make it by reading even more ferociously. In the 1978 Sijil Rendah Pelajaran examination (a public examination taken by those in Form 3), I was one of only three candidates in my school who scored an “A1” (equivalent to A+ of today) in English.

I knew back in 1978 that I had “hacked” the learning of English and carried on reading English novels whenever I can ever since. The Chinese saying, “Xue Wu Zhi Jing” (学无止境)(one’s quest for knowledge is boundaryless) is something I have adopted when it comes to the learning of English and I am still learning!

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