【學海無涯】A critical look at my English-learning experience, past and present

I am a Chinese, whose first language and second language are Cantonese and English respectively. Under the bilingual education system of Hong Kong before the handover of Hong Kong, Chinese (or Cantonese) and English were not only used as a medium of instruction in school, but they were also taught as the mandatory subjects. Sadly, there was only one way for me to use English, including reading, writing, listening and speaking, in English lessons exclusively. Whereas, Cantonese as my mother tongue was frequently used especially in the lessons of other subjects and extracurricular activities. Although I have learnt English since I was born in Hong Kong, I am not able to speak prefect English as a native English speaker. Until now, I have seldom used English to communicate with my family members, friends and other local Hong Kong citizens in my daily life. During my childhood, my father taught me an English life slogan: 'Yesterday is a history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today requires fluent English, learn it as best as you can in order to change your life for the better.' This slogan becomes the most-remembered one in my whole life because it makes me understand that English is a very important language in today's world. Even now, my father has always reminded me that nobody can survive well without speaking fluent English because nowadays English is an essential international language. Therefore, I went alone to Canada for studying when I was 16 years old. Honestly, studying abroad in Canada was my own decision and nobody forced me to make this decision. I would love to learn much better English in order to have a better life in the future. 

During my study life in Canada, all subjects were taught in English in both high school and university. If my English were good, I could understand textbooks comprehensively, answer questions clearly and express my general ideas much more easily in English. Also, my ability of learning English in Canada could be more effective if I were competent in English. I was exactly afraid of speaking in English during my presentation in either classroom or school hall. I was very nervous and frustrated because if I said something wrong, people including my classmates, teachers and others would laugh at me. Luckily, my best Canadian friend, Beth, always encouraged me to try learning English more by watching English movies or TV programs, listening to English songs, reading English leisure magazines and chatting with her and her parents more frequently. According to 'Acculturation Theory', which is proposed by Schumann in the 1970s, the closer learners feel to the speech community of the second language they want to learn, the better learners acculturate, and the more successful they are in learning the second language. Since studying in Canada for 6 years, my confidence of either speaking or writing in English has been enhanced because there were a lot of chances for me to practise my English in Canada at any time.

Within those 6 years of studying in Canada, I did not have many Chinese friends as I was the only one Chinese, whose mother tongue is not English, in the Faculty of Fine Arts at McMaster University. I absolutely worried about being discriminated in class. Even though one of my biggest strengths was my strong social communication skill, I was so terrified to communicate with Fine Art professors and my classmates in the first year. It was because I pronounced a lot of English words in such a weird way and I did not get more confidence to speak English to them in front of the whole class.

What’s more, I have been attracted by English since I studied in Canada. The consumption of cultural products in English and the whole cultural environment in Canada definitely play an important role in facilitating the learning process and reinforcing my interest in learning English. In Canada, I had to speak, read, listen, and write in English generally in anywhere with local Canadians or other western people except Chinese for any purpose. Not only did I watch English programs on television and complete all my school assignments by writing in English, but I also had to speak in English to communicate with others in the public. Therefore, I was worried that my self-identity might be disrupted during the time of my study abroad. 

Based on my experience of studying in Canada, I find that a language of one country or domain not only serves as a tool of communication, but it is also historical record of its culture and social characteristic. It is shaped by the daily change of its community, habits of different walks and education background (Lee and Leung, 2012). It is a unique thing for people in that country or domain. At that time, there was a big concern to me that my first language would be undervalued and then elimination of my own culture would be led. Moreover, learning English as a foreign language helps me understand the foreign culture. I can see that learning language is a process of cultural exchange, boosted by globalization. 

I got a combined honor degree in Fine Art and Multimedia in University of Canada in 2005. Then I left Canada for Hong Kong, and continued to study both PGDE programme in Visual Arts (Secondary School) in 2005 and a Master programme of Education in Visual Arts in 2007 in order to become a certified Hong Kong Visual Arts teacher. Although I have been an Visual Arts teacher for more than four years, I have occasionally become extremely depressed until now because I have not had a full-time teaching job yet since 2012 because of the backdrop of dwindling student population in Hong Kong secondary schools and the low supply for the job of teaching Visual Arts in secondary schools from 2012 to now. It has been very difficult for me to get the job of teaching Visual Arts in the secondary schools. Whereas, the graduated students who studied English as the major in the universities are able to get their teaching job more easily. I understand now why my parents strongly disagreed with my decision on studying Fine Art as a major in McMaster University and why they forced me to study English as a major. I even regretted my foolish decision to study Visual Arts instead of English as my major subject for Bachelor Degree, PGDE and also Master Degree, so I was exclusively lost and anxious within those two years. When I intended to give up my dream job of teaching, the miracle came suddenly. Coincidently, I discovered another interest of learning English in order to teach English in primary or secondary schools. Obviously, I need to accept the fact that I will become more competitive if I can teach English in Hong Kong as well. Thus, I am greatly ambitious to acquire the certificates of the Master of Art in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MATESOL) and the Postgraduate Diploma of Education (PGDE) in English in order to become a certified Hong Kong English teacher. In my mind, I believe that I do not have any choice not to study the programme of education in English at this moment if I still want to maintain my dream job of teaching in the future. 

Until now, I still have been anxious that the balance in Hong Kong will be lost and English will weigh heavier than Cantonese or Mandarin. This situation may not only lead to erosion of my first language-Cantonese, which is an important part of the Hong Kong local culture and identity, but it also may reduce people's interest in Hong Kong or definitely develop a worshiping in the Western culture.

#語言學習 #HKESE 自由作家專欄