Friday, September 16, 2011

My Informal Experience of Learning English

This following essay is about my personal experience of learning English.  I hope my story will be helpful for the readers who are in the middle of mastering English as a second langauge. Thanks.





Whenever people ask me why I decided to study TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Language) in the master program at Seattle University, I never hesitate to say, “I want to contribute to the development of English education in Korea after I finish this program. I often think that I have might have been a victim of misguided English educational policy in Korea. Even though I studied English in school (middle, high school and university) for 10 years, I used to run away from Americans because I was so afraid to speak with them. As far as I remember, I was never encouraged to speak or listen to authentic English as a student in the public schools in Korea. It is ironical that I was not able to communicate with English speakers even though I was always a top English student during a middle school and a high school.
Although in the past a few decades, English professional educators of Korea have put in force different teaching approaches such as Audio-Lingual, Situational Method, TPR (Total Physical Response) response, and Whole Language Method in addition to Traditional Approach in the classroom, there is still much confusion in English education policy in Korea. I would like to contribute to the next generation’s success in learning English and help to clarify educational policy towards English language learning.

The five phases of my second language experience
In looking back on my experience of learning English, there are five different stages. During the first two stages, I used the methods that the teachers or curriculum recommended. I studied English very hard based on the extrinsic stimulation and the intrinsic desire to get good grades on any kind of English tests. After finishing school, I had 12 years break from studying English because English wasn’t necessary for my job and I didn’t have any motivation to continue learning English. After that time, I had a strong desire to communicate comfortably with English native speakers. Therefore, I decided on my own to try several new methods during the second two stages of learning English. Now, I realize every step that I tried has contributed to my success in learning English, even though at times I doubted the efficacy of some approaches. In the following paragraphs, I will explain in more detail about my personal experience during each phase.
Grammar-Translation Approach (1976-1981)
When I was a middle school student, I was introduced to English for the first time. I started to study English by memorizing grammatical verb tenses. Most classes were taught in Korean, with little active use of English. Much vocabulary was taught in the form of lists of isolated words and long elaborate explanations of the intricacies of grammar were given. Grammar provided the rules for putting words together, and instruction often focuses on the form and inflection of words. Reading of difficult classical texts was begun early and little attention was paid to the content texts, which were treated as exercises in grammatical analysis. Often the only drills were exercises in translation of disconnected sentences from English into Korean and little or no attention was given to pronunciation. In my memory, I really enjoyed studying difficult grammatical rules and memorizing vocabulary for reading texts. Most English tests consisted of multiple-choice questions, which evaluated the ability of grammar, reading and comprehension, and translation. Thanks to my diligence and hard work, I was a top student in English class. Therefore, it was so natural that I thought I was great at English. Eventually, I got into a university that I dreamt of attending for a long time.
However, it was quite unfortunate that listening and speaking skills were not included in the first six years of my experience of learning English even though listening, speaking, reading and writing are very important components of learning a foreign language. I still regret that English conversation skill and correct pronunciation were ignored in favor of the other language acquisition skills during the beginning period of learning English. Had my pronunciation and conversation been more emphasized, I would be a much better English speaker regardless of Critical Period Hypothesis for language acquisition.
             Reading and Lexical Approach (1982-1986)
When I was a university student, I had a chance to read many books written in English thanks to my major, Journalism. To begin with, most of the journalism textbooks that I used in the university were imported books written in English. At first, I had a hard time to figure out the thesis and main ideas of the text, and various specific details. Therefore, I made a study group with my classmates to collaborate and cooperate in our learning. It was a great experience for me to get powerful reading skills because I came to learn how to identify the topic of the reading, have a general idea of what the text says about its topic, understand the main ideas put forth in the text and understand the details given in the text to support the main ideas and so on. 
I don’t think that reading and vocabulary acquisition can be separated. Vocabulary has been associated with the reading and should be presented, practiced and reviewed in the context of reading. In a private English institute, I had a chance to study difficult vocabulary systematically with a textbook “Vocabulary 22,000” that was very popular among university students at that time. Meanwhile, I learned to be able to look at a multisyllabic word and analyze its meaningful parts such as root, stem, prefixes and suffixes to understand words I didn’t know. At that time, excessive vocabulary learning gave me the impression that the most important thing about learning a language is accumulating new words as equivalents for concepts, which they can already express in their native languages. While I was studying in Yonsei University, which is a prestigious private university in Korea, I had a great chance to get powerful reading and vocabulary skills. I believe that this experience was the foundation allowing me to jumping to an academic level of English.
             Silent Period (1987-1999)
After I got a bachelor degree of Journalism, I worked as a journalist for a Korean newspaper and a reporter for a public relations department of a corporation so that English listening and speaking skills were not necessary in my job. As a matter of fact, I stopped studying English for almost 12 years because I didn’t have many opportunities to use English in my work place. Besides, my reading and translation ability of English was enough to support my job. However, I had a long-standing dream that someday I would communicate with foreigners naturally and fluently.
           Audio-Lingual Approach (2000-2001, 9)

           I had several opportunities of traveling abroad, such as America, European countries, China, and South-East Asian Countries from 1995 to 1999. I realized I couldn’t ignore the importance of a universal language, English. In particular, I really wanted to be a role model for my children’s English ability. I believed it was never too late to learn English again. Therefore, I checked my ability of English carefully and honestly at the moment. I realized that I was not able to speak and listen as well as I wanted to even though my ability of reading and comprehension was at an advanced level. At first, I began listening multiple audiotapes and watching videotapes as much as I could. Some of them were composed of bilingual and the others of monolingual. As time went by, I decreased the ratio of bilingual materials and increased the ratio of monolingual materials according to the improvement of my understanding. Using repetitive drills, I mimicked and memorized of set phrases of structural patterns. Moreover, I recorded my own speech on the cassette record player and compared it with the original version to check mistakes for pronunciation. Although it was very boring and tedious process, it effectively improved my listening skills. However, my spoken English didn’t seem to be improving because I didn’t have many chances to converse with native English speakers in Korea. Eventually, I realized that it would better to stay in a whole English speaking background for a while in order to learn the “authentic” English. One and a half year ago, I came to the United States to get exposed to the natural English-speaking environment.

             Communicative Approach (2001, 9-   )

            I believe that learning is risk-taking, exploratory, and welcoming of the potential in errors for new learning. After I came over to the United States, I decided not to be afraid of loosing “face” in speaking English to other people. I realized that I should make an effort to have opportunity of speaking English as much as I can in order to take advantage of the whole English speaking environment. I have tried intentionally to avoid spending time with Korean friends since I came to the United States. I studied English in the ESL program for one quarter and then studied some interesting subject such as Intercultural Competence, Career Development, and English Writing in a community college. Meanwhile, I made many friends who came from different countries. It was very exciting experience, not only practicing English but also learning different culture. Eventually, I realized that English is not an object of knowledge but a channel of communication for myself. I always try to mimic as much as possible the “natural” setting whenever I have been exposed to meaningful input regardless in the classroom or out side of the classroom. I believe communicative competence is defined as the internalized knowledge of the situational appropriateness of language. I realize self-correction in careful speech would be very successful however, where time pressures preclude monitoring, that kind of monitor causes more errors in casual speech and hinder natural communication. Therefore, I make more emphasis upon a communicational proficiency and less emphasis on formal rules and error correction. Ironically, I haven’t had enough time to have a natural conversation with native English speaker after I got into Seattle University because I have lots of homework to do. However, I have a great opportunity to improve my writing skills dealing with assignments from classes. I came to realize there is contrastive writing styles based on different cultures and have practiced American writing style so far.
Nowadays, I became very comfortable with speaking in English because I could get rid of any frustration of my Korean accent. I believe that the ultimate aim of good pronunciation is not for native-like accent but for effective communication so that I am able to be even proud of my foreign accent as long as I speak clearly and fluently. Now, I am so thrilled that I will be able to get good writing skills besides communication proficiency thanks to the experience of studying in the United States.
There is little doubt that learning a language to read in that language or to pass a Ph. D requirement is a different task than learning a language to be able to communicate in that language. Besides, theoretical priorities have changed throughout language teaching history, as reflected in the relative importance placed on pronunciation, grammar, reading, or conversation. Likewise, there have been contrasts in attitudes toward the use of formal versus colloquial language, toward the gradation or sequencing of skills versus subjective assessments of the usefulness of structures or words, and toward language description. When I recall my personal English learning experience, there was a distinct time to focus on certain skill such as grammar, translation, reading, vocabulary acquisition, listening, speaking, and writing based on learning environment and motivation. Although it wasn’t intentionally planned in advance, every step has been necessary and helpful to improve my English.
Second language acquisition is like walking up to the “stairs” of a mountain. Sometimes, people might feel like going back down even though they work very hard. However, they don’t have to be discouraged because there is no “slope” in the mountain of language learning. They just step back from running into the vertical angle of the next stairs and control their breath to jump onto the next higher level. Second language learning is a life-long journey so that we don’t have to be hurry. The most important thing in the life-long journey is “keep going” and never giving up. I got a good lesson in looking back upon my learning experience of English that is “the show must go on no matter what the circumstances are!”


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