When I Was Learning English, What I Was Learning?

The Master of Language Learner

Chinese students start learning English at the early ages. After finishing college, each one of us may already have 10 years of experience on learning English, yet still hardly opened our mouths to speak in English. Here I share what I was thinking when I spent time learning English during different stages of my life.

The master of language learners are babies. Without attending any classes, a baby can understand and speak any language they were born to. They could even become bilingual if there were two languages used in their family. When we start learning English as the secondary language in middle schools or primary schools, we were just mimicking what a baby is doing. We recite and repeat time after time until we can understand and use it. The students still get different scores in tests, showing that we actually mastered the language at different levels. This is not due to a lack of skills, but just the different amount of efforts we put on to it.

At the end of my high school, my level of English is among the top tier of the local high school students. However, when I spoke in English, I would first think about the Chinese sentence, translate into English, and then speak it out word by word with a strong accent. This was barely understandable and I am sure the listener was not so comfortable either. I couldn’t read newspapers, and I hadn’t finished reading any English books.

The English teacher at my college brought some insights to me. She got her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from that university and stayed there as an English teacher. She was in her forties when I first met her. All her life was about watching movies/TV series, speaking and teaching. She was so experienced that it seemed effortless for her to teach us English. She enjoyed all the movies she watched and all the people she could talk to. I learnt very little about the language itself from the class, but was thinking about her lifestyle after that.

During my sophomore year, I signed up to an international program in the same department, where most classes were then conducted in English. I tried to improve my English, but there was a long way to go. This physics class in English was hard for other students and the instructor as well. For a comparison, if it was in Chinese, one could finish eight chapters in a semester, but we only finished four chapters in that class, and I only understood one chapter out of them. That was a failure, but might also be a good motivation for us to learn more English. I had a handbook with me which summarized all vocabularies in physics with formulas and charts. That was helpful so I was able to read physics textbooks. My listening, speaking and presentation skills were still lagging behind. My reading and writing was bad as well, but they were not that necessary for learning physics.

At that time, I also started planning for going abroad for graduate study. My listening and speaking got improved when I prepared for the TOEFL test. Those aspects which were not focused in high school English classes, were thoroughly examined in TOEFL. I would practice with some one-minute audio clips, recite again and again until I understood each word and could speak with a good pronunciation and accent. My reading and writing were not improved much, but my vocabulary was much better. I followed the crazy method by Peng Yang (杨鹏《17天搞定GRE词汇》)and was able to use it to memorize the vocabulary for TOEFL and GRE in several months.

All these early learning experiences just fulfilled the basic requirements for me to have simple communications in English. After I came to the USA and lived everyday life in an English environment, it became a whole different journey of learning.

How are you?

The first thing we learnt in the USA, which turned out to be the hardest thing later, was to answer the question “how are you?”

The standard approach in the textbook is “I am fine. And you?” However, this would never make the other people satisfied. One time, an Iranian classmate even asked me “Why are you just fine?”

Then I knew I should say something like “Good good. Thank you. How are you?”

But this still didn’t bring good conversation. People doubted in their whispers “Is life really always that good?”

Then I tried to say “Oh, I am so exhausted today.”

People finally became happy with my answer.

I, even Native speakers themselves, sometimes still think about this question. What is a good way to ask and answer it? For now, I think this is just a way to start a conversation. Keep in mind what you want to hear, and what you want to express, then you can talk anything about it.

First Impression

When I first came to the USA, I felt everyone was so welcoming. Almost everyone on the road will say Hi to you. Cars would stop for any pedestrians. People put humor in everyday conversations. After getting used to these cultural differences, I have already learned a lot.

The oral English got improved very quickly. After one year in this environment. My listening and speaking were much better. I don’t feel difficulty in daily conversations any more.

However, my vocabulary became a joke when I needed to go to a grocery store or a restaurant. This is still true for me even today. My menu in Subway is “this” and “that”.


During my second year in the USA, I started visiting a Chinese Christian church. Then next year I started going to an American church as well. There were many shocking or life-changing moments happening here. I got to know people with a clear stand for their belief. I saw people who can express their feelings and concerns naturally, who were able to share happiness and sadness in a way that was more open than anyone I saw before. Most importantly, I hear them pray, a ritual I would simply label as fakeness and uselessness before. But at this time, I felt their strength. I learnt to pray as well.

For me, this experience added some soul to this language. It was much more than the words themselves.


Many people improve English by watching movies. When I was in college, I started to watch some English TV series, for example, Desperate Housewives and Prison Break. I felt those shows are more frank towards life, and the scenes were fascinating as well.

I was always looking for something fancy while watching those movies. All these were changed when I was at graduate school. I finally found a connection between life and movies. Each movie was reflecting some truth about life. It could be challenges that we feel but couldn’t say. It could be some happiness we missed. It could be the ugly part of a society. Ever since then, each time when I watch a movie, it became a journey for me, a journey to experience someone else’s life. Sometimes it could be part of my life as well. I would prepare my soul and energy before watching a movie, to make sure I can address the challenges presented in it.

Movies, though most of them in English, are not directly related to learn a language. However, if a movie can express all kinds of feelings, depict lives of different people, and even present a clip of the history, then we can do similar things when we talk to each other. The words and scenes may be different, but what we wanted to hear and tell are the same, that is, the ultimate concern from everyday life to human society.

Reading and Writing

Now I enjoy reading and writing. This is my new way to explore the language. I’ve never finished reading an English book before. But now I enjoy it. I feel there is someone I can talk to, someone whose experience I can relate to. I am still new to writing, but I am trying to write in a way as I write in Chinese, that is, I can tell a story in the way I want it to be and share the messages I want to send.

Before and after I came to the USA, there is a huge difference for me in terms of learning English. The former period is just about mimicry and imitation, but the latter one makes the language alive. It is more about culture, about what I want to hear and what I want to tell.

I am still working on vocabulary, pronunciations, accent, writing, even gestures, tones and paces. Those are just tools, as long as I know what I need, I would employ them to make sure I can communicate with the world.

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