The verdict had come down: "it will take at least four years for your English to catch up."
This is what I was told when I first came to the United States in 2008, by the owner of a tutorial service for non-English-speaking students, and this drove me to improve my English every single day. I wanted to prove her wrong.
I vividly remembered how challenging the first day of school was. I was basically language-deaf. I could hear students and teachers talking really fast, but I couldn't comprehend anything they were saying. The worst thing was, I didn't know how to ask them to speak more slowly or to explain what they said in first-grade English. At this point in time, school alone didn't look too helpful in sharpening up my English. So we set out to look for an after-school tutorial service for assistance. I lived in Oakland back then, so we found a tutorial center in Oakland Chinatown that claims to offer one-on-two language help after school.
Because I was literally failing the first week of class, we had no choice. We came down to the tutorial center and met the owner/instructor of the place. We had a brief conversation with her and she said, "Even with our help, it will take at least four years for your English to catch up - that means being able to hold a fluent conversation with native speakers." To be honest, I was terrified by the potential cost of the tutorial service for four years, let alone how long and dreadful the process would be. But we had no choice, so we signed up. The hourly price was $12 (2 hours a day, 5 days a week) and the one-time starting fee was $300. According to the agreement, one instructor was supposed to help a maximum of two students and was supposed to help us do homework, learn new vocabulary and practice conversation. Starting from the second week of school, every day, following the school's release bell, I took the bus to this tutorial center, 5 miles away to so they could - supposedly - improve my English.
Unfortunately, we didn't get what we paid for, not even close. As the service grew with more people signing up, the owner got some high school students to act as the instructors and she just sat back at her table minding her own business and sometimes accepting new customers. Students were all sitting at a circular desk doing their own homework or speaking Chinese to each other. What was worse - there were seven students at one time with one "instructor", who was basically chatting with us in Chinese and providing periodical help with homework. We didn't get to learn any new vocabulary. We didn't practice any conversations. Well, we did, but not in English.
I was feeling very dejected at that point. I was not doing well at all in school and I couldn't get any legitimate help after school. I was basically wasting time and money at the tutorial center. I realized we should stop paying them before more damage could be done. The evening of my last day there, I told myself, "I can prove that woman wrong. I will improve my English by myself and I will catch up in 2 years."
That same night, I made myself a plan:
- Write down any new vocabulary and check for definition as soon as I get home. Then memorize the spelling and the meaning.
- Get to school 30 minutes early every day and force myself to talk to native speakers. Use all the vocabulary I learned the previous night.
- Stay at school for at least an extra hour to get help from teachers and just discuss random things with them. Use all the vocabulary I learned the previous night.
I felt determined and got right into action the next day. Because I was still clueless on how to ask for the definition of a word, I needed to check the translation on my own at night. So I tirelessly wrote down any new words in my notebook. I still have the Excel spreadsheet today, where I saved all the new vocabulary. The first day, I wrote down 65. That was a humongous number of words to study in one night.
But I did it. I checked both the Chinese translation and English definition of each word. Then I verbally say the word aloud. Next, I put it in a complete, logical sentence. Putting it in a sentence gave the word more context and made it easier to remember. At the end of the night, I would also make sentences with at least three words I learned that day. Learning vocabulary was all about context and connections, I figured. And it turned out to be a great strategy. Over time, I stacked up at least 2000 words that I now fully understand and use in everyday conversation.
The following morning, I would arrive at school at least 30 minutes early. There were often a few students lingering around. I would awkwardly go up to one of them (usually my classmates, since they knew I was new) and start a simple conversation. I would try my best to use the vocabulary I had learned the previous night in the conversation. I would also ask them basic questions to lift my questioning skills. To be honest, I really didn't care how stupid and clueless I looked. I just wanted to learn the language and prove the owner of that tutorial center wrong!
During classes, I would continue to highlight, or jot down, new vocabulary and used the ones I learned the night before. I would also constantly think back to words that other words related to and sentences they could be in. So my head was constantly circling around all the new words and making connections between them.
After school, instead of going home immediately, I would stick around in the classroom because teachers stayed there for at least an extra hour. I would start a conversation on simple subjects. They were very nice so they would reply at a slower pace and help me understand. Looking back now, I think I annoyed the hell out of my teachers every day since they were supposed to be planning the lesson for the next day, but mostly didn't get the work done because of me. But back then, I really didn't notice.
The Awkward Story
The entire journey wasn't without funny stories. Here's one I remember fondly.
In the second week of my life science class, the teacher gave us a three-level assignment. The more levels you completed, the higher grade you would get. Being a high achiever, I naturally wanted to complete all three levels. When the teacher explained the assignment, he said we needed to write an essay on how DNA worked (if I remember the topic correctly). But, sadly, I didn't know what the word "essay" meant so I kept thinking about the two letters "SA". I was like, "What the hell is an 'SA'?" - maybe some sort of acronym that I could go home and check the definition of.
So I went home and searched "SA" on Google. Guess what came up? Sexaholics Anonymous, Something Awful, South Australia, etc. I was totally surprised because, not only did I fail to get what I needed, I found some horrible terms. But I was pretty sure I wasn't supposed to write Something Awful for the Sexaholics Anonymous in South Australia.
The next day, I saw some other kids writing few paragraphs on paper, so I thought we might just had to write some stuff about how DNA works, but what's this "SA" thing? Do I need to include it in the writing? Or maybe "SA" is a special writing format? I was still confused, and, to make it worse, I didn't know how to ask what it meant. I still recall the outcome - simply writing up few sentences in basic language, far from the required essay length. I eventually learned the meaning of the word "essay", a few days later in the teacher's comments. It was spelt E-S-S-A-Y. From then on, all my essays have been exceptional. Even to this date, I get 10s and 11s on SAT and ACT essays.
Anyways, that was a heck of an amusing story.
Such embarrassment did eventually pay off. After 3 months, at least I had a clue about things going on around me. I could understand how the school system worked, how the class procedures went, when to use the common words and phrases, such as "Excuse me" or "How are you doing". So, at the very least, I understood the language environment a little better.
My writing also improved significantly. After one writing assignment, my ESL teacher said my writing was already at high school level. I was both flattered and surprised. I didn't know I would get such a compliment this early on. But a bigger surprise came a few days later. My ESL teacher informed me that I could take all mainstream classes now, which meant I would take regular English and history, just like everyone else. I was skeptical at first, but I realized this would be a much bigger learning opportunity. 24 hours later, I was sitting alongside the native English-speaking students.
The Bigger Success
Fast forward to the end of the May, things had gotten a lot better. I had the highest grade in my English class. Not math - which I was supposed to be excelling in - but English which I couldn't even speak or follow in conversation 9 months prior. I was also named Student of the Month and I got to go to this nice little party with all other awarded students and the entire staff. My English teacher gave me a certificate on stage. It was a great confidence boost to be recognized in front of all the teachers. I had an amazing time and it was simply an unbelievable morning.
After the first year, I had enough knowledge in English to hold a basic conversation and understand what most people said, most of the time. I had finally learned enough to form a complete question when I didn't understand something. That was a big wall to overcome, because now, whenever I was confused, I knew how to ask. I was at least half way there "for my English to catch up," and this had only been a year. I was proud of my progress, but I wanted to keep pushing to prove the tutorial center owner wrong.
The Biggest Success
My second year was basically the same process, except I wrote down more advanced vocabulary, held longer conversations with friends, and stopped annoying teachers after school. When I graduated from my middle school, my grammar wasn't perfect. My spoken English wasn't without interruptions. My vocabulary wasn't as advanced as other students. However, I could communicate what I wanted to say with anyone without any problems. I no longer "looked weird" and "acted differently". I was able to hold a fluent conversation with native speakers. I think I've accomplished the goal of catching up my English in two years, in half the time the owner claimed, all without going to her tutorial center.
The biggest thing I learned from this journey? Don't let anyone dictate what you do in life. You pick your destination and how to get there.