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The secret to mastering a language
Xiao Hao在美国的英语学习经验谈 (摘自China Daily网站)
作者:Xiao Hao…    文章来源:Hot Pot Column    点击数:3657    更新时间:2010/4/2   

Cheers! The movie star secret to mastering a language

"How long will it take to master English?" Relatives and friends like to ask. Often, I counsel them to just enjoy learning the language. But they insist, "how many years if I go to America?"

Cheers! The movie star secret to mastering a language

If only one could count in years. When I arrived in the US at the age of 20, I heard of Chinese couples speaking to each other only in English, even at home. I thought I could avoid that embarrassing stage, for I had always excelled in English at school and it took me only a semester to be able to discuss schoolwork with my classmates.

To have a long casual conversation on things American, however, turned out an entirely different matter. Who's this Bill Clinton? What Monday night football? What is a martini? The subjects, and the fluent, excited American ways of discussing them, eluded me. For a year, my vocabulary outside of the classroom was limited to McDonald's meal menu and the long 5,000-year history of China.

But there were parties to go to and post-lunch chit-chats. After exhausting the greeting routine and some comment on the weather, I could feel the heavy muted smile hanging off my face. The problem grew worse in the second year: I began stuttering every time I faced a casual conversation, which I grew so aware of that I locked myself in after school.

It was hard to pinpoint when things turned around. My dogged Chinese study habit helped - I researched at the library on how other immigrants dealt with English. It turned out many earlier immigrants would pick a movie star and watch his/her movie over and over to imitate their accents. I did something similar watching Cheers on TV, with the subtitles on and a dictionary constantly by my side. I listened repeatedly to the accent-correction tapes borrowed from the library. I bought an American idiom dictionary to familiarize myself with the slang terms.

When I moved to New York, I left behind all my Chinese books. In the Big Apple, I read only English books, listened to only American music and if I had no American friend, wandered in the street by myself. I asked "what is it?" whenever I spotted a word that I did not know. Eventually my mind was flooded with so many English words and American events that memories of ancient Chinese poems and my childhood friends faded away. People began to ask if I had grown up in the US, for they could no longer place my accent. I forgot when I began to dream in English, but I remembered being very happy, and proud, like the many immigrants before me.

Cheers! The movie star secret to mastering a language

Then I hit a huge bump in the summer of 1999. I was interning at a big financial service company on Wall Street. During a conference call about a pending investment, Josh, the manager in charge and the only other person in the room, suddenly muted the phone and turned to me.

"Please speak English clearly," he demanded.

I was flushed with humiliation as Josh, in his perfectly starched dress shirt, turned off the mute on the phone and spoke in his perfectly accented English. I was doing my MBA internship with students from the best business schools. I had thought that seven years of trying to master English, of trying to fit in had been enough. Yet some cumbersome tongue movement that made my pronunciation slur, gave me away.

Ten years later, the burn left by that humiliation then seemed almost funny. Looking back, I could see how the incident helped me let go of my obsession with mastering English. I still watched sitcoms with a dictionary by my side. I still asked "what?" about words strange to my ears. I still did all that not because I was trying to improve on my English, but because I was curious to know what I did not know, because I wanted to enjoy my work and my life in English, however imperfect they were.

But that is not a message that my relatives and friends want to hear. A lifetime? No way. Really, how many years? What if I go to this expensive school?

Five, I feel obliged to lie. If only...

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