While growing up and studying English at school, I was able to get by without much effort: I became the teacher’s classroom assistant and remained in this role for eleven years. Meanwhile, the most effective English language education I received was from my dad, the most diligent self-taught English learner around me.
Dad is a successful salesman with English skills playing to his advantage. He didn’t start learning English until he graduated from the naval academy, when he realized how important English was and decided that it would help his career. He bought himself the four-book textbook series of New Concept English — a popular series among Chinese learners in recent decades. He recited every passage one by one and over and over again, along with studying thoroughly music lyrics and lines from classic films. He crashed some courses sitting in on classes at an ESL-immersive university. Within a year, he even started to make a little money on the side as an amateur translator during the city-wide annual trade fairs. At some point, he started to use his skills to build connections with potential clients and win them over by volunteering to tutor their kids in English.
To people who don’t know him well, it sounds like he pronounces English in a funny way. (I kept reminding him that his colleague was Tony, and not Tonny.) But as someone who constantly receives compliments on my English, I have nothing but awe for my dad’s wide vocabulary and easy confidence when facing intricate English sentences: It’s like he could sit down, focus, and slice an English paragraph open like a fruit and then study it under a microscope. Even today, he works hard at reading and reciting.
Clearly, my dad has been hard on himself, and I think he was trying to put me through his experience — his philosophy of focus and diligence was exactly how my father “made” me learn English. From age five to around twelve, I was supposed to read English out loud every morning for a minimum of fifteen minutes. During weekends, whenever my dad was home, he’d assign me a 300- to 500-word passage — I’d have to spend whatever amount of time I needed to memorize it (usually a whole morning on a Saturday), and then go to him and recite it in front of him. There were always occasions when I thought I had it, but only to trip over my words in the very first sentence. When that happened, he’d send me back to my room to spend more time so that I could “really work on it this time.” Often times, after spending about an hour to an hour and a half in my room, I’d get frustrated and conclude that I’d never finish the task. But I was intimidated by his moods, and I didn’t want to let my challenge get in the way of our relationship.
Sometimes Dad would check if I knew a new word he had spotted in his current reading. If I didn’t know what it meant or came up with a distant guess, he’d say how disappointed he was in me — that I did not invest enough time in vocabulary. I always replied and said that I did, and that it was just because he didn’t happen to have asked me something I already spent time on. Hearing this, he’d always get madder, claiming that if I’d allot more time to English, I’d achieve more.
The articles he assigned me to recite were usually above my level (for example, “The Gettysburg Address,” when I was ten years old!). The sentences were long, with a lot of unfamiliar words. Sometimes I didn’t even know what a sentence meant; how would I be able to memorize it? And it was even more impossible to memorize over twenty sentences in a row. Dad’s philosophy was that if your goal was to memorize the whole thing, then you had to force yourself to read the sentences out loud — over and over again — then the sentence structure would unfold, and you’d understand the sentences. “Where is the predicate?” was his main question when I told him I didn’t understand a sentence. “Where is the predicate?” he always asked. And among all the clauses, auxiliary…and verbs, I’d show him that I was able to weed out the clauses and find that core of sentence. “Then we go from there,” he’d say.
He was right. Ultimately, I always managed to understand those sentences. After several hours of preparation, I’d step out of my room, pass him the book where the article lied, and tell him: “I am ready.” He’d then sit in the couch and ask me to stand up, saying: “This way you’ll be more in the mode.”
Of course my recitation was stumbling. However, Dad seemed to be lenient with certain small mistakes; he’d willingly prompt a few words and ask me to continue. I saw the benefits of the two hours of practice, but what I really wanted was the feeling I got afterward. To me it was like building up my spirits for a six-mile run: my only motivation was the runner’s high I would get later.
My Dad assigned authentic materials, like short articles he wanted me to recite, and TV and movie clips. For movies, he would play a clip of the movie of, say, Beauty and the Beast. He’d ask me to turn my head facing away from the TV, while only listening, I was required to repeat a stream of lines, many times until error-free. Usually, he had to replay each line at least four to five times before I could succeed.
To me, Dad was never a decent teacher, given all his impatient yelling and scolding. I had countless teary moments as he criticized me as a person and questioned my will. As a diligent man himself, I always thought that I would never be able to manage a vocabulary as his. But thanks to him, and probably with all the English exams and tests that ensued, I would say that I’ve managed to conquer this English learning challenge.
What I appreciate most about my father’s guidance is that he never mentioned phrase like “in an exam” or “for a test.” He wanted me to be self-motivated and cherish the journey of lifelong learning. Finally, I think I have successfully come to embrace this passion for language study and brought it beyond learning English.
Ending note. I first drafted this article three years ago for an assignment at the Teachers College of Columbia University, when the professor of Classroom Practices asked us to reflect on our journey as an ESL learner. From what I learned about second language education, I’d like to conclude my father’s teaching approach as the combination of the Audiolingual Method and the Reading Approach: I was exposed to a great number of contents of native English and focused on vocabulary development — there was no direct teaching of grammar, except for the part where he asked me to visualize the main structure of the sentence.
A week ago, I decided to pick up that draft and develop it. Special thanks to Emmy F from the Global Communication Center (GCC) at Carnegie Mellon University, who worked with me multiple times to help me bring out the (complicated) character of my dad in a genuine way. And thanks, Glenn, for the detailed tips to refine this piece!