How do English learners teach us?

By Shih-Fan Kao 高士凡  / 

Fri, May 11, 2007 - Page 8

A 14-year-old student recently passed the highest level of the Cambridge ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Exam in Taiwan, meaning that this young student's English ability (as a foreign language) is equivalent to that of a British college student's English ability (as a first language). News reports said that watching English TV programs and movies and reading novels were two of her favorite activities.

This reminded me of when I was studying in the US. I met many non-native speakers who had a native-level command of English.

The interesting thing was that these non-native speakers with native language proficiency finished their college education in their own countries. That is, they had never been educated in any English-speaking country until they came to the US for graduate studies.

As a lifelong English learner, I always wonder why some learners seem to "pick up" the English language with ease and make impressive achievements, while many others struggle endlessly.

Based on empirical findings as well as my own observations, Successful English Learners (SELs) do indeed have some things in common.

First and perhaps foremost, SELs make their own opportunities by using English outside the classroom.

They try to use the English language every day. Although almost all SELs consider good instruction to be important, they don't think that they can acquire a high or native level of English proficiency from the classroom alone.

Several years ago, David Wang (王大衛), the late ICRT announcer and an exemplar of an SEL, once interviewed Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the former Taipei City mayor and a proficient English speaker. Wang asked Ma how he came to speak English almost like a native and maintain this in a country where English was and is largely not spoken in daily life.

Ma said he tried to create an English environment for himself as much as possible, such as taking part in the activities of like-minded groups at National Taiwan University.

This kind of active learning is particularly important in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) contexts like Taiwan, where there are relatively few occasions to use English. Previous studies also show that SELs try to create and increase the frequency of English exposure wherever they are. In other words, using English on a daily basis is critical for successful language learning.

Secondly, SELs are risk-takers, meaning that they are usually willing to take acceptable risks in attempting to produce and interpret English that is just beyond their ability.

They make use of contextual cues to help them in comprehension. By doing this, SELs surround themselves with lots of English input and learn to make intelligent guesses about terms they are not sure of. In other words, all SELs are good guessers, learning to live with uncertainty by not getting flustered and by continuing their language activities without understanding every word.

Take reading, for example. Instead of being stuck with unknown words and grammar, SELs can live with uncertainty and continue to read by making educated guesses via contextual clues.

The trait of risk-taking also reflects a certain attitude toward making errors. SELs are willing to make them, and have errors work for them, not against them. They are successful English learners mainly because they make a great many mistakes and are not afraid of continuing to do so.

In addition to these two essential characteristics, most SELs have other things in common. For example, they use mnemonics (such as English roots and synonyms) and other memory strategies to remember what has been learned. SELs use linguistic knowledge of their first language in learning English. They often have intense interaction with native speakers or plentiful practice in writing. The list goes on.

It should be noted that not all of these characteristics are based on research findings. Some of them are based on the observations of experienced English teachers. However, understanding the common characteristics of SELs can give us food for thought.

By referring to the features of SELs, English learners will find their own ways forward and take charge of their learning.

Shih-Fan Kao is an assistant professor at Jinwen University of Science and Technology.