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Yes, this is SHE.

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United States

March 1, 2009

When it comes to learning a new language, many people find it frustrating. As if when you are walking with your hands versus your feet, you can’t walk fast, you can’t walk steadily, sometimes you can’t even stand up on your own, because you are rewiring your brain and forcing different muscles to do something differently. 

I always assume that all people are equally capable to acquire a language. Take a look at how well and fast a baby can learn to speak the first language just by listening and mimicking. However, my own experience tells me that it’s not true. I started learning English since I was 4. Not to mention about the accuracy of grammar, until today I have difficulties in pronouncing some sounds correctly like “th”, “own/oun”, “g”, etc.

Research shows that people start learning a second language late in life is less likely to acquire a native-like accent. When a baby begins to learn a first language, his/her brain (neurons) started formulating certain patterns to recognize different sounds. However, the brain becomes fixed during puberty and loses the adaptability to re-structure for a new language after a certain age. This explains why it is so hard for me to pronounce the “oun” sound, because my brain has been programmed to function for Cantonese, which is my mother language, as early as I was an infant. Cantonese doesn’t distinguish the “oun” sound; therefore it is hard for me to say it right.   

Given the fact that the neurons of our brains are basically programmed for the first language we learned, does that mean we can never achieve fluency of a foreign language? For that question I have done some research on the internet. Then I found out that a Language is produced by the Sound Generator (vocal chords) and Sound Chambers (throat, nose cavity, and mouth). For example, “bounce” is a hard word for me. If I want to say it right, I need to know the phonics of the letters and how to use different chambers to generate the sound. Let’s try to say “b-oun-ce”, first use the lips and the throat to generate the “b”, then utter the “oun” by using the soft palate and the nose, at last finish the sound by using the teeth and the tongue.        

But knowing how to produce sounds is not good enough. In addition to pronunciation, a language is also composed by words, which are like symbols, and grammar, which is like formulas. Given the conflict with your mother language, acquiring a foreign language is pretty much rewiring your neurons and using your muscles differently. It would be as hard as walking with your hands and typing with your feet.

If learning a second language is hand walking, then living in a foreign country is running a marathon with your hands. I have a co-worker who migrated from Hong Kong to the States 6 years ago, but she is still hanging out with Chinese people and reluctant to make friends with Americans until now. Many more examples can be found when you go to the China towns in Ameica. Many young people have chosen to limit themselves in Chinese groups rather than embrace American culture. I don’t blame them, as living in a foreign country can be stressful, especially during this economic downturn. The competition of the job market is extremely fierce, as if there is no room for non-native English speakers at all.  

Practice makes perfect. Some people argue that a fluent level of foreign language can be achieved after years of practicing regardless of age. In fact many people master multi-languages and work across different countries successfully. Maybe some people are cut out for acquiring languages. Maybe how well you can acquire a new language depends on to what extent you can rewire your brain.

I don’t know how far I can go walking with my hands, but I do know that I have to be at least 100% dedicated in order to move forward. 

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09:28 PM Apr 06 2009



Wow your writing skill is so good. I wish I could write something useful in my blog instead of babbling some useless information. But that my way of practices too. Write what comes to mind and write it when it’s still fresh.

I don't think I have any problem with pronunciation. I’m doing all right with stressing and pronouncing the right sounds. Thanks to Thai, my mother language that has may sounds and various tone of voices so that doesn’t take much effort for Thai people do mimic English sounds. Speaking from experience I think I understand the problem you are facing here. Here in Thailand many middle aged and elderly Thai-Chinese people still speak Thai with strong Chinese accent. I get to talk to Chinese guest a lot, those from Singapore seem to speak perfect English still with Chinese accent, those from China speak very little English or not at all.

I’m the one who love learning English to the point of obsession. I’ve been learning English since I was 11 in grade school. You wouldn’t believe that I couldn’t speak English at all when I finished high school. I think I can fully blame Thai educational system. It sucked, and still sucks. We never learned how to pronounce A-Z the right way. Most teachers traditionally teach children in Thai accent. Most importantly many of them are unqualified. I can’t blame them though because they get paid so little especially in rural areas. The good ones are only based in towns and big cities. So fuck the government, Thai education equality never existed and it’s never going to.


Thanks to Teahcer Kate’s book that guide the whole new perspectives of learning English to me. I started to get the hang of it. Forget about grammars, start speaking like you are a toddler trying to speak his first word. When learn a new word try to see it in picture not the word in our language. Trying to translate, cut and paste doesn’t help. Your brain will work harder jumping back and fourth between English and your native. I’m taking her advice and it does me good.

Then again, to speak flawlessly like a native must be a very dream of people who are learning English but does it really that matter? My bosses are Indian and Japanese and both of them graduated from overseas. Their English are perfect with rhythmic Indian accent and cute Japanese’s. And I love that.

You make it sound so sad in here not being able to sound like the native, at least I feel that way.I don't know what's like whrere you are living though. For me writing is the most difficult skill to acquire. I’m obsessed with English and to be fluent at it is my first priority in life.(ha such a big dream lol) But since I’m not a goal oriented person so I never bother to think of how hard or how long it will take me. It might take me forever…

The most important and benefit of leaning English to me is that along the way I’ve got to read many good English books, listen to loads of cool and meaningful songs(very helpful for English pronunciation if you sing a long)meet a lot of interesting people. Learning English is so much fun and rewarding.

 By the way I’m Peer here. Nice to meet you and thanks for posting this blog.


01:47 AM Mar 05 2009



Good points. I am impressed.

So you moved to the USA with your parents when you were a kid? you said in your blog that your first language is cantonese, so do you still speak Cantonese at home and speak English with your friends.

Putting you into a place with full of ppl saying a new language is a best and fast way to learn language. The company I am working now is  HK company in Shenzhen, the HK coworkers who have spent much time in China speak Mandarine much better than those who seldom come to China office. Too bad is not so many of us have this chance, we can only learn English by ourself. It is tough, I have to admit, especially the speaking and the accent.

My reading and writing is OK, but not so good with my speaking. I totally know that my accent is so chinese, now I am taking American Accent Training Program (the writer is Ann Cook, I guess you know about her, right?), and I do not know how far I can go along, but I am trying.

The two keys for English learning are EMOTION and LISTENING. As textbook English method does not work, and I guess there are lots of ppl like me in China, who are good at reading and writing, but we feel awkward when we use this language to talk to native speakers, at least not so confident.

It's nice reading your blog here, and it enlightens me a lot. Thanks for that.

Have a good day!