Experience as an English Learner

experienceenglishlearnerWhat is it like to move somewhere else and suddenly be expected to not only learn a new language, but also to study and to work in this new language? It’s something that I’ve only imagined and it’s something that many others have experienced earlier in their life or are in the midst of experiencing right now. I had the great opportunity to be able to ask some of our executive team about their own time learning English. Alice, our VP Events, Ryan, our VP Administration, Sylvia, our VP Communications and Lucy, our President shared their inspiring and varied experiences.

There was a common thread in how it feels to come to a new country and not know the dominant language; intimidation makes it easy to lose one’s self-confidence. The Execs’ responses also introduced a further dimension to what it means to be an English learner. I discovered that it is not a language lesson that ends at the classroom door (and in high school, such as for me and French). It continues with each interaction, and just as you learn vocabulary, spelling and grammar, you are also faced with different etiquette, cultural norms and expressions. Each Exec demonstrated their own unique brand of resilience and persistence required to learn and succeed in facing these challenges.

Thank you to the contributors for kindly sharing your thoughts! I hope everyone finds these stories inspiring—whether a current English learner or not, we all have something to learn from how to adapt to a new environment.

(And if you’re up for it, have a scavenger hunt around U of C with the visuals!)


When did you come to Canada? Where did you move from?

Alice: I came when I was seven and a half years old. I came from China. The People’s Republic of China. 

Ryan: I came to Canada in November of 2010. I think I was six.

Sylvia: I came to Canada when I was in grade 5.

Lucy: I came to Canada when I was 11 years old with my family from China.


How did it feel to not be as fluent in the dominant language?

Alice: It felt very intimidating. I remember crying several times my first week.

Ryan: To be honest it was a bit intimidating at first. I really didn’t understand a lot of things. A lot of the culture you can’t really reflect either and I was intimidated by that. It definitely put pressure on me to learn the language.

Sylvia: Suddenly going to a foreign country, I felt very helpless at the beginning, I had to rely on my parents and my older sibling for communication with other people. At school, it was hard to mix in with the other kids. Although everyone was really nice and patient with me, but I felt like I was a burden and inconvenience to them.

There was a period of time when I answered every question with “I don’t know.” I figured with that answer, I won’t ever answer any questions wrong, or unintentionally tell people false information. There’s been a few awkward moments when the questions was “What’s your name?” or “How old are you?”, I think I just innocently smiled my way through those times.  

After a while though, the hardship actually became a motivation. I realized that I was not the only one that went through these troubles and I thought “well, if others can do it, why can’t I?” So I started reading a lot to get familiar with English. All the readings paid off and It is a fantastic feeling when you see less and less red marks on your writing assignments.

Lucy: For the 11 years old Lucy it was definitely frightening- when I first came to Canada I felt a loss of self-identity because I could not express my ideas eloquently, and I thought my limited language had reduced my confidence because I was really clumsy with my verbal and written expression. Without the ability to expression myself, I almost had a complete personality change. I was really quiet for the first year before I returned to my old self.


What was a challenge that you faced in communication or learning English? Or becoming accustomed to the new culture?

Alice: Main challenge? Probably cultural than anything else. I mean, the whole crying thing, I guess it was… do you know, in China, when you say no, you just say “no”, right? But here it’s like if you’re rejecting something someone gives you, you have to say “no thank you.” So a teacher was trying to teach me that and she was being kind of firm about it. And I wasn’t really sure why you had to say “thank you” to the “no”.

I was like why “no thank you”? I was like, “No, no I don’t want it!” And she was like “No thank you!” I was like, “I don’t want what you’re giving me!” Like, what else do you want me to do? I was trying to give it back to her. Stuff like that can be really frustrating on top of just learning English. Learning English was okay because the school I was at, there was a lot of kids my age that came here a bit earlier than I did, mostly immigrants. So I pretty much just used the native language and they could help with translations, so it wasn’t that bad.

Ryan: I think it was both [challenging in communication and culture] because sometimes, especially my classmates, they would apply language and culture in weird ways. Like I was really confused about Valentine’s. That really threw me off a bit because I didn’t understand. I feel like trying to learn both culture and language at the same time can be difficult.

Sylvia: I think I already mentioned some challenges above, but I think the main challenge was developing the confidence and understanding that Canada allows open expressions to a greater extent. In the Chinese culture we learn to be careful with what comes out of our mouth. Before we speak we tend to take in a lot of considerations such as “Is this the right time to say these things?” or “Would it make the other person ‘lose face’ if I say this?” or “Am I acting properly in my place to say this?”. Although these kinds of considerations are taken here as well, I found that it’s to a much lesser extent than when compared to Hong Kong.

Lucy: A challenge for me was finding the right social environment to speak English. At my junior high, it was very easy to find a high school clique that only speaks Chinese and be comfortable in that environment. It took a lot of courage to overcome the fear of judgement, and get out of my comfort zone to join a group of English speakers.


What helped make learning English more fun or easier?

Alice: We didn’t do any fun activities or anything like that.

I feel that [teachers] just made it less fun and I forced myself to make it more fun. My mom was like “Yeah! You should start memorizing English words and their meanings and their spellings!” That’s not fun! No one ever came up to me and was like “let’s play a game about this.”

I guess my ESL teacher was kind of fun. She didn’t really teach us English though, she made it a bonding experience. We baked stuff and did fun activities. What did we bake… It was not very successful, we made chili one day and that was okay. But yeah, we just did a lot of random things. I’m not sure if that was fun.

I was pretty rejecting so my English improved very very slowly. Talk to Ryan about it. He was on the opposite side. He basically ditched Chinese and did all English reading and by grade 3 could write as well as grades 5 or 6. The teacher thought he was plagiarizing for his story because it was so good! So Ryan would be an interesting take.

Ryan: For me, I guess it was reading. My parents started me out with the really simple children’s books and I worked myself up really quickly from that. But I don’t think my case, my case study if it may be, is really applicable to many people because I did forgo a lot of my prior language. I’m not very fluent in Chinese anymore. So, I feel my method might not be the best, but I definitely really concentrated on reading and that way I learnt English, I guess more rapidly but also at a cost.

Sylvia: I really like reading. It was made especially fun when I could discuss the stories and the characters with my sister. I even came up with a few fan stories for some of the books. I think learning to enjoy reading was the biggest help in improving my English.

Lucy: I read a lot of fanfiction to help myself improve reading, and I even tried to write some fanfiction and posted them online. I did that for about 2 years when workload from school wasn’t heavy back in 2010-2012. Hiding behind a screen gave me more courage to express myself online and the reviews and feedbacks from readers (appreciation for story development or literary devices) certainly helped me gain confidence with writing!


Do you have any advice for current English learners?

 Alice: Make yourself enjoy it. Do that kind of self-talk: “I like this language. This language is great! This culture is interesting and I shall learn more about it.” Don’t forget that the language does come with its own culture so you can’t just learn the language by translation into your own language. That’s how a lot of people do it. You really want to get into the mindset of English as English and not just as words as they correspond to the native language.

Ryan: I think the first thing is to really concentrate on either learning the culture or the language. A lot of people, especially for people of my culture, they learn English by trying to learn axioms or colloquialisms to fit in. And while those are helpful to memorize, they really, in my belief, don’t help in the overall learning because all you’re doing is locking yourself into one phrase. It’s better to learn it on a stepwise manner where you learn the grammar, you develop the good foundation and work forwards from there instead of trying to learn both at the same time. That can be very intimidating and often confusing.

Sylvia: My advice would be: Don’t be scared to put yourself out there. Yes, we make mistakes, say thing wrongs, or make things awkward, but it’s a part of the growing process. In fact, other people will show you more appreciation to you when they see you try. If you just hide away in safety with your own cultural group and not make that first step, you can never see how wide the world is. Other people will also feel that you don’t want to integrate with them, then they will also make less of an effort to interact with you.

It is hard to step out of your own comfort circle and that is normal. That’s why we are here to help you take that first step and help you smooth out your obstacles on the way! 😊

Lucy: Practice, practice, practice! No one can be perfect with speaking and writing when they first learn a language. It’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, the more mistakes you make, the more likely you can identify your weaknesses and improve them. It took me about 2 years to become completely fluent in English starting with very limited English. It is all about putting yourself out of your comfort zone and getting the experience! This is what MEL is for: a relaxing and judgment-free social space to practice English with English-speaking peers!