Keen on English

Hello everyone!

My name is Keen and I would like to write a little about myself for the first blog post. I have always wanted to start a blog since primary school but somehow never got to it. I will start off by answering the same questions as in the previous post. Diving straight into an opinionated post without any introduction would probably not work well!

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

I am a foreign student from Malaysia and I have been here since 2011. Malaysia is that land mass in between Thailand and Singapore.

How did it feel to not be as fluent in the dominant language? Plus some backstory!

Back when I was a young’un, I was really into Hollywood movies and was fascinated with the portrayal of the Western way of life. I even felt that I was born on the wrong continent, and living in a Western land was one of my life goals. I devoted a lot of time improving my English but I could only get so far. I spent a lot of time reading blogs and forums for my interests at that time. I was able to read and write fairly well by the time I got to Canada.

My listening skills were fair thanks to the movies but I was absolutely horrified to speak, afraid that I would get laughed at or the other person would not be able to understand my broken English. The most embarrassing moments were in the first few days upon landing. When the cashier at the grocery store asked me how my day was, I thought she was genuinely interested in how it actually went. I then found out it is just a common greeting, and that buttermilk was not butter-flavoured milk.

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

 I am still unable to speak English fluently, constantly pausing to find words that make sense. Back home, grammar and pronunciation were not of importance. In order to make myself understood here, I have to constantly rearrange my sentences so that it is in the format that native speakers are familiar with. It is still a significant hurdle to me as I do not have enough practice in speaking. Even now if you were to speak to me, I would stutter quite a bit or be a little too quiet. I wish I had made more progress in the time I have been here, but I am glad I made some.

Culture is a matter I am sometimes uncomfortable talking about. People on the internet have strong opinions about how foreigners should assimilate into Canadian culture. I have tried to rid myself of my own culture so that I can fit in but I am not sure if it is working out well for me. Perhaps I could elaborate regarding this matter on another post if it is not too personal or offensive to publish. I would also like to say that getting used to poutine took no time at all.

What helped make learning English more fun or easier?

I love documentaries! Those related to space travel or sciences were something I was interested in learning about. I guess it is something like the quote that goes “If you find a job that you like, you’ll never work a single day” or something along those lines. It did not feel like I was forced to learn English for the sake of learning, it was great fun to listen about topics that interest me and the English was just a bonus. I also spent quite a bit of time watching cooking shows, it did not help me improve my English a whole lot but those dishes sure looked tasty!

Do you have any advice for current English learners?

Find something that interests you and you will find a way! I have made some great relationships through my hobbies, speaking about our common interests for hours on end.  You could also join groups that you are passionate about, being around like minded people should ease you through the process.

About the author: This post was contributed by one of our members, Keen, who responded to the questions previously posed to some of our exec team in Experience as an English Learner

Are you interested in blogging as well? Drop the MEL team an email if you are!



Learning on the Fly



This was snapped by Chloe as she flew over Fiji. So beautiful!

Chloe, our Direction of Promotions, kindly lent me some words on what it is like to travel where English is not the dominant language. While MEL is a club based around those who have come to Canada and are learning English, Chloe reminded me that everyone, depending on where they are, becomes a language learner at some point in their life. The struggles that come with communication are ubiquitous and take persistence and effort (and in Chloe’s case, some adventurous and goodnatured spirit) to overcome.

These questions only briefly touched on Chloe’s wide variety of experiences but she shared some very interesting anecdotes. I know that I would love to hear more, perhaps in a later blog post (hint hint Chloe, if you’re interested!).


Chloe and an enthusiastic crew of primary school children she taught (sports) while in Fiji.

Where have you travelled?

Chloe: I have travelled to several different locations, including Shanghai, China; Hong Kong,Turks and Caicos, the Caribbean, Spain, Malta, Mexico, France, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Egypt. I have also travelled across the US and Canada, and most recently, to Fiji.

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

Not knowing the native language makes it harder to communicate, even if it is reading road signs or asking locals for directions. People can automatically tell that you are a tourist, but in the majority of places that I’ve travelled to, locals are always willing to accommodate. As long as you make an effort to learn their culture and language such as saying “hi” in their native tongue, they will make an effort to speak English.

What was a challenge that you faced in communication or learning another language? Or becoming acclimatized to this new culture?

Chloe: A recent challenge that I experienced while volunteering  in Fiji was teaching kindergarteners. They hardly spoke any English besides “teacher! teacher!” and I only spoke ~5 words of Fijian. Also, the culture was quite different from ours, which further deteriorated our level of understanding. I learned the importance of body language and facial expressions. This is so universal, and children pick up on it immediately. If they did something bad and were going to get in trouble, they would know without me needing to say a word.

What helped make it easier, or more fun, to meet the challenges above? Do you have any advice for other travellers?

Chloe: In order to understand the language and culture, you have to submerse yourself in it. It will feel uncomfortable at first, but when you observe the culture and listen and try to speak the language, you will naturally adapt.

When I first got out of the taxi in Fiji, I almost got hit by a taxi because we were looking the wrong way when crossing the road. Keep your eyes open, observe, and enjoy 🙂


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!