A good English class is a valuable means for acquiring and practicing English, but still the reality is that much of your progress will arise from your own self-study strategies. As a teacher for close to 10 years now, I am often asked for advice on how best to self-study English for fast results. I suspect sometimes my students are looking for that magic shortcut or panacea1 which can deliver them from all the "blood, sweat, and tears" that often surrounds the process of learning a second language.
There is, of course, no magic, but on the other hand, there may also be no need to engage in self-torturous2 activities that drain3 your energy. Part of the self-torture that students inflict upon themselves results from misconceptions formed along the way. I would like in this article to discuss a few of these misconceptions and offer some alternative advice for self-studying English. A.H. Whitehead once said, not ignorance but the ignorance of ignorance is the death of knowledge. In other words, it is important to understand misconceptions before they inhibit your self-study.
If I communicate with a Chinese partner, my English will get worse.
There is a common perspective here in Beijing that the only way to improve your English is by speaking with a native speaker. It stems from the perception that speaking to another second language learner has a negative effect, since the partner speaks Chinglish.
Consequently, many desperately look for native-speaking partners, some paying a small fortune for the luxury of speaking with inexperienced expatriates4 who do little more than chat. Worse yet, opportunities to speak regularly with a Chinese partner at little or no cost are ignored out of fear. In short, the "native speaker's English" craze is somewhat synonymous with the "chinglish"phobia5.
The view that communicating with another student somehow damages your English rests on the age-old, erroneous6 assumption that language acquisition is a linear progression, with the native speaker at the top of the hierarchy7. Perhaps native speaker teachers are guilty of feeding this perception by labeling courses, students, textbooks sequentially in terms of levels (i.e. beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate etc); in the arrangement of grammar structures from simple to complex; and in reading and listening passages selected by the number of words they contain (i.e. easy, moderate, difficult).
Linguists who have studied the actual process of learning a second language know that developing a second language is * anything but8 a linear process. It can follow patterns and steps but these steps and patterns frequently break down. Language learning often progresses randomly and chaotically9. We sometimes progress rapidly, at other times we learn slowly, there are areas we seem to master easily, and areas in which we never seem to * make any headway10. Sometimes the words and sentences come easily; sometimes they do not.
Moreover, when we talk about the quality of English we must be prepared to acknowledge that it is very much a subjective and contextual evaluation. We know that formal standard professor may find her English very effective in front of her peers, but * next to11 useless with inner city teenagers in New York. Therefore, can we still say that her English is better than the teenagers? Obvi