Ever felt like you’ve hit a wall with your progress in learning English? Or perhaps you don’t feel confident when talking to native English speakers? If so, you’re not alone. It seems many students encounter the same difficulties, and what’s more, it has nothing to do with your ability. In fact, you may just be adopting the wrong learning style. After all, memorising the whole dictionary is enough to put anyone off learning a second language for life.
So what’s a better approach? Young Post asked English teacher Ansley Lee Kwan-ting from Kiangsu-Chekiang College in North Point, and 2015 top HKDSE scorer Victor Lam why some learning styles aren’t effective, and how to adjust your methods accordingly to help you master the language.
One of the most common errors, both Lee and Lam told Young Post, is that students often translate Chinese directly into English, which seems logical in theory but doesn’t work in practice.
“Chinglish expressions are common among many students, but many of these expressions are grammatically incorrect,” said Lee. “It doesn’t sound natural to native speakers. Some words are very confusing too because they don’t necessarily mean what you want to convey.”
For example: “owing to the following reasons”; “he is difficult to do something”; “you’re very nice to help me” and “relieve pressure”. Using phrases like these is often second nature. Lam’s advice: “think in English! I know it’s not easy, but try to use an alternative way to express these sentences. For example, we use ‘release pressure’ instead of ‘relieve pressure’. If you want to thank someone for helping you, try ‘it’s very nice of you to help me’,” Lam said.
Lee added that many Cantonese idioms and colloquial phrases, which may be metaphorical or have local origins, simply don’t translate into English.
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“Always think of other ways to express the same thoughts,” said Lee. “For example, ‘add oil’ should be expressed as ‘keep going’ or ‘you can do it’. In English, we call ‘eat dead cat’ a scapegoat. ‘Laugh die me’ should be replaced with ‘that’s hilarious’” she said.
It can also be tempting to try and show off your English skills by using overly complex vocabulary. But, as Lam pointed out, this can sound unnatural and will only confuse people.
“For example, the word ‘ameliorate’ is a bit tricky,” he said. “I saw a student write ‘I ameliorated my communication skills’. But it’s unnecessary to use it in this context. Simply using ‘improve’ would be more succinct”.
It’s also debatable whether drilling is an effective way to learn grammar. Most students are familiar with having to chant verb tenses over and over again, but for Lee, a better approach would be to help students understand how these grammar items are used in a real-life context. “Always ask yourself why, when and what particular situations you can use a grammar item properly,” she said.
Lee recommended studying the way grammar is used in English books, newspapers or magazines.
“You can start with a simple sentence and find how many grammar items have been used,” she said. “Also highlight words, and ask yourself or teachers why some words are used in a particular situation. After you become more confident, you can jot down more complex sentences and explore the variety of their structures, word choice and grammar usage.”
Lam also suggests that students always keep a dictionary handy — not for memorising whole chunks of, but for reference.
“Memorising every word of the dictionary seems mechanical and boring. But you can use it to check the meaning and usage of a word or an idiom,” said Lam.
“Online dictionaries, such as Oxford or Cambridge, will give you the exact meanings, as well as plenty of examples to show how a word or expression is used. That’s the best way to use a dictionary.”
Lee also encouraged students to ask their teachers to check their English. And most importantly, she said,“don’t be afraid of making mistakes, because you need to know what is right and wrong. Making mistakes is how you learn.”