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You Can Learn English in any Western Country?

Updated: May 10

4 decades ago, when my husband David entered high school in Minneapolis, he was the only Chinese student in the entire school. Immediately, David was surrounded by friendly and helpful classmates and teachers. An older lady from the neighborhood would even volunteers to visit him and his sister every week in his home to help them better learn their English. From the moment David arrived in the US, he fell in love with it. Within the span of two short years, he completely jettisoned his home culture and language to embrace his new country, language and culture. The result is that English became his mother tongue, the primary language that he used to communicate with others.

Almost at around the same time, my two younger sisters and I arrived in Canada. We too were the only Chinese in the school. We were looked down on by other kids who laughed at our funny accents. So, because we didn't want to be laughed at, in the ensuing two years, we all worked super hard to improve our English at lightening speed, until two years later we were all able to speak English without any trace of an accent.


Everyone around me and my husband was amazed at the speed of improvement in our English learning. Decades later, many new Chinese immigrants flooded into North America. Quite a few of them learned of the MIT offers of admission of me and my sister, and would decide to purchase houses in our school district, hoping that their children would succeed like us. Today, in my Vancouver high school located in what is now one of the most expensive school districts in Vancouver, over 90% of the students enrolled have Chinese as their mother tongue. Even after 5-6 years, it's common for many of these students to not have learned much English. I remember a few years back when I went to visit my parents in Vancouver during the summer, I met some aunties who were also visiting my mother in her home. They would shake their heads and tell me that the English their kids learned from school is "deaf and dumb English", which meant that either the kids had no interest in learning English, or felt that English was too deep and difficult for them to learn. They all desperately wanted to know why and how my English improved so quickly and so accent free, but their kids were unable to even remotely accomplish a fraction of what I had achieved. David also got asked similar questions at different times in his life.


Primary Factor: The Degree of Language Immersion

Becoming fluent in English actually has very little to do with your IQ or abilities, but more importantly with the degree that the learner is "immersed" in an environment where the desired language is spoken and used (in this case English). This should be the primary consideration of anyone desiring to learn another language.

Many years after we were married, David and I arrived in Beijing with our three sons. Our kids had zero foundation in Chinese, because the language that David and I communicated in was English. Upon arrival, we carefully surveyed and investigated every single international school in town, and chose the one with the best Chinese education and curriculum. At the time, our eldest son Caleb was 11 year old, exactly the same age as when I arrived in Canada. In the first month of school, we were sad to discover that his Chinese beginner class had many classmates who had been learning Chinese in that class for over 6 years with minimal improvement, remaining at the level of "my family has five people" and "I would like a hamburger" type of simple phrases. We also got to know some neighbors in our compound whose kids were born in China but can barely muster a couple of simple Chinese words or phrases. As we thought about our own experiences learning English in North America, we made the decision to pull our kids out of international school and enroll them in local Chinese school to completely immerse them in a Chinese speaking environment. Our decision met with much concern and even opposition from our foreign friends at the time, who felt that our kids would be traumatized by the harsh environment in local Chinese schools. However, a couple of years later, these same friends who saw how fluent our kids had become in Chinese, were astounded and envious of their fluency level. This is the result of language immersion.

Just how "immersed" does a child's new language environment need to be in order to maximize the effectiveness of language acquisition? I can't give a concrete percentage. However, what I am sure about is that when your child arrives in a new language environment, but most of his classmates are speaking his native language, and your child becomes friends with them, then your child will no longer have the opportunity to be immersed in a new language environment anymore.

After my second son Jonathan had been immersed in local Chinese school for 6 years, he returned to international school. After being away from an English speaking environment for 6 years, he not only caught up to but surpassed the English proficiency levels of many of his classmates. What made the difference? Jonathan knew that in order for him to readjust to a new environment where he will be learning in English, he needed to keep a distance from and therefore not befriend any local Chinese friends at the international school. He intentionally befriended English speaking friends who will maximize his exposure to and need to use the English language. At the same time, other student transferring in from local Chinese schools were facing a new environment and the pressures caused by being immersed in a new language they could not understand. This drove them to band together for support and comfort. However, this meant continuing to communicate in Chinese instead of being forced to deal with the discomfort of having to use English. Other than listening to lectures, they almost never use English, and use the same low level of English to help one another. Even though they are in an English speaking environment where everyone around them is communicating in English, they were ensconced in a "Chinese language bubble", separated from their English environment. If these students continue to remain in this bubble for the next 3 years without making any changes, it will be doubtful if they will have made any big improvements in their English proficiency level by the time they graduate after those 3 years.

Opportunity to Use the New Language

The second factor influencing the effectiveness of language acquisition is the circumstances in which the new language will need to be used. When I was in high school, I studied 4 years of French and Spanish and two years of German and Latin. Because I was very good at memorizing, I got As in all of them. However, I'm embarrassed to confess that I have forgotten everything by now, because I have not had a chance to use these languages for anything in my life since I learned them. In our son's local Chinese high school are many students with perfect English scores and grades who will often share their study tips with classmates. These tips revolve around memorization techniques, study habits, and adjustment of attitudes towards hard work. These tips all help a student to score higher on tests. However, I can also guarantee that if these same students have no opportunity to use their English, especially the vocabulary that they so diligently memorized, that after a few years, they will also like me not remember anything.

For this same reason, when Stephen was in a local Chinese bilingual school, I was against him memorizing English words. At the time, the teacher required students to memorize a list of English words every week. Instead, I encouraged Stephen to read more English story books, because I wanted him to learn to read so that he can develop enough interest to keep reading to learn later. Through the process of reading, when he would encounter a word he was unfamiliar with, through looking at the context it's placed in, he can usually figure out not only its meaning but also more importantly see how it's being used. A word memorized without being in the context of a sentence or story does not allow or encourage the student who memorizes it to know how to use it in everyday life. When Caleb and Jonathan started reading book series such as The Magic Treehouse, their English proficiency improved rapidly, while their appetite for reading also increased proportionately. The stories in these books rapidly engaged their interest and curiosity, and attracted them to focus on reading and keep on reading more. Reading not only increased their interest in learning English, but also raised their language learning proficiency.


Internal Desire and Motivation

The third factor in effective language acquisition has to do with relationships. If I communicate with person A in English, person B in Chinese, and person C in French, regardless of my level of proficiency in those languages, sooner or later I will learn these languages because I need to keep using them in order to communicate with them and maintain my relationship with them. Language is fundamentally a means of relationship building and heart connection. And because language is the primary means for two people to relate, language is best learned in the context of a relationship. Even though Stephen's mother tongue while growing up in Beijing was Chinese, he always communicated with me in English, because our whole family spoke English at home. At times I would catch him struggling to find the appropriate words in English to communicate with me, at times repeating a certain Chinese word he wanted to express in English, but he always finally got the help he needed to express himself to me in English.

I spent the summer after my college graduation in Istanbul, where I became friends with a bunch of Iranians in the city. The whole summer, I was with these new friends. In the two months that I lived in Istanbul, I learned to speak Farsi from them. There was no formal classroom instruction, just words and phrases picked up from everyday life, especially playing games in the hotel lobby, going on picnics, or partying after eating dinner in their homes every day. Many years later, I met one of those friends in Canada. Surprisingly, I was still able to communicate with him in Farsi. The time I used to learn Farsi was very short compared to my other languages in high school, and despite many years of not using it, I still remembered those words and phrases that I used. I realized that the reason I didn't remember the four languages that I invested my high school years to learn and master lacked the relational context for me to use them. If you don't believe me, just go observe a foreign guy who has fallen in love with a local Chinese girl. You will be astounded at the incredible speed with which he learns Chinese. My son Caleb learned Japanese and became fluent in one year after he met his Japanese American woman who is now his wife. Love does incredible things to your brain, including giving you the superpower to learn a heart and love language.

I have described three factors affecting learning a new language above: degree of immersion, opportunity for use, and relational context to use the language. Therefore, selecting the language learning environment becomes extremely important. Whether you plan to immigrate with your child or let them study abroad by themselves, as parents, we need to understand ahead of time the living & study environment, friendship circles, and the language your child will need to use to pursue his interests. Now that you understand a bit more about the factors affecting the effectiveness of language acquisition, which option would you choose in each of the three scenarios?

  1. Sending your child to the US over the summer to learn English, where he will live with his cousins who speak Chinese and will help him to feel less homesick; or letting him live in the home of an American host family that are strangers to your child but will force him to speak English?

  2. When immigrating to a city in North America, Australia, New Zealand or England, you will see many districts with many Chinese residents, which makes life and adjustment much smoother because of the access to Chinese restaurants, supermarkets and services provided in Chinese. You almost don't need to do anything to adjust to your new environment because your surroundings are not too different from your life in China. In these same cities are other districts where the majority of its native English speaking residents don't speak any Chinese, don't have any restaurants with food you are used to, and if you encountered a problem, will have difficulty getting the help you need in Chinese. What kind of districts would you choose to settle in?

  3. When helping your child choose a school to study abroad in, one type of school has majority Chinese international students, where your child will immediately feel quite at home; Another type of school is the public school where Chinese are the minority where English is the language used in school. Which school would you choose?


For us Chinese, learning English is not just a simple matter of memorizing vocabulary and understanding the meaning of words. Learning English also requires you to understand culture, nature of relationships, and regional differences, etc. In an increasingly globalized world where your child will increasing need to use English to live and work, it's worth our time to investigate how to best help them learn this useful second language.

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