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Why is it so difficult to master English grammar for ESL learners?

(Stanley Yeung, December 20th, 2018)


Why is it so difficult to master English grammar for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? To people who are native English speakers, it seems as though they were born with the correct English grammar at birth. This tends to arouse the envy of ESL learners, who often stumble on the usage of English grammar in their sentences. As we non-native English speakers grow older, we tend to forget about the importance of English grammar in our lives, even after years of rigorous grammar exercises starting from kindergarten, to primary school, to secondary school, and even to university. So the question is, can we still go back in time to learn English grammar for those who have finished school?

In our Asian culture, people often say that the only opportunity that you get to learn English well is when you are small and young. Like scientists have said about language learning, our minds are more softly wired when we are young, and thus we can 'mould' it into any shape we want, like marshmallow. Then as we grow older, our brains become more hard-wired and much harder for us to 'mould' it into the shape that we want. We may still increase in knowledge, but the way we make utterances in English seems to be inevitably affected by our mother tongue language. But why do we see many adult and senior ESL learners still having a desire to improve their English skills at English learning centres?

The reality is that even when we study English at an older age, teachers don't tend to focus on grammar anymore, but rather, on increasing our knowledge as long as we get our messages across. Everybody seems to think that nobody would go back and take out all those grammar books to do all those rigorous grammar exercises when we were young because it just seems a very awkward thing to do. Whenever we make a grammar mistake in a sentence, teachers would also seldom point it out to us. Even if they do, they would do it in such a polite way, as if we should all treated with respect like adults. But after all, what is the importance of grammar if you can already get your message across to the other person?

Grammar, grammar, grammar - It seems like the word 'grammar' can sound a lot like the word 'grandma' the more we repeat saying it, especially for those of us ESL learners who don't pronounce the 'r' as much or like to follow the British pronunciation. But in fact, grammar is a bit like our grandma, who is verbose and likes to keep nagging at you all the time to serve the food when it is cooked, even though we would often like to do our own things in our bedroom until the food is really ready. Just like our grandma, grammar can nag at us to get it right with the same level of verbosity, even when we don't think it is that important. But if we can understand the underlying importance of doing something such as getting ourselves ready to serve the food cooked by our grandma, then maybe we can also fully understand the importance of grammar…


Why is it so difficult to nurture yourself to have a habit in reading English books as an ESL learner?

(Stanley Yeung, December 11th, 2018)


Why is it so difficult to nurture yourself to have a habit in reading English books as an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner? This may sound like a very simple question to native English speakers, but for ESL learners who never had the opportunity to study overseas or in a native English-speaking environment, nurturing yourself to have a habit in reading English books seems to be extremely difficult to do. However, as ESL learners, whenever we see these brand new English books looking attractive in the bookstore, we tend to end up buying them because we think that would read them in our spare time. In fact, I have heard so many times in my life that we English learners like to buy books, but not read them, which makes it seem like nurturing yourself to have a habit in reading books is actually not a simple matter. After all, why would anyone want to buy books and not read them? So to answer this question that is somewhat like a conundrum, I would like to share a personal story with everyone.

I remember when I first moved to Canada at the age of 7, when I could barely speak English, my family always brought me to a shopping mall where there's usually a bookstore that I could hang around in, while my parents finished buying the groceries. Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine were very popular at that time, and since the kids at my school liked to read them, I always got my parents to buy me one Goosebumps book every month or so. However, every time I got a new Goosebumps book, I usually just finished the first or second chapter, then told my parents that I finished it, so I could get a new one. Now that I look back to it, I laugh hysterically and think, "Why was I like that? I just don't understand my behaviour in childhood at all." But it seems as though I really loved the covers of Goosebumps books and the smell of brand new books! They always had nice artwork and bumpy designs on their covers so they just felt irresistable to touch and feel with my fingers!

Years later when I went back to Toronto for university, I had a good laugh at the pile of Goosebumps books still sitting on my bookshelf at my grandparent's home. I took out one Goosebumps book and read a few chapters, then realized that the stories weren't all that cool and amazing, even though it was cool to see all those English words come alive. Back in those days as a kid of age 9 or 10, it just came across to me that Goosebumps books were very cool because every kid in my class thought the same way, which can be understood as a kind of fashion trend that was somewhat contagious. This may sound silly and laughable, but don't people also have the same kind of behaviour with smartphones nowadays? For example, in addition to getting a good smartphone, everybody now wants a smartphone protective case that is durable and chic-looking.

So what is the solution to this problem? On one hand, we certainly need good educators and teachers to nurture our reading habits. But on the other hand, we need to be aware of the distractions that are affecting us in our daily lives, especially now that we have transitioned to a world where technology is ubiquitous. These distractions may be affecting us without us knowing, but if we keep finding ourselves procrastinating and not doing anything useful, then that is definitely the result of distractions affecting us severely. You may think I sound like your grandpa, but I'm here to tell you one important thing: "Stop looking at your cellphone and watch where you're going!" But of course, I'm not really your grandpa.


Why is it so difficult to gain confidence in speaking English as an ESL learner?

(Stanley Yeung, December 9th, 2018)


For most ESL (English as a Second Language) learners, the first barrier to learning the language, above all else, is probably the difficulty in uttering the sounds of English words correctly and confidently. As a person who used to be an ESL learner, I can still remember how nervous I was when I spoke in front of the class in primary school when I just moved to Canada from Hong Kong years ago, even when it was just supposed to be a small sharing session. (you may refer to my earlier post) So when it came to a real presentation where I was being assessed, you can imagine how nerve-wracking it could get. Also, the best that I could do was to have the entire presentation script memorized, making sure that I included every point possible to attain the marks. As I look back now, I actually have this thought: “Was anybody even listening? I seem to have left the audience out of my equation entirely!”

It seems as though for those of us who grew up in an Asian classroom setting, we had all been programmed to answer questions in a way to attain the highest marks as possible because if we don’t, we tend to get the image of getting a “big cross” (大交叉) or a “zero chicken egg” (零雞蛋), as translated word-by-word from Cantonese. Most of us ESL learners seem to forget that doing a presentation is also about connecting with the audience and establishing a rapport with them. But why do we often forget about this? Perhaps, we tend to think that the phrase for “studying” in Chinese (讀書) means “to read book”, and hence we may often get the idea that we should focus on “the book” in our studies.

But the question is, “Is our mode of studying, that is – focusing on the book, really not such a good idea?” When it comes to doing a presentation, we may not sound as natural and confident as the native English speakers, but we certainly sound a lot more pertinent when answering questions because we had all been programmed to do such a thing through rigorous written exercises. However, that is not to say that native English speakers like beating around the bush, but the reality is that most of us ESL learners were expected to keep silent throughout the lessons in our Asian classrooms, and seldom had opportunities for academic discussion. Thus, when we give a presentation, we tend to jump straight to the point of delivering our answers to the presentation topic, without spending much time to relate to the audience, which can be like jotting down bullet points for an essay but not writing in paragraphs to express what you want to say.

So what can we do about this? Are most of us really stuck at gaining confidence in speaking English? As already mentioned in my previous article, different education systems and cultures have their own strengths and downsides in shaping the character of a student. So if the Asian education culture is superb at nurturing discipline in students, we ought to be proud of ourselves if students really grow up to respect seniors and not have too much personal opinion when working in a company in the future. However, it is still probably extremely difficult to define what is considered as an ideal, talented individual. But for now, we should definitely realize that the two Chinese characters “讀書” (to read book) is not the entire picture of the word “studying”, especially in the Western world. Perhaps, “進修” (to advance studies) is a better phrase to use when we refer to studying, as it takes our eyes off the book and focus more unto the real world…


Why don’t we incorporate elements from the Western education system into our Hong Kong education system?

(Stanley Yeung, 10/2/2017)


When people speak of the Hong Kong education system nowadays, it is usually considered as being inferior to the Western education system to the point where Chinese parents would prefer sending their children overseas or to an international school for education if they can afford it. So is the Western education system far superior that we should learn from it by all means? As someone born in Hong Kong and grew up in the Hong Kong education system until moving to Canada at the age of 7 to continue studying in a Canadian primary school, I would like to highlight a few personal experiences that illustrate the differences between how a person is educated in the Western classroom versus the Asian classroom, in order to derive at a logical answer to the title of this article.

Attending a different primary school on the other side of the planet at such a young age was without a doubt an adventure. Every morning, our teacher ordered us to sit in a circle and asked us one by one questions such as “How has your weekend been?” and “What did you do this weekend?”. When it was my turn to speak, I always felt rather intimidated and said “Pass”.

For most of you reading this article right now, you would probably think that the feeling of being intimidated that crept over me sprung from the fact that I did not know how to speak English. However, the fact is that I was born into a culture where people do not even ask these questions much! Therefore, I felt rather intimidated because I was never used to expressing myself in that way. In fact, it may be the same way that the local Hong Kong people nowadays are intimidated when they are asked to speak in English, due to the cultural difference.

Recently, a similar incident happened when my Canadian Cantonese friend came to Hong Kong for work after finishing university in Canada. When he started working in his company, he asked his colleagues “你今個週末做左咩?” (English: What did you do this weekend?), his colleagues rolled their eyes and did not know how to answer, due to the question being too personal in the Cantonese culture. As native Cantonese speakers, we are more used to saying phrases such as “你食左飯未?” and “近排點呀?”, meaning “How are you?” and “How have you been?”

But of course, we can still try incorporating the Western classroom activity of sitting in a circle into the Hong Kong classroom and ask the students questions such as “你食左飯未?”, “近排點呀?” every morning. What would that look like? For the Cantonese people reading this right now, my guess is that you are probably laughing because it would just be very awkward. How can you turn an Asian classroom that has always trained their students to keep silent and work like military, into a classroom full of chatter and relaxation? That would be complete chaos. Perhaps, this is still a good idea because it allows students to express themselves more and trains them to speak in front of an audience, but is it really something that is practicable in the Hong Kong culture?

To find out whether this would work in the Hong Kong education system, I would like to share with you another experience studying in a primary school in Canada, but this time, I would like to try incorporating Asian elements into the Western classroom to see whether it works the other way around. In theory, if it works one way, then it should also work the other way around. So the story goes on with me studying in a Western classroom at the age of 7. As I was a student who was accustomed to following rules in a Hong Kong classroom, I always asked the teacher during classwork time in a lesson, “May I go to the washroom?” whenever I needed to, and the teacher would reply “Yes, you may.” After several times of not realizing that the teacher was frowning at me whenever I asked the same question, the teacher finally said to me, “You do not have to ask.”

For the Cantonese audience reading this article right now, my guess is that you are also probably frowning right now, just like the Canadian teacher, but surprised at the fact that this question seemed awkward and unnecessary in the Western classroom setting. After all, asking such a question as “May I go to the washroom?” is just out of respect for our seniors. So why didn’t my Canadian teacher just smile and appreciate it instead of frowning every time? This again shows that something good in one culture isn’t necessarily practicable in another culture. Moreover, even though this experience also does not illustrate any of ‘what’ the Western education system has to offer compared to the Hong Kong education system in terms of curriculum content, it does illustrate ‘how’ a person is educated by a teacher who creates the learning environment, which is what makes all the difference. In essence, the habits that we develop on a daily basis plays a very important role in our education and ultimately shapes us into the kind of person we become in the future.

So what exactly is the world looking for nowadays? Employees who are better at expressing themselves or ones that have discipline and will always ask the seniors before they take any actions? We certainly want to nurture people to become the best of both worlds, but does it mean we should incorporate elements from the Western education system into our own Hong Kong education system? For one thing, due to certain cultural habits that are firmly embedded within a language, it will be very difficult to implement such elements from one education system into another of a different culture. However, it is not impossible to do such a thing, but we will risk losing our own identity trying to make vast changes in the Hong Kong education system. What we need to do right now may be to make up for what is lackluster in the Hong Kong education system, such as raising an awareness in Chinese parents that letting their children take humanities subjects will help them become more expressive, well-rounded and socially attractive workforce in the future.


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(Stanley Yeung, 2016)

27/2/16

Lots of code to figure out today! As you can see, I've been transforming this site by adding buttons and mouse-over effects etc, and it can be hard to imagine how much code is needed to create just a couple of buttons with effects. At one point, I've fallen asleep doing the tutorial at w3schools.com and just wanted to skim through stuff instead. There were so much of these materials that I thought, "Will I really need them?" because there's no point of learning code that you won't use. But as I started making my own interactive elements with Javascript, I began to see how I could incorporate each and every one of those things that I thought were minor, into making something that is useful. In fact, there are countless ways of using things like buttons, pop-up windows, input boxes, etc, because you can write all sorts of 'functions' with Javascript. It's all a lot of fun! :)


22/2/16

I have now finished the tutorial section of Javascript on w3schools.com!!! Now it's time to apply what I've learnt by adding some interactive elements to this website. So far I can create input boxes that display some text according to the data entered, but I want to take it step further as soon as possible because to a person who doesn't know IT, they just wouldn't understand how much code is needed to create something that seems really simple. Nowadays, there are softwares that you can use to create these things very easily, but with code, you can get exactly what you want without the need to search for it in a software. When I was small, I had a lot of fun with Microsoft Frontpage, but now it seems like I can have more fun piecing code together just like a jigsaw puzzle! Thanks to the internet for providing the resources for learning today!


19/2/16

More javascript learning today!!! Now I'm at the numbers section of the tutorial at http://www.w3schools.com/ and it brings me back even more memories from my programming course back in university. It seems like C language javascript are quite similar but I guess programming language is just Math after all. So if you like Math, you must like programming! These days I've also been thinking of making some games with Javascript because not only that I always enjoyed them, but programming them should be more fun, even though challenging. As I learn more about programming these days, I start to wonder why there are so many games that are so fun but are actually very repetitive and keeps executing the same code over and over like 100 times! I'm actually amazed by those people who make these games even though most of the time it seems like it's the graphics that attract people to play. It certainly depends on what kind of game it is, but I would like to make a game one day that people would want to play over and over and over...


18/2/16

Today, I spent a lot of time learning Javascript!!! I can't believe how much more fun it is learning Javascript because it seems like there's so much more I can do with it compared to HTML and CSS, which are basically just structuring and styling a webpage. Javascript is a programming language, and it somehow brought me back to those days in my first year of university when I took a C programming course. I still remember I did pretty well in it and I even did the whole programming project for my group mates. It was some kind of game with coordinates and now I'm thinking I must be able to produce sth like that again because apparently Javascript can create countless number of things. Lots of commands are similar to C language!


17/2/16

Today, I spent a lot of time learning CSS and found my old account to upload my website content! It took me quite a while to get what learning HTML and CSS is all about. At first, it can seem like some really boring code to learn, but afterwards, you'll understand that it's always better to write a webpage in HTML because not only it is more professional, but also, it will be more difficult to get things just right such as the layout, spacing, and things on a Create Website Software like Microsoft Frontpage. This was what I used when I was small, back in the those days when Geocities was still alive and webpages were very popular. Nowadays, Facebook and blogs have taken over and it seems like hardly anyone uses webpages anymore to express themselves? I think it's fun and cool learning HTML after all because you can create everything from just a text file using Notepad in Windows.


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