Issue 1: Immerse yourself in the culture

By Anita Ma (LED Year 3, 2006-2007)

We learn to communicate since we were born. We cried, we smiled and we babbled to seek others’ attention and to convey messages when we were babies. When we get older, we speak, we write and we have no difficulties in expressing ourselves in our mother tongue, Cantonese. However, this is not the same case when we learn another language. After the immersion programme organised by the Faculty of Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last summer, I discovered one thing – the problem of not having a desired proficiency of English is that we are not immersed in the culture of the language.

When we learnt our first language, we lived in the environment where the language is widely used. This rich language environment helped boost our proficiency in Cantonese. When we were babies, we were given plenty of inputs for language acquisition as people kept on talking to us. When we grow older, we start forming words, then phrases and later sentences. We have ample chances to produce utterances in our mother tongue because we have to use the language in many aspects in our daily life.

A common saying about the relationship between culture and language is that, “a culture creates a language, and a language reflects a culture” which I agree no more. We learn the culture through the language, and the culture provides us with more inputs and chances for using the language. This is like a cycle in which our language proficiency is enhanced. On the contrary, English learning in Hong Kong, as either a second or a foreign language, is mainly done in schools. Every time we encounter a new item, we are given some inputs, then enormous practices and then asked to give outputs, especially in the old days when the “3Ps approach” was the mainstream of English language teaching. Thus, learning is very mechanical.

Unfortunately, outside school, we do not use the language very often. Some people may watch Hollywood movies or read English story books for leisure, but they are not the majority. Most of us tend to switch to our familiar language, Cantonese when talking to others. As a result, what we have learnt is only the mechanics of the language but nothing about its authentic use. Therefore, without enough opportunities for practising the language, it is extremely easy for us to forget things we have learnt.

Immersion is a way to offset this defect. When I was in Edinburgh undergoing the immersion programme, whatever I did, like having a ride on a bus, buying food in a supermarket or asking for directions in the street, I used English. At first, honestly, I had no confidence in myself. However, I told myself that I should seize every chance to improve my English and so, I became a risk taker and became very courageous to try. When I had more contacts with the native English speakers, I knew more about the culture that gave rise to the language, also the language itself. When there was rich input, there was great amount of output.Furthermore, I realised the discrepancies between written English and spoken English during the immersion programme. When I learn English in Hong Kong, I have a strong impression that they are the same. When I was in Edinburgh, native speakers found me strange because I mixed up words and sentence structures used in written and spoken form. This was something that I would never have noticed unless I visited an English-speaking country. Throughout the eight weeks, all four skills were practised in authentic situations without much stress, and my fluency, vocabulary size and confidence in using English were enhanced much faster than when I was in Hong Kong.

Undeniably, offering all ESL/ EFL learners an immersion programme is impossible, but English teachers could try to create an immersion-like environment by using as much English as they can so as to maximise students’ exposure to the target language. By fostering students’ interests in authentic communications and encouraging a reading habit among them, I believe self-learning will be promoted and in the end students can master English as if it were their mother tongue.

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