October 13, 2005

Repost: Curiosity in the English Language--by Bruce Lin


When I pursued my master degree in the US, I was required to read and write a lot. It was very difficult for me because I knew very little about English or western culture. At the same time, I was also very curious about what I was learning. I think my curiosity helped me go through those difficult times-- I didn't know anything so I wanted to know everything.

Today, I will start with the book Gweilo to make a point on how curiosity can help us learn English.

The book, Gweilo

When I read the review of the book, I wanted to own the book. I asked my sister to buy it but she said the book was not available in the US. Because my urge to read the book was so strong, I asked another friend of mine to buy it for me in HK. I thought this book is about HK so it should be available in HK.

The book is the author’s childhood memories in HK. He wrote the book knowing that he is dying, so I was very curious to know how the content would be; I would assume it is all about sweet childhood memories. It is.

There is so much in the book:

- It is beautifully written
* phrasing
* unique sentence structure

- It is a chance for us to travel in a time capsule to the past
*HK in 1952
* customs, ways of life that no longer exist

- Human relationship
* With some Chinese workers or even gangsters
* with his parents

- Education
* He was so interested in anything Chinese.
* He came to appreciate his mother’s common sense and despise his father’s British pride.
* He learned Cantonese.

- Most of all, it is a moving story
* How the mother and son had connected with everything Chinese but in the end had to be back to Britain

When I finished the book, I thought, If one book can be so interesting, how about many books? The thought encourages me to read more books and thus I can enjoy myself and enrich my knowledge at the same time.

Barriers in the English langauge

As we try to be close to English, we encountered barriers:

- Words
* When you want to enrich your word repertoire, you don’t just look those words up in dictionaries.
* Words are not just signs representing meanings
* Words are living organisms with life

- The English structure
* phrase
* noun/adjective/adverb phrases
* Complex sentences
* Main clause / subordinate clause
* If we can master sentence structures, then a long sentence would suddenly appear shorter, and thus we can read faster.

- Cultural Allusions
* Cultural knowledge is probably more intimidating than the English language itself. Sometimes you know every word in a sentence but you don’t know what the author is trying to say.
* Since we are in the era of globalization, there is a need to bridge cultural gaps. The task is difficult but it has to be done.
* Internet / encyclopedia
* Curiosity

Why English?

English leads as the primary medium for twentieth-century science, technology, and intellectuals reports. A good idea has hard time becoming a good and popular idea before it is in English.

- You don’t use Chinese to do computer programming. You can’t find authoritative scientific journals in Chinese.
- The essences of literature, philosophy, essays, novels, technical manuals…evaporate during translation. Why should you wait for half a year for third-rate texts? (more often than not, translators are less than third-rate due to the pressure of deadlines)
- It is impossible to appreciate beautiful English writing through Chinese.
- A theory is called structuralism. The theory suggests that meanings or notions have to be understood within the structure, i.e. the language. This explains why many can never learn English well – their perception of English is forever bounded by Chinese.
* Examples: Jacko, white trash, nigger, Chink, cult


To everybody, learning English means putting yourself through so many obstacles. But the thing is, with each obstacle comes endless surprises. Then you will realize the time you invested in English starts to make sense. In the end, I want to say that the value in learning English does not lie in the end result alone; the process of learning it is just as sweet. Spend some time on English every day. Be patient, and the whole universe will be within the control of your fingertip.



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