December 08, 2005

Iron -- by Bruce Lin

When we first met, Paul* told me that he knew nothing about English. I thought he was being modest. Later I found out he was simply being honest.

Paul was chief of a government organization overseeing more than a hundred staff. Busy as he was, he had never learned English and never needed to. But that, of course, was then. He told me that gradually he was being “confined” by his subordinates who more or less knew some English. He felt belittled when English was needed. “It’s like putting myself in a house without windows,” he said.

Paul was in his early 60s, and teaching him English was unlike teaching a young kid. My first challenge came when helping him to pronounce the alphabet, but his iron lips make pronunciation learning difficult: for hours of our first lessons, he couldn’t even pronounce sounds like [v] or [z], no matter how hard I tried. This is not gonna work, I thought.

But Paul also had an iron will. He knew he had to kick those learning barriers; otherwise, they would kick him. Paul listened to the English CDs every day trying to imitate those sounds. The second week I saw Paul, he sounded like a different person. One month and four classes later, he already learned all the phonetic symbols. Those sounds he pronounced were struggling to get out, but they were about right.

I noticed that to Paul studying English was not like studying; it was more like breathing, breathing the air that had long been missing. After the English alphabet, he started to learn simple words like “cat” or “book” – he was slowly opening up the window to breathe.

Now I am teaching Paul simple sentences such as “This is a computer” or “Today is Monday.” He awkwardly recites those sentences over and over again, seven days a week. He reads English before going to bed, and he has English dreams full of those sentences.

Still a long way to go and Paul knows it. But he believes that he is able to communicate in English in 4 months. That does not sound too far-fetched, considering the iron will he has. A man of determination, you know, is capable of anything.

*Paul is not his real name.

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