By Shizhou Yang
Ever since I decided to major in English in 1995, it has become my bread and butter, or to be culturally more accurate, my rice, steamed buns, and noodles. I read in English: novels, dictionaries, and textbooks. I spoke English: in class, in my dormitory, and in “English corners.” I wrote in English: for homework, letters with American friends, and diaries. I listened to English: Voice of America (VOA) (which is an American radio program), BBC, and tapes. Literally, I breathed, walked, ate, and dreamed in English, long before I went to the USA to study in 2000. Why did I make so much efforts to learn English? How did my learning impact me? Drawing on my personal experience, I argue that English learning is a process of learners’ pursuing better possibilities in the contemporary world and that it impacts the learners in significant ways.
First, English learning was institutionally encouraged. Even though I grew up in the countryside in China, even though English was not offered until I went to middle school, it was a one of the three required subject after all, claiming the same importance as Chinese and math in the school curriculum. Starting from the first day of English class, our teachers began to instill in us the same message: English is important. One reason for learning English was often framed in terms of College Entrance Examination (CEE), which was vividly described by the teachers as “千军万马争渡独木桥” (An army of thousands and tens of thousands marching to cross a single-plank bridge). Again, in the countryside, CEE existed as a life changer: few can pass it but if you do, it can change your fate forever. Consequently, like my peers, I also studied English as a school subject, in the constant shadow of CEE. I diligently memorized the vocabulary and texts, took copious notes from the blackboard, and tried to commit to my heart the past tense forms of irregular verbs such as is, go, and fly, and constantly reminded myself that two and too are different. I did all these for the faint hope that English could help me pass the CEE.
Second, English learning was also personally desired. To my young heart, English symbolized something exotic, a possibility to be different. That’s how it was with my first English teacher, a fashionably dressed young woman wearing tight clothes. That’s also how it was with my second English teacher, who was again fashionable, with all his hair combed backwards daringly exposing his forehead. Reportedly, with his English proficiency, he almost joined the Chinese navy if not for his poor eyesight. Consider also my third English teacher, who spent some time in Singapore. Learning English with these three teachers, I developed a secret desire to leave my hometown and travel to some distant land. Although I should admit that this desire actually began much earlier, when my aunt in Hong Kong encouraged me to someday go and experience the outside world, my English learning at school nurtured it, reinforced it and kept it intact. I would rather do something with English than spending the rest of my life hoeing cornfields or tending pigs. Gradually, my desires evolved into a more concrete dream: “I want to study in America!”
Learning English has brought me two major changes. To begin, it has enriched my life drastically. To study English well, especially after I started majoring in English in college, I began to read some foreign literature and ponder over the wise words of Longfellow’s line, “Things are not what they appear.” I began to read the English Bible and an English dictionary so as to “learn English really well,” as suggested by some friends. I began to attend English corners every week. I began to keep a diary in English, as required by a foreign teacher. I began to participate in public speaking contests. I began to write letters with an American friend Emily, my first pen pal. Although my country upbringing and impoverished family background hindered my ability to speak and write in Chinese, learning English expanded my social circle and vision. It helped me to experience and pursue new life possibilities. By the time I graduated from college, I already became a confident and fluent speaker of English.
The other major impact of English learning is that it resets my whole career path. If I had not learned English, if I had not passed CEE with the help of my above-average English, I would very likely be stuck as a farmer in the remote countryside. However, because I learned English diligently and successfully, I gained many important recognitions and opportunities. For instance, I passed TOEFL and GRE, as well as TEM-8, the most advanced English proficiency test in China while in college. Due to my outstanding achievements, I received several scholarships, including Norwegian King Harold V Scholarship. I also served as a volunteer in several international events such as the World Horticulture Expo 99’. By the time I was about to graduate from college, I was offered a job by a Dutch company as well as by my Chinese alma mater. I chose the latter, believing that it would help me fulfil my dream of studying in the USA. Since then, I have become a university teacher, teaching English, a career neither of my parents and none of my siblings could dream of. English learning has set me on a career different from others, who do not know or have limited proficiency in English.
Looking back, my English learning was both socially encouraged and personally desired. It was connected to the symbolic value that English held, even in the Chinese countryside. Obtaining proficiency in today’s world is gaining important “capital” (Bourdieu, 2004), which may impact one’s access to valuable social goods. Relatedly, my English learning was also powered by my own dream, or to use a more professional term, my “imagined identity” (Norton, 2000) as an international student in America. English learning was also impactful. It not only influenced my life possibilities, but also career options. My upward social mobility was greatly facilitated by my increasing proficiency in English, until English has turned into my staple food. Therefore, I do not regret my hard work in learning English. In fact, I am thankful for the many benefits that English learning has brought to me, including a career of not hoeing the cornfields but teaching English to those who aspire to improve their lives by learning the language like I once did.
Bourdieu, P. (2004). The forms of capital. In S. J. Ball (Ed.), The Routledge Falmer Reader in sociology of education (pp. 15-29). Routledge.
Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Pearson Education.