By Linh Phung, English Language Program Director
I started to learn English in middle school in Vietnam when I was 11 years old. My class specialized in English, so I had more English lessons than any other subjects. During my middle school and high school years, I was extremely competitive and determined to be the top student in class, and so I studied with great intensity. I maintained my number one ranking throughout my high school years and won a third prize in the national English contest, which allowed me to choose a university to attend without having to take the much-feared national entrance exam to universities. I chose the College of Foreign Languages at Vietnam National University to continue my specialization in English. In college, I had more opportunities to communicate orally in English through class discussions, debates, and presentations. However, I was still very exam-oriented. I spent a significant amount of time on studying test preparation books, including TOEFL and IELTS, because course exams were often similar to the exercises in those books. In addition, I listened to the news on BBC or VOA, watched American movies, and read English magazines, few authentic materials that I could find in Vietnam at the time.
With high scores in the TOEFL and GRE tests, I moved on to do a Masters degree in the U.S. My language development continued through interactions with others in English. During my MA, reading articles in the field was difficult because of the new content, as was following group discussions. I was mostly quiet in the first year of my MA. I knew I needed to continue to improve my English. I found chatting useful, so I made friends online and chatted often. I also watched popular TV shows like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. When I had to write papers for classes, I spent time reading and taking detailed notes. I earned As in all but three classes because of my papers.
Now as a professional living in the U.S., I use English comfortably for a variety of purposes. I know that my English is still changing as I continue to learn new words and learn new ways to talk about certain topics in my field and relate to other people. I have more confidence in many professional circles, and I’m more outspoken. I’ve never made it my purpose to sound like a native speaker, but I do wonder how my English will evolve after years of living in the U.S.
Looking back, I realize that my competitiveness gave me motivation to study English, and my motivation pushed me to seek more authentic and interesting materials in English than any of the classes at school or in college could provide me. Apart from classroom work, these materials fostered my love for English and developed my skills beyond doing mechanical exercises. In language learning, practice (in the sense of doing exercises) alone does not make perfect. Reading and listening to interesting materials and using English to communicate ideas makes perfect!