On the Way to Perfect English
Winning speech, 2012-2013 Club Humourous Speech Contest
Winning speech, 2012-2013 Area 71 Humourous Speech Contest
By Gerrie Ying
It's such a long journey to get here. From learning English alphabets by candlelight in China, to now being able to compete in a Toastmasters contest in Canada, I have had lots of adventures including academic challenges and tons of moments of me being laughed at.
Remember in junior high school, after years of boring and grammar based teaching, we finally had the first conversational English course. Due to a shortage of vocabulary, in one-on-one conversations with the teacher, we often had long, embarrassing pauses. To deal with it the teacher had a trick. He said, "There is a small group of easy words you can memorize quickly, you could sound like native speakers. They are called 'the magic filler words', like 'um, so, well, you know', to look more authentic, you can shrug your shoulders like this."
I thought that was a lifesaving trick. Before you know it, talking with English filler words had become a fashion among students. We used them in English classes, in recess, even at home when talking with parents — just to let them know that we studied English so hard. However, if I knew that I had to get rid of them one day, I never would have practiced them so much back then.
Hard work paid off. After high school, I passed the English exams and made my way to go to university in Canada. Here, in Vancouver, I had the first chance to use English in real life. On the first day, I decided to get around the city by taking public transit. On the street I picked a Caucasian lady to test my English, "Excuse me, is there a subway nearby?" She answered, "Oh yes, there is one just two blocks away, just walk straight, it's on your left."
Yes! I understood the first English instruction in real life! I followed the instruction and sure enough, I found the sign for "Subway"! But... they served sandwiches. "Hmmm...It must be a cultural difference," I thought to myself, "Canadians must like to grab a sandwich before they get on the train, and the entrance must be around the service counter." So I grabbed my sandwich, proceeded to where I thought was the entrance to the train down the hallway, but all I found was a washroom and a broom!
For a long time, the study of English vocabulary was extremely challenging, because reality is not always the same as a text book. One time, my university roommate had one of her girlfriends in our dorm. In their conversation, tons of slang were flying over my head, but I caught one word — "studmuffin". I looked it up in my dictionary but couldn't find it, so I asked her, "Leah, what is a studmuffin?" The two American girls giggled a bit and told me, "Um…, it's a type of muffin! A very tasty one."
A few days later, I ended up in a local cafe by myself. A good looking young man came to take my order. I said, "a cup of coffee and a studmuffin please!" "What kind of muffin?" The guy thought he heard it wrong. "A stud one" I repeated. He looked around, grinned and whispered, "How about…I meet you next door four hours from now?" That answer made me upset, "I can't wait for four hours. I want it NOW!"
In the last decade of living in Canada, I have noticed that people's comments are inversely proportional to my actual level. In the first few years, I had to rely on my "filler words" strategy, but my Canadian friends said to me, "your English is very good!" Many years later, I became much more fluent, but FEWER people would say that. More than a decade later, I am competing in a Toastmasters contest. Then people say to me, "Wow, your Chinese is so good!"
Now, I am an instructor of Chinese language and Culture Studies. A little while ago, a student said to me, "wo xiang qing ni qu shuijiao" meaning I want to invite you to bed. I was confused for a moment, but quickly figured that he messed up the tones. What he actually wanted to say was "wo xiang qing ni chi shuijiao" meaning I want to invite you for dumplings. I told him the difference and we had a good laugh. First he was embarrassed, but I told him that I went through the same process while learning English.
If you want to be perfect in a foreign language, you have to start with being laughed at and not give up. Then, only then, can you laugh along.
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