ery often I am asked to help a Chinese person improve their English. They have the goal to talk just like a native English speaker. It is a noble goal but very difficult to attain. Even more frustrating is to be able to listen to a 4 year old who can yammer on in both English and Chinese in perfect fluency. The kid can’t even tie his shoes, but can speak much better than his supposedly much wiser and better educated parents. Here’s an excerpt of his blog:
It’s really frustrating when I find myself struggling to speak good English, especially when I think about this: I started to learn English as a junior high school student in 1990. It’s 19 years now! Anything can happen in 19 years! But today, I still stammer or talk in a confusing way and nobody can understand me when I speak to native speakers on the phone.
I’ve had enough of this!
I want to speak really good English, like a really good native speaker.
___Your goal to speak English as well as a native English speaker is a difficult one. My spouse is native Chinese, and I am native Canadian. Here in North America I have never met a Chinese person that spoke English as well as a native English speaker, unless they indeed were a native English speaker, born and/or raised in North America. While in China I’ve only met 2-3 people who’s spoken English was very close to a native English speaker, but grammar and vocabulary gave them away. I have a very good ear, and can usually tell not only that the speaker is from China, but from what area of China.
___Is speaking English like a native English speaker really so important? I say it is not.
___My wife, after 8 years of daily and constant language correction (and a source of great frustration), now speaks English extremely well. People are puzzled because they can hear that she is not a native English speaker, but cannot detect that she is from China or even Asia. I do not think she can improve her kouyu any further, even if she lives in Canada for another 10 years. I have known people who have lived here in Canada for over 30 years who have terrible kouyu. The length of time you live abroad is not an indicator of your English ability: There is little correlation.
___Many Chinese friends have asked me to help them. There are a couple of issues. Other native speakers will not usually tell you when you have spoken and made a mistake, because it is socially unacceptable to criticize the way someone else speaks. You will, initially lose face. A lot of face. Everyone learning a second language makes mistakes and loses face. You will need to find someone who will gladly correct your spoken English as well as your fangyan. You will need to do this for years. I recommend a qualified speech-language pathologist. I do know that actors regularly use them when, say, a Canadian actor wants to play the role of a person with a British accent.
___Your brain, mouth, tongue and ears need to be rewired for English. On the positive side, the number of phonemes in Mandarin exceeds English but by only a very few, so it is very possible for a Mandarin speaker to be a great English speaker, and vice versa. Spoken English, like spoken Chinese does not usually use a very wide vocabulary, but there are many subtle nuances you must master, and slang, common sayings, and humour are but a few of the stumbling blocks. You cannot learn these from a book, but only from life.
___Languages are difficult to learn and can take a lifetime to become somewhat proficient. Learning Chinese for me is, and remains, difficult, a constant battle for improvement. Study hard and do the best you can.
___The ideal environment would be to come to Canada, do not live in an area where there are other Chinese people, do not talk to Chinese people, do not surf the internet using Chinese, do not read Chinese books, do not shop at Chinese stores, and do everything in English. It’s called “going native”, and is quite difficult, but it works. IMHO. You may be miserable but your English will improve immensely. Is this the life you wish to lead?
___If you live in China, make friends with an English laowai not just for language exchange but for friendship. Spend time together and get to know one another. Your English will improve naturally and you’ll have more fun. You are looking for more than just language exchange.