Moving to another country, the biggest challenge for me was learning a different language. English is not a new language to me. I've been taking classes from school for years before I came to the U.S. But everything was still very, very difficult to me. I'm not a fast language learner, and as someone who has been in the states for almost a decade, I still know way too little than I should. When I look back on my journey of learning English, there are so many things that I wish I knew back then and things that I would do differently today.
Mistake #1: making learning a chore
I've taken English classes from both schools and cram schools since I was little. I’m not sure if things are different now, but the education system back when I was still studying in Taiwan, we focus a lot on memorizing, whether is vocabularies or grammar rules. However, it was so easy for me to forget what I learned because I didn't use them in my daily life.
Also, during that time, learning English was like a chore for me. It was something that I didn't want but had to do. As the result, I would end up cramming a bunch of information a night or two before for a test, then forgot the most right after the test was over. Not only was this way of learning inefficient, it was also very painful for me. Every day, when it came to the time for me to study, I would try to procrastinate as much as possible.
Even with this inefficient way of learning, I still thought that my English was pretty good because I always had good grades. From elementary to high school, this was what I believed, until I moved to the United States.
Mistake #2: only learned reading and writing
Because I wasn't focusing enough on my listen and speaking, I was always afraid to talk to others. Although the grammar I learned gave me a good foundation for English writing, it didn't help me with verbal communication. My confidence was in English got lower and lower, especially in speaking, and it was like this for years. Because I was so afraid to talk to others, my improvement was very slow, even though I was surrounded by people who speak English and had all the resources to get better.
Even when I moved to the U.S., I still continued to study my English workbooks that teach you vocabularies and grammar. I would only read other books when a class required me to. And of course, I don’t think anyone (or most people) likes to read textbooks, so learning English was still not fun for me. When I needed to do a presentation for a class, I would practice so much to a point that I basically remembered every word, and they would just come out like muscle memory. This way got me through all of my presentations, but it was extremely painful and time-consuming. And it definitely did not work when I had to do something impromptu.
Things I finally did right: combine learning with things that I like
For the first couple of years of living in the U.S., I would watch a lot of Taiwanese and Korean (with Mandarin subtitle) TV shows on YouTube. The more time I spent on YouTube, the more videos I discovered. I somehow stumbled upon English-speaking YouTubers who make videos for makeup tutorials, and I loved them! I started to follow those channels regularly. When I was in college, I was exposed to Friends and became obsessed with it. That was when I really started to watch American TV shows. It was around the same time Netflix started to take over, so I could watch many other series and shows other than Friends.
Learning a new language through watching shows and videos was like a breeze. Instead of feeling like I was forced to study something, I’m just getting entertained. When I heard something, like a new word or phrase that I didn't understand, I could always go back and watch it again. I could also practice my speaking by repeating what they say. After these practices, I became more confident in my speaking. I was even able to take on a customer services job and communicate with people in English without shaking and sweating!
Since I follow different YouTubers regularly, some of them would do “monthly favorite” videos to share what they loved to use from the previous month. They would share things from makeup products to other items, such as movies or apps. Sometimes, they would recommend books that they like from the last months. I've picked up some of the books that sound interesting, mostly fiction novels, and I actually loved reading them!
It was extremely difficult for me to read an entire chapter of the grammar book in hours, but I could finish reading a 700 pages novel in three days. I was able to learn different words from the novels, not only from vocabs books. And the words that I learned from my casual reading were actually more useful in real life. Once I got used to reading during my leisure time, when it comes to days that I couldn't concentrate through a long passage, I would just find some articles or blog posts, so I wouldn't miss out on reading for that day. The better part is that I could find more book recommendations from those blogs, too!
There are so many resources available on the Internet now for people to learn new languages. However, the key to successfully learn a new language well is your mindset. When I felt that I was forced to learn English, I didn't have the motivation to study. Even when I moved to a place that I had to use English every day, I still made little improvement. But once I found the right ways to study, learning English is actually fun for me! So it doesn't matter where you are or how many resources, finding the right way for you to learn will bring you more progress than anything else!