Mega Explorer

Mega Explorer

A personal website dedicated to exploring the language and culture of Hong Kong.

Why do we need to put on our thinking caps as ESL learners?

Stanley Yeung, 

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Why do we need to put on our thinking caps when we are learning English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For many of us ESL learners, it seems as though all kinds of English grammar rules and vocabulary need to be explained to us before our brains can retain a decent memory of them. To understand an English word, especially a long one, it can be very difficult for us, as English is unlike Chinese, which is a pictorial language. For example, how can we know what the word "prosperous" means by just looking at it? Even worse, when we read an English book, it can take us a considerable amount of time to understand what is happening, as we have little or no English language environment to refer to. So the question is, are all of us ESL learners really stuck at relying on our English teacher to explain things to us?

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If we look at famous figures like Bruce Lee in the past, we can probably pick up a quote such as "Don't think, feel." Even though Bruce Lee was not a linguist, there is certainly some correlation between martial arts and language, as language is also an art. So if we were to apply his learning philosophy to English learning, what would be the result? On one hand, it can still be very difficult to feel what a word means by just looking at it, as English letters are nothing but a bunch of '雞腸' (meaning chicken intestines in Cantonese, like a bunch of meaningless curly lines) to us. But on the other hand, the method of 'feeling' to understand a language makes a lot of sense because language is form of human expression. However, without a native English speaking environment, how are we able to feel what a word means, especially when the word is not commonly used, or may only have a slight difference with another word that is much simpler and easier to utter?

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Perhaps one way of looking at this is to ask ourselves to 'put on our eating cap' when we eat a meal. Even though there may not be such a phrase in English, I would define it as being able to have an appreciation for different kinds of food. For example, when we're so used to eating a certain type of dish, we would probably want to change to eating another type of dish to develop our taste for food. So if we were to look at English words as different types of dishes, we can probably better satisfy the appetite of our brain if we know how to use different vocabulary for expressing the same meaning in our conversation. Eg. Kind, nice, benevolent, and generous, for describing people of good character. However, we can also lose our appreciation for simpler words if we try to use too much advanced vocabulary all the time, and we can end up sounding pretentious and snobby. Likewise with food, in order to maintain the appreciation for expensive foods, one must also try the cheaper foods.

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When it comes to learning a second language, there is certainly a level of difficulty involved. But have we ever thought that the process of learning can be enjoyable as well? We may not be taught such a method of learning while studying under our education systems, as most systems focus on the end goal of doing well in the exams. Even if we attain a decent grade in an exam, our teacher might still say to us that there is still room for improvement. So with other people's expectations set so high on us all the time, how can we ever truly grasp the joy of learning? Therefore, whenever we face enormous pressure in our studies, we would probably want to put on our eating cap, playing cap, doodling cap, or whatever cap one can think of, in order to escape reality for a while. But let's not forget that we should put away any irrelevant caps when we are back in study mode…

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