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Broken barriers

Learning a new language can teach students valuable lessons

Hello and goodbye were the only two English words that I knew in 2003. After living in Chengdu, China for nearly sixteen years, I immigrated with my family to America. Fortunately, I politely said "Hello" (not "Goodbye") to the immigration officer at the San Francisco customs office.

Despite my early linguistic disadvantages, three years later, my academic performance ranked in the top ten at my high school, and I scored in the 2200s on my SAT. Ultimately I had the privilege to come to the University as an Echols Scholar. Running into the danger of sounding narcissistic, I am writing simply to offer some insights on how to effectively learn a second language in a timely fashion.

As the son of a Chinese doctor who was conducting research in America, I had extensive interactions with international students and scholars. Based on my observations, many foreigners in America have abundant technical expertise in their fields. However, a significant portion of them still face the difficulty of advancing to higher positions compared to their American peers. One of the chief reasons for foreigners' inability to progress is the barrier of communication. If a person cannot adequately and clearly express himself, people tend to perceive only a fraction of the amount of knowledge that he possesses\nSo very early on I realized that the ability to communicate effectively is the key to success for an immigrant. When I first arrived to America, I had less than two years before I needed to take the SAT and apply for college. I had no choice but to improve my English.

In the process of learning a language, vocabulary is the bottleneck. When talking with Americans, I discovered that I did not need to understand every thing they said. Instead, if I picked up a couple of key words from the conversations, I could generally figure out the meaning of our discussions by analyzing one's tone, mood and body language. That said, I still needed to build my vocabulary.

Coincidentally, my high school was giving out free copies of the Merriam-Webster Vocabulary Builder, containing 3000 complex English words. The Vocab Builder looks like a dictionary, except with green covers. But no one paid attention to the those piles of books. I felt like I had just found a hidden treasure and eagerly took a copy home.

For the following year or so, I set aside at least 30-40 minutes everyday studying 10-15 new English words. I did this every single day whether it was sunny, raining, or storming. In fact, I remember going through my Vocabulary Builder as we evacuated prior to Hurricane Isabel. Other than the mandatory time slot, I studied the book whenever I was free. When kids were waiting for the school bus idly in the morning, I would be quietly memorizing new words.

The Webster Vocabulary Builder is divided into small sections that are grouped by common Latin and Greek roots. For each word, the book provides the pronunciation, definition, and an interesting anecdote. Every few chapters are then followed by a quiz that tests your progress and enhances your memorization. So this little book is not only an educational read but also an entertaining one. Thus, the Webster Vocabulary Builder sparked my initial interest in the English language. From that point on, studying English was no longer a chore for me.

As I gradually built up my vocabulary, I was able to read more. Living near Old Dominion University, I plowed through their library and indulged myself in reading newspapers and magazines. Everyday, I would read any periodical under the sun: Newsweek, Time, the New Yorker, BusinessWeek, Scientific American, Nature, Science, etc. As a result, my reading skill skyrocketed in a few months. I then branched out into non-fictions. I remember going to my high school librarian, and asking him for reading recommendations. He suggested War and Peace. Great! Any book with a title that has only two legitimate English words must be easy. I then realized the asininity of my initial impression after I journeyed with Tolstoy for over 1000 pages of reading.

Because my English gradually improved, I was able to talk with Americans beyond the superficial level. So I actively sought after every opportunity to socialize with Americans. I would talk about many subjects like politics, sports, history, cultures, etc. I would also talk with anyone whether they are my teacher, friend, dentist, waitress or a mechanic. Consequently, my English speaking skills became markedly better.

In short, my strategy of tackling English helped me establish a virtuous cycle of learning. Via my study of vocabulary and reading, I not only improved my English, but also garnered more information and knowledge. In turn, I was able to dive into deeper conversations with Americans. I also became more efficient in schoolwork and had more free time to participate in extracurricular and social activities. Thus, everything that I did reinforced my command of the English language.\nLearning a language is a long journey. You have to develop a habit of using and studying the language every day. Creating a strategy is step one, but being persistent in execution helps you cross the finish line.

Then after a while, you will realize that learning is no longer a chore.

Paul Chen is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.

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