Susan from English DNA interviews Roger Lam who is a Senior Project Manager and, one of English DNA's four directors. Roger, a native Cantonese speaker, moved from Hong Kong to New Zealand in 1990. He talks to Susan about the benefits and difficulties of learning to speak, read and write English.
Susan: Where, and why, did you start learning English?
Roger: I am from a loving, supportive working class family in Hong Kong. My parents understood the importance of education, and wanted the best for me which included learning English - part of the legacy of our British colonial heritage. We had, and still have, a dual language system – our mother tongue, Cantonese, plus English. Unlike other countries, like for example Malaysia, when their sovereignty was returned to them we did not attempt to eradicate English. We kept it because we have always understood its value– regarding it as an important connection, or passport, to the global world. I got all the education that a working class kid could expect to get at the time. With it came English. I was not privileged but neither was I disadvantaged - just a normal person if you like.
Susan: What did you learn about your English when you arrived in New Zealand?
Roger: It was a shock! I experienced first-hand the disconnect between written English learned for exams and spoken English for day to day use. The experience was made worse because after I'd completed my tertiary education where I'd been used to working with two languages, Cantonese AND English, I had become accustomed to using only one – my mother tongue, Cantonese. In just a couple years of full time work in Hong Kong after graduation and before coming to New Zealand, my English skills had slipped away. It wasn't all of them. My reading and written skills were still OK. However my listening and speaking skills had vanished without a trace.
Susan: What did you do to help yourself?
Roger: Looking back I realise that I was really lucky! I was a great programmer which meant not only that I had a job but I was also a valued employee. That bought me time to adapt to the environment. I attended night classes, listened to radio and watched TV whenever I had a chance. My listening improved without me noticing it. Being able to listen and remember what was said has been the key.
Susan: You said listening was the key. What do you mean by that?
Roger: I mean being able to recognise, understand and then reproduce the sounds of the language.
Susan: How does that fit with your interest and involvement with English DNA?
Roger: I found Paul's research findings counter-intuitive and fascinating at the same time. They provided a scientific explanation for my belief, and experience, that the ability to listen was the basis for acquiring a new language.
Susan: What do you think English DNA will do?
Roger: I trust that English DNA will help English learners lay a good listening foundation quickly for their ongoing study.
Susan: What do you mean by a “good” foundation?
Roger: I am thinking about myself here and how I learned to speak English. Despite my best efforts it was not a systematised, or carefully researched approach. Inevitably I learned some good habits, alongside some bad ones.
Just like any activity involving repetition and practice - sports or martial arts - if you've been doing something incorrectly, it can be difficult to un-learn those bad habits. It would have been easier and better for me to start with good ones – like the experience English DNA provides.
Susan: Will English DNA solve all the problems English learners have?
Roger: No! It's not the magical silver bullet. Acquiring a new language as an adult is a long term challenge. Completing English DNA is an excellent way to begin the learning journey. It puts down a solid foundation, making it easier!
Susan: And lastly Roger, what does the ability to speak, write and read good English mean to you?
Roger: I won’t claim my English is good! It is passable. My English learning journey has had a number of false starts. I got better and then stopped. I then had to start again. Persistence is another key. One may not notice an immediate improvement as it takes time for the new skill to take its root in the brain.
Having a good command of English means that I can have a “normal” life in NZ while keeping my Cantonese/Chinese root intact. It is the best of both worlds. I can move freely between the two. Other than promoting English DNA which is such a good tool, my current objectives are to improve my written and spoken English and, to start learning Mandarin. Unlike some of the lucky people, I don’t have the linguistic gene in me! Anything to do with languages has to be gained through deliberate learning effort on my part.
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