I wrote this language learning history as part of a graduate class focusing on qualitative research. In an assignment in the class, we first wrote our language learning history and then analyzed it in our qualitative research paper. This narrative served as data for my paper. In a writing course that I teach, I also have this assignment to teach students to write a research paper. Maybe you'll be inspired to write yours after reading mine!
Language Learning History
Written in August 2014 (Updated in July 2022)
Dr. Linh Phung
I started to learn English in middle school in Vietnam when I was 11 years old. My family lived in the countryside, where the school system was not as good as the one in the city. My parents decided to send me to live with my aunt in the city so I could have a better education. In Vietnam, students can “specialize” in a subject as early as in middle school. I took an entrance exam to the city’s gifted middle school and was accepted to specialize in English. The exam, as I remember, consisted of mostly mathematic questions. When I finished grade 6, I took another exam to the province’s gifted school and was accepted to continue to specialize in English. We tackled English as we would any other subject, such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Vietnamese Literature (the four most popular “majors” in middle schools and high schools in Vietnam). That was generally how I approached English.
I remember being extremely anxious in the first lessons of English because the English spelling was so different that I felt I was writing down letter by letter for words that the teacher wrote on the board, much like a five-year-old. Because the class specialized in English, we had more English lessons than other subjects. However, it was common (and still is common) for Vietnamese students to take supplemental lessons with their teachers at their house for an extra fee. I didn’t take English supplemental lessons at first. After some time, I realized I fell behind others in class because the teacher discussed topics that had only been covered in her supplemental lessons. Other students were much more comfortable with the topics, and this prompted me to join the supplemental classes. I remember we studied grammar and did a lot of practice exercises, both in regular classes and supplemental classes. I also remember having fun; the teacher taught us songs and told us stories from Sherlock Holmes. We also performed in plays in English. We all felt she cared. I adored her and loved English. After a semester or so, I felt I could crack English and gained confidence in my studies as I began to understand the grammar rules and became successful at doing exercises.
I started middle school knowing that my classmates had some comparative advantages because of the superior education they had had in primary school. As I started to feel I was in control of my studies, I became determined to become the top student in class. In Vietnam, students are ranked according to their average grades for the semester and the school year. Wanting to be the number one student in all subjects, I studied with great intensity. I was able to attain the number one ranking and maintain the ranking until the end of high school. I was selected to compete in the national contest for the English subject for grade 12 students together with a few other classmates, so I had to study hard. Basically, I spent my entire high school years on preparing for this contest. Learning materials consisted mostly of test preparation books. I remember being a frequent customer of the bookstore in the city that sold English books and music tapes. Apart from doing grammar and vocabulary exercises, I listened to songs in English on whatever tapes I could find in the bookstore. I listened to the BBC with my radio although the signal was not always so good.
As I recall, we had very few opportunities to speak in English. During my high school education the school hired two Singaporean teachers at two different times. I and some of my classmates spoke with them maybe a dozen times between the two of them in their apartments. I went on a trip to the capital city with one of them, and I borrowed books from them. I remember very much enjoying a book on American culture, holidays and traditions and a book on astronomy. I first encountered Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in the American culture book, and I was fascinated by the words written in the speech. During those years, I wanted to be extraordinary, was extremely competitive, was pressured to do well, and, fortunately, loved to learn about Britain, America, and the world. Because of my competitiveness and the naïve aspiration of being extraordinary, I constantly struggled with the realization that I was not. I was frustrated that I couldn’t remember long lists of words that I created from the readings that I did. I didn’t know why my writing didn’t earn as high a score as I thought they should. I was not as successful as I wanted to be, and not as successful in many English exercises as my chief rival classmate. I attributed these failings to my intelligence and was silently disappointed. Back then I would have given anything to obtain the gift of a greater intelligence.
My high school career ended with winning the third prize in the national English contest. This secured a place for me in the university of my choice, and I did not have to take the University Entrance Exam, which all other high school graduates in Vietnam have to take in order to be accepted to a university. I chose the College of Foreign Languages at Vietnam National University to be trained as an English teacher. During the first two years of college, my course work focused on developing our English skills, including listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I was once again in a “talented” class with other students who won national prizes or scored high in the University Entrance Exam. I was no longer number one in GPA, but still tried hard to get the best grades.
Only during college did I have more opportunities to communicate orally in English through class discussions, debates, and presentations. I admired some students in class who had better accent and were often very confident and active in class discussions. I was active too, but I felt I was never as good. However, I became known as a fierce debater when we had to take sides and support our views and rebut others’. My friends called me an “againster” then because I was so quick to counterargue in debates. I don’t remember any opportunities to use English outside the classroom. I also wrote essays more frequently, but I don’t remember receiving much feedback on my writing. Many times, I only received a grade without understanding why I received such a grade. I don’t remember having to address foreign topics that I had little knowledge of. Overall, I didn’t do so well in timed essay writing during college – or at least not as well as I wanted.
Not unlike the activities in high school, I spent a significant amount of time on studying test preparation books including TOEFL and IELTS because course exams were often similar to the tasks in those books. Also, there were not many other English materials. I didn’t really connect to the content presented in those materials, but I was convinced more practice would lead to better language skills and exam scores. In addition, for classwork, I had to listen to the radio more often. One of the activities I remember was to listen to the BBC or VOA, record a piece of news, and transcribe it. I found the activity to be time-consuming, but useful. I also liked watching American movies; I watched them in the library and rented them to watch at home when I had a chance. During the last two years of college, we still focused on advanced English skills, but also studied English literature, teaching methodology, semantics, pragmatics, phonetics and phonology, and grammar. We were all afraid of those courses because the professors could be really tough and the final exams could be unpredictable. I was most impressed with the materials from the Discourse Analysis course because it included famous speeches US politicians (Bill Clinton in particular) and Intercultural Communication because of the humor from the professor. We also gained valuable knowledge in phonetics, semantics, and grammar, which became helpful for me when I started my MA in the US. However, I often find the materials used in many classes difficult to relate to and rather outdated without opportunities to read updated research. Overall, I think I was a successful student throughout my whole educational career, but I always regret the lack of more interesting materials to study, more authentic communicative activities to participate in, and more helpful feedback from teachers.
With a near perfect score in the TOEFL test and a high score in GRE, I moved on to do an MA at Penn State. I received compliments about my English. I was lucky to receive an assistantship to teach during my MA. My language development continued in this naturalistic setting through interactions with professors and classmates. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I talked often with a few of my classmates and other TAs. Some classmates complimented my use of complex language. I was not aware that I spoke differently from them, but I did find it hard to use slang phrases and idioms. I was unwilling to change myself and adopt the kind of language that I didn’t represent me. I feel I can be professional, argumentative, and knowledgeable, but I can never be “cool” in English (or in my mother tongue). Apart from some class gatherings, I didn’t participate in any student activities.
During my MA, reading articles in the field was difficult because of the new content, as was following group discussions. I was mostly quiet in the first year of my MA. I knew I needed to continue to improve my English. I found chatting useful, so I made friends online (including my future husband) and chatted often. I also watched popular TV shows like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond. Gradually I understood those shows better because of my improved cultural knowledge and increased vocabulary. When I had to write papers for classes, I spent time reading and taking detailed notes. I earned As in most of my classes because of my papers. Looking back, I don’t know when I started learning to write better. I was once again a successful MA student, at least as measured by my grades and my successful thesis.
Now as a professional living in the U.S., I use English for a variety of purposes comfortably. I know that my English is still changing as I continue to learn new words and learn new ways to talk about certain topics in my field and relate to other people. The more engaged I am, the more confidence I have in many professional circles. I think it’s not because I feel more confident about my English, but it has more to do with my active membership in those circles and my increased knowledge of the field. I’ve never made it my purpose to sound like a native speaker, but I do wonder how my English will evolve after years of living in the U.S.
More information: Dr. Linh Phung is Founder of Eduling International. She's been teaching English in the US for over 15 years. She holds an MA in TESL and a EdD in TESOL. Eduling International offers online English instruction and service to students from any location, including an innovative app called Eduling Speak to allow students to talk in pairs based on communicative tasks and games. You may download it from the App Store or Google Play.