‘Go Abroad’ at Home

29 July 2010


Word count:  690

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes


 Image by madmack66


Many of my friends and colleagues are very fluent English speakers – but one in particular is as fluent as a native. I had (wrongly) assumed that she must have lived abroad. But when I asked for her ‘English story’ she told me that she never has.


Despite that, and despite the fact that she had neither the opportunity to go to university nor much money to take English courses, she still became one of the most fluent English speakers I’ve met in Hong Kong.


How did she do it?

First – she wasn’t afraid of change. Sure, she could have stayed safely tucked away in a job at a Chinese company – never meeting foreigners, never having to leave her comfort zone. But she knew that facing the challenge of building her English skills would bring benefits that far outweighed the discomfort of change.


Second – she really wanted to learn English. Without that kind of desire, nothing else matters. Even education at an elite university can’t beat the burning desire to learn.


Third – because of her income limits and her strong desire to learn, she had to get creative. She came up with the idea of ‘going abroad’ without travelling.


How do you ‘go abroad’ at home?

After leaving school, she thought to herself, ‘What’s the cheapest way I can improve my English?’ The answer at that time in her life was to take a job as a shop clerk in one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist spots – Stanley Market. If you want to be forced to communicate in English, that’s definitely the place to be.


After working at the shop in Stanley for about a year, she took a job in a Western style restaurant where the staff were from all around the world. Not only was she the only Chinese person on staff; most of the restaurant’s customers were not Chinese either. So again, she was forced to speak in English.


Was it easy? No. Was she nervous about speaking in English? Yes.


But did she persist? Definitely, yes!


She discovered that the many English-speaking tourists and expatriates living in Hong Kong are usually happy to teach you new words and how to put them into sentences.


Thinking in English

After years of working around English speakers, my friend began to think in English. She had a wide vocabulary, and she spoke like a native – with natural pronunciation and rhythm.


And by a funny turn of events, when she left the restaurant and took a job in a Chinese company, she discovered that she had to work hard to start thinking in Chinese again!


But what about writing in English?

Reading widely is the best way to learn how to write. (And the bonus -- it’s very easy to ‘go abroad’ with what you read – whether it’s books or online material.)


I’m a believer in reading stuff that you enjoy. That’s a super starting place. But to change and grow, try reading something different. For example, if you usually read sports magazines or the newspaper, try reading a novel every now and then.


How do you grow as a writer?

One of the blogs I regularly read is by writing coach Daphne Grey-Grant. In a recent post, she talks about changing and growing as a writer.


One of the tips she gave was to write about different things. Most of us write only business documents. But maybe you could keep a journal of your thoughts or the things that go on in your life each day. Writing emails to friends is another way to make a change.


Daphne also suggests that we write in a different place or using a different writing implement. This might be hard, since most of us are tied down to where our computers are. But sometimes Daphne writes with pen and paper – and of course, you can do that anywhere.


So take a ‘holiday’ from your normal speaking and writing routines. Go ‘abroad’ by reading different types of books and journals and by speaking to people from other parts of the world – and your language skills will surely improve. 

Copyright 2014 DeGolyer Associates Ltd |  Contact Deborah at:  writewithtaste@me.com