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English as a second language: A story made from fried chicken 

By Nghi Doan, October 21 2023—

While the other kids were still baffled about whether or not they should leave their bed early on the weekend, my mother, my younger sister and I were waiting at the bus stop. We woke up at six in the morning and left home 30 minutes after to catch the 6:45 a.m. bus to the English centre at the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. 

6:45 a.m. The bus slowly approached. Three of us hopped on and settled down at the last row. No matter what, I had to sit near the window because I loved observing the surroundings as the bus passed through. Sunlight brushed a few drops of dew after a long haul of darkness. The city now rotated to its hustle and bustle as usual. That was exactly what I would do in the first ten minutes before being lured to sleep by my mother. 

45 minutes later, the bus dropped us at a kindergarten. My sister and I were studying at one of the best English centres at that time. I have to admit that I was fortunate to have met such great teachers from England. My first teacher was named Adam. Even at that age, I could tell he had a tremendous passion for teaching kids how to pronounce words correctly. I loved every class with teacher Adam and he would read fascinating stories with various puppets at the end of each class. 

On our way home, my mother stopped by a supermarket to buy us fried chicken. I had to wait for a whole long week to eat fried chicken after each English class. Strolling through store by store, I told my mom everything that happened in class, from how many new words I learned that day to reading out loud a short story with excitement. 

As time passed by, the difficulty of this foreign language increased day by day. I had trouble with grammar and trust me, no matter how good I thought I was, there was always something new to be learnt. Studying English, and later German and French has helped me cherish the present to the utmost. No one wants to mess with wrong verb forms because travelling back in time or even anticipating what will happen is a pain. Our brain usually fails to realize the weaknesses that we always seem to think that we are capable of doing with ease. I happened to discover that big world beyond my horizon where many more kids had been immersing themselves in an English-speaking environment for so long that they sounded no different from native speakers. I was shocked — my stubbornness did not allow me to give up that easily. 

I looked for another way of learning by making this language a part of my life. Initially, I shifted my taste of music to US-UK so as to integrate this language into my life as much as possible. I could vividly recall how I sang along to every song such as “What makes you beautiful” and “You and I” by One Direction in their golden era. Books, on the other hand, became my best friend ever since I got familiarised with a long page of words and words. I attempted with the Diary of the Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney to pure literature Jane Eyre by English author Charlotte Bronte.

Years later, I got acquainted with debate, public speaking and Model United Nations. English, at this point, served as a tool for me to venture out. I was discombobulated as the very first word was said out of my mouth for the first time speaking in front of a room full of people. Their eyes were staring at me as if an ancient pot had just been unearthed from a thousand-year-old tomb, so rusty that my voice started trembling. But I finally got over it thanks to each person in the room that day because they pushed me to my limit. 

Let’s imagine that we are an empty container. The more we pour vocabulary and grammar into it without using anything, the faster that container gets full and eventually explodes. When we take new knowledge in, we have to use it one way or another. From speaking, writing, and reading to listening, each skill requires time and effort. Looking back at the pathway I have taken, I was vehemently surprised. Each achievement was like a small imaginary sticker that I received after completing an English course at the center. Indeed, it is reflected in the way I think, communicate, and live later. Had it not been for that small step and sacrifice in the past, I would not have been able to use this language to tell my own story. I believe that my method is somewhat similar to what most people would follow when learning foreign languages as I am still retaking those steps for German and French. My catalyst is dedication — the magical substance that makes success and achievement that most people would assume unachievable. 

Still, that sunlight in the early morning penetrated the window, but this time, it was no longer the hectic moves of people on the street — it was now the eternity of opportunities and challenges, a whole new world beyond the borders of Vietnam where learning English is no longer an exchange for fried chicken. 

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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