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Mastering English As a Second or Foreign Language

Updated on November 12, 2022
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

Sixth Grade EFL Students Practicing a Role Play

Making English An Important Part Of Your Life

Mastering English as a second or foreign language is only possible by living it and using it as your native or first language. Not doing this, English will always be a foreign language. Perhaps you can use it to do some academic reading or maybe impress your friends with a few quaint expressions. Other than that, it will never be an important, big part of your life. Before suggesting ways to master English as a second or foreign language, it is necessary to first examine the primary goals and purposes of learning English.

Goals And Purposes of Learning English

All people learn and acquire English for one of three primary goals or purposes: as their native or first language; as a foreign language; and as a second language. Surprisingly, the goals and purposes of learning English as a foreign language and second language are often mistaken and confused by many people.

1. Acquiring English as One's Native or First Language:

Most of the people who have mastered the listening and speaking skills of English have acquired it as their native or first language. Long before he or she can speak, an infant and then a toddler has been exposed to a lot of English conversation, music, and other sounds by family and friends. When a child does start talking at around the age of two, he or she will first mimic the sounds the parents make. The child already understands the commands of his mother, and soon after this starts experimenting with using other words and sentence patterns. The toddler is not punished for mistakes he makes while speaking; consequently, he or she is not afraid to make mistakes when talking. The child has started with a clean slate on his brain and does not have to worry about interference from some other language already learned. At this point, it is important to note that the toddler is using English to satisfy all of his personal needs such as eating, sleeping, going to the toilet, and playing. By the time a child is four or five, he or she has already mastered the phonemes and sound patterns of English. At this age, the kid is already in kindergarten and knows the letters of the alphabet as well as the phonetic reading of simple words.

2. Learning English as a Foreign Language:

Most people in the world learn English as a foreign language. This would include people not living in the predominant English-speaking countries of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. It also would include people living in such countries as the Philippines and Singapore where English is the official language in schools and businesses. Although many children around the world start learning English in kindergarten, it is learned for academic purposes rather than as a necessary tool for living in society. Most students only use English in the classroom, and then go back to speaking their native or first language to satisfy all of their needs. Learning English as a foreign language is important for getting admitted into college and getting a job in many cases. Students and most schools emphasize the skills of reading and writing in the classroom. Unless a student is planning on studying in the U.S. or other western countries, listening and speaking skills are neglected because they are not used to satisfy personal needs or communicate with other English-speaking people.

3. Learning English as a Second Language:

This occurs most of the time in predominantly English-speaking countries like the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. When you are learning English as a second language, you are acquiring it to satisfy needs and survive in society. You know that unless you live in your native country's ghetto in an English-speaking country, you cannot be lazy and fall back on the use of your native language and use it as a crutch to survive.

Mastering English as a Second or Foreign Language

Mastering English as a second or foreign language is not impossible, but it is extremely difficult for most people. This is because most people treat English as a foreign language, and they don't internalize it and make it an important, essential part of their lives. The easiest way to acquire English as a second language is to be brought up bilingual, having started acquiring English at the same time as one's native language. Since most people aren't that fortunate to be raised bilingual, it is necessary to devise strategies to master English as a second or foreign language. I suggest the following two general ways to do this:

1. Learn and Acquire English In a Predominantly English Speaking Country:

Countless numbers of non-English speaking people have learned and acquired English as a second language after living, studying, and working in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. I have personal experiences with many immigrants from Taiwan and China who have come to America knowing little or no English. After a few years, almost all of them started to show mastery of English, especially in listening and speaking. How did these people achieve mastery?

A. Take Free English Classes Offered by Churches and the Government:

There are many free English as second language courses offered to foreign residents of the United States. These courses are taught by private and public organizations, and they emphasize basic survival English skills. The instructors are trained in teaching English as a second language, and in the beginning classes, the emphasis is on listening and speaking skills. Later, the student may take advanced reading and writing courses.

B. Assimilate with English-Speaking People and Practice Using English Skills:

There is a saying that "birds of a feather flock together." It is true that most people are comfortable living and communicating with people of their kind. However, if you do this when living in a country like the U.S., you shut yourself up in a foreign ghetto, and in most respects, you are cut off from mainstream society. Why is it that kids of immigrants acquire English skills quicker and better than their parents? It's because they go to a school where they are forced to use all four skills of English in their learning experiences. It is at a school where they make friends with people who are different than them. The first step in mastering English is to assimilate into English-speaking people where you have the opportunity to practice using English to satisfy needs.

Getting a job in mainstream society is an excellent way for foreign adults to improve their English skills in the U.S. For example, there are many opportunities to get full-time or part-time work in restaurants, department stores, and healthcare places like nursing homes. By getting one of these jobs, you will only hear and speak English, and in most cases, you can't depend on someone knowing your native language to bail you out of trouble. In many ways, this is like learning how to swim by being thrown into the deep end and then coached about what to do to survive. By having a job, you will learn a lot about life in the U.S., and also have the chance to make a lot of friends. In doing this you will be practicing your English skills.

Making friends with English language speakers will also help you greatly in practicing and improving your English skills. Many immigrants to the U.S. make friends by going to church services, joining clubs sponsored by local governments, and by volunteering to help poor or sick people.

2. Create Immersion Environments Within Non-predominant English Speaking Countries:

Not every person can travel to a country like the United States or Canada to learn and acquire English as a second language. Is there anything that can be done in his or her native country to change the experience of learning English as a foreign language into acquiring English as a second language? Yes, there is. I suggest the following:

A. Children Enroll in English Immersion Programs:

The first step is affording kids the opportunity to be exposed to as much English as possible beginning with the first grade of school. Many schools in Thailand have English programs where children begin getting English instruction in English, math, science, and health as early as first grade.

B. Create a School Environment Where English Is Used to Satisfy Needs:

When a child starts using English to satisfy needs, he or she is using English more as a second language than as a foreign language. For example, in the school where I taught, all students had to say in English, "May I go to the toilet?", before they were excused from the classroom. This is a start, but much more must be done. Although a lot of my school's prayers are in both English and Thai, more school announcements should be in both English and Thai. More signs around the school campus should be in both English and Thai such as signs indicating toilets and signs listing the school lunch menu of the day. The use of Thai should not be allowed in the classroom, and students must communicate all needs to the teacher in English

C. Summer Immersion Abroad Programs:

All students from fifth grade up should have the opportunity to travel to an English-speaking country like Canada or the U.S. for 4-6 weeks during the school's summer break. Foreign sponsors should be found who can provide accommodation and cultural enrichment activities for the students. Each year my school sends 3-5 high school students to the U.S. for a year of study in an American high school. After the students return, their English skills are so much better than their classmates

D. Encourage the Use of English Outside of the Classroom:

Most students have poor English language skills because they do not use or practice English after they leave the classroom. Students should be encouraged to communicate with their teachers and other willing reputable English-speaking people using such social media as Facebook and Skype.

Mastering English as a foreign language is only possible through great effort. English must become an important part of your life and you must have frequent communication with English speakers preferably in a country where English is spoken as the dominant language.

Mastering English as a Second Language

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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