A non-native speaker’s bitter-then-sweet relationship with English


If I had known that writing would one day save my heart, maybe I wouldn’t have treated it so badly in the first place. You see, I hated writing. I’m not talking about the kind of hate tossed casually in a classroom because students find writing a problem. When I say hate, I mean the one that stems from an inability to perform a task, the one that taps into your insecurities so deeply that it physically hurts.

So where does all this hate come from? Well, to understand that, I’m going to have to reveal something to you — something I was hiding because I was afraid it would damage my credibility as a writer: English is not my mother tongue. I didn’t use it outside of the classroom until I was ten years old when my family moved from Hong Kong to Michigan. The problem with language is that your ability to learn it, to master it, decreases with age. So there I was, only ten years old but already feeling too old, dreading the challenges that English would present to me.

And it was hard – harder than I thought. English was so out of my reach that eventually I learned to fear it. I started to treat English as borrowed things. I have taken particular care with all the words I have used, avoiding mistakes so that when I return it there is no trace of damage. I didn’t know that this habit would paralyze me. I went from stumbling through English to not using it at all if I didn’t have to, naively thinking it was the best way to avoid mistakes. All this to say that when I encountered fear and had the choice to face it or run away from it, I ran.

Oh, how I ran. I ran so far and for so long that I thought I could keep running forever. But of course, the consequences had a way of setting me back. By running away from fear, I missed countless learning opportunities. I could have made new friends and talked to them in English to improve my oral expression. I could have asked my teachers for help with essays to save my grade in English. But I did not do it. Instead, I kept running under the weight of the consequences, finally disguising my fear as hate.

Of all the skills I needed to acquire (reading, listening, speaking), I hated writing the most. Maybe it’s because the writing has a way of immortalizing mistakes, forcing you to pause and confront them – the complete opposite of what I wanted to do. Because of this, my hatred for writing solidified, and it continued until my freshman year of high school.

My first year of high school – how can I sum it up? It’s hard to revisit it because it took a long time to get over it. Simply put, I, at 17, was very sad. At one point, the pain invaded my heart so much that I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Desperate to relieve her, I did something out of the ordinary. I opened a blank document and started writing.

I wrote about my fears, my worries, my dreams and my secrets – everything in my heart was wide open. To my surprise, the writing held my heart when nothing else did. He caught every word, every sentence, even every mistake and never judged me. All he was doing was taking the weight of the pain off my chest, and I wondered how I could have hated him.

From then on, writing filled my heart with something new, something so warm and tender that it wrapped around my chest like a tight embrace. It’s a new passion, I realized, a new love. Armed with this, I turned to other aspects of English. This time, I stood firm in the face of fear. I let my passion for writing guide me.

One step at a time, writing first led me to reading, another quiet pursuit. Unexpectedly, it came naturally. I think the secret is that everything in language is connected. As I mastered one aspect of it, my other abilities, intimately related to writing, also improved.

After reading, there was listening and speaking. Two sides of the same coin, they weighed more heavily on me because they forced me to talk with others. I was terrified of being judged if I misinterpreted other people’s words or tripped over my own. Despite my fear, I persevered with the courage that writing lent me. In the end, it worked; the fear I had avoided for so long finally disappeared.

Moving forward, I hope one day I can do what writing has done for me. I hope to reach a level of mastery where I can touch the hearts of my readers with the words that come from mine. An impossible dream, my ten-year-old self would say. But now, with fear out of my way, that dream doesn’t seem so far away.

MiC columnist Tian Yeung can be reached at [email protected]


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