By Yoon Jung-yeon
Once upon a time, there was a girl who was in love with the Disney Princesses. Dressed in a princess dress, she twirled around in her little dress like Cinderella. The little girl’s room was filled with storybooks of these princesses and movies. She watched these movies and looked at these storybooks every day to live inside of these stories among her beloveds. Only there was this slightest problem. She did not understand a word in the book nor the lines of her favorite characters in the movies.
As you could guess, the little girl was me. My first encounter of this language was through the Disney Princesses. Enamored and captivated by beautiful pictures, I wanted to understand what these characters were saying and thus began my curiosity for English.
To be honest, I have studied abroad through middle school and high school. It is a common misconception that if one has lived abroad for several years, one becomes automatically fluent with the language. Of course it is helpful, being exposed to the language, but without one’s effort, it’s nearly impossible to achieve native-like fluency. There are many students in Korea who never went abroad but still scored high on the TOEFL test. Not only that but I have seen how these students excel in English lectures at school as well. These facts show that it takes one’s efforts to become fluent in English, not the exposure alone.
Here are some few tips based on my experience, which placed English under my belt.
First I grabbed what was around me to read. I read them but with no knowledge of vocabulary words, it was impossible to turn a page. I wrote down all the words that I did not understand on a notepad then I copied down the sentences from the book with the words. I looked them up in the dictionary, wrote down the meanings next to those words; and then underneath the sentences copied from the book I tried to create my own sentences using those vocabularies. I hate to admit to this, but without knowing vocabulary, you will never be able to express what you really want to say. Vocabulary books are handy when you are preparing for certain exams but I recommend having firsthand experiences with vocabulary through authentic texts.
Secondly, I wrote journals in English daily; it is something that I still practice. In order to take control of grammar, it is important to use it. When we journal, we tend to write as if we are conversing with our friends. Using this technique, we can practice written language as well as colloquial languages. I still have two shelves full of vocabulary notepads and journals from those years.
Lastly, one must be familiarized with the language, therefore exposure is imperative. As I mentioned earlier, exposure without studying the language is useless; also, the exposure I want to mention is not living in English-speaking countries, but surrounding yourselves in English. My love for the Disney Princesses helped so much. After understanding the vocabulary they used, my ears began to open up; and slowly, I was starting to understand what the characters were saying. I watched these movies at least one hundred times each. Because they were without subtitles, it was really frustrating at first but day by day, my ears were accepting these foreign tongues. Upon coming back to Korea, to make sure I stay in touch with English, I always have popular American dramas like ``Gossip Girls’’ or ``The Office,’’ handy. I watch at least one episode a day. Watching these dramas without the subtitles is really helpful because it allows you to experience the culture and colloquial language, helping your speaking skill as well.
Being fluent in a language is not a skill that comes in overnight. It takes years of practices and efforts. Instead of using expensive texts books based on standardized exams, I used easy novels and movies that were available around me. These materials helped building up the fluency in English. When I had to take the TOEFL test for university entrance, I simply went online to the TOEFL test website and took practice exams available instead of attending expensive institutions. They may help you with achieving a high score on the exam in short period but not the fluency. The high score may get you to a better university or a better job but the fluency will take you even further from what you may achieve from the score.
The little girl, whom once loved those princesses, now is so thankful to Walt Disney who brought her attention to English through his Princesses. And now with the knowledge of the language, she is dreaming of making the best out of what her princesses friends have taught her.
The writer, a senior English literature major at Korea University, is a 2010 ETS TOEFL Scholarship Winner