I have taught in aggregate over10,000 student-hours of English in China, Thailand, Hong Kong and Costa Rica, in small towns or cities, school classrooms or playgrounds, and street corners or coffee houses. The concept of “English corner” is especially well known in China. It means that if there are foreigners in some corner, say of the park or in a coffee house, they are fair game to engage in the practice of verbal English. All a foreign looking person has to do is smile at some young person passing by, and suddenly he or she has company. These new friends strike up a lively conversation and the chats can range from the simple, what is your family like, to complex even philosophical/religious themes, as the chat flow goes.
In fact, this approach is so effective that I transported this “system” to Cincinnati, where we have hundreds of scholars from China coming to observe at the very famous Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Many of these observers know English reading and writing, but have very little chance to practice spoken English, especially if they live in cities with very little contact with the English-speaking world. And many people really don’t realize that spoken English is quite different from textbook English taught at school: even the simple verbal “let’s go” is actually very different from the textbook “we are going to the…,” so the visitors are often surprised and puzzled by the difficulty they experience. So by bringing together many English-speaking locals sitting in the cafeteria of the Children’s Hospital, we replicate the English corner of China right here in America!
这种方式如此有效，我把它移植到辛辛那提，这里有成百的来著名的辛辛那提儿童医院访学的中国学者。大部分学者英文敏于读写，讷于言，尤其是和英文世界交流甚少的城市的学者。很多都没有意识到英语口语和学校教的书面英语有很大不同。甚至简单的口语“let’s go走”就和书面语“we are going to the 我们去….”就有很大区别，所以学者经常被他们所经历的感到讶异和迷惑。因此召集一些说英文的当地人坐在儿童医院的咖啡屋，我们把中国的英语角复制到了美国。
I always encourage people to just talk, talk, talk, and very soon they can. Americans especially are really not very good at grammar(!), but we like to talk. And we also are very quick to catch the gist of a conversation without having to catch every word. All the foreigner needs to do is to keep talking, and the American quickly understands what he or she is talking about, even though the English might not be really that good. The specific words also might not matter that much, because in most conversations, all you really need is for people to understand in general what you’re talking about! Then for complicated subjects, many Americans know to slow down and go over each word more carefully. Definitely no one really cares about your grammar, and it’s only your old fussy grammar teacher back in China (or his or her image in your brain) that really cares (smile).
I grew up with many Chinese languages coursing around me, even though I did not really learn written Chinese except in a very rudimentary sense. I heard Chaozhou from the maid at home, from some relatives, and by attending a Chaozhou church, so I became quite verbally fluent in that. I heard my father talking to his relatives in Hakka, though I did not speak it then. I heard my schoolmates speak in Cantonese and I began to speak well in that. I heard occasional preachers speaking in Mandarin, although I never spoke it until I came to Cincinnati and discovered many people from Taiwan speaking in that language.
All of these childhood language exposures were imprinted in my mind, and since I am both brash and willing to talk, I learned all these spoken languages simply by talk talk talk. In fact, I even learned my father’s native language Hakka from Thailand born nieces that lived with us, since they liked to chat in native Hakka with my wife Esther. So four spoken languages in Chinese were essentially acquired by boldness and chatting! And my fluency in verbal English is obviously importantly derived from my American born mother, who only spoke in English, even though I grew up in Asian Hong Kong.
Whether it is teaching English in a country village in China or Thailand, or having an English corner in Cincinnati, I always emphasize that the main thing is for the non-English speaker to just really talk, talk, talk in English. That way by forcing yourself to speak in English, you really do speak in English, “sooner or later.” There really is no other way to learn to speak but to just keep talking. It’s like learning to swim, you just have to swim, swim, swim! And you can have a lot of fun doing that, so jump in and talk.