Can you believe that one day you wake up and the first word popping in your head is English?

by Haoqiu Zhang

In the first week after I arrived in Montreal, I found a place to stay through Airbnb. I lived in a locally owned accommodation. The neat, lovely apartment was managed by a young couple. The wife was from Alberta and the husband was from France. The wife was smart and pretty and the husband was handsome but a little bit shy. They were quite hospitable and we had great fun talking, in English, of course.

As far as I could remember, in the chatting I mentioned that my English was not very good, especially my oral English. Then the host said, “you know what, I could speak little English when I came to this city. I fell in love with this city first and then I found my wife. After many years of living with my wife here, one day I woke up, opening my eyes, and the first word in my head was English, not French any more.”

I am sure that he was saying that to bring me assurance and hope. While anticipating such a miracle could happen on me, I can’t help thinking and making a guess what made this self-directed learning magically happen? What were the indispensable factors behind his successful English acquisition?

I believe that language is interactive in nature and we all learned language through interaction. Second or additional language learning is most likely acquired in two settings, either in an academic setting traditionally characterized by teacher-student and student-teacher interaction, or in a natural immersion-like setting with sufficient interaction with friends, colleagues or even strangers. Living with his wife who can speak English only and engaging in association with his colleagues and friends, the husband was afforded with abundant opportunities of natural interaction in English.

Another factor I could think of is motivation, or his desire to communicate with his wife and friends. Language anxiety is an experience that no language learner can circumvent, especially for beginners. The host of the accommodation must have gone through moments when he struggled to search for an appropriate word in his head to express his feelings or opinions. Admittedly, anxiety is relevant to a learner’s level of proficiency; anxiety about using a foreign language will decline as learners become more competent in the target language. But willingness to communicate also plays an important role in helping learners overcome language anxiety. Compared with learners participating in oral activities in language classrooms, I guess the husband has relatively lower level of anxiety because he has a true desire to communicate with his wife and friends and his willingness to communicate outweighed his anxiety.

I know there are still a myriad of reasons behind his seemingly effortless success. His getting used to expressing in English and “giving up” his loyalty to his L1 French must happen as a result of long-time L2 exposure, interpersonal interaction, sufficient motivation and a combination of many other factors. Miracle doesn’t just happen and considerable invisible efforts have been made before he could blurt out in English without thinking. I am so eager to see that one day I wake up, opening my eyes with English words first popping in my head.

Have you ever experienced a moment when you think your additional language learning took a giant leap or had a qualitative change? Feel free to share.

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