An awkward 13-year-old makes her way through Beijing airport with considerable trepidation. The year: 2002. Although her knees feel rubbery, she tries her best to conceal her wobbly gait. Soon, she would be exchanging the Middle Kingdom for Down Under to continue her studies in a foreign tongue: English. As her flight is called out, her heart beat quickens. A voice in her head whispers: “There is no turning back, is there?” Questions come to her thick and fast. How am I going to find my way around in an English-speaking country? How can I understand the teacher? How am I going to write essays in a new language? How can I make myself understood in the shops?
Her fears were not unfounded: Tianhong Wu knew her English could hardly get her past the questions in a Visitor Arrival Card. She admitted: “Then, I could hardly complete a Customs form properly.” Simply put, her grasp of English could be described as elementary.
Fast forward: Dec 13, 2006: Tianhong broke out into a song and dance. She had made the impossible possible. She had achieved that rare perfect score of 99.95 for her VCE ENTER score, and a perfect 50 (raw score) for her English. In five short years, her trajectory was phenomenal – from being hardly able to make sense of a Customs form to someone who now speaks English fluently and writes with considerable aplomb. And thanks to her command of English, it had helped her enormously in doing well in the other VCE subjects.
But her 99.95 score belied the difficulties and challenges she had to surmount on arrival in Australia. For one, Australians speak fast and with an accent; in school, the medium of instruction is English. So, for the first six months on arrival in Melbourne in 2002, she was sent to special English classes as part of her linguistic hot-housing.
She recalled that in the early days when she attempted to communicate in English, the other party would often break into a quizzical smile. Well, she was often misunderstood. When she wanted to say “my hands are very sweaty”, it would be invariably be heard as “my hands are very sweetie.” And when she asked questions in class, the teacher’s answer would be “completely off the topic”. Clearly, it meant that the teacher did not understand her English at all.
Yes, there were many trying moments, stumbles and faux pas on the way to her learning English, but Tianhong picked herself up each time, dusted herself, and pressed on doggedly. A former schoolmate at the first high school she attended – Brentwood Secondary – observed: “The one thing that I remember about Tianhong was that wherever she went, a book was sure to follow her, much like the little lamb following Mary.” Indeed, her thirst for improving her English was insatiable.
When 2006 rolled around, Tianhong was in her VCE year. Speaking and writing English had become almost second nature to her. I remembered the day she walked into our tuition school to enrol in our English courses. She was no more the ugly duckling, but a fairly competent user of the language. The transformation into a beautiful swan was nearly complete.
When I set eyes on Tianhong for the first time, she struck me as someone on an urgent mission, but her sangfroid was palpable. Like drought-ravaged land, she was ready to soak up every drop of rain. And soak up, she did. Every word, every expression that I used did not escape her. And they were quick to appear in her essays the following week. Over the months, her progress was impressive. Her writing was peppered with idioms and turn of phrases that would put any good first-language English student in the shade.
I shared with Tianhong, as I did with many batches of Year 12 students, not only exam techniques, short cuts, the importance of writing well, but also thinking skills. In the study of novels, for example, I impressed upon them that good English was imperative in delivering the ideas succinctly and forcefully.
Recalled Tianhong: “Not only did I learn new words, expressions and figures of speech from every one of Mr Tye’s classes, I also gained invaluable skills of text and issue analysis, forming my own point of view and supporting my own argument, organizing ideas and evidence, and structuring my essay.”
From time to time, she would hand in extra essays for me to mark, and each one merely confirmed my hunch that this student was headed for a score well above 45.
In the study of novels, I showed the students how to think through essay questions and to “make connections” such that they could tackle any question confidently. Tianhong was quick to cotton on, saying: “I gained fresh perspectives and I could make the connections such that everything came together and I could see the whole picture clearly.”
“More importantly, your passion for English and teaching had transformed my attitude towards the subject, so that I no longer regard ESL with fear and anxiety, but interest and confidence,” she said.
Five years is a short time in coming to grips with a new language, and in wrestling with such a formidable opponent, English, she has had her fair share of torturous moments. However, she never failed to bounce back again and again for more, and, finally, to vanquish English.
I rue the day that I was not in my office when Tianhong came by after she got her results. I would have loved to see the million-dollar smile from a humble and never-say-die student. “After finding out my VCE results on Monday morning, I felt so ecstatic that everything seemed surreal. However, the next thing that came to my mind was to share the good news with you, and to thank you for providing such an excellent ESL tuition programme which had played a vital role in helping me get 50 for ESL, and consequently, an ENTER of 99.95.”
I can picture her standing on the battlements of her personal Great Wall, surveying the scene below and beyond. And in sotto voce, I could almost hear her utter: “I came, I slogged, I conquered” my fears of English.
* Tye teaches English and English Language and is also the principal of Tye & English Specialist Tutors