Twelve years an English learner

I am about to take the International English Language Testing System test, or IELTS test, for the second time. The registration survey asked me how long I had studied English.

Too long.

Before senior high: The mechanics

Learning English was a necessity in China. Parents send their kids to English tutors when they are merely fluent in Mandarin. Part of it is the fear of missing out on the Golden Age for language learning, but I think pragmatically, it is because school admissions assess English skills. My mom used to put sticky notes on furniture and appliances with their English names. “Washing Machine” was my favorite because it read and sounded like two naughty twins - there was something visually and phonetically interesting about languages.

Then started primary school and junior high. Classroom English was about building up the vocabulary and memorizing grammatical rules and exceptions to those rules, of course. Recitation and spelling tests were routines. For example, we were asked to write fourteen ‘put’ phrases and their translations. I doubt I can now, but once upon a time, I could.

In the summer after Grade 7, I went on an excursion to learn French and gave up when I heard about verb conjugations. English rules ain’t that bad… Retrospectively thinking, English is like dynamic-typed programming languages, e.g., Python, while French is like C++. The more conventions and rules, the more precise and less ambiguous. But what about Mandarin? Mandarin is like APL, where visual hints matter and the grammar rules are minimal. Alright, back to English.

I learned the mechanics of the English language in classrooms, but I also wanted to learn English in the wild. China banned Google in the early 2010s, and my rebellious curiosity kicked in. After a winter of trial and error and plenty of help from friends, I managed to bypass the Great Firewall to consume the “forbidden” content. To an unimaginative fourteen-year-old, they were Bob Ross’s painting tutorials and the latest The Big Bang Theory episodes.

Senior high: Chemistry is more straightforward in English

English remained a core subject in senior high (the other two being Chinese literature and mathematics). I was drawn toward natural science subjects like chemistry and physics. My phenomenal chemistry teacher believed one should learn a topic in the language it was developed in, and she recommended Principles of Chemical Science. I completed the collection in two weeks: It was unexpectedly and refreshingly intuitive. Watching MOOC videos grew on me as a hobby (oh yes) till today, but at that time, I was just procrastinating and avoiding the regular school work. English became my native language for STEM subjects such as organic chemistry and calculus. I benefited little from those topics in high school (I did not even attempt to link them to what I learned in the day). On the other hand, though, they did make some first-year undergraduate courses particularly familiar.

In senior high, I was close with our English teacher. She tried her best to neutralize exam-oriented training with immersive learning. Every week, she handed out letters or speeches to recite. She was remarkably tolerant and supportive of me. When others were required to take excerpts from newspapers, I was allowed to read any material I enjoyed, and she lent her book collections to me. I am grateful for her trust.

I became confident that I could succeed academically in an English-speaking institution. So I took the IELTS test for the first time in the summer of 2017. One year later, I flew to Canada and joined the University of Toronto as a first-year undergrad in Chemical Engineering.

Undergrad: A second personality

I will speak English well in 3 months. That was a goal I set in September 2018. Well, that didn’t quite work out - I might be able to describe a chemical reaction, but I had no idea about daily conversations, such as asking for notes or comforting a low-spirited friend. My writing skills were underdeveloped too. Writing a trivial thank-you email took me longer than an hour of editing and researching. Perfectionism did not help, and nor did the global pandemic or remote classes since the Spring of 2020.

I noticed that I acquired a different personality when I spoke English. Good puns and savvy comebacks in Mandarin just don’t translate well. The cultural barrier also manifested inner dialogues such as “Will this come across as being rude?” or “Is this politically right?” I became this dull and dubious person who only talked about work where she knew there was a single truth that everyone agreed. Fortunately, I studied STEM. And unfortunately, STEM demanded teamwork and engineering writing too. I was often the tongue-tied person in any group discussions before the fourth year. Technically, I needed to learn how to convey subtle points. Mentally, I was attached to producing perfect, bulletproof arguments. It blocked doing research, too, because great researchers could comfortably present half-baked ideas and convince others with their novel ideas.

It was only after much deliberate practice that I gained some confidence to focus on my ideas and stop worrying about the delivery. I stole proudly from mentors and collaborators when they used vivid idioms. Talkshows and sit-coms helped, too. Humor was the perfect test ground with slang. Writing guidelines were a game changer. I wish I could send my-2018-self a copy of How to say it.

Learning a second language and my frustration with their subtleties drove me to linguistics and research artificial languages. What if we can purposefully design every aspect of a language? How do we minimize ambiguity? How do we choose the minimal units that are extensible and composable to express arbitrary ideas? Are symbols suitable units? Should they be characters like in natural languages or functions in functional programming? It was incredibly exciting to find people caring about these questions too, so I guess the struggles were a blessing in disguise after all.

Work: A tool, ChatGPT, and beyond

I graduated in 2022 and joined Google as a software engineer. Unlike others, I was genuinely curious about “corp speak” and diplomacy. Sugarcoating and un-sugarcoating are the next skills I want to develop.

Working at Google was a great opportunity to learn about communication styles too. Someone smarter than me identified that cultural differences, namely low-context versus high-context, impede communication. For instance, “not bad” in a low-context culture might translate to “excellent” in a high-context culture. It seems like I transpassed the region where there is a right way to say something to a new region where there is a suitable style to say something.

Recently, I came across the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which invented artificial words to cover real feelings. I have always considered English a static summit that overlooks every possible idea. Yet people deemed the need to invent new words. I get this vague feeling that learning a language is no longer about learning grammatical rules or sounding smart or funny, but about self-expression and connecting with others.

Very recently, OpenAI revealed ChatGPT. Excited about its unprecedented humanness, I also felt embarrassed that I had spent more than twelve years without getting anywhere even close. ChatGPT’s capability raises questions: Is communication irreplaceable by automation? What skills remain valuable in 50 years? In my opinion:

  • Deliberate creativity. Not only in the sense of execution, as Imagen does with text prompts, but knowing what to mix. It is the same case in art as in research. Great scientists are visionaries with intrinsic heuristics.
  • Trust and empathy. When it comes to dealing with people, humans are at a natural advantage over robots.
  • Decision-making. It is not only because of the lack of transparency of ML systems today but also because robots cannot be held legally responsible. (Yet?)

This is a long post. So I will stop here.

Written on December 5, 2022