1. What will help me better to improve my English: studying my old textbook, or reading a newspaper?
Even though you haven’t told me which textbook you are referring to, I would say that reading a newspaper is the very best thing you can do to improve your English. Don’t set yourself too much reading so you become discouraged. Read a little from a newspaper every day. It will put you in touch with a whole range of subjects in good modern English. Reading will consolidate and extend your knowledge of structure and vocabulary. It will also be a source of pleasure and information. It is unlikely that any textbook can match a newspaper for sheer range. However, you will probably need some kind of reference book (a grammar and a dictionary) to answer questions that may occur to you. And don’t throw your old textbook away! You may still want to remind yourself of things you may have half forgotten and your textbook will help you to do this.
2. I have been a mother for 5 months and been learning English for 12 years. Now I am eager to teach my baby English in his language learning period. Would you like to favour me with some suggestions?
The language we speak is called our mother tongue or our native language: it is the language we learn initially and directly from our mothers. Mothers can only express their love and affection for their offspring by speaking to them in their own language. It is extremely important to make sure that your baby learns Chinese from you. Your baby will be extremely surprised and confused if you start making sounds which he/she doesn’t understand and you will find it very unnatural to be speaking to your baby in English. I suggest that you stick to Chinese for the first three years and then begin to teach your child English as if it were a game. The game should be for a short period only in a regularly recurring context, such as getting up in the morning, or sharing a meal. Alternatively, if you want your baby to learn English right from the start, you have to find someone else who will speak to the baby in English. In this way, the baby will come to associate Chinese with you and English with another speaker and will be bilingual right from the start. However, it is usual with children from a truly bilingual background that they will understand both languages without difficulty, but until they are 6 or 7, they will only respond in their mother tongue. This is normal and vital for the development of their personality. Don’t spoil your relationship with your baby! Don’t interfere with nature!
3. What do you think about the idea that to master a foreign language one must forget his own native language?
There is a great deal of truth in this idea, except I wouldn’t put it so strongly. I wouldn’t say you have to forget your native language (after all, that is quite impossible). I would say you have to discount your native language. Interference from your native language is the biggest barrier to acquisition. It’s natural for a learner to use the same ‘linguistic behaviour’ in a foreign language as he/she uses in the native language. For example, if in your own language you ask a question merely through intonation, you will want to do this in English: ‘You arrived here last night?’ instead of ‘Did you arrive here last night?’ In Chinese, you don’t have the same notion of tense as we have in English, so you want to say: ‘He go to school every day’ instead of ‘He goes to school every day.’
You don’t have the same notion of plural as we have in English, so you might say: ‘I can see two car in the street’ instead of ‘I can see two cars in the street.’
In order to produce the correct English, you have to discount the way you express yourself in Chinese. You then have to practise the correct way of saying something in English until you are fluent. In a sense, you have to unlearn the habits you have acquired in your native language in order to master the habit you need to speak a foreign language. This is very difficult and accounts for the different foreign varieties of English you hear round the world (Frenglish, Spanglish, Chinglish, etc.): the native language is asserting itself in English and ‘interfering’ with acquisition. Interference occurs in all areas: pronunciation, stress and intonation, grammar, vocabulary as well as in ways of thinking, ways of problem-solving. Even misunderstandings among nations are often the direct product of this kind of interference.
你会说You arrived here last night?，而不是Did you arrive here last night?。汉语里没有英语中时态这个概念，所以你自然会说He go to school every day，而不是He goes to school every day.
汉语中也没有英语中的复数概念，所以你会说I can see two car in the street，而不是I can see two cars in the street.
4. How to teach yourself English when you have no English courses?
Difficult because there is no teach-yourself course I would recommend. Be extremely suspicious of any advertised courses that promise to teach you English in six weeks, etc. They always fail and the advertisers are liars. Why? Because though you can learn to say quite a bit in twelve weeks or less if you imitate what is on an audio-tape, you cannot learn to understand very much at all. Understanding fluent speech in a foreign language requires hours and hours of listening practice. Listening comprehension is the key to the command of any foreign language. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to learn on your own. There’s also another human reason why it’s difficult. Once you have bought a comprehensive self-study package, it requires enormous self-discipline to work through it. Only learners with exceptional determination are likely to do this. I think the future in self-study will lie with interactive materials, but what can you do in the meantime? Well, clearly you’re not an absolute beginner because you wouldn’t have sent me this question if you were. Listen to broadcast English (the BBC World Service). Watch English-language films on video. Read as much as you can and as often as you can. These activities will do wonders for your English.
5. How can I learn so many idioms by heart?
You can’t, and you will be pleased to hear, you don’t need to. It’s a total waste of time to learn lists of idioms by heart. And even if you do, this will not improve your English at all. What is an idiom, anyway? When people are asked for examples of idioms, they often quote fixed phrases like: It’s raining cats and dogs, the pot calling the kettle black, to add insult to injury, and so on. If you’re interested in collections like this, consult specialized dictionaries like The Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (first published 1979). Even if you learnt this dictionary by heart, your English wouldn’t be much better. The dictionary is for you to consult when you hear someone use this kind of idiom and you fail to understand it. What you should be aiming at is not learning ‘idioms’, but acquiring a command of idiomatic English, which is a completely different matter. This means sounding as much as possible like a native speaker of English when you speak, rather than sounding like someone who is constantly translating from Chinese. To improve your command of idiomatic English, you need to remember that English is a word-order language: that is, the basic order is Subject ｜ Verb ｜ Object ｜ Manner ｜ Place ｜ Time. Any departure from this order makes your English sound unidiomatic and ‘foreign’. If, for example, you say ‘I speak well English’ instead of ‘I speak English well’, you will be breaking a fundamental rule in the English language. Another thing to remember is that English prefers phrasal verbs to ordinary verbs. We tend to say ‘Come in!’ when someone knocks at the door, rather than ‘Enter!’; we tend to say ‘Put out the fire/Put the fire out’ rather than ‘Extinguish the fire’. Phrasal verbs often have idiomatic uses, as well as literal uses: ‘Put the cat out’ is a literal use (= put it out of the house); ‘Put the fire out’ is an idiomatic use (= extinguish). You have to learn phrasal verbs as you encounter them in context. Towards the end of my Essential English Grammar, I list fifteen basic grammar rules. A command of these will ensure that your English sounds idiomatic. You will also see that this has nothing at all to do with learning fixed-phrase idioms by heart.
你做不到这点，也没有这个必要。这么说你可能会很高兴。费尽心思死记英语习语表简直是浪费时间。即使你做到了，它们对你的英语学习也无济于事。什么是习语呢?当人们被问起有关习语的例子时，他们总是引用一些固定短语，例如：It’s raining cats and dogs, the pot calling the kettle black, to add insult to injury，等等。如果你对此感兴趣，你可以查一些专门词典，如The Longman Dictionary of English Idioms(1979年第一版)。即使你背下了这本词典，你的英语也不见得长进多大。这本词典是在你听到不能理解的习语时供你查找用的。你现在的任务不是学习这些习语，而是掌握地道的英语，这与学习习语是完全不同的事。这就是说，所说的英语听起来要尽可能像以英语为母语的人所说的那样，而不是在不断翻译汉语。因此，要想学好地道的英语，你就应当记住英语是一种词序语言：即它的基本结构是主语+动词+宾语+方式+地点+时间。如果偏离了这种格式，那么你所说的英语就不是那么地道了，甚至有点儿像“舶来品”。例如，如果你把“我的英语说得很好”说成I speak well English，而不是I speak English well，那么你就违背了英语的一个最基本的规则。另一点值得我们注意的是：在英语中短语动词比普通的动词用得更普遍。当某人敲门时，我们更倾向于说Come in!，而不说Enter!我们倾向说Put out the fire/Put the fire out，而不说Extinguish the fire.短语动词通常有习语的用法，也有按字面意义上理解的用法：Put the cat out 就是字面用法(=把它放在房屋外);Put the fire out是一个习语用法(=使熄灭)。你必须掌握这些短语动词，因为在文中你会经常遇见它们。在我所著的Essential English Grammar的最后，我列举了15条最基本的英语语法规则。掌握了这些就可以使你的英语听起来更地道。你也会发现这与死记固定的英语习语毫不相关。
6. Some people in Western countries used to say that we Chinese are very serious people, and do not have much sense of humour. Do you agree? Do you think that the Western humour is quite different from the Chinese one?
I do not subscribe to any idea of human stereotypes. As human beings, we share human characteristics universally. We all experience love, fear, hope, anger, etc. —yes, and we all laugh. The only differences between us are the ways we have been conditioned by the cultures we grew up in. This means that all human beings have the capacity to laugh, but they don’t necessarily all find exactly the same things funny. Humour is often the result of a clash between an idea or a situation and a culturally-defined expectation of what is correct or normal. Insofar as we have different value systems or ideas of normality, we have different ideas of what is funny. What we consider to be funny is the product of our cultural conditioning. Your question is actually two questions, so let me answer them one at a time: 1) No, I don’t agree that the Chinese don’t have a sense of humour. 2) Sometimes a ‘Western’ and a Chinese sense of humour will converge (we are all human) and sometimes a ‘Western’ and a Chinese sense of humour will diverge (we live in different societies).
7. How to differentiate formal from informal English?
Formal English is generally written. We use it in business letters, when we’re writing reports, in public notices, etc. Informal English is generally spoken. We use it in conversation between friends, when we’re writing to a friend using a ‘spoken style’ and when we’re generally trying to be friendly. In An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage Geoffrey Leech quotes two examples:
An announcement is heard on radio:
Formal: ‘The police are attempting to discover the location of the missing vehicle.’
Informal: ‘What did it say?’ —‘It said they’re trying to find out where the car’s gone.’
Formal style often uses elaborate combinations of verbs and nouns deriving from Latin and Greek:
Our environmental awareness and protectiveness towards nature have increased.
Informal style is correct and standard, but avoids complex sentences, multi-syllable verbs and a ‘high-sounding’ tone: More than ever, we know we’ve got to look after nature.
正式英语通常是书面语，一般用在商业信函中或正式的报告、公开告示中等。非正式英语通常是口语体的，我们在与朋友交谈中用它，给朋友写信也用这种“口语体”，以显得亲切、自然。在An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage一书中，杰弗里•利奇引用了两个例子：
正式体：The police are attempting to discover the location of the missing vehicle.
非正式体：What did it say?—It said they’re trying to find out where the car’s gone.
正式体通常使用来源于拉丁语、希腊语名词和动词的复杂搭配：Our environmental awareness and protectiveness towards nature have increased.
More than ever, we know we’ve got to look after nature.
8. What is the best way for Chinese students to learn English?
I wish I could give you a simple, personalised formula, but I can’t. The best way for Chinese students to learn English is exactly the same as the best way all other students in the world learn English. Be clear about the following:
Learning a language is about acquiring skills, not acquiring knowledge.
To learn a foreign language, we need to master four primary skills:
Each of these primary skills consists of sub-skills: for example, listen and respond, listen and assimilate, listen and take notes, listen and translate simultaneously from one language into another. The development of the listening skill is fundamental and provides the basis for the acquisition of all other skills.
To master aural/oral skills (= understanding and speaking), we have to be able to:
We then have to deploy these four activities in three main areas of discourse:
—Transactions (= doing business in a foreign language, like changing money in a bank or ordering food at a restaurant)
—Interaction (= the non-contentious exchange of information)
—Argument (= the exchange of ideas, sometimes contentious)
We can set out similar objectives for the reading skill and for the writing skill. But whatever culture we set out from (Chinese, Mexican or Ethiopian), the objectives will remain the same. Of course, there are phonological and grammatical problems which particularly affect speakers of Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.), just as there are phonological and grammatical problems which particularly affect speakers of Spanish. These require specialized local training. However, the overall objectives do not vary according to the native language of the learner.
9. There are some differences between British English and American English in pronunciation, spelling, usage, etc. I always get confused. Would you please tell me the main differences between them? And which do you think is better and more standard?
It’s all too easy to exaggerate the differences between British and American English. The first thing to understand is that they are exactly the same language. Speakers of American English have very little difficulty understanding speakers of British English and vice versa. The few differences there are can be summed up as follows:
phonological: This is probably the main and most noticeable difference. American English is spoken in a different way from British English. In general terms, to British English ears, American English sounds as though it is spoken through the nose. To American English ears, British English sounds as though it is spoken through the teeth.[ZK)]
lexical: There are a number of well-known differences: cookie (AmE) for biscuit (BrE), the trunk of a car (AmE) for the boot of a car (BrE) and so on. AmE uses drapes where BrE uses curtains, but AmE also has curtains. These differences are slight and well-documented. There are also slight spelling variations: color, traveler (AmE) for colour, traveller (BrE).
grammatical: These are mainly differences in emphasis. Both languages use have got, for example, but ‘I don’t have much time’ is probably preferred in AmE to ‘I haven’t got much time’. AmE sometimes uses the simple past where BrE uses the present perfect (‘Did you see Tosca yet?’ for ‘Have you seen Tosca yet?’). There are different combinations with have: a British English speaker is likely to say ‘I’m going to have a wash’ where an American-English speaker would say ‘I’m going to wash up (before a meal)’.
And that’s about it. You will find more extended lists in good student dictionaries. The latest (third) edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English painstakingly itemises the differences, if you want detailed inventories. But, as I said, don’t over-estimate these differences. Neither version of English is ‘better’ or ‘more standard’. In British English, there is such a thing as ‘Received Pronunciation’ (= RP), which is a kind of standard most people can cope with. The equivalent in American English is ‘Standard American’, which fulfils precisely the same function. No matter what version of English you are exposed to as a learner, you are likely to end up speaking Chinese English, which is highly acceptable for the purposes of communication.
从语法上说：主要的区别在于强调方面。例如，这两种语言都用have got，但美国英语更倾向于说I don’t have much time，一般不说I haven’t got much time.美国英语倾向用一般过去时，而英国英语更倾向于用现在完成时(前者说：Did you see Tosca yet?，而后者说Have you seen Tosca yet?)。与have的搭配在两种英语中也有所区别：一位说英国英语的人更有可能说I’m going to have a wash,而一位说美国英语的人则说I’m going to wash up(before a meal)。
大致就是这些。你可以在较好的学生词典中发现更多的例子。最新的Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (第三版)系统地列举了二者的区别。但依我看来，不要夸大二者的区别。二者并无优劣之分。英国英语中有一种所谓的“标准音”(Received Pronunciation，简略成RP)的说法，这是大多数人可以接受的标准音。在美国英语中，同样也有一种“标准美国英语”(Standard American)的提法，职能同标准的英国英语一样能广为人们所接受。作为一名英语学习者，无论你接触的是哪一种英语，你的可能结果是讲中国式英语，讲中国式英语同样能达到交流的目的。
10. I’ve studied English for four years. I want to know about my English level. How can I test it?
Without more information, I cannot advise you. How intensively have you studied English? i.e. How many hours a week? Have you been developing all four skills (understanding, speaking, reading and writing), or have you been concentrating on (say) reading? Have you been working with a teacher or on your own? What materials have you been using? And so on. Unless I know precisely what you have been doing, I cannot advise you about level. However, I would draw your attention to four different kinds of tests:
progress tests: These are administered frequently and tell students how they are getting on. These are often designed for students to complete on their own.
attainment tests: These are administered at the end of a period of study and tell students how well they have acquired what they have been taught. A school exam might use these.
placement tests: These are similar to attainment tests, but they enable teachers to place students in a class which is closest to their needs and level. A language school might use these.
proficiency tests: These tell students how well their English is in general terms. An employer might use these.
11. I have learned English for almost ten years. I am interested in learning English. But now I find it’s very hard for me to reach a high level. Could you please give me some suggestions?
And a similar question: I’m a graduate and I’ve taught myself English for ten years. Now I wonder how I can develop myself. That’s to say I don’t know how to arrive at a higher level. Can you give me any good advice? Thanks.
Perhaps you have reached your ceiling and cannot go to a higher level. Learning a foreign language is not about acquiring knowledge, but about learning to perform a skill. Millions of people can drive a car, but only a tiny fraction of them can participate in rally driving. In other words, we all perform skills with different levels of ability and, sooner or later, reach our ceilings. Only a tiny fraction of those learning English will arrive at near-native proficiency. If, however, you feel you haven’t reached your level, then:
Listen to as much English as you can (e.g. the BBC World Service and the Voice of America).
Read as much as you can, choosing books which are at your level.
Choose self-study practice books like my Longman Advanced English Grammar to see how you get on with them.
Take every opportunity you can to speak English, either with native speakers or with people like yourself who want to practise their skills.
挑选自学练习书籍来检验自己的进度，如挑选我编著的Longman Advanced English Grammar。