Benjamin Tan says that most people in China learn English just to get a passing grade on the national exam. That was the case for him, too, since he didn’t have any plans to go abroad. But everything changed after one incident Ben calls “the disaster”.

In our interview, Ben told us how he revitalised his English years after graduating from university. He now aspires to become a polyglot and learn more about humans’ experiences around the world.

When I was a kid, about 30 years ago, we started to learn English in middle school. I was 10 years old, which is a very late age for language learning. My hometown is not a big city, and the English education quality was not so good. Our English teacher’s pronunciation wasn’t standard. But when I was 13 I got accepted to a very good school. A lot of the kids there were very good at English. It was hard to keep up, but I started improving from there.

I think 99% of the people learning English in China are studying just for the sake of passing a test — even today. Although English education in China has really improved over the last 20 years, most young people are still learning English just to get a good grade or to have an opportunity to study overseas.

At first, I didn't like learning English, and I thought I was bad at language learning. I'm very slow when it comes to learning languages. Sometimes I can't hear the difference between certain sounds. I just don’t really have a good ear for language. At school, while I tried my best to learn English, my grades were not so good.

But I always loved reading, logic, and physics, and I got into one of the top 10 universities in China. I majored in physics, but the English requirements were still very strict. We all had to pass the CET (The College English Test, a national standardized English language test for college and university students in China). Normally, students in other colleges have four years to pass this test. Being a top school, however, we had to pass the highest level in our first year of university.

I was lucky enough to pass it on my first attempt. After you’ve passed the exam, though, you lose a big source of motivation to continue learning English — especially if you’re not going to study overseas. I didn't plan to go anywhere, and I thought, well, I can read, I can find any materials I need on the Internet, and that's enough for me.

How failing a job interview led me to return to English

Unfortunately, it turned out that this attitude was very naive.

I got an invite to do a job interview with Facebook. Someone had referred me to them, they seemed to like me, and I thought that it seemed like a very good opportunity.

At that time my English was not good… but I thought that it might not be so bad, either. I had passed the CET exam, after all, and I read many articles about technology in English every day. As such, I thought I could handle myself but when the interview started, I couldn’t understand anything the interviewer was saying. Maybe I was too nervous — it was my first time talking to a foreigner — but I think my biggest problem was that I had so little practice listening to and speaking English. It seems like the interviewer was having a very difficult time, too. After 10 minutes he suggested that we terminate an interview.

That was a disaster.

All the same, I think this experience spurred me to improve my English, especially in listening and speaking. So, from that point, I started to practice again.

At first, I tried to enroll in some formal courses. However, because at that time I was already working, I didn’t have much free time. Plus, the courses were very expensive. They were seen as being a big investment for people who wanted to go to the US or the UK for education or work.

As such, I decided to look for some online resources. I found one Chinese app for learning English and used it for 4 years. It mostly focused on listening and speaking. It used a 10-level system to evaluate your fluency. I started at level two, and I practised every day. I steadily got better, but I had a few problems. First, the system evaluated my speaking, and I had to stop a lot to review my mistakes. Additionally, there were some pronunciation difficulties I just couldn’t overcome. As you might imagine, all that looping around the same mistakes was very frustrating. The second problem was that, after improving my level from two to five (A2-B1) in roughly two years, I got stuck: I just couldn’t improve anymore. I felt like I was stuck at that level five. I needed to change something to keep improving.

Shadowing: the answer to my pronunciation problems

One day I came across a video by Dr. Alexander Arguelles on YouTube, and he was talking about something called “the shadowing method”. Loosely speaking, this means picking a video or audio file in your target language, listening to it, and doing your best to near-simultaneously talk “over” the audio— as if you were their voice’s shadow. In addition to the words, you want to try matching the rhythm, melody, and attitude/emotion of the person you’re listening to. Additionally, Dr. Arguelles suggests that this practice be done while walking.

The thing is, there's not any sort of evaluation for this It’s just practice. I figured that while I might not be technically perfect, at least I would know I'm improving, right? So I was trying to do shadowing like him. However, it was difficult for me to find the right materials in China. I kept searching, though, and eventually found Glossika. I wanted to test the method first, so I started practising French. I didn’t have any prior experience with it, apart from watching a few French movies. So, anyway, I started practising French with Glossika every day. I would put in my earphones, walk around, and repeat the sentences I heard over and over again. It seemed so strange to think that you could practice a language totally from zero like this. Even in just the first week, without having any idea about how French pronunciation worked, I could repeat back exactly what I heard. I felt like I could almost see my improvement “visually”. It was like a magic moment that convinced me to make up my mind. That one week was enough for me to decide that I wanted to continue with this method.

Then I read an article that said it's not a good idea to learn more than one language at the same time, so I stopped practising French. I decided that I first had to improve my English, and then that, after that, I’d try to learn French again. But even now, certain situations can trigger French in my head — maybe my kid does something and then I just randomly say a French sentence from Glossika without thinking.

Usually, I practice new sentences in Glossika while on the way to work. If the weather is good, I will take a walk in the nearby park and review old sentences at noon. Most of the time, though, I practice Glossika on the drive home. I’ll think that I’ve only been on the road for 30 minutes, but some days it’ll have ended up be two hours or more. I think practising while driving suits me. I have to keep in charge and be focused on the road… and this somehow helps me to practice better. When I'm driving, I can’t watch the screen. As such, I’m just listening and trying to repeat exactly what I hear. Sometimes I think the efficacy is even better than when I’m not driving.

For me, the most difficult challenge in language learning was to find the correct material to practice. The Glossika learning method is very effective because I see that I'm improving. I like a no-stopping practice in Glossika. I don’t need to spend time finding the mistakes and correcting them. I just keep repeating and practising. And I don't have to interact with the screen, so it's very effective. No matter when I'm driving or I'm walking or doing something, I can practice the language. So it's very important for me.

How to create your own language learning environment

In my daily life, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to use English, so I’m trying to create my own environment for English learning. Besides doing Glossika, I read in English for my work and listen to the news in English. I’ve also changed the system interface of every device I own into English.

At work, I rarely have opportunities to use English, either. Nevertheless, as my English is maybe the second or third best or everyone in my company, I do get to help to do English presentations and product demonstrations. Each presentation is stressful for me, especially the Q&A part. Sometimes I don't understand the questions I’m asked, so I have to ask people to slow down or repeat themselves.

But the most difficult challenge for me is to evaluate my language level and find the right materials. For example, I started to read my kids some books in English. But I don't know which books are suitable for me. I’m trying to read Harry Potter now. They say that it's a book for four-year-old kids, but I think it's difficult. J.K Rowling created so many new words! At first, I used a suggestion that says: if you’re reading a book and can’t recognize more than five words on the page, then this book is not suitable for you. But I think it's not a good suggestion for the Harry Potter books. There are so many words I can't recognize, but I still can read the book. So now I don’t evaluate materials so strictly. I remember about three years ago when I tried to read Harry Potter for the first time and gave up because there were so many new words. But this time I just skip the unknown words. I find that I can still enjoy the book, even reading like this. I think it's a very good experience for me.

Why I aspire to become a polyglot

I don’t think there are many people in China who are trying to improve their English or learn foreign languages years after finishing school. All the same, I think it's a waste for me not to learn a new language. In the future, I want to become a polyglot. I like to read, and I think a lot of translations are not perfect. Some things, I imagine, just can't be translated directly — the languages are different enough that a translsation neccesarily loses important nuances and “shades” of meaning. I hope someday to be able to read a book in English, not in translation. I enjoy reading non-fiction books about health, history and economics.

I think when you know a language you can go to some place and talk to people directly. But it’s difficult ‘cause there are no subtitles in real life, you know?

But when you go somewhere and you don’t know the language, you are just a spectator. It's a very different experience when you know their language. I want to learn more about their life and their thinking. By learning a new language, I can open my mind because in different languages we have different ways of thinking about the world. I want to experience more about the whole world, not just China. I know that China is a big and great country, but it's not the whole world. There are many great things and many great people out there. And if I have enough time, I want to learn more languages and experience more about human life.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.