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Mar 29, 2021

How LSE, Oxford And Stanford Made Me Realize How Bad I Was At English

I was good at English. So with confidence, I moved to England through a scholarship. But as soon as I heard my professors talk, I realized I was wrong.

How LSE, Oxford And Stanford Made Me Realize How Bad I Was At English

Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu


Being a student of an advanced English class who won second place (there was no first place that time) in a national English competition in grade 11, I thought I was brilliant at speaking and writing a language not native to my tongue. After getting a scholarship in Cambridge Tutors College, and then LSE (The London School of Economics and Political Science), I moved to England and started a new academic journey, bringing with me the confidence that I could easily communicate in my new environment. I won an English competition, remember?

I was wrong. I was in constant shock during the first lectures as I barely understood what my professors were talking about.

It was even worse outside of the campus! It was as if the people in the local market were speaking different languages in so many different tones and accents, and the way they used their words sounded so...strange, unlike what I’d listened to in those “standard English” audio tapes. Even if I could hear them, I always felt like a cat got my tongue.

Getting soaked in English, anytime, anywhere

Soon, I reckoned there was something wrong about how I learned English back in school. Instead of focusing on what’s practical and conversational, what I’ve been taught was heavily academic, making English somewhat a “destination”, rather than a tool. As a result, the whole learning process was mostly receptive and non-flexible, when it should be more productive and useful.

I had no choice but to “unlearn” what I had and “reset” this language I thought I already mastered like the back of my hand. Every activity was a learning opportunity for me. Watching TV shows, shopping for groceries, hanging out with friends. I cannot forget the time when my landlady’s children spent the whole evening helping me pronounce two words “work” and “walk” correctly. I cannot count how many times people would look at me in an odd way because they had no idea what I just said, but then, bless them, they would patiently and nicely correct me. One step at a time, I told myself. It took me almost half a year to finally become more relaxed during conversations, although there were still a few words I couldn’t pronounce perfectly.

Du Hoc
Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu

To me, being able to study abroad was a push for me to get the exposure to learn English on a daily basis, to be more motivated as I tried to improve my listening-speaking skills, as well as my language reflex. With that being said, without the internal fire, the desire of being able to understand those lectures, the need to express my points of view. No external force could have helped me overcome the language boundaries.

After conquering numerous presentations and conferences, I look back at all the efforts and energy I exerted to improve the way I speak and understand a language I love learning. What I got wasn’t just the mastery of the language, but also the confidence that was formed from years of relentless practice.

When it comes to education, the sky's the limit

When my “new” English became more natural to me and not anymore a tedious task to perform, the next hill to climb was LSE. I was overwhelmed by how strongly they emphasized the “self-study” attitude here. Attendance? Optional. No one cares if you don’t show up. Homework? Good for you if you spend time on it, but also optional. There’s only one examination in the whole school year to evaluate and categorize students into five levels: first class, upper second, lower second, pass, or fail. From what I was told, every year only 10% of the students make it to the first-class circle, while 30% of them fail.

You may not believe it, but from day one in LSE, I already made up my mind that I would aim for the PhD program after my university graduation. “That’s really hard!” said my mentor, “There are only a handful of our university's graduates that continue studying to get a PhD, let alone an American PhD like you want. But if you still want to give it a try, you need to pass more difficult subjects!” From that day, I was determined to cross out all the toughest subjects, even when it also meant becoming a first class student would be harder to achieve.

In my sophomore year, Econometric 2.0, along with another senior subject, drove me crazy. I used to spend five to six hours sitting by the desk and still not understanding anything. It was easy to feel like giving up in that situation. But all the doubts, struggles and exhaustion were nothing compared to the epiphany I felt when I finally succeeded in “cracking the code” after very, very long hours of trying, failing and trying again.

Coming toward the end of the school year, my results in Econometrics and Game Theory (the most two challenging subjects to pass first class) were even higher than other “easier” subjects! In that moment, I realized that all I needed was to never stop believing in myself. More often than not, the best results you receive are the fruits of your self-motivation.

Du Hoc 1
Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu

In fact, self-motivation kept me working hard during my time in Oxford University getting my MBA, as well as when I was in Stanford studying for my Doctor of Economics degree. I would rather “torture” myself with new subjects than re-taking any course. I would try my best looking for interesting materials from any possible source for my presentations, or experimenting varied types of ideas and writing styles.

I told myself, as someone who spent 11 years applying for scholarships using my English as a tool, I am not wasting my time in Oxford or Stanford to just be a safe player. When it comes to education, the sky’s the limit.

The joy of lifting others up

By the end of my last year in Stanford, I started to notice there was a battle between two selves inside of me. One of them is the “extrovert” - one pulling me toward a fancy life full of money and reputation, that I should enjoy the admiration I’m getting for my “Doctor from Stanford University” title from the society. The other one is more down to earth - telling me to look back to my hometown, a place full of warm and innocent smiles, where its dynamic youths are willing to learn and thrive, where people share genuinity, where I find inner peace.

Two months left until the end of the program, I got a message saying “Hey, I just got accepted for a scholarship! Thank you so much!” It was one of some messages from the students I had two years ago. As I was reading them, I finally came to a realization that there’s more to life than just the joy you get when leaving your office on a Friday afternoon, or knowing today is payday, or when your boss informs you of your raise and promotion. There’s a different sense of joy and of fulfillment when you lift others up.

Du Hoc
Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu

Leaving all the promising proposals behind, I made my way back home to Vietnam. At that time, it seemed like a poor decision. But at the age of 27, I wanted to spend the last years of my 20s pursuing the things that felt close to me, things that allowed me to be myself.

Some might say my encounter with the education field was too sudden, too fast, more impulsive than rational. Yet, once the decision was made, I went all in for it.

What to prepare for your English learning journey

Over 10 years of working as an educator and encountering many students from different ages or backgrounds, it still surprises me to find out the way they’re learning English today isn’t much different from what I experienced back then, or even more serious. There are still the same old vocabulary and grammar lessons that are too focused on the theory yet leave them no chance of practicing them in real life scenarios and contexts.

That is probably the reason why a great deal of students find themselves struggling in making a conversation or situations when they need to express their opinion, despite spending their 12 years in school, plus four years in university on learning English. As a result, it’s going to be such a tough challenge for them once they enroll for post-education programs, especially in an international learning and/or working environment, where communication skills are highly required. Students will soon realize the enormous gap between what they learn in class and real-life demands.

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Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu

To become a fluent English speaker, in my opinion, learners should always begin with a learning goal, then choose the most suitable and effective approach for themselves. An environment where you can practice the target language is also needed, especially for speaking skills. We’re living in a “limitless” world where almost everybody has access to media, technology, language platforms and forums, etc. The question is “Are you patient and resilient enough to make use of these sources to achieve your goal?”

A companion who is able to provide you constant support is surely a boost to your learning experience. With their help, your English skills can be improved remarkably in the shortest time. A companion could be your teachers, your friends, your colleagues, or intelligent technology platforms.

Last but definitely not least, self-motivation is the ultimate tool that secures your success. Not having enough of this inner “fire” or failing to maintain it, you’ll just end up wasting your time, money and effort while you’re still so far away from your goal. And the important thing is, self-motivation cannot be given to you or kept for you by anyone, except for you.  

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Source: Nguyen Chi Hieu

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This article is translated by L A M