Growing up with English
The love of reading
Lim Yi-En
ITEA 2015
Have you ever wondered how some people speak and write English so much better than others? Having good grammar and vocabulary helps. This is not enough though. What can truly make a difference is feeling a love for the language. It can't be taught. It can't be bought. How then does it happen? What's Up asked ten talented speakers and writers this question. The first is Dr Lim Yi-En. She heads the Department of Language Arts at the National Junior College's Integrated Programme. Last year, she won the Inspiring Teacher of English Award.

Q: Dr Lim, you are passionate about teaching and learning English. Do you remember how your love for the language started?
A: Yes, I do. It all started with my dad's five shelves of books. I loved reading the books on those shelves. They were all Penguin's hardback classics - books he had spent every year's school prize money on when he was a student. They had lovely jackets and, in those days, the pages were of very fine paper. But, mostly, I loved the stories. And so, my dad's bookshelves were the first library I went to.

Like many other children, I started out with the usual "Peter and Jane" storybooks in the Ladybird series. I went on to Enid Blyton's novels. Then, I made this huge leap when I discovered one bookshelf at home that was full of classics. I was in Primary 1 when I first read Little Women. In Primary 2, I read Pride and Prejudice. I loved Jane Austen's books. I still do.

Q: You were very young when you read those classics. Weren't they too difficult for you?
A: When I first read them, I couldn't understand all of what I was reading. But, I loved the sound of the words. I also enjoyed the conversations in these stories: for example, the sisters chatting about their visits to the poor folk in Little Women, that we call CIP or VIA now, but for them, looking after the poor was part of their lives; it was who they were.

My comprehension of the language came much later - the enjoyment of the story came first.

I used to think that if I read the books over and over again, I would understand the difficult words and sentences. I actually read some of them a hundred times! And, I found that I did understand them more after the second or third time, and even more with each new reading.

Q: Now you can look back through the eyes of a language expert. Would you say that rereading hard texts many times helped you, as a child, to understand what they meant?
A: Reading something more than once can help. But, in my case, I now see what was really happening. While I was reading the storybooks at home, I was also going to school and learning the language. It is this interaction back and forth between lessons at school and reading for fun at home that did it. And so, one big difference between reading Little Women in Primary 1 and then reading it in Primary 3 was that I had learnt so much at school in between. My vocabulary was growing. Also, as an older child, I could understand the plots far more easily.

Q: What else might have fuelled your eagerness to learn English as a child?
A: I loved reading classics because of the faraway scenes from long ago. During my childhood, I had not travelled anywhere abroad. So, those descriptions in the storybooks opened up spaces that I could enter in my mind. I really enjoyed that. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about why I liked reading what I read. It was only in junior college that I reflected on such things.

Also, my mother was an English language teacher. Before she knew about assessment books, she created worksheets for me at home and she couldn't produce them fast enough because I loved doing them so much. I'm sure that must have helped me become better at English.

Q: Many of our What's Up readers are keen to write and speak better English. What advice do you have for them?
A: It is important to have good quality input if you aim to have good quality output. The English we listen to, read are the input into the "bank of English vocabulary and sentence structures" inside our heads. So this means we should exercise good judgement in our reading material. We will not be good at swimming if we get ourselves wet in the pool once a month or two months. We need to practise the right swimming strokes regularly, with the coach to tell us where we went wrong. In the same way, we need to use the English Language as often as we can and as well as we can, and be open to teaching and correction in order to improve.

Learning from Lim Yi-En
In this new series, adults talk about their childhood experiences of the English language. This month, Lim Yi-En shares her memories. When she grew up, her love for the language led her to become a very qualified English teacher - she now has a doctorate, the highest college degree, in Linguistics. This expert on the study of languages says you should:
  • Listen to and read good quality English.
  • Read for pleasure. Enjoy the stories. Enjoy the sounds of words and phrases.
  • Regularly practise using rich vocabulary and right sentence structures.
  • Use the English language as often as you can, and as well as you know how to.
  • Be willing to learn from others by accepting correction and guidance.


The series is brought to you by What's Up in partnership with the Speak Good English Movement of Singapore.