by Leo Wang
For Chinese students, learning English is a lifelong struggle. I first studied English in middle school and continued until university graduation, mostly for exams, without a practical environment for use. My English proficiency barely passed the College English Test Band 4, similar to a TOEFL score of 70, perhaps even lower. However, working at Huawei, where I needed to interact with international clients, significantly improved my English, especially in speaking.
After resigning from Huawei in 2004 and joining a startup in Shanghai, I took the IELTS and scored 6, an improvement from my university days. But for over a decade afterwards, I rarely used English, except when watching Hollywood movies or American TV shows. My favorite TV series was "Friends," which I watched three times to improve my English: first without subtitles, then with English subtitles, and finally with Chinese subtitles to understand missed parts. This significantly improved my vocabulary.
In 2014, I began visiting Silicon Valley once or twice a year for about two weeks each time, giving me a month annually to use English. Although I saw improvement, it wasn’t enough to solidify my skills. I admired fluent English speakers in Silicon Valley and dreamt of mastering English myself.
In November 2022, I moved to the U.S. Initially, my wife encouraged me to take the TOEFL to assess my level. Knowing I wouldn’t score high, I did a mock test online instead. The reading section, which should take 15 minutes, took me four hours. I realized I would probably score only 50 on the TOEFL. I resolved to start by memorizing vocabulary.
Many friends advised against memorizing words and suggested direct reading instead. But knowing that learning methods vary, I decided to challenge myself with vocabulary before moving to reading. A quote from Zeng Guofan deeply inspired me:
"Even the intelligent must put in hard work."
This made me realize the importance of diligence over shortcuts, which I often sought in my studies.
I practiced this philosophy by diligently studying and working, including self-learning Python in three months. Believing English would be easier, I set out to memorize all TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT vocabulary. I chose the Towords app for this purpose, memorizing 10,000 words in 96 days. I then enrolled in an English class at San Jose State University International Gateway, which, along with watching English YouTube videos and listening to news, significantly boosted my confidence.
On my 44th birthday, August 13, I took the TOEFL for the first time, scoring 97: 27 in Reading, 26 in Listening, 22 in Speaking, and 22 in Writing. This score, a substantial improvement from my previous level, affirmed the effectiveness of memorizing vocabulary and deepened my understanding of the importance of hard work, even for the intelligent.
This experience solidified my identity as a lifelong learner.