Upon passing the 1977 college entrance exam, I received an enrolment notice from a college with a course/major that was not what I originally applied for. I accepted the offer nevertheless, as I could not afford to wait for another year while staying in the countryside as a farmer. Following my arrival at the college, I realized that my undergraduate course was truly not my cup of tea, so that I began to think about what I would do after graduation. Considering my interest in languages, I thought becoming a professional translator might suit me fine. So I decided to focus on foreign languages such English, German, French, Russian, Spanish and Japanese with my spare time, and one day I would translate professional books, journals and abstracts from these languages into Chinese. And for this purpose, I needed to brush up my Chinese as well.
According to the psychological theory, human mechanical memory improves with age until 24. After that, it is all downhill. Therefore, being 20 yo at the time, I thought I had only four good years to utilize my memory. Instead of spending my precious four years on my course subjects which I hardly liked, I would use my time on something that demand mechanical memory like foreign languages. As I had relatively little money to buy books of my own, the college library became the source of my knowledge-seeking adventure. At first, I went through all English textbooks including those written for other majors/courses that could be borrowed from the college library. Soon, English dictionary was the only book that I had not yet gone through from the first page to the last.
So now, my attention turned to dictionaries. During my four year stay in college, two books were constantly kept in my jacket pockets: a copy of “New English and Chinese Dictionary” with about 13,000 entries, and a copy of “Xihua Zidian” with about 9000 entries. When I was queuing for meals, I would read a page or two; and when I was attending the regular political study in the Thursday afternoon, I would go through in my mind the new words I learned during the week.
Gradually, I worked out some innovative ways to memorize English words, through association by number of letters per word, by similar or opposite meanings and by identical endings or beginnings, etc. I would write similar or opposite words I could remember on each entry. So when I opened my dictionary, one entry would lead to another, and another. Reading dictionary became kind of entertainment for me, as it was like a maze, once getting in, it is almost impossible to get out. After going through my “New English and Chinese Dictionary” from front to back at least three times over the four year period, I managed to remember nearly all vocabulary within the book at my peak. I would sometimes hand my dictionary to a classmate, and challenge him to find a word in the dictionary which I did not know. More often than not, I could tell the meaning of any chosen words without much trouble.
For my oral English, I would listen to radio channels that teach English. My favorite channel at the time was the Voice of America, which taught “English 900” course. After following this course two to three times, I could speak English with confidence. During weekend, I would sometimes go to tourist attractions to chat with foreigners in English. And one day I helped a foreign lady in the department store in selecting and buying the items she was interested in, while the salesgirl was hopeless with little understanding of English language.
During the final year of my college, our class went to Henan to do practice. On the train, there happened to be an American tourist traveling by himself, with the help of a copy of Chinese-English dictionary. Many of my classmates supposed to have good command of English language, but after a few minutes, they seemed to lose topics with this American. On the other hand, I chatted and talked with this guy for over 6 hours until we both were too tired to speak. My classmate did not realize I had such a good knowledge of spoken English and wondered how I managed to find so many topics to go on.
With my Chinese dictionary, I would also read it page by page, and tried to use the words I learned in essays that needed to be submitted fortnightly from each department to the college broadcasting station. I remember one day I included many unusual words in an essay, which gave the broadcasting girl a truly hard time, as she made numerous mistakes while broadcasting. As I listened to the broadcasting, I simply could not hold my laughter with words mispronounced here and there. Another favorite thing I did with Chinese language learning was to read a dictionary of Chinese idioms. I would then initiate some kind of competition with one of my classmmates, to see who became the first to fail to find a Chinese idiom of similar or oposite meanings. The same also applied to Chinese character learning.
Because of my interest in English language, I made a few good friends who also enjoyed learning a different language. One of my best friends at the time was a Master's student in my department. In order to maintain contact with this friend, I chose to study the same subject as my best friend for my postgraduate major. At the time I was somewhat hesitant to apply for scholarship for studying overseas, and it was this friend who reckoned my good English skills might carry me through. His encouragement helped me make up my mind, and I was determined to give my best shot.
I spent the summer holiday of 1981 in the college, trying to refresh my memory on three selected subjects plus English and politics within 45 days. That summer was hot, and there was no fan or air conditioner in my dormitory at the time. I did not really know how I managed to get through all the heat and the pressure largely unscathed. I began as an underdog, but emerged as a dark horse. To the surprise of everybody else except me, as I had firmly believed if I could not make it, not many others would either, I became the only person in my department to gain a scholarship to study overseas that year.