Pride and Prejudice and ESL

I hated reading in English until I found my old favorite

by Chelsea Yan

I was careful not to fall as I slowly climbed up the wooden ladder to the dusty attic. The stuffy space smelled of damp socks and spoiled milk. In the dim light from the tiny attic window, I found the enormous cardboard box of books I was looking for. As a 3rd grader with a voracious appetite for reading, I was on the hunt for yet another book in my family’s apartment in Xiamen, China.

I dug into the box and carelessly tossed the books that didn’t spark my interest aside until one particularly beautiful cover caught my eye. On it, two English ladies were looking out a large window. Their wavy blond hair, their fancy embroidered gowns, and the playful expressions on their faces opened up my imagination. The girls looked like two dainty little birds. The bold golden Chinese characters on the smooth navy blue cover read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I grabbed the book and climbed down the ladder to go back to my room.

I opened the curtains to let in the bright afternoon sunlight, tucked myself into my fluffy pink bed, and immersed myself in the world of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. As I turned the smooth, waxy pages, I realized I had never felt so close to the characters in a book. I could see Elizabeth’s expression in my head as she mocked Mr. Darcy’s comments about her appearance. I heard the melodious music in the luxurious ballroom as Mr. Wickham danced gracefully with the Bennet sisters. I felt Elizabeth’s and Jane’s disappointment as Mr. Bingley left Hertfordshire.

Austen’s fluid, precise language filled my world. I didn’t hear my brother coming home from the playground, and I didn’t notice my grandmother place a glass of water on my desk. I was so gripped by the story I barely moved at all.

Losing Interest in Reading

My mom told me that as soon as I could sit up, she started reading to me in Chinese. She read me all sorts of books: fairy tales, science fiction, myths, mysteries, even Confucius. Drooling in my wooden baby crib, I obviously did not understand a word. But my mother’s persistent efforts helped me develop a habit of reading.

My mom was a busy company manager who worked until 10 p.m. every weeknight, but she made sure my babysitter brought me to the library almost every afternoon. On weekends, she took me there herself. As soon as I was old enough, I went on my own and devoured books. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, I was the girl with a “dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book.”

We moved to the United States from China the summer before 4th grade. On my first day of school, I was stunned by the vibrant red railings in the large stairwells. “What type of people would want bright red railings?” I thought to myself, recalling the elegant white stairwells in my school in China. In my mind, everything in China was 100% better and cooler.

I had been social in China, surrounded by friends everywhere I went, but I felt isolated in my new environment. I began to dislike school for the first time in my life. I hated having to sit on the floor cross-legged during class. I hated the squishy hamburgers and burned fries they served in the cafeteria, and missed having delicious miso ramen and grilled beef chops for lunch. I hated having to spend three whole days on long division, when in China, we had gone over the whole topic in under a hour in 1st grade.

I hated not understanding the teachers when they spoke to me. Their efforts to help me understand through body language annoyed me; it felt obvious that they saw me as a helpless girl who didn’t get a thing. And though I had always loved books, I hated reading in English.

Baby Books

In ESL classes, I sat only with the other Chinese students. We secretly mocked the teachers and other students together. Though I had always been the teacher’s favorite, in my new school I became rebellious. I wanted to go against the rules because I felt there were no consequences: Even if I burned the school down, no one could blame me because I didn’t understand anything anyway, right?

My 5th grade English teacher, Ms. Thomas, gave me books she thought were well-suited for an English Language Learner, but her efforts to help only annoyed me. She chose simple texts to develop my vocabulary as I moved from one reading level to the next. However, they were baby picture books with little writing and basically no plot. Some of them came from the “I Can Read!” series like Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch and Penny and Her Marble.

These books bored me to death. It surprised me that American 4th graders were still reading books meant for the development of basic comprehension. By 4th grade, I had read classics like War and Peace and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on my own time in Chinese. As a result, I no longer found joy in reading.

One afternoon, after all the students had put their chairs up and left for the day, I stayed behind. Ms. Thomas had asked for another short meeting to discuss how I was doing with the books she had given me. She found me waiting impatiently in the school library, our usual meeting spot, and sat down next to me.

“Chelsea, I know you have been reading many English books and I am seeing your improvements,” Ms. Thomas said. I rolled my eyes secretly. “I know you love to read, so you must have found those childish books very boring.”

I nodded in reply, but I expected her to get out some more baby-level picture books.

“I think it’s time for you to start reading more complicated books. I picked out some classics for you. Would you like to see if you are interested in any of them?” she asked pleasantly, pulling out a few crusty old books from the school library.

Familiar Novel, New Language

As I flipped through the pages, I noticed these thick novels were filled with words that I didn’t recognize. I was about to tell Ms. Thomas that I didn’t like any of them when a copy of Pride and Prejudice caught my eye, just as it had in the dusty attic of my home in China two years earlier. I remembered the summer afternoon I’d spent reading it and how I had felt transported to another world.

I immediately pulled it out of the pile of books and scanned through it. This version of the book had a hard cover and a silky smooth texture to its pages.

“Chelsea, Pride and Prejudice is a very interesting book, but are you sure you would like to read it?” Ms. Thomas asked. “It might be too challenging for your reading level. You might not even be able to understand half the story!”

“I am willing to challenge myself,” I replied. “I will try to read it, even if I need to use the dictionary to understand it.” I slid the book into my bag gently, as if it was my precious baby. I went straight home that afternoon and threw all my homework aside, eager to tackle this new challenge.

I read the book in English slowly, frequently stopping to look up the definitions of words. I had a dictionary by my side and kept my laptop open to Google Translate, where I looked up definitions of longer phrases that were new to me. I also searched for examples of how to use this new vocabulary in a sentence. When I didn’t have access to a dictionary, I wrote down the words I didn’t know on a small Post-It note and looked them up later.

By reading Pride and Prejudice in English, I learned more grammar and vocabulary than the “I Can Read!” books ever taught me, because I had the interest and passion to keep going even when I was worn out after a whole day of school. My mom was glad to see me picking up an English book with the same enthusiasm I’d had when I read in Chinese. She cheered me on when I got burned out and wanted to switch to a Chinese novel that I could easily finish in a few hours.

Though looking up all the new vocabulary slowed me down, I finished reading the book in two weeks. As I turned the last page, I felt incredibly satisfied and proud of myself. After conquering Pride and Prejudice in English, I became more willing to accept new reading challenges.

Finding Fluency and Confidence

I also used my newfound sense of accomplishment and confidence to make friends in school. Though I was embarrassed by my accent, I started talking more with the kids in my class. This started a positive cycle: I made friends from different backgrounds and I started to fit in at school. I practiced speaking English when I spent time with these new friends and learned about different cultures. Practicing made me more and more fluent, and I regained the self-confidence I had lost when I first transitioned to school in America.

By 7th grade, I was fluent enough that my friends gasped in surprise when I told them I had moved to New York just a few years ago and hadn’t known much English when I first came. Only at that point did I feel like I had actually moved to New York City, not just physically, but mentally.

I re-read Pride and Prejudice a few times and gained new insights each time. Because moving to America broadened my perspective on the world, I no longer blindly admire everything described in the book. As I became a more analytical and open-minded reader, I understood how Austen used Elizabeth’s story to illustrate the harshness and vulgarity of society in early 19th century England. This sparked my interest in feminism and history, and I wanted to learn more about the different types of restraints women around the world faced.

Some say Pride and Prejudice is a book of cotton-candy romantic fluff. I think they’re wrong. Reading it in both English and Chinese changed my understanding of literature and made me a more analytical, imaginative reader. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re struggling with reading, find a book that grabs you the way Pride and Prejudice grabbed me. It makes you want to keep going.

After conquering Pride and Prejudice in English, I became more willing to accept new reading challenges.
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