Reader Dable writes:
"Dear Zhang Xin:
"I got to know about you from the site www.chinadaily.com.cn. I think you are the best.
"I am crazy about English, spending 5-6 hours a day on my English study. But my weakness is spoken English. I can't find an effective way of practicing my oral English. I hope you can give me some advice.
"If my letter disturbs you, please forgive me. But I am really mad at studying English. Nothing can stop me from mastering the language.
"Furthermore, here is a question. In 'most of the students', can we remove 'of the'? That is, what is the difference between 'most of the students' and 'most students'?"
Your letter doesn't disturb me. Your words (I think you're the best) do.
I think you're a very kind and polite person. Thank you for speaking of me favorably before asking a question. In this sense, you're not unlike most readers. At least most of the readers who ask me a question are like that. Most of them, by way of answering your question, are very generous in heaping praises on me as though they fear their question would get short shrift if they didn't laud me first. Like you, they usually don't introduce themselves much, often don't provide enough contexts to their questions but always are effusive in singing me praises for which I am good enough.
In fact, most readers who write to me are kind of like that, be they from Australia or Canada. Only Chinese readers are invariably more unscrupulously effusive in singing such praises. I think this is part of our collective psyche, that the sweeter the lip service is, the easier it is to achieve one's business objectives. It's out culture, an old and tiresome etiquette way overworked.
In future, I would like you to go straight to the question. Before that, let me say thank you for your kind words to complete the propriety (I know, of course, you were sincere. Therefore, I'm not going to resort to brandishing the teacher's stick before administering lashes to the palm of your hand).
Now that your question over "most of the" and "most" is, hopefully, settled, let's examine the other part of your problem - your oral English.
You spend 5-6 hours daily on your English. This, I think, accounts for your excellent written English. If you keep doing this and retain that madness (that nothing-can-stop-me attitude) your English will be better than mine in no time (see, I can wax lyrical, too).
However, at the risk of making a mistake, I assume that you spend most of that time working on your reading (or writing). In other words, you don't do much speaking of the language.
If that's the case, allocate more time to listening to the radio, watching movies and speaking more. And you'll be fine.
That sounds easier said than done, doesn't it? I'm sure you would prefer getting trickier answers than that. At least most of my readers do.
I have a few tricky answers up my sleeve, of course, such as telling you to pay through the nose for a 30-day crash course at a New Oriental school in everyplace, or marrying a native English speaker, preferably someone who works at the BBC. But tricks are tricks. They are not as good as simple, truthful ideas in the long run.
The thing to do is, therefore, just do it.
Most Chinese people are culturally programmed into believing that we can't speak good English. "I can't find an effective way of practicing my oral English", you said. That very notion, that you can't, might be your biggest hindrance.
It's not that you can't, but you don't. The only effective way of practicing oral English is practicing it.
I don't think I'm famous enough to answer your question satisfactorily by giving a simple reply like that. So here, let me borrow a similar thought from M. Scott Peck, the best-selling author of The Road Less Traveled.
In his book, Peck recounts that he did not learn how to fix things until he was 37, when he watched a neighbor repair a broken lawnmower. "Boy, I sure admire you," said Peck, complementing the neighbor. "I've never been able to fix those kind of things or do anything like that."
"That's because you don't take the time", replied the neighbor. And with that came a moment of enlightenment to Peck, who realized he had indeed never taken the time or put any steadfast effort in repair jobs because he had long acquired a defeatist attitude which says "I never have and never will."
"I now know," Peck writes, "that this is a choice I make, and I am not cursed or genetically defective or otherwise incapacitated or impotent. And I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time."