Learning the spell

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  When you read you begin with ABC…  I remember my first BIG word at Year 5 : M-e-d-i-t-e-r-r-a-n-e-a-n, Mediterranean.   Hey I could spell.   I-could-spell.  I was seven feet tall.  Pretty soon though I was brought back to earth.   Apparently spelling was all we were being taught, in English lessons in a Hong Kong Government primary school.  Our teachers spoke in secret codes among themselves when they didn’t wish to share the conversation with us.   We hardly went past How do you do at that stage, so they didn’t even have to whisper.  Not until Year 7 (Form 1) did we have a fuller swing into proper English learning mode : go going went gone; do doing did done; begin beginning began begun.  Tenses; direct and indirect speeches; opposites; and other grammatical stuff given out in long lists for us to memorize and get tested.  Spellings too.  Never heard of phonetic, that’s not how we were taught by, still we had spelling competitions in class.  Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Excuse me.  I spot a typo error here.  

The title is meant to be ‘Learning to spell’.   I am about to tell you how I came to learn my English, slowly and strenuously.  List by list, of grammar and vocabulary.  Book by book, of abridged classics — Thirty nine steps; Three men in a boat; The mill on the Floss; Animal farm; Pride and prejudice; The prisoner of Zenda; A tale of two cities.  Composition.  Precis.    Dictation.  Then a weekly period spent in the library in Year 7 giving us the first taste of freedom of choice.   For those 35 minutes no teacher standing in front of the blackboard with a piece of chalk, just different worlds opening up in bound pages for us to wander through.   A whole new horizon, to explore, on our own, in our own pace.   On me, a spell has been cast.  I’ll keep ‘Learning the spell’.

Learning a second language, as is with other life skills, would be much easier with a good tutor don’t you agree?   I am fortunate enough to have met one.  Once, briefly.  The supply teacher came in for a double lesson.  She explained : “Simple English is the best English.  In composition, do not look up your dictionary for difficult, alien words to insert into your paragraphs just to impress your readers.  Use one word, not two, if it does the work.  When you finish, read your essay aloud.  If you hear the same word repeatedly, in the same sentence, or paragraph, then it’s time to replace it with another.”   Not exactly in her own words but as I remember them.   I follow her advice to the t.  To this day I have a small vocabulary the size of a…eh… I don’t know the word for it.

But I do know the spell that kept me to further discover the joy and solitude I can find in reading.  A page full of wisdom and wit that brings laughter and tears; a sentence that strikes the same chord with the mood at that moment; a moving story, with envious thought I secretly wish that one day could have been written by me….

The spell of beautifully crafted words, will tingle your heart, fill up any holes in there, and comfort or brighten up your day, whatever it may be.  I shall leave you with some of my favourites from the yellowed pages where I carefully underlined :

  •  ”It is the wilderness in the mind,  the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger.  When one is a stranger to oneself one is estranged from others too.”  –  A.M. Lindbergh : Gift from the sea 


  • “The fear inside of loneliness, that only what others have is real”  –-        Liv Ullmann : Changing


  • “What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?”  —   George Eliot


  • “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction”  —   Antoine de Saint Exupery : Wind, sand and stars

This final passage I quote from Wind, sand and stars, with sad resonance and, in fond memory of my two dear friends, YYK and R, who lost their battles against their illnesses last year:

  • “Life may scatter us and keep us apart; it may prevent us from thinking very often of one another; but we know that our comrades are somewhere “out there” — where, one can hardly say — silent, forgotten, but deeply faithful.  And when our path crosses theirs, they greet us with such manifest joy, shake us so gaily by the shoulders!  Indeed we are accustomed to waiting.        Bit by bit, nevertheless, it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us.  And at that moment begins our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter.  For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion.  Old friends cannot be created out of hand.  Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.  It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.         So life goes on.  For years we plant the seed, we feel ourselves rich; and then come other years when time does its work and our plantation is made sparse and thin.  One by one, our comrades slip away, deprive us of their shade.”

I am convinced, as C.S. Lewis said, ” we read to know we are not alone”,  so you may have your share of memorable words too.  Please feel free to leave them here, somehow we could use some company right now.


6 thoughts on “Learning the spell

  1. Imagine our world if without words to read……..Luckily, you and I can enjoy both 美麗的中文字 and English—double the joy.

  2. Just read from today’s Ming Pao Daily –A lady thinks that 閱讀是一種福分。How true. We are blessed. Hey, gonna work all through June till July 12th. Will still read your blog but may not have time to respond. Have ‘homework’ to do……

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