After moving to Canada eight months ago, my encounter with people has always, with a few exceptions, consisted of questions about my name and nationality, followed by a compliment on my English.
"Where did you learn to speak? At school?"
"Mostly extracurricular classes," is my usual answer.
In Iran, these private extracurricular English classes are a basic fact of life. For many children, English education starts earlier even than learning to read and write in Persian. This may have something to do with Iranians' obsession with education, or their hope that bilingualism will guarantee a better future for their children. It's not just children -- many adults, women in their 20s mostly, and also older mothers and grandmothers, are huge fans of these classes.
My English education, similar to that of my friends, started in kindergarten. Up until grade five, with several long intervals, all I knew, embarrassingly, had never gotten further than "Hello, how are you, what's your name," in a thick accent, emphasizing "e"s and pronouncing "w" as "v." When I was 12, after a two-year gap, I was enrolled in the most basic course offered for children. This time, I was determined not to waste my parents' money more than I had already.
In middle school, among other subjects, English was added to our curriculum, but this never stopped us from moving on with our private lessons. You never asked a stranger, "Do you take extracurricular English courses?" You asked, "Where do you take your extracurricular English courses?" And you never really needed to say the whole "extracurricular English courses" thing -- the word "language" had become a concept to replace that. You would say, I have "language" at three o'clock, and that would have sufficed.
It was a common sight to see kids doing their English homework during breaks, or furtively during class time. Those attending the same institution and taking the same courses in different branches revealed the exams' questions to each other. The more fluent ones were used as walking-and-talking dictionaries. Some had teachers with an almost-British accent and others had teachers with an almost-American one.
For me, studying English gradually became a hobby, sometimes more gratifying than hanging out with friends. When I didn't have anything better to do, I flipped through a dictionary and highlighted random words; sometimes I translated the words in an specific passage -- "Some Words to the Teachers," for example. I spent hours filling little notebooks with the definition of different words, only to lose them after a couple of weeks.
In my room, dictionaries were literally everywhere -- on my computer, on my phone, on my desk, on my bookshelves. The most fulfilling moments came when I made progress from using an elementary dictionary to intermediate and finally to the nice, thick advanced one -- followed by collocations and thesaurus dictionaries. My relatives who lived abroad flooded me with the English textbooks they used to study and now wished to get rid of: fancy picture dictionaries, old grammar guides, CDs for practicing listening, a three-volume series named Boost Up Your Skills: Useful Words, Phrases, and Verbs in the World of Medical English, and storybooks ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Moby Dick.
I'll confess that I loved it. When I was feeling low, I sought shelter in studying English. This way, I could close the English-speaking section of my brain, and open myself to a new world in which I was incapable of thinking with a very extensive vocabulary to reflect on my sadness. As I look back, I see one of the best episodes of my life in a solitary summer afternoon, lying on the floor in front of air conditioner with several English books spread around me and my laptop open on Longman dictionary, while having cherries, watermelon and tea. I never studied any other subject with so much dedication and diligence again.
After a while, I started watching Hollywood with English subtitles instead of my usual Persian ones, six months before I did away with subtitles all together. Next I began to read the books my father had bought while he studied English. They were all Oxford Classics and, since I had no access to contemporary fiction, inevitably, I took up Anna Karenina. I ruined this book and many others by skipping hard passages, but reading them greatly improved my grammar and comprehension.
Everything else happened very quickly. Before moving to Canada I had already started thinking, writing, and talking to myself in English. I still have a long way to go for catching up with my colloquial English and boosting up my understanding of different accents, tones and speeds of speech. I learned English by loving it and immersing myself in it. These days I'm learning French -- let's see how this journey turns out.