Welcome to Fool for Language

Welcome to Fool for Language, the site for people who are crazy about learning languages - like me! If you are new to this blog, I recommend you read the articles in order. The information will make better sense.

This is my first blog and writing each essay has been much more enjoyable than I expected. I have spent most of my life teaching and, more importantly, learning languages. I have “survived” a wide range of teaching techniques, materials and teachers. The result is that I have a pretty clear idea of what has and has NOT worked for me. Yes, I am opinionated, but even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you will enjoy the stories and think about what gets you “wired” when you dive into the wonderful world of learning another language.

I want to thank some people who have helped me maintain momentum with this blog. To give you, the reader, a break, every 10th essay is written by a guest blogger, all close friends with their own special take on language learning. As for the uploading process, Kurt meticulously proofreads and makes insightful comments on each essay; while Yoh patiently provides technical support, including selection of the vibrant visuals. Thank you!


53. An ASEAN Affair

I fell in love when I was 19. Having traveled little up to that point, I suddenly found myself in the outback of Malaysia on an exchange program, Canada World Youth (see blogpost 10). Absolutely everything was foreign: the heat was suffocating, my western clothes were too tight, the food melted my palate. The beginning of this affair was definitely not auspicious.

Malaysian customs were bewildering. Even basic greetings were radically different with firm, 2-handed shakes between men and a whispered glide across right palms when meeting women. Cultural information had to be learned the hard way - on the street. There were no quick Internet searches in those days. But gradually I was seduced and after six months dreaded the idea of returning home. I didn't want to leave this land where all of my senses seemed on edge and alive. As with all love affairs, nothing would be the same again.

I returned to Canada and pursued my original plan of attending university in Ottawa. But my head and heart were still in Malaysia. I tethered myself to the exotic world I had left behind by finding a part-time job at the Malaysian High Commission (see blogpost 14) and sharing a flat with Indonesian students. After class, I would hurry home, slip into a sarong, and eat curry while chattering with my roommates. I now know that I was suffering from "reverse culture shock", but this lopsided lifestyle seemed crucial to my sanity.

At the end of a year in Ottawa, where I had been majoring in Journalism, I realized that all of my assignments were focused on Malaysia. So I faced reality, packed up my bags and headed to the University of British Columbia where I changed my major to Southeast Asia Area Studies (see blogpost 17). As it turned out, I was the first student at UBC to select this major and the program was a shambles, a pastiche of courses glued together from various departments with no coordination. In my last year, of the nine classes offered seven were unavailable due to professors on sabbatical - and the remaining two courses were given at the same time!

But the classes I did manage to enrol in were fascinating. Countries that I had never been to were brought to life by teachers, such as Hugh Wilson, who mesmerized me with his knowledge of Cambodia. The country had mutated from being a tropical Eden, one of the most educated and sophisticated cultures whose ancestors had built the exquisite Angkor Wat, into a veritable Hell on earth. First, sucked into the vortex of the Vietnam War, it was now being brutalized by Pol Pot, a French-educated engineer who seemed determined to destroy his homeland.

Yet the stories my professor told of a gentle, refined people resonated. Despite the horrors, I wanted to witness this land for myself. As things turned out, I have had several opportunities to visit Cambodia, not only Angkor Wat, but villages without electricity where the children walk barefoot for kilometres to attend one-room schools. They are eager to learn and I believe their spirit holds the key to rebuilding this beautiful country.

Such is the nature of Southeast Asia. For better or worse, the area is constantly altering. Ancient animosities color relations between radically different neighbours. Beneath the tropical canopy exists a mosaic of cultural values imbued by a potpourri of religions, economic systems and languages that may have no thread of similarity. Cross the border and you enter unknown territory.

At 19, I learned this firsthand when I took a train from Kelantan, Malaysia on the east side of the Malay peninsula to Kedah on the west coast, a trip which required several hours of travel through the southernmost provinces of Thailand. We got off our high speed train in Kelantan, passed through the border check then boarded a steam engine to continue on through dense vegetation. As our train puffed through small villages, women would rush alongside holding baskets filled with homemade snacks for sale. My Malay was passable, but when I asked about the contents of the banana leaf-wrapped packages I was met with blank stares. These Thai villagers had no idea what I was saying.

Over the years, I keep returning to this region as fascinated by the people and places as when I was a young man. I have visited Thailand numerous times and now count several locals among my close friends. I spent a week in a refugee center for Vietnamese boat people high in the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines, sympathizing with compassionate Filipino staff as they agonized over how to tell the last remaining occupants that their camp was about to close and they would be homeless once again. I have shared a communal meal - one spoon and one bowl for everyone - with a family in rural Laos. I even spent a month recuperating from illness in Brunei General Hospital. I can now survive in four official languages in the region and want to study the rest.

Which brings me to my language learning website, Sulantra.com. We already have Thai, Khmer and Chinese courses available and, with a little luck and funding, hope to include the remaining ASEAN languages in the future. When we upload a new tongue it goes in as both a language to learn and to learn from. Imagine being able to study Thai from Burmese, or bahasa Indonesia from Vietnamese. With our unique delivery platform this is possible.

The countries of this region are getting ready to embark on an imaginative experiment. Under the umbrella of the ASEAN Economic Community, ten countries in the region intend to create one integrated zone for their citizens by 2015. This EU-like step will mean a greatly increased flow of people across borders as they pursue economic interests and a better life. How smoothly transitions will take place depends on the interaction between new arrivals and the communities they enter. There will be ups and downs, and the need for open dialogue - communication - between peoples is essential.

So which language is the best for ASEAN members to interact in? Some travelers to Southeast Asia say that English will suffice. I disagree. From my experience, I feel the best language for communication is that of the country you are in. In the case of ASEAN, as newcomers arrive on neighbouring doorsteps, they should learn the local language. With it will come knowledge of the culture. In a perfect world, local inhabitants would also attempt to learn the language of their visitors. Any effort to cross the linguistic and cultural divides of the region shows an understanding of new realities and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrates respect.

The countries of Southeast Asia have seeped into my soul. I love to return to old haunts, reminiscing about what was and marvelling at the never ending changes. I feel privileged to have caught the last vestiges of a vanishing world, to have tasted the exotic delicacies wrapped in a banana leaf passed through the window of a steam-driven train by a vendor clutching her basket.

But there is no point in pining for the palm trees of a postcard past. Like the recurring waves of a tsunami, change will inevitably sweep across the region with the approaching ASEAN integration. I can only hope these waves are manageable, their impact reduced through communication at all levels of society. As they say in Malaysia, “Selamat jalan.” – I wish you a safe journey!

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


52. Brain Benefits for Older Language Learners

I recently took a group of seven participants to Sichuan to test their communication skills after 20 hours of studying Chinese both online and in the classroom. I run these survival courses once or twice a year for research purposes (see blogposts 33, 34 and 35) to confirm how quickly you can get someone communicating on the street in a new language, as well as to determine a change in participants' attitudes about themselves as language learners.

In Sichuan, apart from typical onsite tasks, such as using local transportation or bargaining in the marketplaces of Chengdu, we also climbed Mount Emei, a World Heritage site, to watch the sun rise slowly over a sea of clouds in the valley below. The view was magnificent but the climb to the summit was, frankly, hell. Slipping on ice and snow in sub-freezing temperatures while asking for directions in Chinese, I kept thinking, "You are getting too old for this craziness."

In a few months time, I will turn 60. Although I still feel like a kid (and generally act like one), the harsh reality is my joints are beginning to feel the years of wear and tear. Climbing Mount Emei brought this home. At one point, I slipped and slammed my knee into a tree trunk resulting in a limp for the remainder of my visit with a very bruised leg and ego!
I suppose the same can be said for my language learning efforts. Years ago people would praise my ability to seemingly pick up a new tongue after a few days overseas in the company of locals. Now I watch some of my brighter students breeze past in my survival language courses as I struggle to keep up. Sure, I can communicate but it definitely takes more effort than in the past.

Despite the Emei episode, I still see myself learning languages and testing communication skills far into the future (although perhaps in less treacherous terrain!). I find it exhilarating to watch insecure students "blossom" over a few weeks, becoming more independent and confident in their ability to function in a new language. And I still get an adrenalin rush when I put myself to the test and successfully complete onsite tasks with my students. Age does not eradicate one's desire – and ability – to learn a language (see blogpost 26).

There is another reason why older individuals should take up the study of a second language: apparently it benefits your brain.

There are numerous studies, particularly in the field of neuroscience, that suggest learning a second language maintains brain health, possibly even restructuring your brain. Not only does learning a new language evidently delay the onset of age-related mental diminishment, such as memory loss, but changes in the brain’s electrical activity seem to occur from the outset of learning a new language, good news if you are senior and want to get those neurons firing.

In the past, it was believed that after reaching puberty, your brain "hardened" and for most people it was impossible to truly learn another language. More recently, studies into the phenomenon of phantom limbs accidentally revealed that the brain does not harden but, in fact, remains plastic throughout our lives and can benefit from ongoing mental activity, such as learning another language.

On the other hand, to achieve the utmost gain, such language study requires specific conditions, including the recycling and expansion of content, as well as the need for learners to focus on the material they are studying. In other words, review must be built in, for example, in a spiraling format, while learners should definitely not multi-task when they study. (Turn off your cell phone!)

Another condition for training one's brain is the length of time for each study session. Research suggests that the maximum period a brain can effectively input information before losing focus is 100 minutes. My own experience with online language training using my website, Sulantra.com, suggests computer-based learning time should be reduced to about 60 minutes, the apparent limit of my attention span.

In many ways, maintaining your brain's vitality is a lot like developing your physical condition. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Training sessions should be frequent, regular and relatively short. Saving yourself for a multi-hour training blitz on the weekend cannot be compared to 30 minutes of focused, intense training each day. The practice time may be the same but the results are definitely not.

One more factor comes into play when studying a language online, your brain’s chemistry. We find it easier to maintain interest if there is a little "thrill" added to the study format induced by the chemical dopamine. This is easy to achieve online (just look at gamers as they zap their way through attacking aliens). Getting language learners wired with a dopamine boost can be as simple as bells and flashing lights after each successful user attempt. You hear, see and feel your progress. And, hopefully, with pleasure comes perseverance.

The field of neuroscience is fascinating with new data being published all the time about the impact of learning a language on your brain’s health. Do an online search using key words like "brain", "benefits" and "multilingualism", and you’ll see what I mean.

When I started building Sulantra.com my reasons were simple. I wanted an online language learning website my older family members could use with ease. I was thinking of one aunt who wanted Polish to deal with her in-laws, another who wanted Swahili so that she could venture to Tanzania and watch wildebeests trekking across the Veldt, and my mother who was attracted to French, the native tongue of her favorite teacher in school (see blogpost 1). Sadly some of these family members are now experiencing brain deterioration or have passed away.

As I contemplate the end of six decades of life's adventures, I realize that the chief benefactor of my website may ultimately be me. I envision years of continued language study and, hopefully, travel to places where I can test my communication skills. And while learning new languages online, I will not only continue to make the most of life, but likely be improving the health of my brain. Definitely an excellent reason for lifelong language learning.

Now if only I could remember where I put that computer mouse?

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


51. Tokyo 2020 - English? An Olympic hurdle!

The day after Tokyo was declared winner of the 2020 summer Olympics, I arrived at work to find teachers huddled around the morning newspaper animatedly discussing the event. There was speculation about venues for specific sports, where new facilities would be built, even how the university might involve our students in preparations leading up to 2020. Then one of my more perceptive colleagues pointed out that, without some command of English, everyone would be left by the wayside. Last in the race so to speak.

Then I threw another wrench into the works. Given the range of tourists from abroad who attend the Olympics, maybe our students would have a better chance at the jobs generated by such international events if they focused on languages other than English, for example, Chinese or Russian. I wasn't joking.

Many travelers believe they can tour the globe surviving on "Long time, no see" broken English. This can be a huge mistake. In most countries where English is not a first language, if you REALLY want to go off the beaten track and interact with locals, you need some of their language. Making the effort to learn even a few basic phrases will create a great impression and increase the odds that you will understand and be understood. This is definitely the case in Japan.

Visitors to Japan are often shocked at how difficult it is to get by in English. Even university graduates who have majored in the language and are theoretically able to speak it, may not grasp the simplest phrases. Part of the problem is geographical. As an island country, the opportunity for the average Japanese to use another language has traditionally been limited. Another hurdle is that English classes focus on tests resulting in learners who won't take chances. Make a mistake and you fail!

Then there is the Japanese language itself. It uses consonant-vowel combinations (“ka-ki-ku-ke-ko”) and is missing some key English phonemes. There is no distinction between "r" and "l", "th" comes out as "s" or "z", and there are only five vowel sounds. Stress and intonation can be almost non-existent. It is frighteningly difficult for Japanese to understand and be understood when "This is the wrong road." sounds like "Zisu izu za longu lodo."

What can be done? To my way of thinking, the onus is on the traveler to learn some of the vernacular of his or her destination BEFORE boarding an airplane. It doesn't take a monumental effort to pick up key terms for ordering breakfast or taking a bus. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many of the visitors to my home show up having made absolutely no effort to learn the simplest of Japanese phrases. I refer to these troublesome tourists as "babysitting duty".

Tokyo Metro's subway map

Is it so hard to get around Japan with only English? Imagine you can't order food in a restaurant; the taxi driver doesn't understand where you want to go; the bar you end up in gives you whiskey when you asked for saké. If you're lost, you can't even get directions back to your hotel. The above scenarios are not fantasies but based on actual events which my guests have encountered.

So why not learn a little "nihongo" online? A quick Google search will deluge you with sites for studying Japanese from English. If you want an effective and inexpensive course, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack! But if you don't speak English, options drop dramatically. Try searching for Japanese courses from Thai or Bulgarian. The slim pickings are often lists of words in isolation or mind-numbing grammar tables better suited to math tutorials.

No matter which language you study from, many online courses are simply old-school textbooks transferred to the Internet with buttons and bells added to make them "interactive". This glitter comes at a price. My pet peeve is websites with a well-designed, 1-minute "teaser" to seduce users into signing up for an inferior product. If only the same care had been taken with the rest of the website's content.

Another frustrating fixture of the language training scene are dinosaur products that require you buy overpriced software to access so-called "free" apps. Sounds like someone needs a new business model. As Bill Gates predicted in a 2005 memo, direct downloads have become the norm, making packaged software obsolete.

At this point, I'll plug my own language training website, Sulantra.com. We knew that we were developing an online product from the outset and created complete, straightforward courses that focus on doing specific tasks. We want to give everyone a chance to learn a new language so our 3-hour starter course is free. Best of all, we use ourselves as guinea pigs for all of our courses to make sure they are effective and keep us awake!

Of course, users are not fluent after a Sulantra course. Making speeches at the UN requires years of study and language learning products that promise fluency in one day/week/month are ludicrous, while "sound like a native speaker" is based more on brain chemistry than mental agility. Sure there are rare cases of adults who are able to perfectly imitate the sounds of a new language almost immediately, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most adult learners will never sound exactly like a native speaker. And why should they unless they are thinking of a career in espionage? Having an accent in a new language does not destroy one's ability to communicate. Just ask Sofia Vergara in Modern Family!

Back to Japan hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics. Friends of friends have already begun hinting about "a place to stay" during the festivities. The line is forming; however, I am seriously considering my own elimination round. Study Japanese on Sulantra.com and show me your certificate obtained at the end of the course. Then there may be space for you on my tatami. No more babysitting, eh?

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


50. If I can do it, so can you.

Wow – blogpost Number 50! I never imagined at the start of this project that we would get so far. To keep the tradition of a guest blogger every 10th entry, I have asked Yoh, the systems engineer for Sulantra.com, to write a piece describing his own personal journey learning languages. Fluent in four, he has direct experience using our website and has even tested his ability to communicate in Khmer on the streets of Siem Reap in Cambodia. In other words, he is the ideal author for this special entry. Enjoy!

If I can do it, so can you.
by Yoh

The first time I heard someone call me a polyglot, I felt very uncomfortable. To me, a polyglot is someone who is crazy about learning languages and extremely multilingual. I am jealous of real polyglots. I wish I could be fluent in a new language in 3 months as some websites say you can. To be honest, I have very limited interest in learning new languages and my experience of learning Mandarin, English and Japanese was definitely not an easy journey.

I was born in Leshan, a small city in Sichuan Province, China. There are many dialects in Sichuan and each city has its own, but they say the Leshan dialect is the most unusual. Some researchers say the pronunciation of Leshan dialect resembles an archaic form of Chinese from the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Every time I went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, I struggled to speak standard Sichuanese because some of the locals there couldn’t understand my “ancient” accent.

From elementary school to high school, the pinyin test was always a nightmare for me. Pinyin is the phonetic writing system for transcribing Chinese characters, which uses the Roman alphabet. It was designed for Mandarin, not for dialects. Having local teachers whose accent was not any better than mine teaching me how to read in Chinese wasn’t helping too much. I was expected to use only Mandarin in Chinese lessons, but I didn’t realize how bad my pronunciation was until I went to college in Dalian in the north of China. There were students from all over the country and Mandarin was the official language. It took a while for me to get used to speaking Mandarin properly. My English teacher in college, Miss Zeng, told me later that she could not understand me sometimes in the first couple of months because of my thick Sichuan accent.

One day, Miss Zeng approached me about entering an English speech contest. I thought it was a joke. “You don’t even understand my Chinese sometimes, why me?” I asked.

“Because you look harmless and I am too afraid to ask other students. According to the people in charge, each class must have at least one student to join the contest. You have to help me…”

Miss Zeng was a new teacher, and we were her first group of students. We got along with each other very well from the first day. I really liked her so I decided to accept the challenge. For about 3 months I worked very hard on my speech with Miss Zeng and another lovely English teacher, Megan from America. With their help, I surprisingly won the English speech contest, even with my “standard Chinese” accent. Okay, I have to confess that I suspect the amount of time I spent in the office of the English Department did make a good impression with the judges who were also working there.

As in most Chinese colleges, there were no English classes after the second year. What a relief! I thought I didn’t have to learn languages anymore. But I was naïve and it was too early for me to rejoice. During a serious career counseling session with Miss Wang, another teacher whom I respected a lot, she strongly suggested I learn Japanese, which would give me an advantage job hunting in Dalian where there were a lot of Japanese companies. She was right. I wouldn’t have been able to get a job offer from a Japanese company and come to work in Tokyo if I hadn’t taken Japanese classes in college.

So now you see why I feel uncomfortable when people call me multilingual. I was never aiming or dreaming to be able to function in 3 new and different languages. I picked them up because I had to. Even now I still have an accent in most of my languages and constantly encounter new words I don’t know. But I am happy that I have learned these languages, which opened many new doors and are helping me to see more of the world every day.

The only advice I can give people who want to learn a language is that, once you commit to it, you have to bring everything to it. The more time and energy you spend on it, the more you will get in return. It’s that simple. I am not an overly intelligent person and my background didn’t seem suited to language learning. If I can do it, so can you.


49. Saving Languages Online - Part 6/6: The Economics of Endangered

Yoh, the Systems Engineer for Sulantra.com, speaks four languages fluently: Mandarin, learned from elementary school, English started in secondary school, Japanese undertaken at university, and his mother tongue, a dialect of Sichuan that is barely understood a few kilometers from his hometown. He feels that, for young people today, the best motivation to study his first language would be an economic reason.

Although some educators may cringe at the idea, economic incentives to learn another language can be very effective. In Canada, I have friends working for the federal government who have spent untold hours learning one of our national languages in order to get a bilingual bonus. Another friend, a native English speaker from Yorkshire, learned Welsh as an adult and was able to secure a management position in a government agency in Wales. She was selected in favour of two local candidates thanks to her superior communication skills in Welsh.

The above are examples of an "instrumental motivation", learning a language to do something specific and, in this case, gain financial benefits. The promise of gainful employment can engage a community, particularly young people giving them a reason to investigate their culture, develop their language skills, and even remain in their homeland. This is long term, or "integrative motivation".

How can employment opportunities be developed for heritage cultures? An obvious possibility is through "ethno-tourism", or the introduction of one's heritage to outside visitors. In my travels to build Sulantra.com, I am frequently asked about native groups in North America. Hollywood has done an excellent job of piquing curiosity and, although the knowledge may be very distorted, there is genuine interest. Why not take advantage of this interest and open an online doorway to the community with the opportunity for direct experience? For example, in the e-Community Center described in blogpost 45, a space along the lines of "Get to know us better" could include the option of visiting the local community.

Opponents of this suggestion could argue it is "Disneyfication" of an indigenous culture and/or may prove costly. My rebuttal is that it needn't be plastic or expensive. Given the obvious interest of the visitor (after all, he or she did track down the community online), an ethno-tourist should be open to an authentic experience, such as a homestay or meeting with elders to ask questions and be educated.

You do not need to build an amusement park for ethno-tourists. Just offer a genuine experience in the community. Perhaps some components of a visit would be simulated, for example, accommodation in a traditional abode which locals have not used for decades. But it needn't be artificial and, if designed thoughtfully and combined with existing facilities, could be used to educate the young, contrasting traditional culture with the present, knowledge that everyone benefits from.

Another argument against an ethno-tourism approach is that, if successful, the number of visitors could overwhelm the community, possibly "corrupting" the social fabric and undermining the very culture the plan was intended to protect. A solution is to limit the number of visitors and the duration of their stay, something which the country of Bhutan presently does to protect its indigenous culture. The number of tourists waitlisted to visit this small country demonstrates that exclusivity has the potential for success.

With regard to "exclusivity", why not go one step further and reward ethno-tourists who have gone the extra mile? For example, dedicated travelers who have completed an online language course in the e-Community Center before their visit could be made an honorary member of the community. Or an ethno-tourist could be given an indigenous name by an elder at the end of the sojourn based on incidents and impressions of the visitor gleaned by guides, homestay families, etc.

The latter idea comes from personal experience. One month after beginning Chinese studies at university, our teacher assigned us Chinese names using her impressions of us in class. My cohort still addresses each other by these names almost forty years later. They come loaded with special memories and attach us to the target language culture like an umbilical cord.

In 1974, the Canadian government passed legislation requiring all those selling their wares in Canada to provide packaging, manuals, etc. in both French and English, Canada's official languages. In my childhood, I clearly remember reading the backs of cereal boxes and soup cans, comparing the French version with my native English. It may sound simplistic, but it helped motivate a young monolingual boy to learn français. Fascinated by the exotic words, I spent untold hours checking out any labels that crossed my path, and still surprise myself at the words I remember learned at a breakfast table in rural Alberta.

So why not legislate that all goods marketed in a heritage community include labelling that is in the heritage language? Because such a move is costly and some manufacturers might choose to bypass the region and sell their wares elsewhere. But there is an alternative that could allow for bilingual packaging, as well as create employment opportunities.

In Japan, goods are imported from around the world and, although tins, jars and boxes may have details written in English, Spanish or even Arabic, Japanese frequently does not make the cut. The solution? Sticky labels attached to original packaging with information given in Japanese. Why not do the same for heritage languages? Relatively inexpensive, these labels require translation skills that generate income for the translators (i.e. an economic need for fluency in the heritage language) and could encourage community members of all ages to literally look at their language again.

The possibilities for economic advancement of a heritage language are there to be explored. All it takes is some brainstorming, investigation of existing efforts by individuals, groups or governments to strengthen the use of their language, and a pro-active attitude to resuscitate the heart of one's heritage.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


48. Saving Languages Online - Part 5/6: Opening up, not giving up

In my previous blogpost, I talked about blended courses, or combining computers with classroom training, to develop communication skills in a very short time. In the courses I coordinate, learners start online, continue in the classroom with native "para-teachers" then head overseas to test their ability to communicate in situ.

Throughout each course, I administer surveys to identify changes in how participants perceive their language learning ability, as well as to confirm ongoing interest in learning languages. In one course, Shinobu, a young Japanese woman who had lived in the USA and was fluent in English and Japanese, wrote "I would love to study any language this way, even if only a few people speak it.” This comment has huge implications for endangered heritage languages. A positive first encounter with a language makes some individuals more open to the study of others (see blogpost 2).

Many within a heritage language community assume outsiders have no interest in learning their tongue; however, this is not necessarily the case. As a young man of 19, I was very keen to learn the language of Malaysia, a country I hardly knew existed prior to visiting there on an exchange program (see blogposts 10, 11, 13 and14). This interest was kindled through direct contact and positive experiences. Can online interaction foster such an attitude?

In blogposts 45 and 46, I discussed how an e-Community Center could support a range of services relevant to the heritage community. This site can also provide a doorway for others to approach the community, developing interest and empathy through online contact. Which brings us to a delicate issue: to what extent should people from "outside", including those from the mainstream culture that has oppressed the heritage community, be encouraged to join its activities?

In a recent article about efforts to restore the Comanche language (http://chronicle.com/article/Comanche-Nation-College-Tries/139631/?cid=cc&utm_source=cc&utm_medium=en), academics stated there was suspicion and resistance to outsiders trying to learn the heritage language. One woman was quoted as saying, "I don't think it's important for more people to speak the language. It's important for our people to speak it."

No matter what the reasons (and there are certainly valid ones), exclusivity is an attitude the heritage community can ill afford. To my way of thinking, the more people involved with learning a language, the better its chances are for survival.

Extreme opinions make for good copy and I question whether the majority in a heritage language community are as wary as the Comanche woman. As mentioned in blogpost 44, I have had direct experiences with the Iban in East Malaysia, Haida and Cree in Canada, Kosraens in Micronesia, and Welsh in the UK. In all cases, efforts I made to learn the heritage language were acknowledged positively. I would go so far as to say that the fact an outsider was making an effort to learn the language gave new relevance to its use.

I believe bringing the attention of "outsiders" to any language and reinforcing interest through direct contact, both online and in the real world, is an excellent way to promote any language and culture. This includes non-mainstream languages.

In 2007, I coordinated a short course in Thai, then escorted ("dragged" is perhaps more appropriate) a group of Japanese students to Thailand for onsite testing. After studying Thai for about two weeks, everyone headed to Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani, or simply “Ubon”, a provincial town in the northeastern province of Isaan, to apply their communication skills. Most participants joined the program reluctantly (the main motivation seemed to be credits to meet graduation requirements) but based on a positive experience studying Thai, all boarded the plane for Bangkok excited if a little terrified.

We arrived in Bangkok late and the group's first meal was at a noodle stand where each person ordered in Thai, visibly thrilled at the achievement. With each encounter in the local language confidence grew and, by the time we boarded the overnight train to Ubon, the group was excitedly anticipating their next adventure.

In Ubon, I paired the group with students from a local university. Each morning, the Ubon kids would meet us and explain what they had in mind for the day. The budget was limited, which meant activities were cheap but enjoyable, the kind of things only young people can collectively come up with. I stepped back and let them sort things out for themselves, listening to stories of their adventures at the end of each day and informally recording linguistic progress.

During the course of this short visit it became apparent that, rather than learning standard Thai, my students were picking up the local dialect, logical given the place and people they were spending time with. On the other hand, my students' attitude to learning this local language surprised me. They were clearly enjoying the experience, keen to collect Isaan terms, using them with each other and leaving me in the dark (for an in-depth description of this course check http://jalt-publications.org/archive/proceedings/2007/E123.pdf).

After returning to Japan, participants continued using Isaan phrases with each other, a kind of secret language that kept the memory of their Ubon experience alive. I recently had a reunion with several of the participants and was intrigued to discover that after five years they still remember many phrases, the language apparently welded into their collective psyches.

The point of my story is that interest in an indigenous, non-mainstream language was kindled over a very short period and has been maintained. I believe the same can be accomplished for heritage languages with suitable conditions in place: structured, non-threatening online language training and the opportunity for direct interaction with the heritage community both online and, ideally, in the real world.

Increased contact and the development of interest in a heritage culture and language can also have direct economic benefits for the community. In my final blogpost of this series, I will talk about these potential benefits.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


47. Saving Languages Online - Part 4/6: Back to reality

I work in a computer sciences department of a Japanese university and most people assume that I am a major advocate of learning online. Not true. I have too many students who are lost in their cyber world, incapable of communicating face-to-face with real people. Seriously.

In my previous three postings, I have talked about the benefits of creating an online presence to rejuvenate the language and cultural heritage of a community. On the other hand, it is crucial to bring computer activity back to reality, to synchronize your online presence with the real world.

Synchronicity varies with each feature of your e-Community Center. In this essay, I will discuss potential activities derived from the “Language Trove” space described in my previous essay. I should also state upfront that I will include discussion of my website, www.sulantra.com, in order to describe from direct experience how my students take online study to the streets in blended language courses.

In blogpost 33, I described how I train learners for one week online, continue studying in the classroom for two weeks then jump on an airplane with everyone and fly to a country where the language is spoken for testing. What does this have to do with heritage languages struggling for their survival? Possibly a great deal.

My website was derived from a classroom training approach I have been researching for over thirty years. As a result, the online and classroom versions are completely integrated, sharing the same instructional format, as well as comparable content. This is important since it means there are no nasty surprises when learners go from their computers to the classroom. After all, our first exposure to new ways of learning can permanently alter our attitude for better or worse (see blogpost 2).

In fact, the key to integration in a blended course lies with the teacher. I ask potential instructors to take a course online before heading into the classroom. I also seek out native speakers who are not teachers by trade, for example, exchange students. My experience has been that certified teachers tend to favour a familiar pedagogy and can be threatened by a new teaching approach. Once my "para-teacher" has gone through a Sulantra Starter course, we have a common understanding of the pedagogy, and the odds for full synchronization of the online and classroom study experience are greatly improved. 

Who would make a good para-teacher for a heritage language course? Obviously a native speaker works best but, in the case of heritage languages, there may not be too many left. On the other hand, there is another group to tap for instructors, which I refer to as the "middle generation". These are individuals whose mother tongue was likely stigmatized during their lifetime, including corporal punishment for using their heritage language at school. When questioned about the language of their childhood, members of this group frequently state they "don't speak it anymore." This is not necessarily true. 

The middle generation may be a little rusty but its members are certainly familiar with the sounds and meanings of the language of their youth. Their direct involvement, for example, as para-teachers or acting as volunteer tutors for young people studying online materials, can provide the impetus to retrieve the heritage language the middle generation still possesses. Through formal and informal involvement with the elders and youth of a community, this group can serve as a critical bridge between what was and what could be, restoring both linguistic and cultural knowledge. The middle generation can plant the seeds for revival, not burial, of the heritage language.

Assuming an appropriate online course is in place reinforced by classroom training with para-teachers, the focus shifts to use of the heritage language within the community. Just as a chat room provides a space for learners to practice online, the community should come up with activities held at specific times and locations in the real world for enthusiasts to use and improve their language skills. True recovery means having the chance to listen and speak - and have fun without worrying about correct grammar or test results. 

For example, why not have traditional cooking classes followed by dinner together? Or learn some songs and have a "karaoke party" every few months? (I have done both while learning Japanese and had a great time.) Language use is validated through interaction. It is up to the community to come up with contexts that give everyone a chance to use the language and, in the process, develop pride in their heritage.

With confidence comes creativity, which also contributes to restoring a language. Too often the focus of restoration efforts is simply cataloguing totems and teepees, relegating the heritage language to a hermetic box instead of considering how it could be "modernized". How far can this modernization process go? Languages are vibrant and those that are flexible and adapt are stronger for it. Just because a language does not contain the word for "telephone" or "computer" does not mean one cannot be invented. Why not use words that already exist, or change pronunciation so that it fits more comfortably into the frame of a heritage language?

Mainstream languages do this all the time. For example, rather than use a bastardized English version of "telephone", Chinese speakers say "dian hua", literally translated as "electric words", a much clearer representation of what happens when you phone someone. As for "computer", the French, ever wary of being inundated in English, say "ordinateur", while Japanese modify the pronunciation "
konpyutah" to suit their speech , as well as reduce the word when its paired with others (e.g. a personal computer is called a "pasa-kon"). If these mainstream languages can create their own versions of modern words, heritage languages can, too.

The reality is that, as the world becomes more globalized through TV, travel and technical innovation, the surge of new ideas - and language - will be ongoing. I feel heritage communities need to re-invent, reach out and invite others into their culture. I will explore this topic in my next blogpost.

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese,Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)