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!


26. Improving With Age

There is one final teaching story in Canada that I almost forgot to mention, which is ironic given that it deals with memory and older learners. My volunteer work with immigrant women through Vancouver’s Immigrant Services Society (see blog entries 17 & 18) caught the attention of the University of British Columbia’s Language Institute and, in my final year at UBC, I was asked to participate in an experimental project to research long distance learning. Participants living in isolated communities were expected to watch a series of soap opera-style TV shows developed by the university, then take part in a 2-hour class on Saturday mornings using study materials based on what they had watched. Subjects were divided by age and/or ethnic community then assigned to a “para-instructor”.

When it came time to assign the classes I was taken to the coordinator’s office and informed that my students were a group of senior citizens living in a Mennonite colony about three hours drive from Vancouver. I was told not to get my hopes up and not to be disappointed if (when?) my students’ progress was minimal. Given their advanced years, the assumption was that, no matter how much effort I put in, the results would be negligible. What a dismal way to start a course.

My first Saturday, I got up early and began the 3-hour drive to the colony determined to be on time for the lesson. I had done my homework and was dressed in a somber black suit in an effort to be culturally sensitive. After what seemed like an eternity of driving through fields of vegetables and fruit groves, I finally found the community center where the classes were to be held near the small rural community of Clearbrook. I parked my car and nervously entered to discover a group of fifteen elderly men and women all dressed in brightly-hued shirts and dresses. I felt completely out of place! Later, when I got up the nerve to ask about their rainbow colors, one of the older members, Agathe, proudly replied, “We are a progressive colony.” They certainly were.

During class break I asked many questions. The colony was obviously self-sufficient and functioned almost entirely in Low German, or Plattdeutsch. I couldn’t understand why they had agreed to be part of the university’s experiment. Why did they feel the need to learn English?

As it turned out, the core reason was the same for each person. Many of their children had left the colony and were working in nearby towns or Vancouver. When they visited with their grandchildren the latter were using English to communicate. It was this desire to stay in touch with their grandchildren that fueled the group’s eagerness to tackle English in their senior years. The youngest students were in their mid-60’s while the eldest, Heinrich, proudly informed me the moment we met that he was 84 years old.

Every week when I arrived, the group would be seated at long tables waiting expectantly for the lesson to begin. Spirits were high and study sessions were filled with joking and a constant stream of questions. Each lesson was a social occasion with everyone having a great time, including me.

But there were some awkward moments, too. At the beginning of my third class several participants fingered Maria, one of the more jovial members, for not having watched the weekly TV show. The one television set on the colony was located in the community center where we held our lessons and, if someone missed a session, everyone knew about it. Maria’s absence was verified by fourteen heads nodding solemnly and, despite my assurance that it “wasn’t a big deal”, she apologized profusely – and never missed another communal TV viewing session.

The “Clearbrook gang”, as I had come to call them, taught me many things about learning a language. First, having a specific, PERSONAL goal in mind is crucial for motivation. Mindlessly memorizing unrelated word lists for an examination may work for some students who want good grades, but I suspect percentage points are not a true incentive for the average learner.

Second, group-based study can be much more productive, especially if the group gets along well together. Lessons become a social event, which was certainly the case in Clearbrook. When learners have fun studying together, they look forward to the next class.

Third, a little psychological pressure can go a long way, particularly if it is applied by peers rather than the teacher. Knowing that all eyes would be upon her, Maria never missed another TV show. And perhaps for the same reason, the Clearbrook gang had the best attendance record of all other groups that participated in the UBC study. The peer pressure may have seemed a little draconian, however, it worked to everyone’s advantage.

Which brings me to my final revelation. Despite the university coordinator’s limited expectations, the Clearbrook gang achieved the greatest level of improvement in the study. I was so proud! And I realized that, if the need is there and the learning environment supportive, age is irrelevant when it comes to language learning. Sure, younger people may have an edge in the memory department; however, the seniors of this Mennonite colony clearly demonstrated that the brain could still function effectively despite advanced age.

When I did my MA in Applied Linguistics in the UK years later, we were told that after puberty the brain goes through chemical changes and “hardens” making it impossible to really learn a language well as we grow older. I didn’t believe this to be true but the only evidence I had to refute my professors was the tale of older learners on a Mennonite colony outside Vancouver, which flew in the face of the accepted academic knowledge of the times.

A few years ago, I was delighted to stumble across more current research that refutes this “hardened brain” premise. The mesh surrounding the brain remains plastic throughout one’s life and neurons keep firing into our senior years. In other words, as long as your brain is healthy, you can learn a language at any age. Furthermore, in doing so, we reduce the chances of succumbing to cerebral diseases, such as Alzheimers. This is a story for another blog posting.

I made one final trip to Clearbrook in early summer to say good-bye before heading overseas for employment in Japan. The class held a “picnic” outdoors at a long table and everything we ate was homemade – the bread, the cheese, even the wine. Each person explained in English what they had brought to the table, as well as what they had gotten from our language classes. It was a wonderful send-off!

As for me, I told them that I had learned much more than they could ever imagine. The Clearbrook gang members were not an aberration – seniors can learn a language – and I only hope to have half of their intelligence and energy when I reached that age. I told them this when my turn came to talk. And I made my speech in white linen pants and a bright blue shirt. I had become more progressive, too.

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


25. When in Rome… learn some language!

As those following this blog know, I have talked about my various language learning and teaching adventures in Canada, including tutoring the family of the Malaysian Deputy High Commissioner in Ottawa (see blog entry14), working as a summer school instructor for Cree children in northern Manitoba (see blog entry 15), training Punjabi women to survive at the Immigrant Services Center (see blog entries 17 & 18) waiting tables at my Chinese instructor’s restaurant (see blog entry 24) then knocking on doors for Healthiest Babies Possible, a multilingual, perinatal nutrition counseling service provided by Vancouver’s City Health Department (see blog entry 22). But there is still one last tale to tell from my homeland.

While working part-time as a sound technician in the University of British Columbia’s language laboratory (another job picked up because of my interest in languages) I heard from a coworker about short term guide positions at Habitat, the United Nations’ conference on human settlements held in Vancouver in 1976. With a rather taunting voice, my friend said that she had applied the previous week and, since the application deadline had passed the day before, unfortunately, I would be unable to join her in the interview line. I immediately rushed to UBC’s job placement center and pleaded for an application form. Since the completed applications had not been picked up yet, I was given one – much to my friend’s chagrin.

As things turned out, after a stressful hour-long interview in English and French with three interrogators firing questions at me, I was offered a plum position at the Habitat Media Center. My job was originally to cater to the needs of visiting news reporters from around the globe but, after a week of training, the manager approached me with a new job offer. How would I like to become one of the three supervisors responsible for coordinating the Center staff? Although my shift would be the late night one, she mentioned a substantial pay increase. Frankly, I would have done the job for nothing!

The Habitat Media Center was a language lover’s dream come true. Staff rushed about assisting an international assortment of media personnel in no less than twenty-five different tongues. We had been warned by the manager that, given our direct involvement with the scribes, radio announcers and TV personalities who were covering Habitat, one misstep on our part could adversely effect the image of the conference. As a result, we made tremendous efforts to fill our visitors’ every whim, always with a “Center smile” glued in place as we babbled away.

Although there were no major mishaps, “mini-emergencies” were ongoing and with events happening all over the city, the media people seemed to be forever asking for directions, especially those from overseas. The night shift was a particularly busy one since, after a long day of Habitat activities, reporters needed to file stories with deadlines set according to the time zone of their home countries. Most people functioned on a steady diet of Center coffee and almost no sleep!

When someone approached the long Media Center counter with a panicked look in their eyes, the first step was to remain calm, flash a Center smile, and try to figure out which language we had in common. After that, I would identify the person’s need then assign a uniformed media assistant to sort things out. I started by checking the person’s media badge to determine which language might be understood. “English? No. Vous parlez français? Ah... Italiano.” Somehow we would manage to communicate.

But there were glitches in the routine. The first night, a young couple arrived looking disoriented and distressed. I glanced at their badges and realized that I could not pronounce the names. I had no idea what language assistance they needed. Their coloring was very fair and I assumed they came from northern Europe, but the pair had no apparent knowledge of English and my halting German drew no response. There were three other assistants on duty but none of us had a language that worked. We all sat down with cups of coffee and I started drawing a primitive map of Europe on a paper napkin, calmly repeating “Where? Où? Wo?...” The young man suddenly took my pen, stabbed the napkin in an area I was not very familiar with, and said something that sounded like “Hell...”

Ah! Helsinki, Finland. Several napkins and a lot of gesturing later, we established that they had just arrived and needed an inexpensive place to stay. Within minutes we had their accommodations lined up and, given their subsequent daily presence in the Media Center, had also made some grateful friends. Or maybe they were just afraid to venture out into the city.

Based on observation of visitors to Habitat, as well as my own subsequent journeys, I quickly realized how vital it is to be able to communicate in the local language, even if only at a rudimentary level. But many travelers don’t bother making the effort. Perhaps the worst offenders are English speakers who assume the world functions in their language. Once leaving the safety of their foreign hotel lobby, they are often dismayed to learn that this is not the case.

But speakers of my native tongue are not the only offenders. In Bangkok, I have watched Japanese tourists being waited on in Japanese in a souvenir shop for obvious commercial reasons, leave the shop and proceed to ask for directions on the street in Japanese from a local who doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about!

When journeying overseas, joining a tour group with a flag-toting guide who speaks your mother tongue is simple and safe. But stepping outside of your comfort zone and making the effort to learn some local language will give you much more freedom and definitely increase the potential for a more exhilarating, personal travel adventure.

And it really doesn’t take that much effort. If the material is focused around functions and the language is recycled, I estimate it takes approximately 10 to 15 hours to have the average traveler functioning in a foreign language at a basic level. In my next blog posting I will talk about the classroom research that I have conducted for over thirty years which has lead me to this conclusion. As for online study, I know from personal experience that using my website, http://www.sulantra.com/, for an hour of study each day starting one month before heading to the airport is sufficient for me to get by on the streets of a foreign country. Not fluent but certainly functioning.

Attempting to use the language of the country you are visiting has many benefits. Most locals will be delighted that you are trying to speak their tongue and will reciprocate with kindness and patience. By making the effort, you are sending a message that you want to get to know the local culture on a deeper level. Your journey will be more memorable and special. Honestly!

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


24. Learning the Words You Need

In 1977, I returned to Vancouver from China disillusioned with my studies in Mandarin (see blog entry 23). I had translated the Chinese constitution and could talk about the valiant effort of workers in the fields and factories but had almost no language for day to day activity. Frustrated, I approached my Chinese teacher, Mrs. S for help. She suggested that I get a job in a Chinese restaurant, specifically HER Chinese restaurant!

I started working part-time in Mrs. S’s restaurant in the third year of university. Although I was nervous in the beginning, it was exciting to learn and apply language in “the real world”. Many of the customers were Asian immigrants and were startled to see me stroll out of the kitchen to take their orders. To complicate matters, the kitchen turned out to be staffed with Cantonese-speaking cooks from southern China. At first, there were bewildered looks on both sides when I delivered my orders in English and/or Mandarin then received a clipped Cantonese acknowledgement, but gradually we grew to understand each other using a pastiche of all three languages.

My experience in Mrs. S’s restaurant taught me that we learn the words and phrases we need. It wasn’t long before I could apologize to customers in Cantonese and/or Mandarin for my limited speaking ability before rattling off the daily specials in one or another of the languages in my new workplace. Today I surprise myself with how many of the dishes I remember when eating at “dim sum/dian xin”, the ubiquitous brunches found wherever there is a sizeable Chinese population. The menu is apparently burned into my brain since I recollect the names of most of the delicacies being wheeled past me on carts.

Years later I observed this learn-what-you-need principle with eight of my Japanese students. They had completed a 12-hour training program in Thai before flying off for onsite testing in Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani in the northeastern region of Thailand. In Bangkok, the students worked in pairs to successfully complete a series of tasks they had been trained for, such as bargaining in the marketplace or purchasing tickets on the overnight train to Ubon. They were delighted with their ability to communicate and everyone’s level of confidence was soaring. But it was in Ubon where they truly blossomed.

Through friends, I had made contact with a local university where students were studying English and Japanese. Upon our arrival, the Japanese and Thai students got to know each other over formal activities, such as a welcoming luncheon and campus tour, then were left to their own devices. Each day the local students would meet us at the university dormitory where we were staying and outline a tentative plan for the day. Sometimes they would disappear in one large group, other times they wandered off in small “teams” venturing into the Isan countryside.

I should mention that my group was comprised entirely of young men, while the Thai group was made up mainly of young women. Over the course of their three days together they developed a unique lingua franca, a mixture of Thai, English, Japanese – and the local Isan dialect. At the end of each day, my students would return to the dormitory and regale me with tales of their exploits, such as rafting down rivers or singing karaoke in local shopping centers. They all had become very adept at getting around on “songtaew”, the ubiquitous covered pick-up trucks with benches in the back for passengers, and had tasted exotic local delicacies, such as fried scorpions.

For me, the most interesting aspect of their outings was that they were picking up local Isan slang and teaching the Japanese equivalent to their Ubon counterparts. They would sit in the dormitory lobby at the end of each day, throwing the phrases they had learned back and forth, squealing with laughter, as I stared, an outsider in my own group. By the third day, the Japanese students were developing a colorful assortment of phrases in Isan and I had no idea what they were talking about.

The Ubon students had picked up their own Japanese slang as well and it was obvious that all participants were having a great time communicating. As we boarded our train for the long ride back to Bangkok, there were many tearful good-byes accompanied by phrases that would not soon be forgotten. My students had learned the words they needed, that they found interesting or useful, and had made new friends along the way.

How do you go about getting the language you need for a specific context? There are a number of ways, including the obvious one of going online and searching for words and phrases which meet your anticipated needs. There are a seemingly endless number of dictionary-style sites, particularly for English speakers, where you can find language and, in some cases, even hear a sound model for you to imitate. But these sites present language in isolation and do not lend themselves to real communication. On the street, words produced at random do not make a conversation.

Perhaps one of the most useful phrases you can learn in any tongue is something along the lines of “What’s that?” or “How do you say this?”, which can be used as you point at a concrete object in a clear context. The natives around you will give you the local equivalent of the words or phrases in the regional accent, another important aspect often ignored by generic “dictionary” sites. You pick up the language YOU need, not the phrases dictated by a text or website. I call the process of picking up language from a localeliciting” and have talked about it in blog entry 12. It is also incorporated into my website, http://www.sulantra.com/.

Occasionally I get together with the students who travelled to Ubon. Some have continued to study Thai, some have not, but all would love to return and pick up where they left off. One young man, Shunsuke, has even developed skills in a new language.

During a job interview just before graduation, Shunsuke regaled his interviewers with tales of his Ubon experience but left the room crestfallen, certain that he had talked too much about his travels instead of his technical expertise. As it turned out, the managers were impressed by his upbeat narrative. The company had acquired an important contract with a firm in Hanoi, but no staff member wanted to go there. Shunsuke seemed to be the perfect candidate.

Four years have passed since Shunsuke was hired and, although he uses Japanese or English in the workplace, he has gone out of his way to pick up some Vietnamese, too. I believe his positive experience in the provincial town of Ubon when he was a university student prepared him with a mindset to tackle new languages and enjoy the process. He understands the importance of communicating with others in their language. He recognizes that the effort creates a good impression and that learning does not have to be an ordeal. As long as you are picking up the language that you really need, the value is obvious and the process can be a pleasure.

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


23. A Glass of Water

Life is like a ladder. Well, at least mine is. Each step taken leads to the next level, the next adventure. Sometimes you slip and go down a rung or two, but inevitably you continue climbing. Tutoring a Malaysian family in Ottawa (see blog entry 14) lead me to work as a volunteer in Vancouver with female immigrants from India’s Punjab (see blog entries 17 and 18); my work with these women, as well as my Chinese studies, helped me land a position promoting Healthiest Babies Possible (HBP), a perinatal nutrition counseling program offered by Vancouver City Health Department (see blog entry 22). With my Chinese gradually improving, I was on the lookout for ways to get to China and test my skills on the street. Once again, earlier experiences helped me take the next step.

One day in my Chinese class, an announcement was made about a short-term study program to China being sponsored by World University Services of Canada (WUSC). There was only one drawback: applicants needed to have a unique research topic with a practical focus that could be completed in the limited time frame. The program was open to candidates from across the country and I would have to come up with something special if I was going to catch the attention of WUSC’s selection committee. I wracked my brain but couldn’t think of anything.

While pondering the problem at HBP one day, I was accosted by a colleague, Penny. She caught me mumbling to myself over lunch and her look suggested that she had serious questions about my mental health. Penny demanded to know what I was so preoccupied with and I told her about the WUSC program with its “unique and practical” topic requirement. The deadline was days away and I was at a loss for a topic.

Penny gave me a withering look then blurted out, “You are such an idiot! Look around you. Why not propose a study on how Chinese society deals with working women and their babies?”

Ever the woman of action, Penny quickly organized a meeting of our supervisor, health nurse and international nutrition counselors. Soon the group was bouncing ideas off each other faster than I could write them down. What kind of leave do women get before and after delivery? Are special considerations made for their diet at company canteens? What about daycare in the workplace? What age do children have to be before mothers can use a daycare facility? I had my research proposal drafted in minutes!

As for credentials, although my academic background was rather limited (I had taken one course on nutrition problems in developing countries to fill the VERY eclectic requirements of my Southeast Asian Area Studies program), I did have an impressive reference letter from my HBP supervisor emphasizing the importance of my research topic, not to mention my budding proficiency in Chinese. Several interviews later, I found myself at Vancouver’s International Airport boarding a plane for China.

When we landed in Beijing, our group was greeted by the sight of workers marching in a line across the tarmac, hoes slung over their shoulders. They had just finished working in the cornfields positioned between the runways! It was the time of China’s Cultural Revolution and, frankly, we were all starry-eyed and seduced by the social experiment taking place before us.

But there was a darker side to all of the change. Chairman Mao had just died and his wife, Jiang Qing, was attempting to take control of the government with three of her cronies – the infamous “Gang of Four”. People were on edge and foreigners were off limits. A baggage handler talking quietly with us in very fluent English at the airport, turned out to be a former university professor who was now being “re-educated” to empathize with the masses. He hurried away when our official handlers appeared.

As for proficiency in Chinese, only two of our group could really say anything. Disembarking from a bus to visit a local facility, our handlers would inevitably point us out, warning locals not to say anything near “the two tall ones” since we could “tingdedong zhongwen” - understand Chinese. Yet minutes later we would be paraded out to make a short speech and entertain the locals. Speaking the local vernacular turned out to be a double-edged sword.

On the road, our group of Westerners “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Foreign travelers were almost unheard of in some of the cities we descended upon. We could literally cause a traffic jam (perhaps I should say “bicycle jam” the primary means of transport at the time) if we stood in one spot for too long, particularly in the north. At one Friendship Store in Harbin, the army was called in to escort us off the premises because we could not get through the crowd that had gathered at the entrance! After my stint in Malaysia (see blog entry 10), I was used to being stared at; however, for the others it was unnerving. To view a short movie taken at the time, check out this link http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/ngZ1yvbMPa8/.

Given the nature of the materials used for my studies at university, I had a bizarre, limited vocabulary. This fact was brought home to me when I gave an eloquent thank you speech at an official dinner, commending our hosts for a valuable experience that would strengthen the ever-growing friendship between Canada and China. I was sweating bullets as I spoke but apparently did an impressive job ending to a warm round of applause from those in attendance.

I hastened back to my seat with a parched throat and desperate for a drink. I made eye contact with a waiter who began to approach, then was mortified to realize that I had no idea what to say! I sat there dumfounded while the waiter looked at me expectantly. Having just heard my flowery phrases praising the mutual admiration of our two countries, he had no way of realizing that I didn’t have the language to ask for a glass of water!

I am amazed how course designers and material writers lack the ability to put themselves in the learner’s shoes, to recognize what a person REALLY needs to function in a language. Perhaps the situation today is not as depressing as when I studied Chinese; however, it still surprises me how much fodder gets into print or online masquerading as “useful” for the learner.

An hour spent with new immigrants to a country is enough to provide even the most dim-witted of course designers with a practical perspective. Instead, what often appears in print or online is disconnected (think lists of words without a context), even bizarre. One major foreign language software provider advertises its wares on Japanese TV using the phrase, “The hedgehog is curled up.” What in the world are they thinking?!

When I study a language, I want to end each class with something that I can take away and use on the street. This is how I plan my own lessons. What do the students leave with that they can apply to their own reality? This is why I designed my website, http://www.sulantra.com/, with a functional focus. Frankly, I have little use for grammar-based academic exercises in the early stages of learning a language. I understand how “rules” can be useful when refining how I speak at a more advanced level, but not when I am just starting out. It’s brain numbing.

If the language I am learning does not have an immediate application in the real world, I lose patience. I have a ladder to climb and little time to waste as I reach for the next wrung.

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


22. Healthiest Babies Possible...?!

As I mentioned in my previous blog, while studying at UBC in Vancouver I worked at a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet. With tuition fees to pay, books to buy, rent to cover, etc., I never seemed to have enough funds and was always on the lookout for extra work, especially positions where I could develop my language skills. One day between classes while perusing the classified ads, I came across an intriguing position at the Vancouver City Health Department. They needed someone to help promote a new service being offered in a range of languages. The program was called “Healthiest Babies Possible”. I had no idea what was involved, but I caught the next bus downtown and filled out an application form.

HBP was preparing to offer pre-natal and post-natal nutrition counseling to women in a range of ethnic communities. They had a head nutritionist and public health nurse to administer the program, had hired counseling staff fluent in English, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Greek and Italian, and were now looking for two part-time staff members to promote the service. The first position was already filled by Penny, an outgoing young mother who had a public health background and was studying for an advanced degree in nutrition at UBC. Now they wanted someone who was at least conversant in some of the languages they offered.

In fact, they were rather shocked when I applied. I had experience working in the Punjabi-speaking community of Vancouver (see blog entries 17 and 18), was studying Chinese at UBC (see blog entry 21), was conversant in French and, combined with my background in Spanish, could more or less read Italian. I was presentable and comfortable discussing the needs of the program with the women in charge, getting just as excited about their service as they obviously were. There was only one barrier to my being hired: they had not expected a man to apply for the position.

During my HBP interview, there were some wary glances between the three women interrogating me. I could tell they liked me, but they needed proof that I would work comfortably with their team. Suddenly Penny got up and left the room returning a few minutes later with a very unhappy baby girl who was crying loudly. It was her daughter, Vanessa, who obviously needed a diaper change. Just at that moment, a secretary popped her head into the office and said, “Penny, your husband is on the phone.”

Looking hurriedly about, her eyes rested on me. Saying, “Could you hold her for a second?” she dropped the squirming bundle of baby poop in my lap then turned and left the room. A little startled, I continued answering the questions being asked by the two interviewers as I tried to deal with the now hysterical little girl squealing in my arms.

What the women of HBP did not know is that my mother’s extended family is very large and I have spent many hours babysitting my cousins. I made frog noises, played hand games, stood up and walked Vanessa about the room, rocking her gently and singing little songs, all the while answering the questions from my interrogators. By the time Penny returned from her exceptionally long phone call, her daughter was smiling from ear to ear and seemed to have forgotten about her messy diaper. Nods of approval were exchanged by the women and, yes, I got the job.

HBP was an amazing experience. The women I worked with were forever analyzing my lunch, lecturing me about what I should be eating then stuffing me with ethnic treats they had prepared. They would carefully explain how to make the “home cooked” dishes of their respective cultures, and I still have Greek, Indian and Italian cookbooks on my kitchen shelf given to me at HBP. There were “field trips” to pass out HBP brochures at multi-cultural festivals and visits to factories, for example, to confirm the dairy content of gelato and taste test the products. I seemed to be forever eating!

But it wasn’t all fun and frolic. Health professionals in some of Vancouver’s ethnic communities were less than thrilled to find Health Department staff knocking on their door even though our service was meant to assist their clients, while explaining the benefits of breastfeeding in French live on community TV can be a harrowing experience. But I couldn’t complain. I was using my assorted languages and learning something new every day. Best of all, I got to know HBP’s international counselors well and dreamt of visiting each person’s country to experience the culture firsthand.

My HBP experience helped me to realize that one of the key motivators for me as a language learner is interacting with someone from that culture.  Places that I knew only as a colored square on a map were no longer abstract. They were now Kamlesh’s India, Maria’s Italy or Lily’s Hong Kong – and I wanted to visit them all!

I am envious of young people today. They take so much for granted in their online world. Need to find cheap airplane tickets? There are numerous websites to do it for you. Want to meet someone from a village on the other side of the planet? Search through a social networking site. The opportunities are endless and increasing by leaps and bounds each day. Knocking on someone’s online door has never been easier. But as I tell my students, it shouldn’t end online. The real world is waiting to be explored.

Today in my university classes in Japan, I have students from Nepal, Vietnam and Cameroon among other countries. These are all places I have yet to visit with languages I have yet to study, but I intend to. This may sound overly optimistic to the uninitiated but the amount of language you need to head out on the road is surprisingly small. Greetings, asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – if you focus on carrying out a function, the basic words and phrases you need are obvious. Add strategies for communicating, such as asking someone to repeat or speak more slowly, and you are ready to explore.

At the end of each blog, I mention my website, www.sulantra.com. I have spent several years working with many friends to create this site. The focus is practical with material based around getting a job done; the study approach is straightforward without the usual academic gobbledy-goop called grammar; the interface is designed for “non-techies”, those people intimidated by turning on a computer like me.

To be honest, my reasons for creating Sulantra.com are completely selfish: I wanted a place to go where I could, in a very short time, learn enough language to strike out on my own and travel to the places my friends and family are from. There are still dishes to taste, dances to learn, horizons to view.

The next language in www.sulantra.com will be Italian. The women of HBP would approve, especially Maria from Milano. Until next week – ciao!

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


21. Stay in the Target Language

While at university, I held down several part-time jobs to make ends meet, including a rather challenging position as a tour guide for UBC’s Information Services. During one summer stint, I conducted five bus tours a day for tourists from around the world. Given my interest in languages (or perhaps the other staff members lack of interest), I was assigned the non-English speaking groups by default. As the bus slowly moved around the campus, I was expected to briefly introduce the 312 buildings that we passed in a language I was vaguely familiar with. Each tour lasted about one hour and visitors got off the bus in a state of amused bewilderment.

The Japanese tours, in particular, were frenetic since I didn’t speak the language and ended up giving the entire tour in broken English accompanied by wild gesturing to get my meaning across. The “audience” was entertained and involved as they shouted out the words which I lacked in their mother tongue.  Soon I began to inadvertently memorize exotic words and phrases, such as “shinrinkohgakka”, Japanese for Forestry Department. (I got tired of karate chopping imaginary trees down!) Given the repetitiveness of the tours, I found this approach an effective way to pick up specialized vocabulary and recognized the importance of recycling when studying a language, an aspect which is built into my language training website, www.sulantra.com.

Having lived in Malaysia (see blog entry 10), I dreamed of learning bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia, but this language was not offered at UBC. In its place I took Mandarin to meet my Southeast Asian Area Studies program requirements. Initially, I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of studying Chinese, particularly since the textbooks were from mainland China and horribly dry. Frankly, talking about production quotas on the commune or the enviable output of the Daqing oil fields was not that electrifying. But in the end, my language studies opened up a whole new part of Asia for me, so I stopped rolling my eyes and rolled up my sleeves instead.

Each morning before classes started, I would go to the university’s language lab, put on my headphones and endlessly “repeat after me” in Mandarin. Although the material was quirky (we called each other “tongzhi”, or comrade), I was determined to master the language of the “Middle Kingdom” and I wasn’t alone. There were always other classmates sitting in nearby cubicles droning away as they tried to mimic the week’s vocabulary and improve their pronunciation. Slowly but surely we began to say words then comprehensible phrases, albeit of limited use.

The main reason I persevered with the study of Chinese was obviously not the course content, but my instructors. Once again, I was willing to jump through hoops because I liked the professors who taught our classes (see blog entry 2). One instructor was especially memorable, Mrs. S. Originally from Beijing, she came across as a “lihai tai-tai” (tough cookie), but we soon realized that she was a softie, keen to help us improve and quick with a smile when we teased her. At lunchtime, many of us congregated in her office attempting to speak as we sipped tea from exotic cups with lids.

In initial classes, Mrs. S put on an intimidating mask scaring us into showing up on time and getting our homework done. In her first lesson, she wrote three sentences on the blackboard – “Stand up.”, “Sit down.” and “Repeat.” – saying each loudly in Mandarin as she pointed to it. Then she erased all three phrases. This was the first and last time English was used in her class. Her lessons were conducted entirely in Chinese. In the beginning, I was petrified but, thanks to Mrs. S’s efforts, the entire class could communicate at a basic level in the target language by the end of the first term.

At the same time as I was studying Chinese, a close friend was taking Japanese. She was amazed at how the students learning Chinese seemed to be constantly babbling in Mandarin, whereas the students in her Japanese class could barely get a greeting out comfortably. Could the languages be so different? (They are.) Was Japanese really so much more challenging? (It’s not.) I decided to investigate for myself.

Using the pretext of wanting to check out a Japanese course before enrolling, I sat in on one of my friend’s classes. The instructor, Mrs. M, was charming with a lovely, gentle manner. She had amazing patience, writing the word or phrase under study slowly and carefully on the board in Japanese then explaining it just as slowly and carefully... in English.

For me, this was the crucial factor that explained the difference in progress between the students learning Chinese and those learning Japanese. Mrs. S was loathe to speak English and would go through a wide range of contortions to get her meaning across rather than use it. Mrs. M, on the other hand, was very conversant in English and had no problems explaining, particularly with regard to classroom materials. In her soft voice she would describe the nuances of the grammar, how the Japanese word order was almost the exact opposite of English or how the subject was often dropped. She wanted the students in her classes to be comfortable and to understand completely. This is why she used English to explain. The end result was that her students were unable to use Japanese to communicate.

Looking back, this revelation has had a strong influence on my language learning and classroom teaching. When teaching, I do my best to keep lessons in the target language, training learners to ask for repetition or meaning in that language. When I am studying a new language, I insist upon learning key phrases and questions, such as “More slowly, please.” or “How do you say this?” from the outset. This is what I need to maneuver, to understand and be understood.

In class, I can be a “monster student”, asking the instructor NOT to use English since it will not really benefit me. Some short term pain is worth the long term gain. For the same reason, I prefer to be a part of language courses that have a mixture of nationalities. This increases the odds that the lingua franca of the group will be the one which we are learning.

In retrospect, I should have taken Japanese at university since Japan is where I ended up. But my Chinese studies were not a complete waste. I could read many things when I arrived in Japan because their characters were borrowed from Chinese. Furthermore, several of the students in my classes now are from China and occasionally we use their mother tongue to communicate. As they compliment me on my strong Beijing accent, I remember Mrs. S and smile. I owe my ability in Mandarin to her poor English!

(If you are really fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)