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!


4. Cowboys and Commerce – first conversations

By the time I was 15 years old, I had studied both French and German for about two years, and was ready to challenge myself by stepping out of the classroom box. I just wasn’t sure where I could test my budding second language ability. Then luck stepped in.

My family was now living on the west coast of Canada on Vancouver Island, but I still thought of myself as a Calgary boy. I was homesick for cowboy hats, the Rocky Mountains and my very large extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother. My aunt Ada came to the rescue with a job offer. How would I like to work for her in the summer at the Calgary Stampede.

For those of you who are not familiar with saddles, horses and herding cattle, the Calgary Stampede is the world’s largest rodeo and outdoor exhibition (well, that’s what everyone from Calgary believes). There are traditional rodeo events like bronc-riding (staying in the saddle on a VERY wild horse), calf roping (the cowboy or cowgirl has to lasso a calf from a galloping horse, jump off and tie the calf’s four feet together before it runs away), and chuckwagon races (teams of riders and wagons all racing to cross the finish line as a group). The rodeo atmosphere is wild, noisy and wonderful!

But there is a solemn side to the Calgary Stampede, too. Farmers proudly show off their prize livestock horses, cows, pigs, almost anything to be found walking on two or four legs in a farmyard. There is also an exhibition hall, called the Big 4 Building”, where local merchants promote their products and make sales to the crowds that pass. The job my aunt Ada offered me was to work at her display in “the Big 4”, cleaning up and organizing things from her small variety shop while she catered to potential customers. At least this was the original plan. As it turned out, I spent more time attracting customers than arranging merchandise on display shelves.

It started with a group of German tourists who wandered past babbling im Deutsch. My aunt smiled but didn’t make much of an effort to sell her wares since she figured the odds were against her. Without thinking I grabbed several postcards, held them up and cheerfully spouted, “Sie sind sehr schön, nicht wahr?” (“These are nice, aren’t they?”) Suddenly I found myself surrounded by a very boisterous crowd from Hamburg – and within minutes had sold every postcard on the rack! The group asked if my parents were from Vienna or Salzburg (apparently I had an Austrian edge to my accent) and, although the conversation was limited, I had enough German to make everyone smile with approving nods. Wow!

My aunt was very impressed by my until now hidden linguistic talents and soon I found myself serving as a barker for her booth, shouting out enticements in English, French and German. (It also helped that I have a very loud voice and could be heard over the women purveying Ukrainian sausages in the stall next to ours.) Within the short space of ten days, I made enough spending money to last me for the coming school year. I had also developed the confidence to initiate a conversation in both French and German. These languages were no longer abstract subjects at school. They belonged to the real world, the world that I wanted to explore. I returned to school in September ready to work much harder at my studies – at least in French and German.

My summer experience at the Calgary Stampede helped me realize three very important things about learning a language.

First, too often the classroom is divorced from reality. In the worst cases, language training becomes just another subject like Math or Chemistry, treated as an abstract affair. Even my wonderful German lessons with Mrs. N had an artificial air filled with safe smiles and hot chocolate. There were no harsh edges, no frightened feelings like those I encountered when I held up the postcards for the tourists from Hamburg.

The second point I realized while doing my summer job is that sometimes the best way to understand just how much you can do in a foreign language is by walking off a cliff! It can be terrifying the first time you open your mouth in another language in the “real world”, but it is the only way to truly know how well you can communicate in that language. And, as you progress, struggling over and over, your confidence builds. Soon the sky is the limit.

Finally, what made communicating easier in my first conversations at the Calgary Stampede was that the exchanges were repetitive. Basically, I started out with the same openers in French and German then proceeded into my sales pitch, which became more and more polished with each attempt. Every time I held up a cowboy postcard, a beaded belt or a saddle ashtray, something “kicked in” inside my brain and I could suddenly speak.

But the Calgary Stampede still wasn’t quite real enough. Maybe I was able to sell souvenirs to visiting tourists but could I order fish and chips or catch a bus in another language. Maybe, but I wasn’t sure. I needed to go someplace where one of my new languages was used for everything.

(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!)

3. The Technician vs. the Motivator

From the very beginning of studying French and German in junior high school, I was developing a sense of how I wanted to learn a language. Based on my radically different experiences enduring French with the abysmal Mr. J and delighting in German with the incredible Mrs. N I recognized what did, or more importantly did not, work for me.

Some of the simplest actions make the deepest impression. I knew that my willingness to persevere, my tolerance level” in the classroom, was very much influenced by my rapport with the teacher. Something as simple as the instructor knowing my name meant a lot. Every time Mr. J barked out, “You in the blue shirt...” I wanted to shout back, “I have a name, you ass#$%*!” Instead, I sat and glared with my “poor attitude”.

When Mrs. N greeted me cheerfully by name, I felt that she cared and was really making an effort to know me. In training workshops, when I mention the importance of learning students’ names, I have had teachers argue that their classes are too big. Or that they do not meet with the students frequently enough. Or that they have a poor memory. Or ... Enough excuses! Learning a student’s name and using it is a basic courtesy, and not a monumental effort if your heart is in it. But therein lies the rub. Some teachers – the Mr. J’s of the world just don’t enjoy the job.

There is another type of teacher that I refer to as a “technician”. He or she has mastered all of the classroom techniques, knows all the jargon associated with the language teaching profession, and conducts lessons with military precision. The technician, however, keeps things impersonal, viewing students as a faceless mass, a necessary part of the job to be stroked or endured like animals in a petting zoo. But at the end of the day, unless you are the teacher’s pet, a technician will soon forget who you are. Given the choice, I would definitely choose a teacher with limited classroom skills but who is in love with the job over an impersonal technician with a bag full of sophisticated tricks.

On the other hand, teacher types are not always so clear cut. Personalities can change over time, or even from day to day. I know this because now I am a teacher and realize that I have a little bit of both the “motivator” and “technician” tussling inside my head, like good and bad angels struggling to control my classroom moves. I definitely know everyone’s name and try to keep my classes informal so that students will always feel comfortable about approaching me for assistance. But I also run a tight ship with structured activities and a clear time frame. I hope students can see the value in the hoops I make them jump through, as well as enjoy themselves.

Although many textbooks, grammarians and “technicians” would have us believe that language can be taught like a math formula, dished up in neat and tidy tables to memorize before a test, the reality is a lot messier. Language has a life of its own and even native speakers may use an unscripted jumble of words to get their meaning across. When you add cultural components, such as food or customs, to this messy mix, the results can be surprisingly uncomfortable. Like finding bean paste in your once familiar breakfast roll (a common occurrence for visitors to Japan).

Many years ago while preparing an academic paper for one of my classes at university, I came across the terms instrumental motivation, or when you learn a language to complete a specific job, and integrative motivation, when you develop empathy with the culture of the language you are studying and want to learn more. Integrative motivation was what Mrs. N was encouraging when she scattered magazines about the room or offered us hot chocolate mit Schlag. She was a “motivator” getting us keen on her culture.

This is what makes the leap into another language memorable and, if you are open to the experience and a little lucky, life-changing. Language and culture cannot be divorced from each other (it would sure be boring if they could) and a good teacher – a “motivator” – can get you wired, help you forget your fears as you anticipate opening a hundred doors to a thousand new adventures. And as you learn about the great, big world of each new language you enter, you begin to understand and appreciate more the place where you come from. Perhaps that is the most important lesson of all – you learn about yourself.


(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!)

2. Teachers: Traumatizing or Terrific

At thirteen, I started junior high school with a positive attitude, wired and ready to tackle French, my first new language. I walked into my first class nervous but keen – and walked out an hour later in shock. To be blunt, the teacher, Mr. J, crushed my motivation.

Mr. J hailed from the UK and it was obvious that he was not thrilled to be teaching us a “foreign tongue”. (French is one of Canada’s official languages but he didn’t seem to recognize that fact.) His major was English literature and he had been assigned our class by default. Along with his poor attitude, Mr. J’s classroom approach was awful. He abused students who made any effort to speak en français, ridiculing their pronunciation and rolling his eyes at grammatical mistakes. Every student attempt was potential fodder for a cruel joke and by the end of the first lesson I was convinced that the coming year would be hell. It was.

Making mistakes comes with learning to speak a new language. It’s part of the natural process of trial and error until you get it right. By making fun of our attempts and ridiculing us in front of our peers, Mr. J destroyed what little confidence we had. In many ways, he was a bully. I feel he should not have been allowed in the classroom teaching us French, or probably any subject for that matter.

But junior high school was not all bad news. A few weeks after my disastrous French experience, I was “coerced” into studying another language: German. In my new school, there was a Home Economics teacher, Mrs. N, who hailed from East Germany. She offered free German lessons in the early morning while she prepared dishes that she would teach later in the day in her “official” Home Ec classes. These impromptu German lessons started at and, because they were extracurricular, no credits were given for our efforts.

So how did I end up in early-morning, non-accredited German classes? My best friend, Alfred, was of German extraction but couldn’t speak a word of his ancestors’ tongue. His father ordered him to take Mrs. N’s morning lessons so that he could at least greet his grandparents im Deutsch when they visited. And because I was Alfred’s friend, I literally got dragged along for the ride. I had to get up at each morning to be ready for my lift to school with Alfred and his father. Yech!

As it turned out, my experience in German couldn’t have been more different than that of French. “Frau N” was an absolutely amazing woman. Every morning, she would greet each of us by name as we entered her cooking lab, making everyone feel like she was thrilled that we had shown up at all! She scattered German magazines about the room, which we were encouraged to browse through and ask about. She entertained us with stories of her escape from East Germany while in an opera company, giving the details in a mixture of English and Deutsch. By the end of the term we were able to sing classical German lieder (traditional folksongs) which I remember to this day. Best of all, we got to taste the dishes that she prepared for her cooking classes, often served with hot chocolate topped mit Schlag “with whipped cream” – a term I shall never forget.

By the end of my first year in junior high school, I was miserable at the thought of having to “endure” further French lessons. On the other hand, I was very excited about studying more German, this time for credit (although my next, “real” teacher couldn’t hold a light to Frau N, of course!). I had also discovered two very important things about learning another language.

First, the teacher can make or break my desire to learn a language. In fact, there are research studies which indicate that teachers are potent forces in the classroom, but not always for good. I remember one of my university professors explaining in hushed tones about a paper which indicated that several teachers in the study had negatively effected the motivation of their students. Having firsthand experience, I was hardly surprised. Not everyone can be a Frau N.

Another important point I learned is that a “professional” teacher in a standard classroom is not necessary for learning. Frau N was a cooking teacher working in a Home Economics laboratory, yet she made each one of the fifteen students who showed up for her early morning lessons feel very special. Maybe her techniques were not orthodox, maybe she was not considered a legitimate language instructor in the eyes of the administration at my school, yet it is thanks to her efforts that I continued studying languages at all. With her lieder and hot chocolate mit Schlag, she showed me the delights to be had from learning another language. Yes, Frau N was most definitely my first real language teacher!

(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!)


1.The Power of Parents

So where do I start? I think “motivation” is probably the best place; however, this might raise a few eyebrows. Some education specialists view “motivation” as a dirty word, synonymous with “competition” or “bloodthirsty overachiever”. I am obviously not in this camp.

In my case, without a clear reason to study another language, I quickly throw in the towel. So what kind of goals get me excited about learning a language? The list is a long one, but in my youth the main reason was simple – I wanted to escape where I came from.

I was raised in the middle of nowhere in rural Alberta, Canada. The next house was a LONG way down the road and I knew from an early age that I wanted to see the big, wide world and spend time with more people than just my kid brother (sorry, Norman). But I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

In Canada, the national languages are English and French. I lived in the English-speaking part of the country where kids are expected to study le français from around 13 years of age in Grade 7. In fact, most of the kids in my first French class did not want to be there. Their parents had convinced them that learning French would be of little use in their world, and sometimes there was open antagonism with parents criticizing the need for French being in the curriculum at all.

For me, the home front was very different. My mother, in particular, was keen that I should excel at French. Due to financial constraints, her own formal academic education had more or less ended in her early teens, after which she had taken various part-time jobs to help her family. One of these jobs was playing the piano at a ballet school. (She had limited formal training, but could play by ear.) The ballet instructor was “Miss Boulanger”, a woman from Quebec, the French-speaking region of Canada. My mother adored her and dreamed of learning French, but it wasn’t in the cards. So she transferred the dream to me, her oldest son.

Where other parents were telling their children that learning French was pointless, my mother sat me down with a dog-eared atlas and started pointing out the various places I could visit if I spoke “Miss Boulanger’s language”. Frankly, my mother never was that good at geography. She could have been pointing at China or Sri Lanka for all I knew. But I was convinced that a little French would take me a long way and walked into my first French class ready to tackle all things français so as to see the world. This would be my ticket out!

Which brings me to the point of all this rambling. I came from a monolingual home without a strong background in education, yet my mother managed to instill in me the fervent desire to learn another language. Many parents do not realize what incredible influence they exert on their children and how just one positive nudge can set their kids up with a "can do" attitude. This was certainly true in my case.

In studies on motivation, there are all sorts of calculations made with a range of factors and percentiles, but rarely is the influence of the home included. Every family is different and assigning a value to something so variable is rather pointless. Yet I know that my own home environment, particularly the attitude of my mother nurtured by the wonderful Miss Boulanger, put us both on an exciting path to see the world!

(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!)