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!


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 fran├žais, 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!)

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