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!


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!)

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