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!)


  1. Do you find that there is a big difference between the language-learning success rate of the extroverted student (who is perhaps more willing to "walk off a cliff") and the introverted learner?

  2. Hi Ross! In answer to your question, I would have to guess no. The reason people often think extroverts are more successful is perhaps because they are more obvious. The quieter learner may actually be "processing" the language better, but applies it only when absolutely necessary (e.g. Yoshi). Hope that makes sense.