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!


9. Have an Attitude

In the spring of my final year at high school, I discovered a poster taped to the door of the counselor’s office announcing a new and intriguing exchange program called Canada World Youth, or Jeunesse Canada Monde. It seemed a wealthy philanthropist was undertaking an unusual social experiment with 240 young people from across Canada. The lucky participants would be trained for several months then sent off to one of five different countries for six months. Upon their return, they would then live in Canadian communities with participants from the exchange country, introducing their culture to others while learning more about their own country. The details were vague, but the prospect of spending a year on the road was thrilling and soon the school halls were buzzing with excitement.

Once the initial euphoria died down, however, the general consensus of my peers was of the “I-don’t-have-a-chance” variety. Many of my friends picked up the application form but put down their pencils after answering only a few questions. They seemed to be saying, “What’s the point?”, passing a personal verdict even before entering the arena. What was the big deal? I simply filled in the form, dropped it in the post, crossed my fingers, and moved on to my math homework, forgetting about the application until a few weeks later when I received an official reply. I had passed the first stage of the selection process and would attend an “evaluation session” in Vancouver!

CWY/JCM was looking for a cross section of the population: male and female, rural and urban, well-off or of limited means, francophone, anglophone, kids from every province and territory I wasn’t sure where I fit in but I apparently filled a niche and made it past the first screening. A few weeks later, I found myself in a cavernous hall in Vancouver along with about one hundred other youths being observed by serious looking “evaluators” in lab coats with clipboards and pens. We were divided into small groups, herded on to large plastic sheets, handed a box of clay, and left to our own devices without a single direction. Just silence.

Some individuals started muttering about “guinea pigs” and/or “a bloody waste of time”. I was just excited to be in the big city. I opened the box, took out the clay and suggested we start building something, a diorama with a volcano erupting and dinosaurs roaming about (my Alberta roots were showing!). If I was going to be stuck with four other people on a large plastic sheet for two hours, I might as well have some fun. As we formed triceratops and smoothed out lava flows on our plastic sheet, the “evaluators” were frantically taking notes. It seems they were identifying people who could deal with limited direction, cooperate with others, and take the lead. I just wanted to finish my diorama before the time was up and have a good time in the process.

Some people might think that I am an eager beaver, constantly optimistic about the outcome of every activity I join in. This is not the case. I can be as miserable as the next guy. On the other hand, once I have made the decision to take that first step into unknown territory, there is no turning back. I do it with all of the energy and attitude that I can muster. In for a penny, in for a pound. To be honest, people who procrastinate drive me crazy as they analyze the pros and cons (usually the latter), all the while building a wall of self-defeating doubt. For God’s sake, just do it!?

Every year I coordinate short survival courses in a new language then drag the participants overseas to test their communication skills on the streets of a country where the language is spoken. At the beginning of each course, I interview participants to determine what their personal goals are. Why do participants want to spend twelve hours learning basic skills in a new language then subject themselves to testing in a foreign land? Inevitably, some people begin with a statement like, “I don’t know why Im here. Ill NEVER learn this language...” What an awful way to start a new learning experience!

This lack of confidence is depressing but understandable. If you have had a series of negative experiences trying to learn another language, you begin to think that only the “gifted” (i.e. freaks) can learn another tongue. Or maybe you’re a little stupid... Too often language teaching in schools is approached as an abstract exercise, grammar tables and tests, the stuff of academia. For the average Joe, this is intimidating or boring. It destroys the psyche, planting seeds of doubt that bloom into a defeatist attitude. When someone tells me at the start of a course that there is no possibility he or she will ever be able to communicate in the target language, my job has just become twice as challenging. I am dealing with a “classroom casualty”.

But there is no such thing as an “average Joe”, and the fact that someone has agreed to join one of my test courses suggests that he or she still has a glimmer of hope. It is up to me to make the new language accessible, to make the training experience enjoyable. Language learning, as with many things in life, should be fun! And it can be as I have learned over and over in these short, intense courses conducted over the past thirty years. I see fear turn to hesitant enjoyment then slowly build into self-confidence. By the third lesson most learners start to think, “Maybe I will be able to communicate.” They start to believe in themselves.

And this change in attitude is not just on the part of the learners. It happens with the instructors, too. For my courses, I use native speakers as teachers, many of whom are foreign students studying in the Tokyo area. I give them a short orientation and training session then throw them into the lion’s den. Although all have experience learning another language, most have never taught before. They arrive as nervous as the participants, convinced they will do an inadequate job. Furthermore, these instructors believe the participants will be unable to speak the target language in so few hours of training. Fortunately, instructor attitudes can also be changed and the excitement is palpable as teacher and learner begin to interact in the target language.

I could go on forever about this positive energy, this change in attitude on all sides, but I won’t. If you are interested in reading about the experience of one young Thai man I recruited to train a mixed group of six strangers heading to Bangkok, check out his blog at http://mynameistoey.wordpress.com/2007/03/15/teaching-thai/. Suffice to say that a change in attitude is often necessary for everyone in the classroom.

And what of CWY/JCM? I was in Quebec City studying French on yet another government scholarship when the acceptance letter arrived. I had ticked off Mexico as my country choice on the application. I frantically tore open the envelope thinking, “Campeche, here I come!” only to discover that I was being sent to... Malaysia?

But that is another story for next week’s blog.

(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!)


8. Copy Correcting (or the case for karaoke)

By high school, I was flirting with French, German and Spanish and had managed to visit a few corners of the world using my own resources. Not bad for a kid from the foothills of Alberta who had only seen the ocean once in the first 15 years of his life. And I was observing how my attempts to communicate could succeed or fail miserably. These observations began to gel into concrete learning strategies that I would apply and hone then later teach to my own students.

Perhaps from the earliest days of my attempts to speak, I had noticed that people were truly trying to understand and willing to help with the communication process. If I made an effort, they would, too, rephrasing my words in a more natural order (think grammar) or micro-correcting my pronunciation to make it sound more native. Sometimes they would take my verbal contortions and physical gestures then turn them into simple sentences that didn’t feel so intimidating. It was up to me to seize the new language and imitate it. I called this self-correcting process copy correcting. Even today, I find this strategy incredibly useful since it can be applied to all languages, no matter what the level. This stragegy lets me modify the way I speak without a textbook, teacher or classroom. In other words, it gives me independence.

There are clear stages involved with copy correcting. First, you have to say something – anything – in an attempt to communicate. This would seem an obvious step, yet it is surprising how many non-native speakers will wait for the world to come to them and it often doesn’t. In this case, silence is definitely not golden!

Once your words are out there, the listener becomes part of the strategy. In other words, the process is interactive. If your information is more or less intelligible, the other person will probably let things continue as they are. But if the words are a little too garbled or your pronunciation leaves something to be desired, the local will most likely clarify and/or repeat what you have just said in a more native-like fashion. Your job is to be an active listener in order to catch those changes.

In fact, studies have been around for a long time which show that non-natives recognize correct language even though they may have trouble producing it. Logically, our listening skills are usually higher than our speaking skills (you need a lot of input before you get output), and non-natives know when what they wanted to say has been repaired and repeated by a native or higher level speaker. The problem is that that’s not enough. Most learners nod and say, “Yes, yes!” when they hear the corrected language. A good learner does more.

There is one final step if you really want to take advantage of the context and improve the way you speak: copy what you have just heard. Your imitation of the corrected language may not be exactly the same, but slight variations on a corrected version make a lot more sense than your original, sometimes garbled utterance.

Good learners automatically copy correct without thinking about it. The strategy is part of their unconscious behavior when they use another language. Perhaps the most startling example of copy correcting in action that I have ever seen was in a karaoke bar in Japan. It was the end of an intensive English course for a group of Japanese businessmen and their teachers. Everyone was out celebrating over drinks with the braver ones singing karaoke songs for their captive audience.

A song came on that all of the foreign teachers loved but didn’t understand. (恋人よ, or Koibito yo, by Itsuwa Mayumi. Google it if you’re curious.) It had a lovely melody but complicated lyrics that none of us could figure out. Suddenly, a new teacher, Elizabeth, grabbed the arm of the lowest student in the group and demanded, “I LOVE this song. Translate it for me, PLEASE!” The student looked mortified. He then reluctantly began to explain the meaning as each line dashed across the TV screen.

Terrified student: “Lover... near here be...”
Sincerely interested Elizabeth: “Stay with me?”
Student:“Yes. Stay with me!” “Cold me... beside stay.”
Elizabeth: “Stay beside me. I’m cold?”
Student: “Yes! Beside me. I’m cold.”

This struggle continued for the entire song, line by line painstakingly produced and repaired. But what struck me the most was that, by the end of the song, the student’s rendition of the chorus was almost perfect. He had literally corrected his language production in one song by copy correcting!

That’s it. Don’t worry so much about mistakes and try to speak; listen and catch any changes; then do your best to copy the improved version. Sounds easy, but for the less confident this process can be a challenge, especially the last step of copying. Also, for higher level learners there is the danger of coming across like a parrot. You definitely do not want your sincere attempt to improve your phrasing or overall intonation to sound like youre mocking the other speaker!

Still, the results are worth the risk. And you can use this strategy in any language with anyone. The world becomes your classroom and every person you talk with is a potential 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!)


7. The Travel Bug

By the summer of my 16th year, I had already traveled to Montreal, inflicting my fractured French on a Quebecois family, and was heading into my second summer of working at the Calgary Stampede where I intended to hone my German skills and dabble in Spanish, my newest language leap. But I had some other plans, too.

I had been bitten by “the travel bug” and become a dangerous creature: a teenager with a mission. I figured that, if I worked hard and saved every penny, I could afford a trip to Europe. I had relatives in England who would accommodate me and my shoestring budget. But my real goal was “the Continent” - France!

My mother, however, was not overly supportive of her teenage son’s plan to see the world alone so she decided to tag along... and bring my grandmother!? It had been over 50 years since Granny had set foot in the UK where her siblings lived. My mother suddenly felt it her filial duty to haul my grandmother there. If I didn’t like this plan, I could always stay at home... I caved in and went along with the “family tour package” in order to see the world. Otherwise, I might not see it at all.

Granny had two sisters in England, Margaret and Jocelyn, my great-aunts. I had met them once or twice in Canada, but they were essentially strangers. As things turned out, Margaret was rather stodgy, forever making critical comments about my hair (too long), body mass (too thin), and clothes (too Creature-from-the-Black-Lagoon).

Fortunately, my other great-aunt, “Joss”, was a kindred spirit. When she heard about my surreptitious plan to head across la Manche, the English Channel, she was immediately up to tagging along for the ride. My mother, the dutiful daughter, also had no qualms about abandoning Granny for some “quality time” with stodgy Margaret in order to join our entourage. My solo flight to France had now turned into an oddball family threesome.

Although Joss had ventured to Canada and Malta, the first trip was to visit family, while the second was on a cruise ship. Both journeys were chaperoned and safe but this expedition would be different. Joss told everyone that “the Boy” (what my English relatives called me) said he could “speak French” and was going to “take care of everything”. The words were delivered with a little humor, a lot of suspicion, and a raised eyebrow that suggested “I’ll believe it after I get back... alive!”

And we did get back alive. Of course, there were a few bumps and scrapes. Our stormy hovercraft crossing of la Manche was a roller coaster simulation complete with massive waves and passengers retching all the way to the French coast (and back!), while our budget hotel near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica turned out to be  amazingly cheap because it was located in the heart of a red light district. I was delighted by the friendly local women who took every opportunity to greet me until my mother and great-aunt pointed out the obvious to my untrained eyes.

Still, a good time was had by all. Upon our safe return to her bungalow outside of London, Joss declared to the family skeptics left behind that “the Boy” could indeed communicate in French. Over the years when I returned to her little house, Joss and I would reminisce about that first adventure in France. We groaned about the hurtling hovercraft and expressed faux shock over the “ladies of the night” near the Sacré-Coeur. Joss always mentioned how surprised she was the first time she heard me speaking French. This praise felt better than any “A” on a school language test!

Learning a new language then using it with family and friends on the road intensifies the experience. Words take on new relevance as each encounter is mentally filed away to be savored years later. Sometimes I like traveling alone, having the freedom to falter or fly while babbling away in a tongue other than my own. But using a foreign language to build new memories with others whose company I enjoy is what I appreciate most now.

I have spent over thirty years dragging relatives, students, friends and partners to all corners of the globe. As a result, I can talk about Thai tailors over tea with my Aunt Gwen in Calgary; reminisce about the backstreet bazaars of Istanbul with Apisak, a friend from Bangkok; admire photos of the Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom with my Turkish “brother”, Özgür; or nod in agreement as Tanaka-san, my cooking teacher from a little town on Japan’s Inland Sea, comments on how clean Gwen’s kitchen is in Calgary. Circles within circles, the “remember when” moments are as endless as the conversations, woven into an intricate tapestry of mutual reference points. The realities are not divorced; the people are not compartmentalized. They know each other.

Why do I go to the trouble of hauling these innocents around the globe, often demanding they pick up some of the local language with me? My reasons are completely selfish. Traveling solo through life is not an attractive prospect. Being able to relive past journeys as you plan future ones with those you care about makes the experience – and life – more meaningful for me. Talking about my aunt’s kitchen with Mrs. Tanaka in Japan keeps me grounded, keeps me sane.

As I was leaving Gatwick Airport to return to Canada that first fateful summer in Europe, Joss insisted that the pyramids of Egypt should be next on our “places to see” list. She suggested that “the Boy” should start learning a new language, Arabic. The travel bug biting her had definitely grown in size!

(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!)


6. Mental Connections

When I was 16 years old I participated in a ten-day homestay program with a Quebecois family living in a suburb of Montreal. This was my first real “submersion” in another culture. After some initial bumps and scrapes, I soon settled into the routines of the family’s life. This included frequent visits to a nearby community center which had a very large indoor pool.

Some consider me hyperactive, always rushing about “like a chicken with its head cut off” as they say in Alberta where I come from. My first day at the community center pool, I was running around the edge of the pool to reach the deep end when I slipped on a puddle of water and fell flat on my derrière. The lifeguard shouted, “Faites attention! C’est glissant.” - “Be careful! It’s...”

I listened to the words, considered the situation, and was 99% certain that “glissant” meant “slippery”. Suddenly I started laughing. My homestay brother, Yvan, looked particularly nervous. This bump on the bottom seemed to have effected my mental state in strange ways. Or maybe this was just an anglais (English) thing...

In fact, he was right on both counts. At that time, there was a rotund American comedian, named Jackie Gleason, whose TV show I watched regularly. When the Montreal lifeguard shouted, “C’est glissant!” I suddenly conjured up the vision of Jackie Gleason slipping and falling on his substantial derrière. Gleason... glissant… same sound. The association was embedded in my psyche and I would never forget the word (although I still had to look up the spelling for this entry).

I now refer to this “referencing” of words in my mind as mental connections. The idea is to somehow make the new word or words memorable by linking with something that you already know, such as a similar sounding item or an image, or both as in the case of “glissant”.

There are many different ways to make mental connections. The choice is yours. In fact, that is a key aspect of this strategy. A teacher or classmate can suggest a possible mental connection, but in the end the link has to be memorable for you. The best connections are based on your knowledge and experience, not someone else’s.

Another interesting aspect of mental connections is that, the more languages you learn, the more ways you have of linking them. For example, when I studied Thai an important word was “phet” (pronounced “pet”), or spicy. Later, when I was learning Bulgarian numbers, “pet” turned out to be “five”. My mental connection was in place!

Sometimes mental connections can be bizarre. For example, one of my students came up with the image of “spanking Dracula” to remember the word “spatula”. (She said that she would spank Dracula with a spatula for being so wicked!) The next lesson, I went over the list of new words that had come up previously. Guess which word EVERYONE remembered? Yes, “spatula” - empirical evidence that weird is much more effective when making mental connections.

You might argue that this way of remembering words overloads your brain. How in the world can you store all of these crazy connections!? In fact, I find that I use the mental connection to remind me of a word the first few times I need it. After that, it becomes stored in my long term memory. In other words, it becomes a part of my language repertoire and I no longer require the mental connection to dredge the word(s) up from the depths.

In fact, there is substantial research into the ways we remember new words. In the literature, my mental connections are referred to as “mnemonic devices”. Depending on your preference, a mental connection can range from an image (remember “spanking Dracula”?), homonyms, or words that sound alike (“phet” and “pet”), or words with a similar meaning component (e.g. “centipede” and “centennial”). Also, the links can be to your mother language or another language that you are familiar with. This is particularly true if you know a Latin-based language. The English swimming pool becomes a “la piscine” in French then “la piscina” in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. Easy, eh?

When it comes to homonyms being used for mental connections, the most interesting links that I have ever come across took place in a recent Khmer (Cambodian) course that I coordinated. Along with several of my Japanese students, the course included two young women from Wales, Bethan and Ffion. These women are fluent in Welsh. During the initial Khmer class they kept casting each other knowing glances even letting out small gasps on occasion. Later, I cornered them both and asked what was up. They confessed that there were identical sounding words in Welsh and, in some cases, even the meanings were related!

I would never have guessed that the sound systems of Welsh and Khmer have an amazing number of similarities. During the course, Bethan and Ffion were staying in my home along with the instructor from Phnom Penh. Each night on the train home from school, all three would compare notes, with Bethan and Ffion regurgitating with ease Khmer words they remembered. Also, although I separated them in class, both women independently came up with the same mental connections, which makes sense given their common language base.

The mind works in mysterious ways. Considering the massive number of words we “file away” in our mother tongues, it is even more amazing that the brain can handle a new set of items when we tackle another language. But I know my brain can handle the load with a little help from the mental connections I use to store new words and phrases inside my head.

Now where did I put that spatula…?

(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!)


5. The Rule of "Yes!"

When I was 16 years old and in my first year of senior high school, I discovered the fringe benefits of being a Canadian: government exchange programs. There seemed to be programs for every age and to every part of the country, particularly Quebec, as the government made an effort to bridge the distances and cultural differences of such a huge geographical space. It wasn’t long before I found myself boarding a plane for Montreal with twenty other students from my school for a ten-day homestay program with a Quebecois family.

I knew that my homestay family would likely speak only French and that I was supposed to “participate in every aspect of their daily life” to develop a deeper cultural understanding, but I wasn’t quite sure what that entailed. Planting corn? Tapping maple trees? Butchering pigs? My orientation was definitely rural and I had no idea of what to expect!

As things turned out, the world I knew was turned upside down. In Montreal, it seemed like even the most mundane of tasks was fused with a difference. The simplest of everyday activities took on an exotic edge compounded by the fact that my language ability was still limited. For example, at breakfast the toast on my plate seemed familiar until I realized that it was slathered with beurre de caramel (caramel butter) instead of strawberry jam. I was definitely no longer in an Anglophone world!

Montreal was an amazing city, a mixture of Paris and New York (neither of which I had visited) with rows of elegant European-style apartment buildings, towering skyscrapers, literally layers of underground shopping malls, and everything connected by a metro system, its stations like avant-garde art galleries with vibrant murals and mosaics on every surface. At least this is how it seemed for a 16-year-old from a small town “out west”.

My homestay family lived in St. Leonard, one of Montreal’s many suburbs. This meant a daily commute into the city on buses and trains (another first) with my homestay brother, Yvan.  Everyone was so friendly, especially Yvan’s mother, who tolerated my very limited language as we struggled through everyday tasks. In the beginning, we were both sweating from the effort required to communicate but by the end of my stay we had developed our own patois that we both understood. The rhythm of daily life was quickly established.

I soon realized that, in order to survive and avoid translation headaches, the best strategy for me was to say “Oui!” - “Yes!” - to everything Yvan’s family suggested. My instructions to “participate in every aspect of their daily life” felt more like agree, follow blindly, and do not pass judgement.
“Would you like more (incomprehensible word)?”
“How about if we (another incomprehensible word)?”
Most of the time I would just go with the flow” and keep my fingers crossed.

Yvan’s family was not rich (his father was a mechanic with his own garage), but they did have a small cabin on Le Petit Magog, a beautiful lake several hours drive from Montreal. On the first Friday night of my visit, Yvan’s family packed up the car and we all headed off for two days of fun at “le lac” (the lake). We arrived at the cabin late at night and immediately went to bed for a good’s night sleep. The next morning I awoke to the now familiar smell of toast and beurre de caramel. But before we sat down to eat, Yvan’s father asked me “Veux-tu baigner?” – “Do you want to (mystery word)?” Of course, I answered “Oui!”

Minutes later, I found myself running along an old wooden dock in my shorts then watched in horror as Yvan, his father and brothers all plunged into the freezing cold early morning water!? Hesitating for just an instant, I leapt in after them letting out a blood-curdling squeal as I hit the icy bath. I probably stunned every fish in the lake with my decibel level! In school, I had learned the word “nager” for swim, but now realized that “baigner” was what the locals used before diving in.

Every time I study a new language and visit a country where it is used, I follow what I now call “the Rule of Yes”. I believe that for several months you need to agree to each encounter, to every request in order to develop a solid base of cultural understanding. After that you can distinguish between what you do or do not want to do. In some cases, this has lead to some exceptional experiences.

In the first town I worked in in Japan, I answered my boss’ incomprehensible request with “Hai!” and the next day found myself representing the company in a sushi-eating contest – which I won! In Istanbul, I murmured “Evet…” through the hot towels swaddling my face in a barber shop. All of a sudden my head was forcefully tipped to one side, something hot and oozy massaged into my ear then yanked painfully off. I had just had my ears waxed!

Today, I love sushi and I get my ears waxed in that barber shop whenever I visit Istanbul. And I still follow “the Rule of Yes”, agreeing to everything until I get my feet (or body!) wet enough in the local culture to make an informed decision.

(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!)