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!


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!)


  1. This is a great blog posting. I am a Canadian homestay father, who is hosting his last student after 18 years and about 75 international "guests." The current student is a perfect example of the rule of "no." Regardless of what it is - food, experience, acceptance of a cultural difference - the predominant reaction has been "No thank you!" usually accompanied by a very sour look on his face. Needless to say, there has been little progress in language acquisition. The progress of those students who generally followed your "yes" rule, on the other hand, was always steady, sometimes even spectacular.

  2. Thanks for the great comment! Yes, I have met a few of the "no" types, too. I feel sorry for the local families that get stuck with them. Good luck with your last one!

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