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!


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!)

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