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!)

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