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!


12. A Strategy for the Street: Eliciting

If you have taken language classes in school then your understanding of how to pick up new vocabulary may be a little distorted. It probably involves memorizing endless lists of words out of context then regurgitating them for exams where you are penalized for minor spelling mistakes that native speakers make even though the essence is intact (think “seperate” vs. “separate”). Afterward, the vocabulary you “learned” grows fuzzy and harder to recollect as you move on to the next list of arbitrarily selected “useful” words and phrases.

At the tender age of 18 I ended up on the streets of Malaysia and realized that 99% of the language that I had studied was not going to get me very far. I had never learned the name of that exotic fruit which looked like nothing I had ever seen before. How was I supposed to bargain for a pair of sandals or a tube of toothpaste? What in the world was the word for diarrhea – and the medicine that I needed to stop it? No, the typical language class doesn’t stray as far off the beaten track as I had. How would I ever pick up the language that I needed?

I presently teach in a technical university, working with students from a range of engineering backgrounds. I do not delude myself into believing that I can provide them with all of the language they will need to function should they end up in a workplace overseas. What I can give them, however, is a strategy for collecting language. I call it eliciting and it works like this.

The first stage of eliciting is to recognize when you don’t know a word and need help. This may seem obvious but a surprising number of second language learners just don’t do it. Why? Because they have been conditioned to show what they do know in class and on exams, not what they do not. To suggest their knowledge of a new language is incomplete is considered “bad”, a reflection on their limited ability. Which is very ridiculous. How in the world are you going to improve, especially on site, if you don’t ask those around you for assistance?

Once you admit that a word or phrase is not at your fingertips, you send up a warning flag to the person you are talking with and make them aware of your predicament, psychologically setting them up to help. In English, you might begin with “How do you say...?” or “What do you call...?” Next, you focus their attention on the type of word you want, for example, “How do you say a thing used for…?”, “What do you call a person who…?”, or “What is a place where you…?”

Finally, start throwing out ANYTHING that will get your meaning across. You want the other person to understand and give you the necessary language. The explanation does not have to be grammatically correct, or spoken at all. Gestures can often convey what you want much more effectively than words.

After a struggle of this kind, the language will probably be much more memorable than if you had looked it up in a dictionary, not to mention the other person will have remained engaged in the conversation. There is nothing worse than having a conversation with someone armed with a dictionary. Key words are painfully located by the endless flipping of pages as eyes glaze over and other engagements are suddenly remembered. Dictionaries are fine for writing essays or love letters, but disastrous in face-to-face encounters. They cut the conversation into pieces generating words that, given the time lag, lose their meaning and may be incorrect by local standards anyway. One man’s “spatula” is another’s “fish slice”... or “lifter”!

Instead of being “book-based” (or “battery-based” in the case of electronic dictionaries) in a conversation, I use the words I have already learned combined with gestures to elicit the words that I need from the other person. It can be challenging at first, but you will be surprised at how willing people are to help. The more you go out on a limb to get your meaning across, the more successful you will be at building up your vocabulary.

Many years ago, my youngest aunt, Gwen, visited me in Japan along with my mother. During the course of their visit, Gwen became afflicted with constipation. As we passed a pharmacy, she suggested picking up some medicine to relieve her uncomfortable condition. She dragged me up to the counter where I stood stupidly staring at the pharmacist. At the time, I had some spoken Japanese but didn’t know the word for “constipation”.

Oh, sure, I managed to blurt out “How do you say... a kind of sickness... you travel... too much rice...?” The pharmacist was completely engrossed by my babbling but had absolutely no idea of what I wanted to say. Suddenly Gwen said something like, “Oh, for goodness sake!”, pushed me aside and began to gesture. She did a remarkably authentic rendition of someone seated on a toilet and straining to produce... well, you get the picture. And so did the pharmacist and a gathering crowd of onlookers. There was a spontaneous chorus of “Bempi!”, the word in question, which I have never forgotten.

My first realization of the importance of asking for words took place when I was about thirteen years old. My youngest brother, Keith, was about one year old and sitting on my lap. I was testing to see how many words he could remember by asking, “What’s that?” and pointing at assorted objects in the living room. Suddenly he interrupted, pointed at a ladybug crawling across the table that I had not noticed at all, and said “Whazzat?” I stared, then blurted out, “A ladybug.”

Although he had absolutely no idea of how many words he had just stated, Keith (or Keithie as I called him in those days) sounded like a native speaker. He had learned this key question as a “chunk”, or “formula”, and was now armed to pick up the words HE wanted to learn, not what others intended to “teach” him. A question like “What’s that?” or “How do you say this?” can be easily introduced and learned from the moment you start studying a language. I know because I have done it many times in a range of languages, and have incorporated it into my language training website.

Asking for the language I needed in Malay when I was 18 served me well and I still remember many of the words that I picked up to this day. And, if I don’t, I can very easily get them again by eliciting.

(If you are really a fool for languages, check out my language learning website, www.sulantra.com, with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German and Korean!)


11. Food for Thought

When I arrived in Malaysia at the tender age of eighteen, I was totally unprepared for what I encountered. The climate was too humid, the smells around me too intense, and the food was like nothing I had eaten before. For someone who had never tasted a chili before, the spicy heat of my first local dish was brutal. The burning sensation seemed to scorch my tongue, shred my throat and melt my very toenails! I ended surviving on a steady diet of bananas and lost about 15 kilos in my first few weeks. Finally, I was told by the coordinators that, if I didn’t start eating properly, I might as well go home.

This was the magic bullet. The idea of heading back to a gray winter on Vancouver Island was even more terrifying than the local cuisine and, after  surprisingly little effort, I soon found myself in love with the spices, eating with my hands, wearing sarongs and sleeping on the floor. In other words, I had adapted and gone native.

I once taught in a small college at the base of Mount Fuji which had a study program with a school in Bulgaria. When they arrived from Sofia, the young women who attended our college impressed everyone with their linguistic skills. Not only could they understand the lectures and carry on a reasonable conversation in Japanese, but they were competent in the written language as well. They had even studied the tea ceremony for several years before arriving in Japan! But there was one hitch: the Bulgarian ambassadresses had trouble with Japanese food.

In all of the years that they had studied the language, these young women had not really had a chance to try Japanese home cooking and the ingredient that seemed the most repugnant for their Slavic tastebuds was dashi, the fish stock ubiquitous to most Japanese dishes. They didn’t like the smell of it and passed judgment on food which contained it long before a morsel had reached their mouths. Dashi was for them what chilies had been for me in Malaysia  repulsive.

As things turned out, the women from Sofia eventually grew accustomed to the Japanese version of fish stock. Now when I visit them in Bulgaria, they request the instant version as a souvenir. And as for my aversion to chilies, I carry around a bottle of hot sauce with me at all times.

I feel sorry for those “ex-patriots” who wrap themselves in the safe cocoon of friends from the homeland while dining primarily on familiar foods just like mom  or Macdonalds  used to make “back home”. These same people more often than not never make an attempt to learn the local language, pleading its complexity as an excuse while creating a quasi version of their home away from home that is safe, secure, and ultimately limiting.

If you obviously enjoy the cuisine of a country, you have opened a very large door to the culture. People feel good when you show an appreciation for their typical diet. I now realize that refusing to sample a dish that someone has gone to the trouble of preparing for you can be very offensive. To me, there is nothing ruder than saying “No, thank you.” before even giving something a try. Some of my students do this when I invite a class to my home for dinner. It leaves a bad taste.

So, if you are heading to a country, prepare yourself by tasting the local delicacies in advance on your home turf, either by going to a restaurant or finding recipes online that you can prepare in the safety of your kitchen. The effort may be more valuable than you can imagine.

After returning from Malaysia and before coming to Japan, I began to explore the dishes of Asia with friends in Canada. Fortunately, I first lived in Ottawa where the presence of embassies guarantees a steady supply of exotic ingredients in the local market. Later, I moved to Vancouver, a city which seems to have a restaurant from every corner of the globe on each street. Among the dishes I discovered, sushi was one of my favorites. And this love of raw fish and rice helped me land my first job in Japan.

A friend was in the final stages of being hired for a job in Japan but developed cold feet. Instead of going to the last interview in Los Angeles, he handed me his ticket (you could do things like that in those days) and said, “You have more experience. Go instead of me.” So I did.

When I walked into the interview, the three men sitting across from me in business suits were nonplussed. When they realized that the young man in front of them was not the person they had intended to rubber stamp and hire, they held a rather tense discussion in Japanese at the end of which they suggested we go for lunch. This plan suited me fine since I was starving. As we ate, I extolled my virtues, explaining that I had much more teaching experience than my friend, all the while stuffing myself with succulent morsels of raw fish and rice. And I got the job!

I discovered the truth about a year later when one of the men who had interviewed me showed up at my workplace to see how I was doing. We went out in the evening and, over drinks he confessed that I had presented them with a major headache that day in Los Angeles. They needed a teacher badly, but were mortified since I was a complete stranger. Then they decided on the plan of taking me for lunch. It seems my predecessor was not a fan of Japan’s cuisine and made life miserable for his superiors. In my case, I might turn out to be a mediocre teacher, but at least I wouldn’t starve and create problems for the Personnel Section.

Yes, food can be an excellent entry to another culture  and a new job!

(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!)


10. Malaysia: Sensory Overload!

In my 18th summer, I was notified that I had been selected to join the inaugural year of Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde, an exotic exchange program to develop international understanding between my homeland and the rest of the world, and would soon be heading to Malaysia. I had really wanted to go to Mexico and improve my nascent Spanish and was not overjoyed with the new destination. I didn’t even know where Malaysia was on a map! But after putting in a little time at the library I realized that, of the five possible CWY/JCM destinations, Malaysia was the furthest away, hovering above the equator on the other side of the planet. That was enough incentive for me.

As it turned out, the coming year was life-changing. I made friends who would last a lifetime and fell in love with Malaysia, a country that was off the beaten track and like nothing I had experienced thus far. But it wasn’t all easy going. Sure, I had wandered the streets of Montreal and Paris babbling in broken French. But there was still some familiarity, the feeling that you weren’t too far from home. When we touched down on the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in January of 1973, it was like landing on the moon!

Although many instructors approach language training with neat and tidy formulas in self-contained boxes, the reality is a lot messier. With language comes the wild card: culture. Food, fashion, feelings are all part of the loaded package you receive when you take those first shaky steps in a new tongue. In the case of Malaysia, simply getting there opened the door to “culture shock”.

In the good old days direct flights didn’t exist to Southeast Asia. Our group of eighty participants left Canada in the freezing winter, spent a day in the cold drizzle of London, England, refueled in the middle of the cool, dry desert night of Dubai then landed in the intense mid-day heat of Kuala Lumpur. The acclimatization process had been put on fast forward and none of us was prepared for the dense humidity of KL. Disembarking the plane, it felt like walking into a wall of steamy dampness, a wet sponge that pressed against your face and seemed to smother you. Just breathing was a struggle as the tropical world surrounding us moved in slow motion.

And it wasn’t only the climate. We were whisked away on a bus to spend our first evening in a kind of training camp where we partook of our first real Malaysian meal. Sure we had practiced “makan dengan tangan” – eating with our hands – during orientation in Ontario and had tasted a watered down version of the local food, but nothing could prepare me for that first meal.

We sat on benches at long tables as local staff placed oversized bowls of a suspicious yellow liquid in front of each person. With a tense smile glued to my face, I dipped my spoon into the smelly broth (which I now recognize as curry) and from the depths of the murky liquid, a grotesque creature emerged – literally! My spoon had dredged up the large, bulbous-eyed head of a fish, its mouth hanging open with the curry broth dripping from between the rows of little teeth. For a boy from the Prairies who only knew fish as something that came in a can, that first meal was like being cast in a horror movie!? Listlessly moving my spoon around in the bowl so as not to disturb the contents, I eventually pushed it away mumbling something about not being hungry.

As it turned out, all Malaysian food was a challenge for me because the main ingredient seemed to be chilies. By the end of the first week, I was surviving on bananas (fortunately, Malaysia has an amazing range of them). Between the heat and fear of the local cuisine, I was soon losing drastic amounts of weight – about 15 kilograms in my first month.

Then there was the language. In fact, Bahasa Malaysia was surprisingly easy, particularly the version used in the marketplace, called pasar melayu. The pronunciation was painless (no exotic tones like Chinese) and the grammar was a breeze – put the word “telah” before the verb and you were speaking in the past tense, say “akan” before the same verb and you were discussing the future. Even plurals were simply formed by saying the word twice. Two scripts were used, the ABC’s and “jawi”, or Arabic script, and the writing system was phonetic with many words from English. “Teknoloji” (technology), “sains” (science), “sekolah” (school) – with a little effort I could soon figure out the signs in the marketplace or read a restaurant menu.

When I tried to communicate the real hurdle was my lack of vocabulary. I just didn’t have enough words for the things I needed to do each day. I was forever pointing and asking “Apa cakap ini?” – “How do you say this?” But little by little, the words came, the sounds and smells grew familiar, and I became more comfortable walking about in my sarong than in the long trousers I had brought from Canada for official functions.

Language is only the wrapping paper for an amazing gift – the chance to enter another world, to grow and move in new directions. Years later the first group of CWY/JCMers still has reunions to celebrate our youthful adventure, to acknowledge the road we wandered down so many years ago. Some of us went back to our hometown with a deeper appreciation of who we were and where we came from. Others, like me, became gypsies, wandering from country to country, culture to culture. But later experiences have never been quite so deep, disturbing or delightful as that first time in Malaysia.

(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!)