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!


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!)

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