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!


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!)

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