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!)

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