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!


16. Whining About Wine

This week’s blog entry will stray off the language learning/teaching path but it does involve a large dollop of cultural conundrum. I spent a good part of this summer overseas in several countries working on my language training website, www.sulantra.com. On the way home to Japan, I had a rather messy journey due to a well-meant present received from friends in Sofia, Bulgaria. Later, I wrote a message with words of warning about future gifts for overseas visitors which I e-mailed to a few select friends. They all enjoyed my effort and suggested that I upload the adventure tale to my blog; thus, I present the story below. Enjoy!


Just a quick note from the Narita Express train. I am almost home after living out of a suitcase for six weeks. But before I arrive and the memories subside, I want to spin you a cautionary tale. You really, really must tell everyone in Sofia NEVER to give a present of Bulgarian wine to someone heading to the airport. No matter how delicious the contents, it may sour considerably on the road. This is my sad story.

I packed the precious bottle of wine that Mitko and Beti gave me very carefully in my suitcase – in a mailing tube surrounded by a cotton sweater then tied in a Japanese wrapping cloth for added effect. At first, things seemed to go relatively well. Upon my arrival in Istanbul, I claimed my excessively heavy suitcase (32.4 kilos!) and proceeded to my hotel. So far, so good.

The next day, I bought a few more things (several kilos of olives, CD’s, the usual evil eye trinkets) then carefully repacked my suitcase so that the new purchases would fit in perfectly. I carefully placed the “wine tube” at the bottom of my suitcase to balance the weight and, armed with my passport and a printed version of my online ticket, confidently headed to Istanbul’s Attaturk Airport to check in for my flight. Upon arrival, I was smiling my way through the security check when an official abruptly stopped me. It seems something had shown up on the scanners. Was I carrying a bottle of wine perhaps?

I had to completely unpack my suitcase in front of many curious official Turkish eyes then repack it as a crowd gathered. Everyone was particularly impressed by my wine tube creation. One young female Customs official even nodded her approval and complimented me on my incredible fussiness.

The entire process felt like a form of public humiliation (“Do you tourists really need to take pictures?”) and took forever. I now found myself dashing about lugging a horribly overweight suitcase as I faced more lines, more officials, and glares from other travelers as I tried to jump assorted queues. Still I managed to check-in without being charged for excess baggage so I shouldn’t really complain.

Next stop: Doha, Qatar. This time I was a tad stressed crossing the border since it had occurred to me in-flight that I didn’t have a visa and wasn’t sure if I needed one. I dreaded the official interrogation which obviously lay ahead. As I stood in line for Qatari Immigration, the sweat beads began to form on my brow. Would I be detained, held in custody in a small windowless cell? I’ve watched a few too many inflight movies...

As things turned out, the procedure was relatively painless – a few questions followed by a credit card payment for 100 lira. But wait. Could that be a bottle of alcohol in your suitcase?

Once again, I had to unpack EVERYTHING in front of curious eyes and produce the notorious bottle of Bulgarian wine. This time they confiscated the contraband and provided me with a receipt, all the while chiding me that alcohol was illegal hereabouts. I was told that, if I left the country within a two-week period, I could pick up my precious bottle; otherwise, the goods in question would be destroyed as all evil things should be. The entire process took about an hour, which meant my good friend, Ozgur, was forced to wait outside for over an hour in the Arrivals area uncertain as to whether I had missed my flight – or worse – in Istanbul. Welcome to Qatar.

My time in Doha was short and busy with visits  to Qatar University’s women’s campus and a surreal interlude at a shopping center that resembled a Las Vegas hotel without the alcoholic trimmings. Before I knew it, I was heading once again for Doha International Airport. I left plenty of time in order to pick up my elusive bottle of wine but I wasn’t exactly sure how I would go about retrieving it.

At the check-in counter for my flight they said that I could pick up the bottle after I checked in my suitcase and cleared Immigration. I dutifully did both then wandered about looking for a “Confiscated Alcohol and Other Wicked Items” office. It turned out to be hidden in the back of the terminal with a mountain of contraband goods piled outside the door. I knocked but there was no answer. Again I waited.

After several minutes, an attendant finally popped his head out and before he could scurry away, I produced my receipt and asked for my bottle of Bulgarian wine. He looked rather irritated and said that it would take 20-30 minutes to retrieve since it was in another terminal. I said that I could wait. He mumbled something under his breath and sauntered off.

I spent about 40 minutes checking out the duty free area where I purchased several boxes of dates, the local “must have” souvenir. Then I headed back to the “confiscated alcohol” office. No one was in sight so I waited and waited... and waited!

Finally, a woman walked out of the office and I pounced. I politely explained that I was going to miss my flight, that I didn’t really drink and the only reason I was waiting so long for the bottle of wine was because it was a gift from dear, dear friends and not because I am an alcoholic. The woman sighed, disappeared behind the closed door and did not reappear.

Eventually the original official walked past and I asked about my bottle of Bulgarian wine. Ah, yes, the Bulgarian wine. He reappeared with the goods in question, which I seized and frantically tried to stuff into my carry-on bag. Thanks to my newly purchased dates, this was impossible. I had to unload the carry-on bag, rearrange my boxes of dates, computer, etc. and FINALLY managed to get everything loaded before frantically rushing to board my plane. Safe at last – or so I thought.

There proved to be one last hurdle. My travel agent neglected to tell me that my flight did not go directly to Tokyo but made a stopover in Osaka where everyone had to de-board and GO THROUGH A SECURITY CHECK!! Of course, the Japanese officials insisted on taking the bottle of wine in my carry-on bag. Of course, I insisted that it was a gift from dear, dear, DEAR friends and that I would slit my wrists in front of their surveillance machine if I had to part with it.

A Qatar Airways staff member was called to assist with this difficult passenger. She was not happy. I was told that the bottle would be put in a large plastic bag then tagged, but that it would have to go into the baggage hold with all of the other luggage. If it broke, Qatar Airways could not be held responsible.

Thinking on my feet, I hurriedly pulled out my neck pillow, inflated it with lightning speed, and attached it to the bottle by wrapping the pillow in my pajama bottoms which I always carry at times like these. I then removed my computer from its protective case and stuffed the bottle into the latter. There was no place for the QA woman to attach her baggage tag but I was one step ahead of her. I quickly produced a collapsible bag and put the now rather weird shaped package into it. I crossed my fingers as the attendant attached the baggage tag to the bundle and then stuck the claim stub to my ticket glaring as she did so.

When I arrived at Narita Airport in Tokyo my suitcase was the first item off. I happily loaded it on to a baggage cart then waited for The Bottle... and waited... and waited. Of course, it was the last item to appear on the carousel and I was probably the last person to leave Narita from my QA flight. The good news is that the bottle somehow survived all of this pandemonium. The bad news is that I have most likely been blacklisted by Qatar Airways and will never be able to board one of their flights again.

Next time you are asked what a nice gift would be for someone returning to Japan perhaps a hot pan full of steaming banitsa pastry covered in yogurt sauce would be easier to transport.

P.S. My life is now back to normal – although I suspect that the psychological scarring from the above adventure(s) is permanent.

(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!)


15. Homeward Bound

At 20, I decided to change my studies from Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa and major in Southeast Asian Area Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I said a tearful good-bye to my Malaysian family (see entry 14), a “two boxes of kleenex” event as my aunt Gwen would say, then began the long trek back to the West Coast along the Trans Canada Highway. Having limited funds, I decided to hitchhike the 3,500 kilometers (2200 miles) home, staying with CWY/JCM alumni here and there to save money. About half way to Vancouver, I stopped to visit two of these friends, Donna and Claude, in Winnipeg, Manitoba where I stumbled upon a job for the summer.

The Manitoba provincial government had several work programs for their youth, including tutorial positions in creative programs for local kids. Armed with Donna’s Winnipeg address and experience with my Malaysian family, I landed a teaching job working with native children and soon found myself on a bus headed to the small Manitoba town of Cranberry Portage.

The program that I was hired on had two very different goals for three groups of students. The first goal over the initial two two-week terms was to help native children from isolated northern communities adjust to a more structured classroom environment. The participants would have to leave their rural homes and move to larger towns and cities in order to complete their secondary school education, and we were supposed to assist them in this major transition in their young lives. The second goal of the third and final term was to give kids from Winnipeg’s tough inner city the chance to escape their rough and tumble daily life for two weeks of fun by a lake while working on school subjects – a kind of summer school in the wilds.

I was responsible for instructing the kids in mathematics, a subject that I enjoy and, given the level, felt qualified to teach. As for outdoor activities, I was supposed to train everyone in canoeing, including the intricacies of canoe-over-canoe rescue techniques just in case a craft started to sink. But there was a slight problem: I couldn’t tell which end of a canoe was the front!

Fortunately, we were given a crash course in “how to hold a paddle” and by the time the first group of children arrived I was ready to impart my newfound wisdom on them, or so I thought. As it turned out, the children taught me some things since all of them were at home in a canoe. Some even helped their parents manage trap lines (fur trading was a source of income for many of their families), skillfully gliding their boats over lakes and rivers much better than I ever would.

The children were from one of Canada’s largest First Nation’s groups, the Cree, and they communicated in their mother tongue as we paddled along. The bad news was that they spent most of their “training time” on the water cracking jokes about my less than stellar canoeing skills. The good news was that they taught me a range of Cree phrases connected to life on the lake.

Working with these kids I began to realize that I didn’t need to wander far to experience a completely new world. They told me which plants were edible as we trudged along forest paths. They explained the complex process of skinning an animal then tanning the pelt so that it could be used for clothing. I was taught how to cook a beaver (you boil the meat first to remove the large amount of fat) and I even learned how to do traditional Cree beadwork, a hobby I enjoy to this day. Each of these activities was important in their culture but the language needed sometimes did not even exist in English.

Learners of a new language may desperately search for an equivalent meaning in their mother tongue for every word or phrase. Too often they view unique items with frustration asking “How do you say this?” when there is no exact answer. Each language is filled with culturally-based terms and concepts which cannot be translated directly. You just have to accept them at face value, developing an innate understanding, a “feel” for the meaning based on the context and examples around you.

I recently spent time in Sofia, Bulgaria with some local friends. Over dinner they referred to one of their group as being “sert”. When I asked for clarification, everyone started piling definition upon definition.
“Well, someone who is kind of hard-headed.”
“No, more like strict… or serious.”
“Kind of uptight.”
“Yes, but not mean or nasty.”
This went on for a while and I began to panic. Then I looked across at the young woman they were referring to. Confident, organized, a person who helps but does not suffer fools. Ah, “sert”!

Unique terms like “sert” should be appreciated for the special “flavour” they impart to a language. They are a gift of knowledge and help you to better understand a culture.

A few years ago, Tomson Highway, a prominent Canadian author of Cree descent, stayed at my home in Japan for several days. When I mentioned that I still remembered some of the language the children had taught me that distant summer in northern Manitoba, he decided to test me. As I blurted out phrases he suddenly began to smile. Apparently the kids had done their job well and my accent was pretty good. But the phrase I thought meant, “You have a nice canoe.” had a much more risqué meaning. The kids had taught me a thing or two – and gotten the last laugh!

(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!)


14. Reintegration: Coming Home

At 19, I returned from Malaysia a mess. I was homesick for a place that a year earlier I didn’t even know existed and was suffering from a severe case of “reverse culture shock” (see Blog 13). After spending a few months of hell with my family on Vancouver Island, I moved to Ottawa and attended Carleton University where I began to reinvent myself. I found a house with occupants from Quebec and Indonesia so that I could use French and Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia regularly, made new friends from Columbia to improve my Spanish, and worked with CWY/JCM’s Fijian program as a volunteer. (I can still sing the Fijian welcoming song.) At school, I created an animated short film called “Learn a Language, Learn More” as part of my Journalism program, which was Carleton’s entry in a national animation festival.

I was thrilled to be living in Ottawa with its eclectic markets catering to embassy families from around the world, but I couldn’t afford the goods on display. I was a starving student and needed part-time work so I began knocking on doors, including the Malaysian High Commission’s. There I landed a job as the private tutor to the family of the newly-appointed Deputy High Commissioner – my first language teaching job!

Before heading to the High Commission, I had prepared a 5-minute speech in Malay about the wonders of my CWY/JCM experience. Buffalo leeches crawling up my legs in rice paddies, a weekend spent at the Sultan of Kedah’s mountaintop palace, sleeping under a basket of skulls in an Iban longhouse in Sarawak – I think you get the picture. I marched into the High Commission and asked to see “someone in charge” (these were pre high security days) then poured out my monologue for the unsuspecting cultural attaché standing in front of me.

As it turned out, he was Indian-Malaysian and didn’t really understand much of what I said (at least this is what his open mouth and frightened gaze suggested). However, the Malay secretary who had summoned him jumped up and squealed, “Bagus! Bagus!” (Great! Great!). Within a week I was the private English and French tutor for the Deputy High Commissioner’s family. They had arrived in Canada just two weeks earlier and my job consisted of language classes each week with his wife, five daughters ranging in age from 3 to 14, and two brothers-in-law. In retrospect I probably used a lot of Malay with smatterings of English and French. Writing this, I have guilt pangs about how little I taught them, particularly since it was my involvement with this wonderful family that saved me, that finally brought my head back home.

Working with people from other countries living in your culture can not only help maintain or even improve your language skills, but might also open your eyes to the uniqueness of your own world. Too often we take for granted what sits in front of us. By assisting others, we really begin to think about who we are, about the beauty – or hardship – of where we come from. At least this was true for me.

And my Malaysian family? I taught in their home two days a week for peanuts, but was always well-fed and treated as one of them. My joy at being immersed in a Malaysian atmosphere was evident as I made every effort to assist each member of the family as they adjusted to life in Canada. For the reality was that they were helping me reintegrate into my own culture.

I became a kind of chaperone, escorting family members out into the big, bad world of Ottawa. This included accompanying the High Commissioner’s wife to official functions and acting as her personal translator. Despite my limited language skills, it wasn’t difficult since everyone seemed to ask the same innocuous questions at the cocktail parties she dutifully attended but hated.

To break the monotony of the party circuit, we sometimes made up silly answers to the sillier questions just to see if the polite questioners were really listening.
“How do you like Canadian food?”
“Oh, the blueberries are wonderful in curry...”
I think people must have found us a disturbing pair – a tall, gangly youth escorting an older Asian woman dressed from head to toe in traditional garb with her face showing through a voluminous scarf, giggling in the corner over our little pranks.

One brother-in-law of the High Commissioner published a newspaper article in a Kuala Lumpur newspaper about a “crazy Canadian” who babbled in Malay after only a few months in Malaysia, wore sarongs at home, and ate the hottest of curries with his hands (a feat Malays feel most foreigners are incapable of). While in CWY/JCM, I had brought several Malaysians home for a week on Vancouver Island so that my family could join the experience. Unfortunately, these friends sent clippings of the article from Kuala Lumpur to my family home.

When my mother opened the first letter, a newspaper clipping dropped to the floor. All she could see was a cropped picture of her eldest son smiling out from an incomprehensible newspaper article. She assumed that I had returned to Malaysia and became frantic, leaving hysterical messages with my housemates in Ottawa, none of whom understood what she was babbling about. (Quebecois and Indonesians, remember?) Their reports made me think that SHE had flown to Kuala Lumpur since I was not aware the newspaper article had been written!

But my mother was justified in worrying about me. I was truly addicted to things Malaysian. By the end of my year at Carleton, I had decided to change my major from Journalism to Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, specifically Southeast Asian Area studies. To my knowledge, I was the first student ever enrolled in this program and might have been the last, since it no longer exists.

(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!)


13. Walk the talk – into a shock!

I spent a year as a participant in Malaysia on the Canada World Youth/Jeunesse Canada Monde program and the experience left its mark. I fell in love with my host country – the people, climate, food, customs, EVERYTHING – and returned to my family on the West Coast of Canada a complete wreck. I remember staring blankly at a TV screen while being wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill – in AUGUST. Or sprinkling chili powder on my mashed potatoes to unsuccessfully duplicate the spicy taste of the food that I missed so much. My parents wondered what kind of creature their son had turned into. So did I. Now I know that what I was going through is called “reverse culture shock”, and I was suffering from a bad case of it.

You expect differences when you leave and travel for an extended period overseas; however, it is very unsettling to discover that sometimes when you return home, nothing is the same. In my case, my brain felt twisted in knots. I was homesick for the wilds of Malaysia – and I mean seriously wild. At the end of my Malaysian sojourn, I had lived for six weeks with an Iban family in a longhouse in the jungles of Borneo with a net full of etched skulls suspended over my bed to protect me from evil (although I can’t say that I would want to protect anyone if it was my skull stuck in that net!), staring down at me as I went to sleep each night. Now I was staring at walls in my parents’ home wondering why I didn’t want to step outside. If I had had the choice, I never would have boarded the plane back to Canada.

I came to realize that the family nest would never be the same, would never come close to providing the excitement that I had experienced outside of my own culture. I would watch as the eyes of close friends glazed over within minutes of me describing adventures in Malaysia. Fish head curries, Borneo jungles, skulls suspended over beds – these were not part of their reality. I soon learned to limit my travel talk if I brought it up at all. I became silent and sullen, homesick for a land far away and the friends who had shared my experiences there, while gradually growing apart from the people I had known before CWY/JCM. These were my darker days.

With language comes cultural experiences that may change our tastes and perspectives in ways we do not bargain on. Getting deeply involved in another culture may result in separation from your own. Or maybe we just see the home front differently, are more critical of things we took for granted and accepted in the past. You become a different person, not better, nor worse. Just different. And such in-depth experience has an impact on one’s language, too.

Once after moving to Japan, I was at home in Canada talking with a friend in Japan when I felt my mother’s stare. After I hung up, she said quietly, “Do you know that you bow when you talk on the phone now?” I had never thought about it, but she was right. Most of my body language – the bows, the nods – had a distinctly Japanese flavor. And when I shook hands, I always brought my right hand back to my heart as the men do in Malaysia. As for my speech, I still gasp, “Aiya!” when I am surprised by something, a Chinese manifestation picked up in Mandarin class at university long ago. Yes, I have incorporated a variety of influences into my speech from the languages that I have studied over the years and have become a Heinz 57 of foreign idiosycracies, both in speech and gestures.

And I am not the only one. Several friends who have lived long term in Japan then returned to their home countries slip unknowingly into the patois of Japanese and their mother tongue they used to communicate in Japan, even years after being back home. I have a close friend, Miss D, whose sympathy noises or tag questions are always delivered in Japanese when I visit her in Vancouver. For me, this “mixing of languages” holds an intimacy. It brings back memories of shared experiences from another time and place, acknowledging that we have a special history together.

They say that once you have lived overseas for an extended period you can never go back home. Maybe not, but you can create a new home and possibly even a new language shared with the most intimate of friends.

Fortunately, after returning from Malaysia and spending a few months of hell with my family, I moved to Ottawa to begin studying Journalism at Carleton University. I found a house with half of the occupants from Quebec and the other half from Indonesia, so I got to practice French and Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia on a daily basis. Maybe I was avoiding reality, but I prefer to think of it as creating a new one.

(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!)