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!


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 attachĂ© 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!)


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