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!


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!)

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