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!


20. Somchai, the Good Language Learner/User

When I started this blog several months ago, I wasn’t sure how far I would get before my brain fizzled. This week marks the 20th entry – and I have about 30 more outlines in my laptop! It looks like “Fool for Language” will be around for a while.

Having made it this far, I would like to add some other voices to my blog. In fact, my plan is to ask friends – other fools for language – to tell us their stories in every 10th entry, starting with this one, Fool For Language 20.

My first guest blogger is Paul, another foreigner based in Japan, who hales from New Zealand. Paul and I have been friends for over 25 years and I suspect he is a bigger “FFL” than I am. He is certainly more methodical and better organized! Enough banter. Time to read his story about “Somchai, the good language learner/user”.

Having been a language teacher for over twenty-five years, I have developed a nasty little habit, a kind of occupational illness. I listen to everyone who comes within range and analyse their speech – the vocabulary, the accent, the volume. In a nutshell, I do in public what you should really only do in the classroom.

Actually, when I said ‘language teacher’ I was being posh. At heart, I’m more of a language learner than a teacher. Teaching is the way I earn my living (and I quite enjoy it), but my main thing is looking at, thinking about, listening to, buying books, CDs, DVDs, films on and in, and travelling to places where I can see, try out and hear other languages. Yes, if someone said “Shall we study Turkish and then go to Istanbul and be tested on it?” I would say “Oh yes, let’s!” And in fact, did.

One fantasy tour of mine is ‘The Dialects Tour’, a trip visiting places well-known for interesting accents. Along with fellow aficionados, I have thought wistfully about being guided by locals to some windswept pub in Cornwall, or some out-of-the-way ryokan inn in Kagoshima to try to decipher what the locals are saying. I jest not. Only three vowels in an Okinawan dialect of Japanese? Off we go! No declensions in the verb “to be” in Devon? I be interested in that trip!

So when I encounter special people, especially when travelling, I listen. One of these was a guy I shall call Somchai, a vendor at the market near my hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His usual banter is very familiar to travellers. “Special for you, my friend.” “Very cheap today.” etc. Somchai was not an educated English speaker. He did not concentrate on anything other than selling things at his stall, but could he talk! Along with his mother, he would encourage passerby’s to buy his knick-knacks and Thai delights, such as sticky rice with mango, sweet orange juice and coconuts.

What fascinated me was Somchai’s ability to convey his message so clearly with atrocious grammar and a very limited range of vocabulary. I observe hundreds of ‘institutionalised’ students every week. Ninety-nine percent of them would lose out to Somchai. He didn’t care about accuracy of grammar. He was in a rush. He just wanted to communicate. As long as you understood QUICKLY, he was happy.

Somchai was the complete inverse of many language learners I know. Students and teachers in school focus on getting the sentence, the word, the spelling, etc right. Somchai did not. All he wanted to do was to tell you something. I was intrigued and made copious mental notes, which I will now share with you.

Somchai could REALLY get his point across! He was a great chatterer, what is known as a ‘naturalistic learner’. I asked him how he learnt English. At school? Somchai looked at me as if I were mad. “No,” he said. He slept in school at the back of the room with his twin brother. He learnt from speaking. Although I suspect his actual phrase was more like, “School? You dream! I hear. I speak. I remember.”

I soon became fascinated by Somchai’s ability to communicate. He had no awareness of English grammar, but knew quite a few words. He simply plonked those English words into his own first language’s grammar. Not pretty, but understandable and succinct. “I no like new car he.” I made a note of how many words I heard him use. The total was 538 so I imagine he had an active vocabulary of fewer than 1,000 English words.

If Somchai didn’t know a word, no problem! He would ask for the word and then repeat it, or ask to have it repeated. He got quite angry if the word was repeated at a “teacherese” speed (think ‘slowly and carefully’). He also wanted it in a sentence. He would then repeat the word back in a new sentence of his own making to check if he could use it successfully or not, and then ask “You think good, not good?”

How do we “sum up” a good language learner/user? Somchai could get a new word and made it stick by repeating it, and then using it. He could get new words from speakers of the target language. But in the four years that I greeted Somchai and his mum at that market, he never really made any progress. His weak point was a great “busy-ness” that stopped him ever learning to read any English beyond very simple short words. In all the time that I knew him, I only once pointed out something to him that he valued enough to remember.

Somchai always used ‘he’ for both men and women. In Thai, (and many Asian-Pacific languages, such as Chinese, Thai, Indonesian or Maori) there are no separate words for he and she. Anyway, to Somchai’s ear, English he and she would have sounded almost identical. (Thai has no sh sound, so I think it would have been hard for him to distinguish between them). He would say things like, “My mother he sick now”, which could be confusing for listeners. But I did point this problem out to him, and he took it to heart. It was the only ‘improvement’ he made in four years.

Somchai’s need was to communicate, not to read or write. His lack of attention to detail was woeful. If I tried to drill him, like a teacher, he would tire immediately saying “I Thai. I cannot!” Yet, as a communicator in his second language, he was a master. He could out talk them all. I even saw him hold his own with fellow Thais who were university English professors.

When my students ask what is important when trying to communicate in English, I think of Somchai – his essential vocabulary of 1,000 words, his repeating new words, his lack of fuss about not being perfect all the time, and his woeful, but generally communicable, grammar and stories.

In a sense, he had the same kind of affliction I wrote about in my confession at the beginning of this essay – he obsessively listened to the people around him and took in what interested and impressed him. And he made his life more enjoyable by trying out other languages and having fun while doing it.

(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!)


19. Show me!

In my early years in Japan, my mother and youngest aunt decided to pay me a visit. These were “prairie girls” who hadn’t really traveled much and certainly not to some place as exotic as the land of cherry blossoms and Mount Fuji. For them the trip was a fantasy fulfilled, particularly since I was living off the beaten track on a small island in Japan’s Inland Sea.

But for me, the visit was a potential nightmare since I would have to work most days during their visit. What would they do in such an isolated place? How would they get around without any language ability? What if I lost them during their two week visit? The pitfalls were as deep as my imagination.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. A small island is hardly a dangerous place to visit and, being from ranching country near the Rocky Mountains, eating large bowls of noodles while traveling here and there on ferries was as exotic as it gets! Each day we would ride a boat into one of the cities where I worked, planning our itinerary as we sailed past seaside hamlets.

When would I be with them and when would they be on their own? What time would we meet at the dock and catch the ferry home? As we parted company, I felt like I was abandoning them to the fates, but they always seemed to find ways to amuse themselves and returned with exciting tales of the adventures they had had without me.

On one occasion, I left them at the gates of Okayama’s Korakuen, a park which is considered one of the three most beautiful in Japan. I said that I would return in 90 minutes after my lesson saying “Try not to get into any trouble.” as we parted company. But when I returned at the appointed time, they were not at the entrance to the park.

I waited exactly five minutes then went into panic mode. Paying the admission fee, I began to rush around Korakuen in search of my lost family members while imagining a growing number of morbid scenarios. It was while trying to recollect the local phone number for “Police/Fire/Ambulance” that I suddenly spotted the wayward women surrounded by a group of elderly Japanese. What had they done now?

I approached the group to find everyone apparently having a great time in a party-like atmosphere. There was no bottle of saké in sight to explain the joviality what was going on? Sauntering up to the group, I bowed and smiled at the Japanese seniors then quickly switched to a glare as I faced my mother and aunt, demanding to know why they were here and not waiting for me at the entrance gate as planned.

“Oh, chill out. We are in a park and can’t go anywhere. Besides, we were having a great time.” was the rebellious reply from my aunt. How could they be having a great time”? They didn’t even speak the language.

As it turned out, they didn’t need to. Both my aunt and mother are friendly folk who enjoy the company of people from other countries. My aunt, in particular, is VERY outgoing and communicative. She will stand on her head if this gets her meaning across and helps her understand others. This is apparently what she did in Korakuen.

I was still a little testy from the imagined horrors of losing them a few minutes earlier and demanded to know what they had been “talking” about.

“Lots of things.” responded my aunt.

“Such as...?” I asked with a hint of sarcasm.

My aunt’s eyes narrowed then she went into her monologue. “This is Shige and he retired five years ago from the post office. And this is Mi-chan. She has three children, five grandchildren, and one great granddaughter born last month. And this is...” One by one she went through the group gesturing, pointing and referring to a bizarre assortment of sticks and stones to recollect details for each person. All the while my mother was nodding her head, adding a back-up chorus of “Mm-hmm.” and “That’s right.”

As she gave the personal details for each person, I did a quick check in Japanese. Amazingly, my aunt’s information was more or less correct! Using a combination of gestures and the objects at her disposal (think pebbles on a park bench), she had been able to elicit information from the elderly group and then remember it. Another interesting aspect of the encounter: as she talked about each person, my aunt’s gestures and the objects she used to convey meaning helped cue the person being talked about. Each senior was nodding his or her confirmation when personal details were being explained.

It never ceases to amaze me how many of my students practically sit on their hands during class rather than use them to explain what they want to say. I have also had locals wave the right hand back and forth in my face, an action which denotes “no”, while declaring, “We Japanese do not use gestures.” The truth is that every culture has its own way of expressing meaning with hands, arms, eyes, all body parts. Some cultures gesture more than others (think Italians) but we all do it.

As for using objects to clarify meaning, in my world travels I have seen people position tableware or move cups and dishes to reinforce the details of a story while enjoying a meal. As for me, I have drawn pictures on a steamy train window in winter to help a fellow traveler better understand what I am talking about. There are many ways we can illustrate and convey our meaning.

Illustrating meaning is not without its hurdles, particularly when using gestures. Non-native speakers should recognize there is a difference between gestures which have a generic interpretation, such as “tipping” an imaginary glass of water to your mouth to indicate you are thirsty, as opposed to gestures which carry a specific meaning in a particular country or culture.

For example, in Japan putting your index fingers on either side of your head like horns on a bull indicates that your partner or spouse will be angry. The same gesture in Sri Lanka means a person is crazy (see my friend, Chandima, below). These variations can be fundamental; for example, in English-speaking countries, nodding up and down indicates “yes”, while moving your head from left to right means “no”. In the Czech Republic or Bulgaria, the opposite is true.

But cultural differences should not stop you from using your body to communicate. If you are using a gesture that has a different meaning in the local culture, chances are you will find out quickly as eyebrows raise or people begin to giggle. Your attempts to communicate will not soon be forgotten! Gestures are important because they not only convey meaning but make information more memorable. They add “flavor” to your attempts to communicate.

(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!)


18. A Family Affair

I worked at Immigrant Services Society (see blog entry 17) for two years and learned as much from my students as I hoped they learned from me. Once we settled into a routine and the women in my classes got used to working with a “foreign” man, things went smoothly and the number of students increased as participants brought friends and family members to join our sessions.

Sometimes a woman would come to me and ask for assistance with a personal challenge or goal, including headaches with immigration documents or employment forms. These could be daunting, although I never really appreciated the hurdles they faced until I moved to Japan and was required to wade through similar documents in Japanese.

One day two women came to me with a special dream: they wanted to get driver licenses. We began to study training manuals and take mock tests. They were getting behind-the-steering-wheel experience from family members. The written exam was my domain.

The big day came, the women took their driving tests, and both passed! They announced their achievement in class and we had a party to celebrate. All of the women were thrilled by what their classmates had achieved. What had seemed impossible was now within the grasp of anyone in the group. The atmosphere was electric!

The next week I arrived at ISS to find only a single student, Achirkaur, the oldest woman in the group. Something had gone horribly wrong.

Through broken language and gestures, I began to understand that, upon hearing that two of our members had gotten driver licenses, the men pulled their wives/daughters/sisters from the class. My lessons were perceived as too radical.

Wary of my comprehension of Achirkaur’s explanation, I called in a translator. After some serious discussion, we decided that the only way I could get my students back was to go to the Sikh temple on Saturday and plead directly with male members of each family. I was nervous but Achirkaur said she would go with me. End of discussion.

When Saturday rolled around, I got up early and put on my best suit. I wasn’t sure what to expect but at least I looked presentable. I drove to Achirkaur’s house to find her waiting on the sidewalk dressed in traditional garb and a big smile. At least someone was confident.

We arrived at the Sikh templea tall gangly Caucasian man and a small, ancient Indian woman – then sat at the back until the service was over. As people were leaving, Achirkaur waved to specific men asking them to stay behind. They did not look happy but all agreed. (Besides, there were just two of us and about fifteen of them!)

Some of the men began making angry comments almost immediately in a mixture of Punjabi and English. It seems their women were changing too rapidly with expectations that could only lead to trouble (think driver’s license). The mood was aggressive and I wondered if I had done the right thing by coming.

Then something amazing happened. Achirkaur stood up and told the men to sit down – and they did! She began to wave her finger at the men and several looked at the floor. To this day, I am not sure what she said but I know they listened. She was obviously defending our classes (I kept hearing my name pop out of the stream of Punjabi) and demanding the women be allowed to return. It suddenly dawned on me that I was with the strongest ally possible in this community: an old person who was respected and who respected me. I wanted to give her a hug but, of course, didn’t dare!

In the end, an agreement was reached. Once a month we would have a “family night” where I would explain to the men the syllabus for the coming weeks. If they didn’t like what was planned, they could suggest changes. I was even willing to drop topics altogether. This seemed to keep everyone happy and my students were allowed to return to class. It was also a blessing for me since I got to know the men better and not one suggested I change our study program.

This ISS experience helped me to realize a critical need on the road to language learning and life: if possible, involve friends and family members. Over the years I have made a concerted effort to include loved ones in my travels, language adventures, even classroom training. This effort has been for selfish reasons: to create a “common experience” and help me keep my sanity.

Compartmentalizing your life into blocks based on people and locations consumes energy and is stressful. I learned this when I returned to Canada from Malaysia at the age of nineteen (see blog entries 10 & 13). I had experienced so much that my friends and family had not. My new reality was not theirs and we had grown apart. Endless talking was not going to include them in this exciting new world I had discovered. Only by bringing them into this world would I create common understanding and find some inner peace.

I brought my father to one of our “family night” affairs. He had a great time and his presence seemed to validate my efforts in the eyes of the men, while the women were delighted to discover that he enjoyed eating their dishes as much as I did! Best of all, for my family, my volunteering was no longer some mysterious ritual but something that at least my father understood and was proud of. He was now part of my students’ world and, more importantly, mine.

I have dragged my youngest aunt to Thailand and my mother to Mexico; my Mexican friends to Canada, Wales and Japan; my Japanese friends to Hungary, my Hungarian friend to just about everywhere. My Bulgarian students have joined me at conferences in Bangkok; my Thai friends have been part of my language research in Istanbul. And so on and so on. I think you get the picture.

The result of this intricate weaving of worlds means that many people in my life share a common reality. My aunt Gwen asks about Suwat in Bangkok. Judit in Budapest asks about the Tanaka’s in Okayama. Humberto in Merida asks about my aunt Ada in Calgary, while Emma and Tina in Sofia want to know what Apisak is up to in Ubon Ratchathani. I answer the questions with delight, content in the knowledge that my life is less compartmentalized, that the walls are crumbling between the worlds I walk in.

(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!)


17. The REAL World

After high school, I flourished for a year in Canada World Youth’s Malaysia program (see blog entry 10), struggled for another year in Ottawa making ends meet both physically and mentally with the help of a Malaysian family (see blog entry 14), and discovered a new world in my own country while teaching Cree kids in northern Manitoba (see blog entry 15). In the autumn of my twentieth year, I changed my studies from Journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University and returned to the west coast to major in Southeast Asian Area Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. Although not as multi-cultural as Ottawa, Vancouver had its own ethnic flavour, particularly Asian, which suited me perfectly. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, UBC’s “Department of Southeast Asian Area Studies” wasn’t really a department, but a pastiche of courses glued together from various faculties in an attempt to offer a cohesive study program. The results were very mixed. One term I was dismayed to learn that of the nine possible courses only two were actually being offered. No one had thought to coordinate sabbaticals between different departments! As for the two courses I could take, they were scheduled at the same time!?

Frustrated by my academic pursuits and missing the warmth of the Malaysian family that had adopted me in Ottawa, I was wondering if my move to UBC was a mistake when Bev, an older student in my Chinese class, approached me about volunteering with a program she had developed. It involved “moms-and-tots” classes conducted through an organization called the Immigrant Services Society. Once a week groups of women would have a one-hour English lesson while their children were entertained in an adjoining room. At the end of the hour, the moms and kids were united for a final hour of activities before heading home.

The ISS program was well-organized and popular with the women it served; however, there was one problem: they needed male volunteers. Depending on where they originated from, some of the women were unused to interacting with men who were not family members. It was unheard of. Now they were in Canada and, if a male bus driver asked if they needed a transfer, some women would panic. Bev’s solution was to look for a local, non-threatening guy to work with licensed female teachers in the study sessions to help the women adjust. Apparently I fit the bill.

When Bev asked me about volunteering, I immediately said “yes”. It seemed like a great way to learn about another culture, as well as to help me get over the frustration of my hodgepodge study program. I soon found myself facing an eager crowd of women of various ages, all dressed in the traditional baggy trousers and tunics of their homeland, the Punjab in India. This was my ISS class. I suspect these women thought me as exotic as I found them but soon we were getting along just fine, particularly since I was a sucker for the sweet treats they would take turns bringing to class. My favorite was gulab jaman, round donut-like balls soaked in orange-flavoured syrup. Delicious!

The women in this class were very motivated but there was almost a sense of desperation to their eagerness. Some weeks I would find a new student who had left her village in India for the first time and arrived in Canada just a few days before. She was now expected to take public transportation, shop for groceries, buy clothing for her children, and fill other domestic tasks in a foreign land and tongue. I couldn’t begin to imagine how frightening their world must be.

To complicate matters, many of these new arrivals were illiterate in their first language so a typical textbook was of little use. The bottom line was that they needed linguistic strategies and local knowledge ASAP in order to navigate in the greater society. The cozy courses that I had experienced up to that point in French, German and Spanish did little to prepare me for the needs of my volunteer work at ISS. And although my Malaysian family in Ottawa had gone through comparable struggles adjusting, they were sheltered by the refined diplomatic world they lived in. The ISS women had been thrown into the deep end of a swirling pool.

At ISS, everything we studied had to be practical and for immediate use. For example, we would scrutinize the meaning of clothing label icons then head to a department store to inspect the real thing, mortifying clerks as our entourage went through the racks identifying which garments would cost the least and last the longest. Bus drivers would begin to roll their eyes as student after student requested the same ticket and transfer for an identical journey. Dressed in traditional garb, the women stood out. But they tried their hardest to communicate with what little language they had, and most locals reciprocated with patience and encouragement.

For this is what good people do when they see a non-native making a valiant effort to communicate in the local vernacular: they become part of the process, clarifying, encouraging, suggesting words that the visitor or immigrant needs to understand and to be understood.

To this day, my approach to learning a language, as well as teaching in my own classes, is one of practicality. How will I apply the classroom material in the real world? Can I adapt the language and strategies to work in a range of contexts? My eyes glaze over when a teacher begins to drone on about sentence constructions, or introduces ridiculous phrases like “This is a hedgehog.” Where is the application in reality?! At such times, I remember the ISS women and understand how much they have colored my attitude toward learning a language. And I remember their gulab jaman, too!

(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!)