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!


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!)

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