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!


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!)

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