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!


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!)

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