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!)

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