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!


21. Stay in the Target Language

While at university, I held down several part-time jobs to make ends meet, including a rather challenging position as a tour guide for UBC’s Information Services. During one summer stint, I conducted five bus tours a day for tourists from around the world. Given my interest in languages (or perhaps the other staff members lack of interest), I was assigned the non-English speaking groups by default. As the bus slowly moved around the campus, I was expected to briefly introduce the 312 buildings that we passed in a language I was vaguely familiar with. Each tour lasted about one hour and visitors got off the bus in a state of amused bewilderment.

The Japanese tours, in particular, were frenetic since I didn’t speak the language and ended up giving the entire tour in broken English accompanied by wild gesturing to get my meaning across. The “audience” was entertained and involved as they shouted out the words which I lacked in their mother tongue.  Soon I began to inadvertently memorize exotic words and phrases, such as “shinrinkohgakka”, Japanese for Forestry Department. (I got tired of karate chopping imaginary trees down!) Given the repetitiveness of the tours, I found this approach an effective way to pick up specialized vocabulary and recognized the importance of recycling when studying a language, an aspect which is built into my language training website, www.sulantra.com.

Having lived in Malaysia (see blog entry 10), I dreamed of learning bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia, but this language was not offered at UBC. In its place I took Mandarin to meet my Southeast Asian Area Studies program requirements. Initially, I wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of studying Chinese, particularly since the textbooks were from mainland China and horribly dry. Frankly, talking about production quotas on the commune or the enviable output of the Daqing oil fields was not that electrifying. But in the end, my language studies opened up a whole new part of Asia for me, so I stopped rolling my eyes and rolled up my sleeves instead.

Each morning before classes started, I would go to the university’s language lab, put on my headphones and endlessly “repeat after me” in Mandarin. Although the material was quirky (we called each other “tongzhi”, or comrade), I was determined to master the language of the “Middle Kingdom” and I wasn’t alone. There were always other classmates sitting in nearby cubicles droning away as they tried to mimic the week’s vocabulary and improve their pronunciation. Slowly but surely we began to say words then comprehensible phrases, albeit of limited use.

The main reason I persevered with the study of Chinese was obviously not the course content, but my instructors. Once again, I was willing to jump through hoops because I liked the professors who taught our classes (see blog entry 2). One instructor was especially memorable, Mrs. S. Originally from Beijing, she came across as a “lihai tai-tai” (tough cookie), but we soon realized that she was a softie, keen to help us improve and quick with a smile when we teased her. At lunchtime, many of us congregated in her office attempting to speak as we sipped tea from exotic cups with lids.

In initial classes, Mrs. S put on an intimidating mask scaring us into showing up on time and getting our homework done. In her first lesson, she wrote three sentences on the blackboard – “Stand up.”, “Sit down.” and “Repeat.” – saying each loudly in Mandarin as she pointed to it. Then she erased all three phrases. This was the first and last time English was used in her class. Her lessons were conducted entirely in Chinese. In the beginning, I was petrified but, thanks to Mrs. S’s efforts, the entire class could communicate at a basic level in the target language by the end of the first term.

At the same time as I was studying Chinese, a close friend was taking Japanese. She was amazed at how the students learning Chinese seemed to be constantly babbling in Mandarin, whereas the students in her Japanese class could barely get a greeting out comfortably. Could the languages be so different? (They are.) Was Japanese really so much more challenging? (It’s not.) I decided to investigate for myself.

Using the pretext of wanting to check out a Japanese course before enrolling, I sat in on one of my friend’s classes. The instructor, Mrs. M, was charming with a lovely, gentle manner. She had amazing patience, writing the word or phrase under study slowly and carefully on the board in Japanese then explaining it just as slowly and carefully... in English.

For me, this was the crucial factor that explained the difference in progress between the students learning Chinese and those learning Japanese. Mrs. S was loathe to speak English and would go through a wide range of contortions to get her meaning across rather than use it. Mrs. M, on the other hand, was very conversant in English and had no problems explaining, particularly with regard to classroom materials. In her soft voice she would describe the nuances of the grammar, how the Japanese word order was almost the exact opposite of English or how the subject was often dropped. She wanted the students in her classes to be comfortable and to understand completely. This is why she used English to explain. The end result was that her students were unable to use Japanese to communicate.

Looking back, this revelation has had a strong influence on my language learning and classroom teaching. When teaching, I do my best to keep lessons in the target language, training learners to ask for repetition or meaning in that language. When I am studying a new language, I insist upon learning key phrases and questions, such as “More slowly, please.” or “How do you say this?” from the outset. This is what I need to maneuver, to understand and be understood.

In class, I can be a “monster student”, asking the instructor NOT to use English since it will not really benefit me. Some short term pain is worth the long term gain. For the same reason, I prefer to be a part of language courses that have a mixture of nationalities. This increases the odds that the lingua franca of the group will be the one which we are learning.

In retrospect, I should have taken Japanese at university since Japan is where I ended up. But my Chinese studies were not a complete waste. I could read many things when I arrived in Japan because their characters were borrowed from Chinese. Furthermore, several of the students in my classes now are from China and occasionally we use their mother tongue to communicate. As they compliment me on my strong Beijing accent, I remember Mrs. S and smile. I owe my ability in Mandarin to her poor English!

(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!)

1 comment:

  1. Your blog took to me an entirely significant spot. It is a beneficial and factual article to enhance knowledge. Thanks for sharing an article like this. Free 1 week trial Korean language course online