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!


22. Healthiest Babies Possible...?!

As I mentioned in my previous blog, while studying at UBC in Vancouver I worked at a number of part-time jobs to make ends meet. With tuition fees to pay, books to buy, rent to cover, etc., I never seemed to have enough funds and was always on the lookout for extra work, especially positions where I could develop my language skills. One day between classes while perusing the classified ads, I came across an intriguing position at the Vancouver City Health Department. They needed someone to help promote a new service being offered in a range of languages. The program was called “Healthiest Babies Possible”. I had no idea what was involved, but I caught the next bus downtown and filled out an application form.

HBP was preparing to offer pre-natal and post-natal nutrition counseling to women in a range of ethnic communities. They had a head nutritionist and public health nurse to administer the program, had hired counseling staff fluent in English, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Greek and Italian, and were now looking for two part-time staff members to promote the service. The first position was already filled by Penny, an outgoing young mother who had a public health background and was studying for an advanced degree in nutrition at UBC. Now they wanted someone who was at least conversant in some of the languages they offered.

In fact, they were rather shocked when I applied. I had experience working in the Punjabi-speaking community of Vancouver (see blog entries 17 and 18), was studying Chinese at UBC (see blog entry 21), was conversant in French and, combined with my background in Spanish, could more or less read Italian. I was presentable and comfortable discussing the needs of the program with the women in charge, getting just as excited about their service as they obviously were. There was only one barrier to my being hired: they had not expected a man to apply for the position.

During my HBP interview, there were some wary glances between the three women interrogating me. I could tell they liked me, but they needed proof that I would work comfortably with their team. Suddenly Penny got up and left the room returning a few minutes later with a very unhappy baby girl who was crying loudly. It was her daughter, Vanessa, who obviously needed a diaper change. Just at that moment, a secretary popped her head into the office and said, “Penny, your husband is on the phone.”

Looking hurriedly about, her eyes rested on me. Saying, “Could you hold her for a second?” she dropped the squirming bundle of baby poop in my lap then turned and left the room. A little startled, I continued answering the questions being asked by the two interviewers as I tried to deal with the now hysterical little girl squealing in my arms.

What the women of HBP did not know is that my mother’s extended family is very large and I have spent many hours babysitting my cousins. I made frog noises, played hand games, stood up and walked Vanessa about the room, rocking her gently and singing little songs, all the while answering the questions from my interrogators. By the time Penny returned from her exceptionally long phone call, her daughter was smiling from ear to ear and seemed to have forgotten about her messy diaper. Nods of approval were exchanged by the women and, yes, I got the job.

HBP was an amazing experience. The women I worked with were forever analyzing my lunch, lecturing me about what I should be eating then stuffing me with ethnic treats they had prepared. They would carefully explain how to make the “home cooked” dishes of their respective cultures, and I still have Greek, Indian and Italian cookbooks on my kitchen shelf given to me at HBP. There were “field trips” to pass out HBP brochures at multi-cultural festivals and visits to factories, for example, to confirm the dairy content of gelato and taste test the products. I seemed to be forever eating!

But it wasn’t all fun and frolic. Health professionals in some of Vancouver’s ethnic communities were less than thrilled to find Health Department staff knocking on their door even though our service was meant to assist their clients, while explaining the benefits of breastfeeding in French live on community TV can be a harrowing experience. But I couldn’t complain. I was using my assorted languages and learning something new every day. Best of all, I got to know HBP’s international counselors well and dreamt of visiting each person’s country to experience the culture firsthand.

My HBP experience helped me to realize that one of the key motivators for me as a language learner is interacting with someone from that culture.  Places that I knew only as a colored square on a map were no longer abstract. They were now Kamlesh’s India, Maria’s Italy or Lily’s Hong Kong – and I wanted to visit them all!

I am envious of young people today. They take so much for granted in their online world. Need to find cheap airplane tickets? There are numerous websites to do it for you. Want to meet someone from a village on the other side of the planet? Search through a social networking site. The opportunities are endless and increasing by leaps and bounds each day. Knocking on someone’s online door has never been easier. But as I tell my students, it shouldn’t end online. The real world is waiting to be explored.

Today in my university classes in Japan, I have students from Nepal, Vietnam and Cameroon among other countries. These are all places I have yet to visit with languages I have yet to study, but I intend to. This may sound overly optimistic to the uninitiated but the amount of language you need to head out on the road is surprisingly small. Greetings, asking for directions, ordering in a restaurant – if you focus on carrying out a function, the basic words and phrases you need are obvious. Add strategies for communicating, such as asking someone to repeat or speak more slowly, and you are ready to explore.

At the end of each blog, I mention my website, www.sulantra.com. I have spent several years working with many friends to create this site. The focus is practical with material based around getting a job done; the study approach is straightforward without the usual academic gobbledy-goop called grammar; the interface is designed for “non-techies”, those people intimidated by turning on a computer like me.

To be honest, my reasons for creating Sulantra.com are completely selfish: I wanted a place to go where I could, in a very short time, learn enough language to strike out on my own and travel to the places my friends and family are from. There are still dishes to taste, dances to learn, horizons to view.

The next language in www.sulantra.com will be Italian. The women of HBP would approve, especially Maria from Milano. Until next week – ciao!

(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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