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!


23. A Glass of Water

Life is like a ladder. Well, at least mine is. Each step taken leads to the next level, the next adventure. Sometimes you slip and go down a rung or two, but inevitably you continue climbing. Tutoring a Malaysian family in Ottawa (see blog entry 14) lead me to work as a volunteer in Vancouver with female immigrants from India’s Punjab (see blog entries 17 and 18); my work with these women, as well as my Chinese studies, helped me land a position promoting Healthiest Babies Possible (HBP), a perinatal nutrition counseling program offered by Vancouver City Health Department (see blog entry 22). With my Chinese gradually improving, I was on the lookout for ways to get to China and test my skills on the street. Once again, earlier experiences helped me take the next step.

One day in my Chinese class, an announcement was made about a short-term study program to China being sponsored by World University Services of Canada (WUSC). There was only one drawback: applicants needed to have a unique research topic with a practical focus that could be completed in the limited time frame. The program was open to candidates from across the country and I would have to come up with something special if I was going to catch the attention of WUSC’s selection committee. I wracked my brain but couldn’t think of anything.

While pondering the problem at HBP one day, I was accosted by a colleague, Penny. She caught me mumbling to myself over lunch and her look suggested that she had serious questions about my mental health. Penny demanded to know what I was so preoccupied with and I told her about the WUSC program with its “unique and practical” topic requirement. The deadline was days away and I was at a loss for a topic.

Penny gave me a withering look then blurted out, “You are such an idiot! Look around you. Why not propose a study on how Chinese society deals with working women and their babies?”

Ever the woman of action, Penny quickly organized a meeting of our supervisor, health nurse and international nutrition counselors. Soon the group was bouncing ideas off each other faster than I could write them down. What kind of leave do women get before and after delivery? Are special considerations made for their diet at company canteens? What about daycare in the workplace? What age do children have to be before mothers can use a daycare facility? I had my research proposal drafted in minutes!

As for credentials, although my academic background was rather limited (I had taken one course on nutrition problems in developing countries to fill the VERY eclectic requirements of my Southeast Asian Area Studies program), I did have an impressive reference letter from my HBP supervisor emphasizing the importance of my research topic, not to mention my budding proficiency in Chinese. Several interviews later, I found myself at Vancouver’s International Airport boarding a plane for China.

When we landed in Beijing, our group was greeted by the sight of workers marching in a line across the tarmac, hoes slung over their shoulders. They had just finished working in the cornfields positioned between the runways! It was the time of China’s Cultural Revolution and, frankly, we were all starry-eyed and seduced by the social experiment taking place before us.

But there was a darker side to all of the change. Chairman Mao had just died and his wife, Jiang Qing, was attempting to take control of the government with three of her cronies – the infamous “Gang of Four”. People were on edge and foreigners were off limits. A baggage handler talking quietly with us in very fluent English at the airport, turned out to be a former university professor who was now being “re-educated” to empathize with the masses. He hurried away when our official handlers appeared.

As for proficiency in Chinese, only two of our group could really say anything. Disembarking from a bus to visit a local facility, our handlers would inevitably point us out, warning locals not to say anything near “the two tall ones” since we could “tingdedong zhongwen” - understand Chinese. Yet minutes later we would be paraded out to make a short speech and entertain the locals. Speaking the local vernacular turned out to be a double-edged sword.

On the road, our group of Westerners “stuck out like a sore thumb”. Foreign travelers were almost unheard of in some of the cities we descended upon. We could literally cause a traffic jam (perhaps I should say “bicycle jam” the primary means of transport at the time) if we stood in one spot for too long, particularly in the north. At one Friendship Store in Harbin, the army was called in to escort us off the premises because we could not get through the crowd that had gathered at the entrance! After my stint in Malaysia (see blog entry 10), I was used to being stared at; however, for the others it was unnerving. To view a short movie taken at the time, check out this link http://www.tudou.com/programs/view/ngZ1yvbMPa8/.

Given the nature of the materials used for my studies at university, I had a bizarre, limited vocabulary. This fact was brought home to me when I gave an eloquent thank you speech at an official dinner, commending our hosts for a valuable experience that would strengthen the ever-growing friendship between Canada and China. I was sweating bullets as I spoke but apparently did an impressive job ending to a warm round of applause from those in attendance.

I hastened back to my seat with a parched throat and desperate for a drink. I made eye contact with a waiter who began to approach, then was mortified to realize that I had no idea what to say! I sat there dumfounded while the waiter looked at me expectantly. Having just heard my flowery phrases praising the mutual admiration of our two countries, he had no way of realizing that I didn’t have the language to ask for a glass of water!

I am amazed how course designers and material writers lack the ability to put themselves in the learner’s shoes, to recognize what a person REALLY needs to function in a language. Perhaps the situation today is not as depressing as when I studied Chinese; however, it still surprises me how much fodder gets into print or online masquerading as “useful” for the learner.

An hour spent with new immigrants to a country is enough to provide even the most dim-witted of course designers with a practical perspective. Instead, what often appears in print or online is disconnected (think lists of words without a context), even bizarre. One major foreign language software provider advertises its wares on Japanese TV using the phrase, “The hedgehog is curled up.” What in the world are they thinking?!

When I study a language, I want to end each class with something that I can take away and use on the street. This is how I plan my own lessons. What do the students leave with that they can apply to their own reality? This is why I designed my website, http://www.sulantra.com/, with a functional focus. Frankly, I have little use for grammar-based academic exercises in the early stages of learning a language. I understand how “rules” can be useful when refining how I speak at a more advanced level, but not when I am just starting out. It’s brain numbing.

If the language I am learning does not have an immediate application in the real world, I lose patience. I have a ladder to climb and little time to waste as I reach for the next wrung.

(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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