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!


24. Learning the Words You Need

In 1977, I returned to Vancouver from China disillusioned with my studies in Mandarin (see blog entry 23). I had translated the Chinese constitution and could talk about the valiant effort of workers in the fields and factories but had almost no language for day to day activity. Frustrated, I approached my Chinese teacher, Mrs. S for help. She suggested that I get a job in a Chinese restaurant, specifically HER Chinese restaurant!

I started working part-time in Mrs. S’s restaurant in the third year of university. Although I was nervous in the beginning, it was exciting to learn and apply language in “the real world”. Many of the customers were Asian immigrants and were startled to see me stroll out of the kitchen to take their orders. To complicate matters, the kitchen turned out to be staffed with Cantonese-speaking cooks from southern China. At first, there were bewildered looks on both sides when I delivered my orders in English and/or Mandarin then received a clipped Cantonese acknowledgement, but gradually we grew to understand each other using a pastiche of all three languages.

My experience in Mrs. S’s restaurant taught me that we learn the words and phrases we need. It wasn’t long before I could apologize to customers in Cantonese and/or Mandarin for my limited speaking ability before rattling off the daily specials in one or another of the languages in my new workplace. Today I surprise myself with how many of the dishes I remember when eating at “dim sum/dian xin”, the ubiquitous brunches found wherever there is a sizeable Chinese population. The menu is apparently burned into my brain since I recollect the names of most of the delicacies being wheeled past me on carts.

Years later I observed this learn-what-you-need principle with eight of my Japanese students. They had completed a 12-hour training program in Thai before flying off for onsite testing in Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani in the northeastern region of Thailand. In Bangkok, the students worked in pairs to successfully complete a series of tasks they had been trained for, such as bargaining in the marketplace or purchasing tickets on the overnight train to Ubon. They were delighted with their ability to communicate and everyone’s level of confidence was soaring. But it was in Ubon where they truly blossomed.

Through friends, I had made contact with a local university where students were studying English and Japanese. Upon our arrival, the Japanese and Thai students got to know each other over formal activities, such as a welcoming luncheon and campus tour, then were left to their own devices. Each day the local students would meet us at the university dormitory where we were staying and outline a tentative plan for the day. Sometimes they would disappear in one large group, other times they wandered off in small “teams” venturing into the Isan countryside.

I should mention that my group was comprised entirely of young men, while the Thai group was made up mainly of young women. Over the course of their three days together they developed a unique lingua franca, a mixture of Thai, English, Japanese – and the local Isan dialect. At the end of each day, my students would return to the dormitory and regale me with tales of their exploits, such as rafting down rivers or singing karaoke in local shopping centers. They all had become very adept at getting around on “songtaew”, the ubiquitous covered pick-up trucks with benches in the back for passengers, and had tasted exotic local delicacies, such as fried scorpions.

For me, the most interesting aspect of their outings was that they were picking up local Isan slang and teaching the Japanese equivalent to their Ubon counterparts. They would sit in the dormitory lobby at the end of each day, throwing the phrases they had learned back and forth, squealing with laughter, as I stared, an outsider in my own group. By the third day, the Japanese students were developing a colorful assortment of phrases in Isan and I had no idea what they were talking about.

The Ubon students had picked up their own Japanese slang as well and it was obvious that all participants were having a great time communicating. As we boarded our train for the long ride back to Bangkok, there were many tearful good-byes accompanied by phrases that would not soon be forgotten. My students had learned the words they needed, that they found interesting or useful, and had made new friends along the way.

How do you go about getting the language you need for a specific context? There are a number of ways, including the obvious one of going online and searching for words and phrases which meet your anticipated needs. There are a seemingly endless number of dictionary-style sites, particularly for English speakers, where you can find language and, in some cases, even hear a sound model for you to imitate. But these sites present language in isolation and do not lend themselves to real communication. On the street, words produced at random do not make a conversation.

Perhaps one of the most useful phrases you can learn in any tongue is something along the lines of “What’s that?” or “How do you say this?”, which can be used as you point at a concrete object in a clear context. The natives around you will give you the local equivalent of the words or phrases in the regional accent, another important aspect often ignored by generic “dictionary” sites. You pick up the language YOU need, not the phrases dictated by a text or website. I call the process of picking up language from a localeliciting” and have talked about it in blog entry 12. It is also incorporated into my website, http://www.sulantra.com/.

Occasionally I get together with the students who travelled to Ubon. Some have continued to study Thai, some have not, but all would love to return and pick up where they left off. One young man, Shunsuke, has even developed skills in a new language.

During a job interview just before graduation, Shunsuke regaled his interviewers with tales of his Ubon experience but left the room crestfallen, certain that he had talked too much about his travels instead of his technical expertise. As it turned out, the managers were impressed by his upbeat narrative. The company had acquired an important contract with a firm in Hanoi, but no staff member wanted to go there. Shunsuke seemed to be the perfect candidate.

Four years have passed since Shunsuke was hired and, although he uses Japanese or English in the workplace, he has gone out of his way to pick up some Vietnamese, too. I believe his positive experience in the provincial town of Ubon when he was a university student prepared him with a mindset to tackle new languages and enjoy the process. He understands the importance of communicating with others in their language. He recognizes that the effort creates a good impression and that learning does not have to be an ordeal. As long as you are picking up the language that you really need, the value is obvious and the process can be a pleasure.

(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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