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!


26. Improving With Age

There is one final teaching story in Canada that I almost forgot to mention, which is ironic given that it deals with memory and older learners. My volunteer work with immigrant women through Vancouver’s Immigrant Services Society (see blog entries 17 & 18) caught the attention of the University of British Columbia’s Language Institute and, in my final year at UBC, I was asked to participate in an experimental project to research long distance learning. Participants living in isolated communities were expected to watch a series of soap opera-style TV shows developed by the university, then take part in a 2-hour class on Saturday mornings using study materials based on what they had watched. Subjects were divided by age and/or ethnic community then assigned to a “para-instructor”.

When it came time to assign the classes I was taken to the coordinator’s office and informed that my students were a group of senior citizens living in a Mennonite colony about three hours drive from Vancouver. I was told not to get my hopes up and not to be disappointed if (when?) my students’ progress was minimal. Given their advanced years, the assumption was that, no matter how much effort I put in, the results would be negligible. What a dismal way to start a course.

My first Saturday, I got up early and began the 3-hour drive to the colony determined to be on time for the lesson. I had done my homework and was dressed in a somber black suit in an effort to be culturally sensitive. After what seemed like an eternity of driving through fields of vegetables and fruit groves, I finally found the community center where the classes were to be held near the small rural community of Clearbrook. I parked my car and nervously entered to discover a group of fifteen elderly men and women all dressed in brightly-hued shirts and dresses. I felt completely out of place! Later, when I got up the nerve to ask about their rainbow colors, one of the older members, Agathe, proudly replied, “We are a progressive colony.” They certainly were.

During class break I asked many questions. The colony was obviously self-sufficient and functioned almost entirely in Low German, or Plattdeutsch. I couldn’t understand why they had agreed to be part of the university’s experiment. Why did they feel the need to learn English?

As it turned out, the core reason was the same for each person. Many of their children had left the colony and were working in nearby towns or Vancouver. When they visited with their grandchildren the latter were using English to communicate. It was this desire to stay in touch with their grandchildren that fueled the group’s eagerness to tackle English in their senior years. The youngest students were in their mid-60’s while the eldest, Heinrich, proudly informed me the moment we met that he was 84 years old.

Every week when I arrived, the group would be seated at long tables waiting expectantly for the lesson to begin. Spirits were high and study sessions were filled with joking and a constant stream of questions. Each lesson was a social occasion with everyone having a great time, including me.

But there were some awkward moments, too. At the beginning of my third class several participants fingered Maria, one of the more jovial members, for not having watched the weekly TV show. The one television set on the colony was located in the community center where we held our lessons and, if someone missed a session, everyone knew about it. Maria’s absence was verified by fourteen heads nodding solemnly and, despite my assurance that it “wasn’t a big deal”, she apologized profusely – and never missed another communal TV viewing session.

The “Clearbrook gang”, as I had come to call them, taught me many things about learning a language. First, having a specific, PERSONAL goal in mind is crucial for motivation. Mindlessly memorizing unrelated word lists for an examination may work for some students who want good grades, but I suspect percentage points are not a true incentive for the average learner.

Second, group-based study can be much more productive, especially if the group gets along well together. Lessons become a social event, which was certainly the case in Clearbrook. When learners have fun studying together, they look forward to the next class.

Third, a little psychological pressure can go a long way, particularly if it is applied by peers rather than the teacher. Knowing that all eyes would be upon her, Maria never missed another TV show. And perhaps for the same reason, the Clearbrook gang had the best attendance record of all other groups that participated in the UBC study. The peer pressure may have seemed a little draconian, however, it worked to everyone’s advantage.

Which brings me to my final revelation. Despite the university coordinator’s limited expectations, the Clearbrook gang achieved the greatest level of improvement in the study. I was so proud! And I realized that, if the need is there and the learning environment supportive, age is irrelevant when it comes to language learning. Sure, younger people may have an edge in the memory department; however, the seniors of this Mennonite colony clearly demonstrated that the brain could still function effectively despite advanced age.

When I did my MA in Applied Linguistics in the UK years later, we were told that after puberty the brain goes through chemical changes and “hardens” making it impossible to really learn a language well as we grow older. I didn’t believe this to be true but the only evidence I had to refute my professors was the tale of older learners on a Mennonite colony outside Vancouver, which flew in the face of the accepted academic knowledge of the times.

A few years ago, I was delighted to stumble across more current research that refutes this “hardened brain” premise. The mesh surrounding the brain remains plastic throughout one’s life and neurons keep firing into our senior years. In other words, as long as your brain is healthy, you can learn a language at any age. Furthermore, in doing so, we reduce the chances of succumbing to cerebral diseases, such as Alzheimers. This is a story for another blog posting.

I made one final trip to Clearbrook in early summer to say good-bye before heading overseas for employment in Japan. The class held a “picnic” outdoors at a long table and everything we ate was homemade – the bread, the cheese, even the wine. Each person explained in English what they had brought to the table, as well as what they had gotten from our language classes. It was a wonderful send-off!

As for me, I told them that I had learned much more than they could ever imagine. The Clearbrook gang members were not an aberration – seniors can learn a language – and I only hope to have half of their intelligence and energy when I reached that age. I told them this when my turn came to talk. And I made my speech in white linen pants and a bright blue shirt. I had become more progressive, too.

(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!)


25. When in Rome… learn some language!

As those following this blog know, I have talked about my various language learning and teaching adventures in Canada, including tutoring the family of the Malaysian Deputy High Commissioner in Ottawa (see blog entry14), working as a summer school instructor for Cree children in northern Manitoba (see blog entry 15), training Punjabi women to survive at the Immigrant Services Center (see blog entries 17 & 18) waiting tables at my Chinese instructor’s restaurant (see blog entry 24) then knocking on doors for Healthiest Babies Possible, a multilingual, perinatal nutrition counseling service provided by Vancouver’s City Health Department (see blog entry 22). But there is still one last tale to tell from my homeland.

While working part-time as a sound technician in the University of British Columbia’s language laboratory (another job picked up because of my interest in languages) I heard from a coworker about short term guide positions at Habitat, the United Nations’ conference on human settlements held in Vancouver in 1976. With a rather taunting voice, my friend said that she had applied the previous week and, since the application deadline had passed the day before, unfortunately, I would be unable to join her in the interview line. I immediately rushed to UBC’s job placement center and pleaded for an application form. Since the completed applications had not been picked up yet, I was given one – much to my friend’s chagrin.

As things turned out, after a stressful hour-long interview in English and French with three interrogators firing questions at me, I was offered a plum position at the Habitat Media Center. My job was originally to cater to the needs of visiting news reporters from around the globe but, after a week of training, the manager approached me with a new job offer. How would I like to become one of the three supervisors responsible for coordinating the Center staff? Although my shift would be the late night one, she mentioned a substantial pay increase. Frankly, I would have done the job for nothing!

The Habitat Media Center was a language lover’s dream come true. Staff rushed about assisting an international assortment of media personnel in no less than twenty-five different tongues. We had been warned by the manager that, given our direct involvement with the scribes, radio announcers and TV personalities who were covering Habitat, one misstep on our part could adversely effect the image of the conference. As a result, we made tremendous efforts to fill our visitors’ every whim, always with a “Center smile” glued in place as we babbled away.

Although there were no major mishaps, “mini-emergencies” were ongoing and with events happening all over the city, the media people seemed to be forever asking for directions, especially those from overseas. The night shift was a particularly busy one since, after a long day of Habitat activities, reporters needed to file stories with deadlines set according to the time zone of their home countries. Most people functioned on a steady diet of Center coffee and almost no sleep!

When someone approached the long Media Center counter with a panicked look in their eyes, the first step was to remain calm, flash a Center smile, and try to figure out which language we had in common. After that, I would identify the person’s need then assign a uniformed media assistant to sort things out. I started by checking the person’s media badge to determine which language might be understood. “English? No. Vous parlez français? Ah... Italiano.” Somehow we would manage to communicate.

But there were glitches in the routine. The first night, a young couple arrived looking disoriented and distressed. I glanced at their badges and realized that I could not pronounce the names. I had no idea what language assistance they needed. Their coloring was very fair and I assumed they came from northern Europe, but the pair had no apparent knowledge of English and my halting German drew no response. There were three other assistants on duty but none of us had a language that worked. We all sat down with cups of coffee and I started drawing a primitive map of Europe on a paper napkin, calmly repeating “Where? Où? Wo?...” The young man suddenly took my pen, stabbed the napkin in an area I was not very familiar with, and said something that sounded like “Hell...”

Ah! Helsinki, Finland. Several napkins and a lot of gesturing later, we established that they had just arrived and needed an inexpensive place to stay. Within minutes we had their accommodations lined up and, given their subsequent daily presence in the Media Center, had also made some grateful friends. Or maybe they were just afraid to venture out into the city.

Based on observation of visitors to Habitat, as well as my own subsequent journeys, I quickly realized how vital it is to be able to communicate in the local language, even if only at a rudimentary level. But many travelers don’t bother making the effort. Perhaps the worst offenders are English speakers who assume the world functions in their language. Once leaving the safety of their foreign hotel lobby, they are often dismayed to learn that this is not the case.

But speakers of my native tongue are not the only offenders. In Bangkok, I have watched Japanese tourists being waited on in Japanese in a souvenir shop for obvious commercial reasons, leave the shop and proceed to ask for directions on the street in Japanese from a local who doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about!

When journeying overseas, joining a tour group with a flag-toting guide who speaks your mother tongue is simple and safe. But stepping outside of your comfort zone and making the effort to learn some local language will give you much more freedom and definitely increase the potential for a more exhilarating, personal travel adventure.

And it really doesn’t take that much effort. If the material is focused around functions and the language is recycled, I estimate it takes approximately 10 to 15 hours to have the average traveler functioning in a foreign language at a basic level. In my next blog posting I will talk about the classroom research that I have conducted for over thirty years which has lead me to this conclusion. As for online study, I know from personal experience that using my website, http://www.sulantra.com/, for an hour of study each day starting one month before heading to the airport is sufficient for me to get by on the streets of a foreign country. Not fluent but certainly functioning.

Attempting to use the language of the country you are visiting has many benefits. Most locals will be delighted that you are trying to speak their tongue and will reciprocate with kindness and patience. By making the effort, you are sending a message that you want to get to know the local culture on a deeper level. Your journey will be more memorable and special. Honestly!

(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!)