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!


29. Quick and Easy - Keywording

In blog entries 27 and 28, I talked about a communication strategy model with three stages and specific language. But communication strategies do not need to be complex. Often they are based on common sense and can be surprisingly simple.

After coming to Japan, I began to seriously investigate my own use of communication strategies as I tried to get my point across in Japanese. Whenever a communication breakdown occurred, I would step back, analyze what went wrong then try a new approach. If it worked, I would subsequently create classroom activities and materials so that I could introduce and develop the successful strategy with my students. I will explain one incident and the simple strategy which resulted from it, as well as include some classroom materials with this blog posting.

After my first year of stumbling about in Japanese, I was slowly developing my language skills for specific contexts. The town of Tamano where I lived was very small and there were no language schools that I could turn to for structured lessons. As an alternative, I hit upon the idea of studying assorted traditional arts in Japanese. Lessons included cooking, woodcarving and tea ceremony. My tastes were varied but the main reason for these eclectic choices was that the instructors would accept me. In my early days when I could barely string two words together, each “sensei”, or teacher, went to great pains to make me feel at ease but it was obviously a challenge for everyone. As the months passed, however, I slowly but surely began to collect words and phrases for maneuvering in a kitchen or tea room.

On the other hand, when faced with a new context I was often at a loss for words. And if there was an element of stress involved, as there usually is for people trying to communicate in a language that is not their own, then the few words I did have at my disposal evaporated as a cold sweat broke out on my brow. Yet I refused to give up and persevered to the amusement (and sometimes irritation) of the locals.

One day, I was waiting to buy a train ticket at Tamano’s small local station. This was the terminus and there was only one train every hour that went to the “big city” of Okayama. Ticket vending machines had not been invented yet and several people stood patiently in line in front of the ticket window. One by one they were served by the agent then headed quickly to the platform to board the waiting train. There were about five minutes left before it pulled out and the mood was tense. Japanese trains leave on time and everyone needed to buy a ticket and board before the train left.

As I stood awaiting my turn, I listened very carefully to the people in front of me trying to catch the phrases they used to buy their tickets. I had the key words – “next train”, “return ticket”, “one person”, “Okayama”– but was still mentally sorting out how to string them all together into a polite phrase when my turn came. Sucking in my breath, I slowly, even painfully began to produce a polished request for a ticket word by carefully enunciated word. “Would... you mind... giving me...?”I was so desperate to sound polite that I ceased to realize those behind me were also desperate – to make their train!

Suddenly, through the fog of my phrases I heard a man mutter angrily, “Konna baka na gaijin! Shinjiraranai!”, which roughly translates as, “Stupid bloody foreigner. I don’t believe it!” I was mortified. My desperate effort to produce a refined phrase had resulted in some very disgruntled locals. Quickly, I blurted out, “Okayama. Round trip. One person.” and tossed my money at the ticket agent. He hurriedly passed back the necessary ticket along with my change. Pocketing both, I scurried to the platform.

Once I had taken my seat (and noticed with relief that those standing in line behind me had also made the train), I began to dissect what had happened. It had been foolish of me to try and produce a perfect, polished phrase when the “broken” language I had blurted out was more than sufficient for the job at hand. Just as importantly, the abbreviated language was what I would have used in a similar situation in English.

This problematic desire to produce the “perfect sentence” is something I have seen frequently over the years among students in my classes. I watch as they mentally sort out the arrangement of words, painstakingly positioning them in their mind’s eye, taking what seems like forever. Worst of all, by the time they do finally utter that carefully planned phrase, the conversation has either moved on to a new topic or, in a one-on-one exchange, died completely. I call this painfully slow mental arrangement of words “overthink”. Maybe it is specific to the Japanese learner’s psyche but I suspect not. After all, I did it myself so many years ago at the Tamano train station.

So how do you get around this problem? Awareness comes first. In class, I point out that a perfectly structured sentence produced VERY slowly ends up being incomprehensible. A quickly spoken phrase in “broken English” is often much easier to understand as long as the key words are there. For this reason, I call the strategy “Keywording”. Second, I tell my traumatic ticket buying tale, pointing out that it can irritate the locals if you don’t speed things up. Finally, I point out that learners themselves use such “broken” phrases in their mother tongue (e.g. when buying a cinema ticket). Why should they expect their second language to be held to a higher, “perfect” standard?

After this spiel, I subject my students to various activities which require they
give information to others within a set time, for example, directions to their favorite coffee shop in 30 seconds. Given this VERY short time frame, there is obvious pressure. I start with students whom I know can pull it off and serve as a model for the rest of the class. Sometimes the atmosphere gets a little frantic with the “talker” blurting key words out in staccato while “listeners” clarify, hurriedly take notes or draw pictures. But this pandemonium doesn’t bother me. My goal is to have students realize that they can get their message across with key words and without “overthink”. If you feel adventurous, check out this link for materials to use in your own classes : Keywording Classroom Materials

Yes, my students are under stress when I conduct “keywording” activities in class but, if they can cope and communicate in class, they are better prepared to face the real world. Pressure is what non-native speakers often face as they try to get their point across in a foreign tongue. Ask any clerk at a station ticket window – but wait until the train has pulled out!

(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!)


28. Changing Learner Behavior – The Proof

In blog entry 27, I described an awful episode where one of my students at Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (MES) tried to bluff his way through a contract negotiation in English, nodding his consent while understanding practically nothing. As a result, he ended up trapped between an irate foreign agent and his furious boss – and got me thinking that learners should study more than just language. I was convinced that they also needed behavioral training with clear models to help them negotiate breakdowns in communication.

I came up with a “Control” model for attacking the problem head on when you do not understand. It consisted of three stages: STOP the other speaker; clarify until you do UNDERSTAND, for example, by asking for repetition or meaning; and, finally, CHECK to confirm that you have understood correctly.

The “Control” model seemed an easy one for my students to wrap their heads around; however, the approach was radical at the time. None of the major textbooks on the market approached language training in such an aggressive manner. As a result, I spent considerable energy preparing my own materials to introduce then reinforce the “Control” model in my lessons. Students were encouraged to interrupt and clarify me, as well as each other, when they had trouble comprehending. After some initial hesitance, many began to do so with a vengeance.

After three years, I moved from MES to teach part-time at several institutions, including a national university. I continued to train my students in “Control” and other behavioral models resulting in complaints from some university professors. It seems that learners trained in my classes were considered “rude” since they kept interrupting and asking questions when they didn’t understand. I said that I would talk with my students. I did telling them that they should always clarify when they did not comprehend the droning of their professors planted at the blackboard (referred to hereabouts as “chalk-and-talk”)

Soon I was seriously analyzing my attempts to communicate in Japanese and most of the training models I came up with were derived from my own speech behavior. As my files of classroom materials grew, I began sharing ideas with other teachers, particularly at meetings of the Japan Association of Language Teachers (JALT), giving numerous workshops on training learners in communication strategies. Sometimes I would come up against skeptics who complained that my approach wasn’t “legitimate” since it was not based on existing methodologies and/or research. Others argued that I was turning my students into clarifying “monsters”.

At times it was frustrating to watch colleagues with questionable teaching skills being offered fulltime positions because they had advanced degrees. Some would stand at the front of the classroom and pontificate while their students read comic books or slept at the back of the room, yet they got on with their careers. Without a Masters degree, I was relegated to part-time teaching limbo. Finally, I decided to bite the bullet and headed to the UK to work on a MA in Applied Linguistics.

Why the UK? Frankly, as a Canadian I fell between the cracks in the Japanese job market. Some universities wanted British professors since they were “traditional”, which apparently was prestigious; others chose Americans who were considered more contemporary in sound and style. Canucks were stereotyped as friendly barbarians who took canoes to class and cooked on campfires. At least this was the impression I got when I looked into positions at universities in the area where I lived. I suspected that, armed with a degree from the UK, I could get a foot in the door with the “British” schools, while my accent was Yankee enough to satisfy the institutions fixated with the United States.

In 1986, I headed off to Essex University intending to research the potential for changing the behavior of non-natives as they tried to communicate in English. After some groveling to find a professor to act as my advisor, I succeeded in receiving approval for my research. I turned out to be the only student to do original research among my classmates.

For my research subjects, I used twenty Japanese students studying at Essex University and for my training model I used “Control” since both were familiar territory. I set up three stages for my experiments. In the first stage, all of the students were asked to listen to a story and put a series of graphics in order. The visuals were impossible to arrange logically without clarifying. Most of the students listened, looked confused then arranged the photos in what they hoped was the correct sequence. None succeeded.

In the second phase, half of the students received an hour of “Control” training, while the other half did not, then everyone performed a variation of the original exercise. As suspected, those with training clarified and put the visuals in the correct order, while those without training continued to fumble about, guessing or giving up.

The third and final stage was much more interesting. I waited three months then had my flatmate, Jeremy, who was majoring in Law, assist me in conducting a second series of interviews. Ten of the original participants were selected at random, five trained in “Control”, five without training. Jeremy contacted them to ask if they would be willing to participate in a survey to determine how much the average Japanese knew about their legal system. All agreed, each choosing a time and place to meet for the interview.

The results were fascinating. Those with “Control” training were more assertive, clarifying and answering Jeremy’s questions logically once they understood. Furthermore, they had “mutated” and were asking questions not contained in the original model, as well as using more sophisticated strategies, such as paraphrasing what they thought questions meant. They had become more assertive in their efforts to understand and be understood.

As for the group without “Control” training, they were stuck in the same rut they had been in three months earlier, pretending to understand questions then hazarding an answer, often with amusing results. One young woman with a British boyfriend would “contemplate” each of Jeremy’s questions by saying “Yeah, that’s a cool question. Gee, it’s hard to say. I guess so…” She said this for every question, including those which required more than a “yes” or “no” answer! Listening to her bluff, I wondered how in the world she communicated with her boyfriend.

Another subject had graduated with a Law degree from a prestigious Japanese university and was doing a second degree in Law at Essex. In theory, he should have had no problem with Jeremy’s questions but turned out to be the most challenged. For example, when asked if prostitution was legal in Japan, he paused for several seconds then stated emphatically, “Yes, we have a constitution.” Ouch!

After completing my research, I was approached not only by the Japanese students who had not received training, but also by other foreign students who were in their classes. The grapevine was alive and well, and everyone wanted to learn “that Control stuff”. As a result, I gave an open demonstration attended by about sixty students and professors which I recorded, edited and submitted with my graduation thesis. I hope to upload it on my blog soon.

I left Essex University with my MA in hand, satisfied that I had done solid research and could now respond to critics of my training approach with empirical evidence. I was also completely broke, the fate of many scholars who go overseas and pay substantially more for the privilege of studying at a foreign institution. Thus, I boarded a plane back to Japan literally hours after being notified that I would receive my degree, ready to go to work and pay off my debts.

Subsequently, I published academic papers about the “Control” model and my research at Essex. For those who are seriously into academic jargon and references, check out these links: Measuring Receptive Communication Strategies and Control An Independent Learning Model. For language teachers who want to try “Control” training in their own classes, check these links for handouts to use in your classes Control Classroom Handout and The Active Learner. As for everyone else, suffice to say that you can change your behavior and communicate more effectively in a foreign language with “Control”. The concepts have been built into my website, www.sulantra.com, to help you do this. Definitely check it out, 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!)


27. An Assertive Mindset – Control

At the end of my studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I left Canada for what I thought was a one-year work stint in Japan. That was about thirty-five years ago. As mentioned in blog entry 11, in 1978 I passed a job interview with Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (MES) by stuffing my face with sushi in Los Angeles and soon found myself in Tamano, a small company town on Japan’s Inland Sea. Being the only foreigner on staff at the shipyard, I was forever being asked to help with a range of tasks most of which I was not really qualified for, such as proofreading (think rewriting) technical specifications and reports.

I still remember my first MES report, a mish-mash of engineering jargon about rust and pitting on a gear tooth face. The initial page took me six hours to rewrite – and there were twenty-one pages to go! But I eventually became comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of English written by Japanese and the pages of technical mumbo jumbo gradually became decipherable.

As for the town of Tamano, it was small and even with my horrible sense of direction I could soon find my way around. The simplest of daily activities often proved an exotic learning experience and I felt constantly stimulated. At work, I developed a routine of consultations with engineers about their documents sandwiched between my classes and put in long days doing what I hoped was a good job. I made every effort to be a model MES employee.

At weekends, I dove into company life spending time with colleagues and students going on picnics in the surrounding hills, visiting hot springs, or picking mandarin oranges on nearby islands. Although big cities like Tokyo or Osaka had their attractions, to my way of thinking I had made the right choice by heading off the beaten track to experience the “real” Japan in Tamano. I was very pleased with my new life.

Then one horrible day in my second month harsh reality reared its ugly head. I was sitting at my desk in the Personnel Section surrounded by about fifty other co-workers. We had just finished lunch and, as I was slipping my chopsticks back into their storage case, the doors burst open and a very angry foreigner glared around the room then headed straight for me. He slammed his fist on my desk and, in a thick British accent shouted, “What the hell are you teaching these people!?” I was mortified.

It seems the man represented an insurance firm and had just spent several hours with one of the engineers from my classes negotiating a contract to be used for a ship built in the Tamano yards. My student had nodded his agreement to each of the terms suggested by the British agent who then entered “final” versions on his electric typewriter (desktop computers didn’t exist yet). After several hours of proceeding in this manner, the agent thought that he had completed the contract and submitted it to my student’s section chief – who hit the roof and refused to sign the document!

It seems that my student had agreed to each contract term while not understanding what the British agent was saying. He had nodded, desperately hoping to grasp the essence of what was being talked about later in the discussion. He hadn’t and the end result was a contract that Mitsui considered unacceptable. My student was trapped between an irate insurance agent and a furious boss, and I was suffering the collateral damage at my desk. How had things gone so horribly wrong?
To be honest, I myself was having trouble with the British agent’s northern accent. There was no way that my student could have understood this man’s speech without clarifying and yet my student had taken no action. He had the level of language necessary to ask for repetitions or definitions but was paralyzed to do so.

As the agent ranted at my desk, I had an epiphany. What my students needed as much as language was behavioral training. With a clear model based on efficient behavior they might develop the confidence to tackle their communication problems head on rather than bluffing, pretending to understand when they didn’t. In Canada, I had some vague ideas about what my students needed to do in order to understand and be understood, but now I had a specific communication breakdown to analyze. In doing so, I came up with a concrete behavioral model with stages and language, which I called “Control”.

The “Control” model is made up of the following three stages:

First, learners must recognize when they do not understand and STOP the other speaker. All they need to do is ask “Excuse me?” or “Pardon?” in a polite, firm manner. But this may be easier said than done. Interrupting may feel rude; however, bluffing when you do not understand can be much more offensive as my MES student discovered.

Second, learners need to identify why they do not UNDERSTAND and take remedial action. For example, if the other person is talking too fast, “More slowly, please.” should address the problem. Maybe there is one word that doesn’t make sense. Fortunately for English learners, key words are usually stressed and asking “What does that mean?” will elicit an explanation, as well as provide a sense of the learners’ comprehension level for the other person. As for challenging accents like that of the insurance agent, learners can ask “How do you spell that?” Words might be recognized if they are written down, particularly technical terms. My MES students knew the jargon for their field; they just hadn’t heard these words pronounced by someone from Manchester or Mobile.

Finally, when they think they grasp the meaning, learners should confirm their understanding, or CHECK, by asking “You mean...?” or “Are you saying...?” followed by a definition in their own words – or gestures if language is limited.

Over time I became convinced that the “Control” model was what my MES students truly needed to survive in the workplace. The only problem was that no textbooks I knew of emphasized this so I had to develop my own activities and materials to teach the “Control” model. Several years later I conducted research with Japanese students at Essex University in the UK to determine whether such behavioral training influenced their ability to communicate. I will describe this research in my next blog posting. Suffice to say my studies showed that you could change behavior and help learners communicate more effectively.

I have also taken “Control” online and built components of the model into my language learning website, www.sulantra.com. I know from personal experience that this training model works. Whenever I begin to study a new language, from the outset I learn the key language necessary for “Control”. Even at a basic level, I can maneuver in a conversation.

I have had students who read dictionaries and memorize grammar tables in their free time. But if they cannot comfortably apply this language in the real world, if they allow themselves to be intimidated by the target language when they try to communicate, where is the value? My MES student was humiliated in the workplace by his lack of confidence and inability to clarify. Training with the “Control” model helps protect learners from being “bludgeoned” verbally as they strive to use a new language.

Power to the learner!

(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!)