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!


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!)

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