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!)

No comments:

Post a Comment