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!


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!)

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