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!


31. Motivation Revisited – Friends and Food

In the last posting on this blog, my Italian friend, Loris, talked about his trials and tribulations on the road to learning Japanese (see blog entry 30). Why does anyone go to so much trouble to learn a new language? For immigrants to another country, the main reason is survival. But for many of us, the reasons may be less obvious.

I was once asked by a professor to explain why I get so excited when I try learning a new language. What gets me wired? I started by listing the languages I had had some contact with and soon discovered that my own motivations covered a wide range. In my earliest postings I talked about the influence of my parents on my desire to learn French (see blog entry 1) and, later, the rapport with a special teacher in high school which started me on the road to tackling German (see blog entry 2). For each language I encounter, it seems like a different fuse is lit, but often the motivating factor comes down to people.

One primary motivation for me to learn a new language is some form of positive initial contact with someone from a country or region where the language is spoken. Interacting with a friendly face – often while partaking of tasty delicacies from the person’s country (see blog entry 11) – piques my curiosity and soon I am fantasizing about a trip to some far off land.

In my second year of university, I shared a house with a group of students, including a young woman, Masako, from Japan. Each day we took turns cooking dinner and, after several months, I came to realize that Masako’s meals were the best. Furthermore, not only was I becoming familiar with her great cooking, but I was also picking up the table manners of the country I would eventually call home. I knew that I would get to Masako’s homeland – I just didn’t realize how long I would stay!

After arriving in Japan, I worked for several institutions, including a national university on the island of Shikoku. There were graduate students from many parts of the world and one day I arrived at school to find two young Thai men, Suwat and Somsak, waiting at my office door. They were writing their graduate theses in English and needed the help of a native speaker to make sure that their complex ideas regarding the world of Economics came across correctly. What I lacked in Economics background I made up for with my mother tongue and soon we were conducting weekly sessions in order for them to meet their dissertation deadlines. Working together for two years, we became good friends, sharing stories over wonderful Thai dishes they prepared and declared weren’t half as delicious as the food “back home”. That was over twenty years ago and we are still friends. And I swear that their meals were just as delicious as anything I have had in Bangkok, a place I have visited many times since our first encounter.

Eventually I left Shikoku and moved up to the Tokyo area. My jobs included a position at a small college near the base of Mount Fuji, which had a program for students from Bulgaria. It was there that I taught and learned a great deal from some young women from Sofia. Each month we would get together in my home and prepare a Bulgarian meal with ingredients that I had tracked down especially for the occasion. Filo dough, feta cheese, grape leaves – all hard to come by in Japan, but a home-cooked dinner was involved so I found the ingredients! It has been over ten years since my path crossed those of Emma and Tina but, again, we have remained close friends. I have visited their homeland many times and still delight in sharing wonderful dishes while reminiscing over their student days in Japan. And I have learned enough basic Bulgarian to maneuver on the streets of Sofia. Well, at least I can get to the nearest ice cream parlor!
I am also in love with Turkey. Once again, my contact was through my stomach. I visited a Turkish restaurant with my mother in the small city where she lives on Vancouver Island and was immediately charmed by the food and delightful staff. Could all Turks be this friendly? As it turns out, my answer is a resounding “Yes!”

A few years later, I met a young Turkish man, Özgür, at a conference in Thailand. He was outgoing and talked as much as me – and we seemed to become friends instantly! That was about ten years ago and, and thanks to Özgür, I now count Istanbul – and Turkish cuisine – among my favorites in the world.

I have described my connection to four languages via friends and food, but it is not just my heart and stomach that gets me motivated. My head is also part of the equation. When visiting a foreign country, I find it extremely frustrating not to be able to communicate. Of course I can rely on the generosity of my friends to get around, see the sights and partake of the local culture. But, being a long-term resident of Japan who speaks Japanese, I know what it is like to be on the other end. It’s called “babysitting” and can become quite exhausting. When visitors to Japan arrive and can say a simple “Hello.” or “Thank you.” in Japanese it works wonders. But this is only the first step to truly communicating.

Phrases like “How do you say this?” or “Once more, please.” in the local vernacular can go a long way when you are abroad, and they are not that difficult to pick up. As for language for specific activities, such as ordering in a restaurant or bargaining in a marketplace, this is also finite and not that big a challenge if you set your mind to it. Of course, it requires some studying, ideally a little each day. But if you have the mindset that when you get to where you are going everyone will appreciate your efforts, the reality is that you will be able to get around on your own and the visit will be much more memorable. I know because this is what I have been doing for years.

It may sound selfish, but I have created my language training website, www.sulantra.com, mainly for my own language learning pleasure. I don’t want to waste time memorizing disconnected lists of words or repeating aloud monotonous grammar tables. I have suffered through too many language classes based on this approach and do not have the energy for it anymore. I have some idea of what I want to do when I head overseas and know what language I will need to help me do it. I just need a little help getting prepared. This is the thinking which underlies my website.

Some readers of this blog have asked why I chose to include Japanese, Turkish, Thai and Bulgarian among the first languages uploaded to www.sulantra.com. The answer lies above with each of the wonderful people who introduced me to their culture - Masako, Suwat, Somsak, Emma, Tina and Özgür. And there are other languages and other people. Perhaps I will mention them in later postings.

In the meantime, friends and food are not my only reasons to study a new language. I will talk about some other motivations in my next blog.

(If you are really a fool for languages, check out my language learning website, http://en.sulantra.com/, with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGerman , Korean and Italian!)


30. My Japanese Language Learning Journey

We have reached our 30th entry on FFL (the abbreviation everyone now seems to be using to refer to this site) and, as promised, I have asked another “language fool” to be my guest blogger. This time around it’s Loris, a good friend from Rome, who describes his adventures on the road to learning Japanese. 

 My Japanese Language Learning Journey
by Loris

Learning a foreign language has always been one of my major interests. The story dates back to my early childhood. I think it all started when I was a tiny Anglo-Saxon-looking kid. Blue eyes, ice-blonde hair – not so common for an Italian. I can’t remember this for obvious reasons, but my mother often tells me of an episode when I was still in a baby carriage and some American tourists approached me cooing in English. I think it all started there.

If asked why I became so interested in learning different ways to communicate, I would probably answer because of my need to know. Well, rather than “knowing” itself, I should say “understanding”, which implies the capability of gathering pieces of information from the outside, elaborating them inside your mind, letting them pop in your heart and, finally, turning them into malleable bricks in the brain. “Malleable”? Yes, because there is nothing worse than sticking forever to the same principles. At least that is how I feel.

And now comes the choice of which language to learn. I was not particularly lucky during my school years: no foreign language was offered in elementary school, while English was the only available tongue other than Italian in junior high school and, once again, throughout senior high school. Far from complaining – I actually really like English – I have always been interested in what is different or, better yet, exotic. For example, when I was 14 I woke up one day and thought it would be nice to learn some Icelandic. Unfortunately, my studies did not progress very far, but it was definitely fun!

At that time, I dabbled in many different languages, all for short periods. I was growing up, just entering “teenager-hood” and felt like I was in search of my soul. “Which rhythm suits me? What language should I speak to feel satisfied?” I was looking for the “good vibe”, that shiver down my spine. I liked my native language and always will, but I felt that it was not enough. 

In this experimental period, going from Icelandic to French, from Finnish to German, passing through Norwegian, Spanish and Arabic, I finally met Japanese. This was not totally by accident since I actually had quite an interest in Japan having started reading mangas, or Japanese comics, from the age of 9. That was the first time I told my mother: “Mom, I wanna go to Japan!” Twelve years later my dream would come true.

My first formal introduction to the Japanese language was thanks to a course I found on the Internet. I got to learn some really basic grammar and kanji, or Chinese characters, together with the Japanese phonetic alphabets, hiragana and katakana. That was it but it was enough to stimulate my interest. Soon I had downloaded some applications to my computer for learning kanji, their meanings and various pronunciations. I could basically recognize – if not properly write – some 150 kanji at the age of 15. I immediately realized that THIS was what I was looking for. The rhythm of the language struck the right note in me, the visual aspect satisfied my artistic sense, and I felt pleasure in learning more and more.

This individual study period lasted about one year with long breaks in between. Then I had the chance to take part in a real Japanese evening class organized in my town with a real teacher from Japan. Was she the first Japanese I met? I think so. What I clearly remember is that thrill every Tuesday when it was time to go to class, and the feeling of pure joy when coming back home after the lesson I would look at the notes containing the new words I had just learnt. Unfortunately, the language course was discontinued after one year and for assorted reasons I had to drop my individual study of Japanese for some time.

After graduating from High School, it was time to choose a university and, more importantly, a direction for my future career, job and profession. I did not think twice, I knew already I would choose Japanese Studies. When I first entered university I had the feeling that I would be able to coast for a while because of my past study background – but how wrong I was! In four short weeks all of my grammar knowledge had been “used up” and I was on the same level as all of the other students, except for kanji. Compared to the complete beginners around me, I could understand a lot more characters.

As for my studies, the more I learned, the more complicated things became. “That is normal”, I said to myself. But the truth is that, from a Westerner’s point of view, learning a language such as Japanese really does take time. This was probably the first time I began to question whether I would be capable of learning to communicate well in Japanese someday. But I believe a strong will can survive any storm, no matter how tough it gets. I integrated flashcards and notebooks filled with ideograms into my study regimen. I attached little papers to every piece of furniture in my house. Each day I seemed to come up with a new approach to master the language. I was determined.

As graduation approached, I was growing discouraged by the amount of hurdles I met on my path to fluency. As a result, I decided to delay taking more courses. Instead, I would just make my dream come true by visiting Japan and then go straight into the workforce back home afterwards. Again, I was so wrong. During my time in Japan, I realized how much I actually wanted to continue until the end of this adventure and achieve some remarkable goals in Japan itself. I came back to Italy with a stronger will than ever, and I changed my plans for the future, entering a Master’s degree program in Japanese Studies. 

I studied hard for almost 2 years, engaging both body and soul, but still I felt that I could not properly understand everyday conversations or, for that matter, silly TV programs. Once again, I felt like saying, “Screw it all!” But just when I thought everything was lost, I met a Japanese who would become my partner. This event gave me strength to hold on and keep on learning in order to better understand everything that comes with having a Japanese mate. It was no longer just a question of studying the language. Since Japan entered my life so intimately, learning the language has become an even greater pleasure in everyday life. Although I am continuously meeting new hurdles during my learning process, I approach them more as new adventures. And I feel I have enough knowledge now to put the language I do not understand into a logical frame of reference, elaborating in my mind until the new slips into the box of “Already Learnt” items. It comes without saying my Japanese has improved a lot.

On the academic side, after two years of studying for my Master’s degree, I am about to embark on another exciting experience as an exchange student in Japan for a whole year. This is nothing less than what I have always dreamt about and it is going to definitely be amazing! Or rather, should I say this is how it was meant to be? We shall see. 

(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!)