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!)

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