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!


33. ABLE Training – Getting the job done in another language

It has been a while since my last blog but things have been busier than usual. Every year during my university’s spring break, I conduct an experimental language training program over a two-week period then drag the participants abroad to see if they can function onsite in the language they have been studying. This year it was Korean with eight of my students (six Japanese and two Chinese) testing their communication skills in Seoul, Kongju and Taejeon. They did a great job and loved every minute of both the study sessions and overseas testing – or at least this is what they all told me during debriefings.

This year the group did exceptionally well for two likely reasons. First, Korean is structured like Japanese and has lots of loan words from Chinese, which meant this year’s target language was probably more comfortable for the learners than last year’s Khmer or the Turkish course of the year before.

On the other hand, I suspect another reason is critical to the success of this year’s group. Before commencing the classroom course, everyone studied Korean online for approximately three hours using the free Starter course on my language learning website, www.sulantra.com. As a result, everyone had the same basic input of the target language, which meant there were no “higher level” students to undermine the confidence of the real beginners.

Thanks to this online introduction, participants entered the first class with the skills to clarify and actively interact with the instructor. The teacher, also one of my students, was very surprised at everyone’s ability to “control” classroom interactions (see blog entries 27 and 28 for details of the “Control” behavioral model). And all of the participants passed the onsite tests in Korea with flying colors, using public transportation to get around and completing a range of tasks, such as bargaining in the marketplace, ordering meals in small local restaurants, and finding their way back to the guesthouse where we all stayed.

There are a large number of language training approaches, both online and off, each with strengths and weaknesses. My own methodology is a hybrid, tested over many years with all types of learners in a range of languages. I call it Action-Based Language Empowerment, or ABLE. Why does this ABLE approach work so well? The system combines elements that I have found most attractive as a learner of languages, while carefully avoiding those that I stumbled over on the road to becoming conversant in other tongues. Most of the components are very logical but often overlooked in the classroom or in online courses that seem to have sprung from a traditional textbook format.

First and foremost is the focus of a training course. I know from my own experience learning languages in high school that grammar turns me off. When a teacher starts drawing tables and making speeches about syntax, it feels like I have accidentally stumbled into a Physics class. Great if you enjoy the subject matter, hell if you don’t. For my language courses, I always focus on practical application. What does the learner need to accomplish? Is the goal to take a trip or work in a factory? This mindset began with work I did with immigrants to my homeland, Canada, and persists today (see blog entries 14, 17 and 18). I always collect student input on course content and do my utmost to make sure at least some of their goals are being met. Relevance ensures interest.

Next, I structure the course in a spiral with information being constantly recycled and expanded. Time to pontificate. Most language training in schools and online is based on a textbook-style format. What this means is that the class material is presented as a thematic unit, for example, “Unit 1: Self Introductions”. The problem with this chapter-by-chapter approach is that, by the time you reach Unit 3, you have forgotten Units 1 and 2! And if the course contains lists of disconnected vocabulary and grammatical patterns to memorize, the learning process can become even more frustrating. Inefficient and definitely not fun. Sadly, despite the obvious limitations, many language learning sites follow this same “tried-and-trashed” lesson arrangement because it is familiar.

ABLE, on the other hand, has a very different structure. Each course still covers most of the functions covered in a standard “survival” or “travel language” textbook; however, rather than progressing “vertically” (completing all of the activities in one thematic unit before proceeding to the next), the material for an entire text is divided into five or six levels. The result is a set of compartmentalized, short study “modules”. The learner finishes the modules for one function then moves to the modules for the next function at the same level. Learners move “horizontally”, completing the modules for every function area before moving up to the next level, where the material previously studied is automatically recycled and expanded resulting in a spiral like the one shown above. This format of short modules in a spiraling format is fast (learners definitely don’t fall asleep!), focused and, thanks to the constant recycling, makes it much easier to remember key phrases for completing tasks on the street.

But there is one final component that is never built into a language training course for absolute beginners: communication strategies. Asking someone to repeat, speak more slowly or clarify, is never introduced to absolute beginners because the “language is too difficult”. This is true if you are looking at sentence structures, but not if you introduce key expressions as “chunks” (technically referred to as “formulaic language”). The question “How do you say this?” is great for picking up the words you need in a specific context and can be taught to beginners from the first day of a course if it is introduced as a single unit, one long word that can be blurted out when the need arises. This is how a child learns his or her first language. And this is how key language is introduced in an ABLE course, as well as online at www.sulantra.com.

The great thing about the ABLE approach is that learners are exposed to core language at regular intervals and by the end of a relatively short study period, either in class or online, have the ability to negotiate meaning on the streets of a foreign city. The learner’s stance is aggressive – no matter how low the level, participants in my courses can intervene, clarify, understand and complete specific tasks when we are abroad. Maybe they are not making speeches at the UN (yet) but they can certainly communicate and get the job done!

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, Korean and Italian!)


32. A Box of Chocolates

In my last blog entry, I talked about special people I have met over the years who introduced me to their respective cultures (see blog entry 31). Each person became a close friend and led me into a new and seductive world through personal and positive initial contact. I soon developed a strong desire to learn languages in order to dive deeper into the cultures of Japan, Thailand, Bulgaria and Turkey, testing myself on the streets of each country by trying to communicate in the local vernacular – and having a great time doing so!

But friends, food and frolic are not the only reasons I undertake the study of a new language. There are a range of motivations involved, including scholarships and exchange programs. I learned very quickly that, if I wanted to travel to a place where I could use a language, I would either have to save every cent I earned or qualify for scholarships. In the latter case, I managed to get accepted for two study stints in Quebec (see blog entry 5), as well as for one in China (see blog entry 23). In both cases, although I did not yet have close friends from these regions, I was familiar with the local language thanks to classroom studies and wanted to test my communication skills in the real world.

I became involved with other tongues “by accident”. Two languages that I had no background in, but was unexpectedly introduced to, were Cree (see blog entry 15) and Malaysian. In the latter case, I hit the jackpot on a government study program at the end of my last year in high school (see blog entry 10). The Canadian government was implementing a program called Canada World Youth, or Jeunesse Canada Monde in French, to send young people overseas on developmental education projects. The lucky participants spent three months training in Canada, six months in the host country, and a final three months back in Canada with their international counterparts. There were five potential destinations – Cameroon, Tunisia, Yugoslavia, Malaysia and Mexico. I chose the last country since I had studied some Spanish in high school and thought that, if I made friends “south of the border”, the chance to visit them would be more likely than with the other countries. As it turned out, I was assigned to Malaysia, a country that I couldn’t even pinpoint on a map!

A total of eighty participants went to Malaysia. Divided into groups of ten, we spent a frantic year being shuffled from state to state, paraded before the public with the media in attendance as we planted rice, climbed up mountains, and learned folk dances. In our group, only two participants really made a concerted effort to learn the local language, bahasa Malaysia. As a result, each time the group was moved to a new state, we were singled out and billeted with families who spoke mainly bahasa Malaysia. While the others stayed in cities and communicated mostly in English, the two of us inevitably ended up in rural settings, which meant our language skills took off. We became quite conversant and were even interviewed in bahasa Malaysia on national TV at the end of our stint. Not bad considering that we had only lived in the country for six months. As for me, I became enamored with a place that I didn’t even know existed a year earlier and still dream of going back, picking up where I left off linguistically and culturally. This motivation grew from direct interaction with the people and culture.

But such stories are not always so positive. I was recently contacted by a friend who is organizing an exchange program between students from his Japanese university and counterparts in Thailand. Although he has gone to great lengths to offer language training both online and in classes with a native Thai speaker, none of this year’s fourteen participants seem interested. His students assume that, when they arrive in Thailand, someone will speak English or maybe even Japanese. To me, this smacks of naivety, or worse, arrogance. These students are satisfied with being typical tourists, not willing to take a little time to learn the language of the country they will soon visit. From my perspective, this is a truly sad condition. Hopefully direct contact with the people and culture will motivate them to make the effort to study some Thai. We shall see.

I, too, am running an overseas program this winter. Two weeks ago, eight of my students began studying Korean online at www.sulantra.com followed by twelve hours of classroom instruction over ten days using a teaching approach similar to the one they have experienced online. Tomorrow we finish our classroom sessions and the next day everyone will board a plane for Korea where we will spend five days testing our language skills on the streets of Seoul, Taejeon and Gongju. The last place is a smaller city where we assume most people will speak only Korean. This is where the participants will undertake “solo tests”, including shopping for souvenirs in a marketplace, ordering meals at noodle stalls, purchasing train tickets back to Seoul. In other words, typical activities when you are on the road.

And as they interact with the locals to complete their test tasks, I hope that my students will become energized. Although the weather will be freezing with snow on the ground, I am confident that everyone will have great stories to tell their families and friends back home. I also hope that they will develop a strong desire to learn more language in order to return to Korea in the future. I want them to have an exciting time communicating and continue to develop their skills in Korean. I want this trip to be memorable and motivating just as my trip to Malaysia was for me so many years ago.

It may seem like a farfetched dream, but I am optimistic. I have been running courses similar to this one for over thirty years and, although each program has its own hurdles and headaches, inevitably things work out. Most participants return home looking for ways to continue studying the new language they have recently reveled in. Still others want to tackle a different language, to open the door on new, energizing experiences. With just a few words and phrases under your belt, the world becomes a box of chocolates with an infinite number of flavors all waiting to be enjoyed. If that first taste is a pleasant one, it becomes very hard to put the lid back on the box. There is no turning back.

Many of the students going to Korea will be heading abroad for the first time. Through direct experience they will form their own opinions and understanding of a country so close and yet so far. I hope this first “taste” will leave them craving for more. More travel, more experiences, more language. My next posting will describe the training approach I have developed for my classes. The posting after that will most likely be from the countryside outside of Seoul.

Care for a chocolate, anyone?

(If you are really a fool for language, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Thai, German, Korean and Italian!)