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!)


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