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!


36. Another Perspective: Team Teaching

Today’s blog entry will go off on a rather different tangent. Yes, it talks about language learning, but in the unique context of team teaching. I was recently contacted by a major Japanese publisher of school texts to write an essay about this topic, which is dear to my heart. Here I present the unabridged version.

I have lived in Japan for over half of my life and during many years here have had a wide range of teaching experiences, including several working with Japanese instructors in junior and senior high schools to teach English. This arrangement is surprisingly common thanks to team teaching programs established by the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monkasho). A great deal of funds have been spent over the years on these programs; however, the results are mixed. Depending on who you are talking with, you will hear of amazing or horrible classroom experiences.

Although I am no longer involved directly with team taught classes for English, I do coordinate programs where I serve as the non-native instructor in a team-teaching context, most recently Thai. I also conduct workshops for regional education boards for both foreign and Japanese instructors who work for the government-sponsored Association for Japanese Exchange and Teaching (AJET) program. In my discussions with participants after these workshops, I hear praise and complaints very similar to those I encountered in my own team-teaching contexts many years ago. The French have an expression which describes this situation: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” - The more things change, the more they stay the same. No kidding!

My first team teaching experience took place in 1984, well before the official Ministry of Education programs were set up. I was one of a very few foreigners living on Shodo Island in Japan’s Inland Sea area and was approached by two local high schools to work alongside their teachers in classes. The goal was the same for each school – to give the island kids a chance to interact with a native English speaker – but my experience with each school was radically different.

In the first school, I arrived early on the first day of class early to discuss the lesson plan with my teaching partner and confirm who would be responsible for which components of the lesson. What activities were planned? How would we interact? Would I be solely responsible for some sections or would we do everything together? I was excited by the prospects. I had studied Chinese at university with native and non-native instructors working together, and knew such classes could be very productive and motivating (see blog entry 21). In my case, it was exciting to speak with a native Mandarin speaker and really communicate. On the other hand, I was impressed by my non-native instructor who inspired me. He was clearly comfortable working with a native and gave me the confidence to persevere. If he could learn Chinese, so could I!

The teacher I was to work with at the first school, Mr. F, didn’t take my phone calls and appeared in the staff room minutes before the class actually started. When I asked about the lesson plan I was told “Nan de mo ii.” (“Anything is okay.”) then marched into the classroom and left at the front of the room as my “partner” walked to the back and sat down. I felt like a curiosity on display. Fortunately, I am energetic and quick on my feet. I came up with some introductory activities that did not require handouts or one-on-one interviews with students, a time killer which leaves the other kids uninvolved and bored. This first class was a big disappointment for me, but I was determined that the students would enjoy themselves. I could “fix things” with my teaching partner by the next class. Sadly, the only thing that changed was my attitude towards the school. I didn’t like working there.

Over the weeks of visiting this school, my attempts to sit down with the Japanese instructor and discuss lesson planning were met with resistance. Mr. F was always “busy” when I asked for some time together, and started each class by walking quickly to the back of the room and sitting in his chair. Occasionally he would get up and stroll about when students were asking or answering questions. I understood his purpose when I suddenly turned from writing on the board and caught him hitting a student on the back of the head for making an error! How did he expect his students to try if he hit them when they made mistakes? After class, I told the man that, if I caught him hitting a student again, I would not return to the school. As a result, he never left his chair at the back of the room and we were both miserable.

Fortunately, my team teaching experience at the second school was completely different. The instructor assigned to work with me, Mr. Y, was happy to meet several days before we were to work together in the classroom. He greeted me at the door the first day we met and lead me straight to his desk in the staff room where he showed me the ideas and activities that he had planned for our first lesson. We discussed who would do what and, once we entered the classroom, things went incredibly well. Mr. Y’s English wasn’t perfect, but his attitude certainly was. He was completely involved in the lesson and inspired his students – and me – with his pleasant, approachable manner. I finished the school year with a new friend, convinced that team teaching could work with some planning and sensitivity towards your teaching partner.

I left Shodo Island to continue my education in the UK, returning to a Community Program Supervisor’s position at the Language Institute of Japan (LIOJ) in Odawara. By coincidence, LIOJ had just received a contract with a local high school and I was asked to set up the program using the four community teachers on staff, including myself. I was very excited by the possibilities and encouraged the LIOJ teachers by telling them how wonderful team teaching could be, while providing clear, structured training. Our group worked closely with the teachers in the local school. Everyone knew what their tasks were and did them well. We ended the year on a high and frightening note: 40 local education officials came to observe our team taught classes, as many observers as students! Subsequently, Odawara City asked us to expand the program to seven schools, a testament to its success.

Why were the LIOJ team teaching classes so successful? Clear guidelines were applied to improve the chances that the working relationship between the local teacher and visiting LIOJ instructor got off on the right foot. These guidelines included the following three core principles.

1.        Consultation is critical.
As I learned on Shodo Island, taking the time to discuss the role of each teacher in the classroom can make or break the working relationship. Both teachers are under pressure: the local teacher doesn’t want to look incompetent in front of his or her students, while the visiting instructor doesn’t want to be treated like a dancing poodle for entertainment vs. education purposes. A little time spent together preparing outside of the classroom can make a huge difference. Whether you meet in the staff room, in a nearby café or simply discuss on the telephone, this consultation time goes a long way to making your classroom efforts a success. An added benefit is that you may develop a strong friendship in the process.

2.        Lesson plans equal less stress.
Consultation about classroom activities and roles is great; however, your end goal should be a concrete lesson plan that you are both more or less satisfied with. A good lesson plan is designed like a stage script with clear activities, estimated time required, and assignment of “roles”. In other words, who does what and how long will it take. In the beginning, there will be miscalculations and things might be a little messy; however, with time and patience both teachers should become more adept at recognizing what works well in their team taught classes. A lesson plan reassures both teachers and makes for productive discussion, particularly afterwards when you discuss how things went and what to do differently next time.

3.        Attitude saves the day.
In the end, all the discussion and lesson-planning in the world is worthless unless both teachers respect each other’s efforts. Each teacher has his or her particular strengths. The local teacher probably knows the class better and can help identify which students are likely to provide the best model at the start of an activity, while the visiting teacher can add an energizing element to what would otherwise be a repetitive routine. Identify each person’s strengths and design the lesson plan around them. Maintain a flexible attitude. If an activity is not going as planned, don’t step in and take over. Discuss the situation with your teaching partner and make adjustments. Students are not stupid. If they see that their teachers are working well together to provide a productive lesson, they will respond with respect for both of you. I know this from my own experience.

Years have passed since my first forays into team teaching. I have been on both sides of the team teaching equation, as a native English speaker and as a non-native French, Spanish, Japanese and Thai teacher. I know that with planning, patience and sensitivity towards your classroom partner, the end result can be a wonderful, productive experience for everyone, especially the students.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in reading two earlier papers I prepared on team teaching published in the academic publications Cross Currents and The Language Teacher. Click these links for access.

And, of course, if you are really a fool for language like me, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGermanKorean and Italian!


35. A Language Fixation: Never-ending Story

In my last blog, I talked about the origins of an accelerated language training system that I have spent many years developing. I refer to the system as ABLE for “action-based language empowerment” because immediately after each ABLE course I take participants overseas to test how well they can communicate and accomplish specific tasks in the target language (see blog entries 32 and 33). To date, I have coordinated about thirty-five ABLE courses in fourteen languages with approximately three hundred “guinea pigs”, including myself.

You would think that after so many years with so many languages and participants that the novelty would wear off. It doesn’t, at least not for me. So what is the attraction of running such courses, the reason for this ABLE addiction? Why do I continue to cajole, even coerce people into coming along for a language learning ride? I have three specific reasons.

First, over the years my obsessive interest in languages and apparent ability to pick up the basics of a new tongue relatively quickly has resulted in acquaintances viewing me as some kind of freak. In truth, I do not consider myself an exceptional language learner. If I do not put in the effort, my ability to communicate in a language does not progress. Perhaps I do have the ability to identify and mimic the sounds of a foreign tongue a little better than most people. Listeners frequently comment on how native-like my speech is even though my level may be very rudimentary. Many people who play the piano or sing in a choir probably have the same innate ability.

I recently read a review of a book entitled “Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners” written by Michael Erard,which is causing quite a stir among people like myself who are fixated with learning languages. The book (which I hope to read soon) apparently suggests that there are “special” people who are capable of easily picking up almost any language with little effort. Perhaps this is true to a degree; however, I truly believe that given suitable study conditions, an efficient teaching approach, interesting material, an empathetic instructor, and/or opportunity for use, anyone can master the basics necessary to communicate in another tongue. This is one of my primary reasons for involving others in the study of a new language. I want to show that any of my friends or family members is capable of quickly picking up the core language necessary to communicate their needs. I refuse to believe I am unique, one of Erard’s “special” people. It’s just that the whimsical road of life provided me with favorable conditions to nurture my fixation.

My next reason for spending the time, energy and funds to organize small groups of sometimes reluctant participants to learn a new language is because it is an adrenalin rush. It is thrilling for me to watch people who think they are lousy language learners evolve in a matter of weeks into motivated travelers effectively communicating in a foreign tongue. Of course they are not fluent but they get the job done. In pre-course surveys, few believe they will be able to understand or say anything in the language they are about to study, especially in such a short time. But in the survey administered post-course, after a trip abroad, there is an obvious “can-do” mentality for most participants with many expressing an interest in continuing their studies. And almost everyone is eager to participate in the next ABLE course!

My final reason for spending so many years researching how to learn a language more effectively derives from my own past as a teenager looking for an opportunity to go where I could savor the delights of unfamiliar cultures, meet new people and make new friends while using their language. My time in Malaysia as a 19-year-old perhaps had the greatest impact on me (see blog entries 10, 14 and 32); however, every trip I make to new, or even familiar places still excites me. For those who chose to join me on one of the ABLE programs, I hope that their experience will be just as energizing.

Many years ago, I read James Clavell’s “Shogun”, a novel based loosely around real events in feudal Japan. Academics panned the book as being pulp fiction for the masses but it got me interested in Japanese culture, and lead me to study the tea ceremony, traditional cuisine (kaiseki), even how to wear a kimono. I often wonder how many others started down a similar path thanks to a novel, movie, or even comic book. In my travels about the globe, I have met a surprising number of young people whose fascination with things Japanese is based on their love of manga.

In some ways, I view ABLE and, subsequently, our online courses at www.sulantra.com, in a similar light. The study system is surprisingly uncomplicated, while the visual component is simple and straightforward. Online there are no glitzy computer graphics or an overload of animated features because we want to reach and educate a broad audience – not crash their computers!

I understand that not every person who signs up for a classroom-based ABLE program or online course at www.sulantra.com will become fluent in the language they are studying. But I do want them to be able to communicate, albeit at a rudimentary level, and have the freedom to do what they want when traveling abroad. I want their first steps in the new language to be pleasant, not boring or painful. I want them to continue, moving forward step by step on a journey of self-discovery as they experience all that a new culture has to offer when you speak the language of its people. If only a small handful of those who make the journey eventually become fluent then the time and effort spent has been worthwhile!

(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!)


34. A Language Fixation: The Catalyst

In my last blog entry, I talked about an accelerated training approach, ABLE (for “action-based language empowerment”) that I have been working on for what seems like forever to help learners acquire basic communication skills in another language. I have spent about thirty-five years training “guinea pigs” then testing them onsite to determine how well they can interact with locals after only 10-15 hours of study. Most recently I coordinated an ABLE program in Korean for a group of eight Japanese and Chinese university students then dragged them off to Seoul to test their skills on the street (see blog entry 33).

Thirty-five years is a long time to spend having people study languages that they initially may not be thrilled about learning. Some participants say they are in a course only because a friend or family member “forced” them to join. Others make it quite clear on pre-course questionnaires that they want the mark (my university students get credit for the classroom course) but have no real interest in the language or its culture. My goal is to turn that attitude around, to have participants finish a course and thirsty to learn more of the language and dive deeper into the culture.

So when did this fascination with learning languages start? As described in my earliest blogs, a supportive home environment (see blog entry 1), opportunities to travel (see blog entries 5, 7, 10, 23), and the whimsy of unexpected contacts and experiences (see blog entry 31) certainly planted the seeds for my fixation; however, the catalyst for bringing others along for the ride occurred after I moved to Japan and started working for Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (MES; see blog entries 27, 29) in the small town of Tamano.

Being the only foreigner on the Tamano staff, I was constantly being asked to do a wide range of teaching jobs. Having listed French and Spanish on my resumé, it was no surprise that requests for courses in these languages turned up on my desk. Then one day my section head asked me about teaching a beginners class in Indonesian to twelve welders who were heading to Sumatra for three months.

At first, I demurred. Although I could get by in Malaysian (see blog entry 10), which was essentially the same language with a few differences in vocabulary and pronunciation (think American vs. British English), I didn’t feel confident enough to conduct a three-week course. Besides, the group was made up of blue collar welders, most of who had not finished secondary school and were likely not very keen to be stuck in a classroom learning another tongue. Texts were not available and, even if they were, the group would probably not be interested in memorizing grammar tables.

But my boss wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and, in the end, I had to come up with a study program. Fortunately, there were two trainees from Java working in the shipyard and with their help I thought that I might be able to piece together a course so I met with both. The first man turned me down immediately but the second trainee, Budi, was more cooperative (naïve?) and said that he would help. Thus began the complex process of putting together a bahasa Indonesia course from thin air in the backwaters of Japan.

First, I talked with the manager of the Japanese welders in order to determine what the language would be used for – a needs analysis. I was told that an interpreter would be provided in the workplace to deal with occupational needs, but after hours the men would be on their own in the small town where they heading. A little Indonesian would definitely go a long way. The welders were expected to shop for their own food in the marketplace, ask for directions, catch trains and buses to larger urban centers, order in restaurants; in other words, the things that most travelers need to do. Using these task-based themes, I prepared a set of materials with hand-drawn visuals to introduce core language.

The next step was to train the teacher. I needed to give Budi a crash course in teaching methodology using a target language he had no background in. I wanted him understand how the welders in his classes would feel. He was conversant in English and his Japanese was much better than mine so we settled on French. The day before classes began, I ran him through a series of activities, all the while saying, “It’s easy.” or “You can do it!” in my perkiest voice. He looked terrified. Inside, so was I. After each activity, we switched roles and Budi would repeat the exercise, this time teaching me bahasa Indonesian. The next day, he was in the classroom with the twelve welders.

The Indonesian course went exceptionally well. Budi was a natural teacher and thrilled to be teaching someone his mother tongue. He had a clear, practical sense of what needed to be accomplished perhaps because he had already jumped through the hoops himself learning Japanese. The welders went to Sumatra and three months later at their “welcome back” dinner everyone said the language training had made a huge difference. Not only had they survived on the street, but they actually got to know some locals and had a terrific time!

The MES experience got me thinking. Why not develop a curriculum with a functional focus that trained people to get specific jobs done rather than bore them to tears with talk of grammar? If done carefully, this same curriculum could be used to work “across languages”. After all, I had used French to train Budi and he had “converted” the lessons for use with his mother tongue, teaching Indonesian to Japanese welders. The permutations were endless and I was hooked. The study model has evolved greatly from this unusual beginning, but the goal is still the same, to get people communicating with each other in a new language as quickly as possible – and enjoying themselves in the process!

(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!)