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!


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!)

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