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!


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!)

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