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!


38. Stealth Studying

In this blog I have touched on a number of strategies that have proven useful for me on my language learning journey, such as “eliciting” (getting the words you don’t know using words and gestures you do know; see blog entry 12), “copy correcting” (imitating native speakers when they correct your speech; see blog entry 8), “gesturing” (using your body when you don’t have the words to get your point across; see blog entry 19) and “Control” (conversation management based on a concrete behavioral model; see blog entries 27 and 28). On the other hand, all of these great strategies amount to nothing if you don’t go out into the real world and use them.

This is easy to accomplish if you are living in a country where your first language is not the lingua franca. Every interaction becomes a “learning experience”; however, you still may have to make an effort, particularly if your first language is English and you teach your mother tongue for a living, as many of the foreigners in Japan do.

No matter how sincere intentions are to learn “nihongo” (Japanese), the newly-arrived English speaker soon discovers that intial contact in the workplace will most likely not be in the local language. Soon you slip into the comfortable, but confining routine of functioning through colleagues, whose English language skills grow by leaps and bounds as your Japanese aspirations wither. It is an easy trap to fall into; however, you may soon find yourself frustrated and resentful, like a pampered child being constantly fussed over.

In my time here, I have run across a surprising number of foreigners who accept living in an “English cocoon” as the norm. They are unable to comfortably participate in simple conversations in Japanese even though they landed on these shores decades ago. For me, this is a sad condition. It reminds me of the Indian women I first taught in Canada (see blog entry 17) who were able to function but could not fully participate in the mainstream culture. In the case of English-speaking “ex-pats”, each activity in the local community is a hurdle while one’s circle of friends is typically limited to bilingual natives or other foreigners in the same confining monolingual boat.

The attitude of some local inhabitants may also prove a barrier to one’s efforts to becoming bilingual. In Japan, many of those keen to learn English have come to view native speakers as a type of language vending machine. Just push a button and a new phrase will pop out. It can be very frustrating when someone you have never met before insists on practicing their broken English with you when you are trying to get the job done in Japanese. Not the best way to make new friends.

So how do you go about finding opportunities to improve your communication skills in a language when based in a culture other than your own? If you live in a smaller town or the countryside, going to a language school for lessons may not be an option. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Endless grammar drills can be mind-numbing while a “key phrase for the week” is hardly high volume learning. For my money, I have found it much more productive to study with the locals as you learn a new skill in their language.

When I first arrived in Japan, I lived in a small village on the Inland Sea (see blog entry 29) with the nearest language classes a one-hour boat ride away. Since I worked most nights, attending lessons across the water wasn’t realistic. Besides, I was facing more immediate hurdles. Trips to the local supermarket were a nightmare. A surprising number of vegetables were unrecognizable while the contents of packaged goods could be positively ominous. I knew the Chinese character for fish but I might be purchasing catfood!

To remedy the situation, I decided to take cooking lessons and discovered that they were an excellent setting for learning language. Following orders to chop, slice or grill, I soon realized that I was picking up a range of vocabulary and expressions from my fellow classmates as they chattered around me.

Soon I began to evolve into a “serial student” developing (albeit shallowly) a range of skills, then walking away from each field once I had milked it for all of the language it had to offer. Doll making, wood carving, flower arranging – I tripped through the traditional arts with the ulterior motive of improving my listening comprehension and speaking ability in Japanese.

There was an obvious pattern to my progress. First, search out an instructor who was willing to tolerate an eager foreigner with limited linguistic skills. Second, squeeze in lessons for a few hours during my busy work week, assuming the role of class incompetent until I had mastered some fundamental techniques and terms. Next, strike up conversations, clarifying and being forced to clarify in order to communicate. And, finally, gracefully excuse myself from classes once I knew most of the jargon and it was obvious that my fractured phrases were understood by those around me. If my classmates stopped demanding explanations, I knew my learning experience had plateaued and it was time to move on.

The above progression may sound mercenary, however, my excuse of being “too busy at work to continue” was culturally acceptable and no noses were put out of joint. I had my priorities but was determined to part friends. Furthermore, I wasn’t completely a linguistic butterfly flitting from field to cultural field. I persevered with Japanese cooking for three years and studied “sado”, or tea ceremony, for eight years, even receiving a qualification.

I undertook tea ceremony because the language I had picked up in the Mitsui shipyards (see blog entries 27 and 29) was very rough-edged. I realized this the hard way while making a congratulatory speech at a wedding reception. My eloquent phrases were continuously sidetracked by the embarrassed giggles of the audience. I thought my words were polished and dignified; the other guests thought that I sounded like a dockyard thug!

Japanese tea ceremony, on the other hand, uses language that is excruciatingly formal – perfect for wedding speeches and, as it turns out, funerals. Furthermore, the study of tea ceremony can prove endless. You start with the basics of the ceremony itself, mastering a series of stages and steps in order to perform in a smooth, effortless manner for your guests. But lessons can become addictive and I soon found myself dabbling in ceramics in order to recognize the style of each tea bowl I held or lingering over the elegant hanging scroll selected by my teacher for the day’s lesson. Training includes posture (rising gracefully from a squat to full standing position can be hellishly difficult when you are tall and gangly) and the proper demeanor as you slide open paper screens and move about clad in a kimono. And, of course, all of this activity is accompanied by the directions and explanations of your “sensei” – the much sought after language I so desperately wanted.

The above learning contexts involved aural input. Like a small child, a lot of language has to go in before something comes out. In my next blog, I will talk about efforts at output, or treading in precarious places to improve my speaking skills.

(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, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)


37. What’s in a name?

Way back in blog entry 6 I talked about a quirky strategy for remembering new words in a foreign language by associating them with assorted images or similar sounding words in your mother tongue or another language you are familiar with. I referred to this technique as “mental connections” and suggested the weirder the connection the easier it would be to remember since the association would stand out more. This is the season when I put the strategy to good use.

The school year has started again in Japan and with it comes the conundrum of what to call my students. My university classes range from 20 to 120 individuals and getting their names down can be daunting. But knowing a student’s name can mean the difference between his or her active participation or indifference in lessons. To complicate matters, there are a number of cultural norms that I must choose to adhere to or ignore when addressing students.

The general rule for Japanese is that you use the family name followed by “san”, the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.” when speaking with those around you. If you are talking with someone from your childhood, however, the first name (or maybe I should say “given name” since, in Japan, the first name is the family name) can be used followed by “kun” for men or “chan” for either sex – kind of like the “e” sound we tack on names in English to indicate familiarity, such as “Jimmy” for “James” or “Suzy” for “Susan”.

In a school setting, another dynamic comes into play, that of teacher and student. If teachers really want to signify who is in charge, they will drop the title altogether and use the family name only. For female students use of the given name is also common.

So what do I do? Being a Westerner who conducts some of his classes in English, I am allowed to play by a different set of rules, which I tend to make up on the spot depending on who is sitting in the classroom. Usually I address my students by their given names, explaining that in Canada this feels more informal and friendly. Just call me Don, eh?

My goal is to break down the walls and get to know everyone better. The reasoning makes sense to the average twenty-year-old and, after some initial awkwardness mostly on the part of the guys, students take this as the norm and soon begin referring to each other using first names often followed by a “chan” or “kun” to make things sound more palatable to their Japanese ears.

Such use of the given name is normally only reserved for friends and family who have known you since childhood but it does have advantages. It helps build a feeling of camaraderie both in and outside of classes. This point was brought home during a recent parent-professor counseling session (yes, we have such things at the university level, too) when one mother expressed her delight that I was using everyone’s first name. She said that it helped break down the usual formality and her son had supposedly made new friends more quickly “just like in elementary school”. I’m not sure that is the ambience I strive for but she certainly approved.

 On the other hand, my demand that students use my first name results in the awkward situation where my colleagues refer to me by my family name with “sensei” (professor) while the students refer to me by “Don”. This has resulted in some professors complaining that my students are being rude. After explaining that the use of my given name makes me feel more approachable and comfortable with the speaker, some brave souls do attempt to “go with the flow” and address me as “Don”, particularly on staff outings. But others visibly cringe when a student or staff member shouts out “Don!” to get my attention in the halls.

When it comes to the foreign students in my classes, there are some interesting variations. My Korean students seem to enjoy using given names for the same reason I do it breaks down formality and creates a more relaxed, personal atmosphere. As for my Thai students, they seem to have no qualms whatsoever about using given names rather than family names in class. When I commented on their “adaptability”, I was informed that Thais use the given name when addressing someone formally and switch to a “nickname”, which typically has no resemblance to their real name, in the company of friends. So much for creating a more casual ambience in my classes.

As for my students from China, they are harder to read. Some are delighted that I know a little Chinese and call them by their real names in their mother tongue. Others, however, insist that I use the Japanese pronunciation of their Chinese names, which can be disturbingly different. To give an obvious example, “Mao Tse-tung” of revolution fame is pronounced as what sounds like “Mo-Duck-Toe” to English-speaking ears.

I am not really sure why some of my Chinese students are more comfortable being addressed with the Japanese pronunciation of their names. Maybe they are just being kind to the inhabitants of their host country since most Japanese find Chinese names to be real tongue twisters. Or perhaps it makes my students from China feel like they “stick out” a little less. Being in Japan, they want to use a Japanese variation of their name. I can kind of understand this attitude. When I was in university studying Mandarin, I was given a Chinese name, which meant that I was “part of the group”. To this day certain friends in Vancouver still address me as “Meidan”.

On the other hand, if you are trying to remember the names on class lists and have already created an association for a Chinese name, such as “Jing-Jing” (“Hmm. That sounds like change in my pocket...”) only to discover that she wants to be called “Sho-Sho”, it can really mess with one’s mental processes.

Names are important. They reflect the very essence of someone’s persona with usage governed by cultural norms that are hard to overcome no matter how long you have lived abroad. In Japan, when men become well acquainted, they address each other by the surname without a title to show that they are “buddies”. On the other hand, in the Western culture that I hail from, being called by the surname only (“Hey, Smith!”) can come across as rude and offensive.

In my first year working at Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding (see blog entry 27), I became close friends with the man in the desk across from mine, Nishimura-san. One day in my second month, he shouted across the large office we worked in to get my attention by using my surname only. I was thrown off balance. How rude! He thought that our friendship had reached the stage where we were on a first-name basis – family name that is. For my unacculturated ears, it sounded loutish.

I have a close friend, Kurt, whose name ends up sounding like “Kato” in Japanese, a typical local surname. Some of his acquaintances are mortified when they discover that for years they have been calling him by his given name, not his family name. On the other hand, his surname contains fourteen letters and is liberally sprinkled with “v”s, which don’t exist in Japanese. In the end, everyone sticks with the comfortable, if potentially rude, status quo.

 As for the name “Don”, it is not quite as adaptable. It has a range of meanings in Japanese, none of which are very acceptable. “Don” can refer to the noise of a drum being beaten (“don, don, don…”), the head of a yakuza (gangster) clan, stinky, a dimwit... I think you get the picture, which is not an attractive one. Still, my name doesn’t leave people snickering when I introduce myself as it does in Istanbul. In Turkish, my name means “boxer shorts”. What’s in a name, indeed!

(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, KoreanPortuguese and Italian!)