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!)

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