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!


41. Lotuses and Language Learners

Many years ago, I lived on Shodo Island in Japan’s Inland Sea and made ends meet by teaching part-time in a variety of institutions, including two local secondary schools (see blog entry 36) and a small juku, or cram school, with low desks planted on a tatami mat floor. In the juku, my students ranged from elementary school youngsters squealing and full of energy to bleary-eyed adults showing up after a long day at work for a weekly fix of English.

As my Australian friends say, my goal was to give “good value”. I wanted everyone to leave with a sense of accomplishment, as well as have a good time. In general, I believe the adults and children in these classes did make progress but sometimes I wasn’t really sure. The most challenging age group for me to work with was the junior high students.

My elementary school kids had few inhibitions and were willing to take chances, laughing at their mistakes as they learned, while the senior secondary students swaggered in with some language under their belts. The junior high kids were caught in the middle in a state of limbo. No longer small children, they were still not old enough to come across as savvy. They lacked confidence. No one volunteered; no one laughed without prodding. These students always seemed to be looking over their shoulders to confirm how others perceived attempts to speak. At times, teaching this age group was exhausting.

On the other hand, this is not to say that they did not make progress. In fact, one of my more stellar students, Nobuko, was in junior high. She was shy and one of the last people I would have pegged as a successful language learner; however, by the end of her first year in my classes, Nobuko’s listening comprehension had skyrocketed and, although she was reticent, when she did speak the language was comprehensible. How had she gone from a silent, shy girl to a surprisingly comfortable communicator in such a short time? One day after class, I asked Nobuko to tell me her secret.

Although introverted, Nobuko had a dream to see the world. Upon entering junior high school, she began studying English and concluded this language was a key component for making her dream come true. But how could a girl from a small island find a way to use the language she was learning in school? As things turned out, Nobuko stumbled upon the answer by accident.

Every Sunday, Nobuko would board a ferry and head to the big (well, relatively big) city of Takamatsu on Shikoku, one of Japan’s main islands. There she studied sketching and painting at another cram school. The trip was long, but Nobuko loved what she was learning.

One Sunday, Nobuko’s teacher took the group to Ritsurin, a traditional park located near the center of Takamatsu. The group settled in beside a small pond filled with lotuses and everyone was instructed to draw a single blooming flower. The locals say that, if you go early and sit quietly, you will hear the sound of the lotus blossoms bursting open in the morning sunlight, but Sunday is definitely not the day for this experience. Ritsurin is a major local attraction and every Sunday the place is swamped with noisy tourists!

On this particular Sunday, Nobuko set up her easel and quietly began to draw one bloom that had caught her artistic eye. She focused intently upon her painting, blocking out the chatter of passersby, lost in her own secret world. Suddenly Nobuko’s bubble was burst by a large group of foreign tourists speaking in English. Distracted, she looked up to discover about ten senior citizens hovering around her easel.

A little terrified, Nobuko shyly said, “Good morning.” The group reaction was a flurry of apologies for interrupting her concentration followed by effusive praise for her impressive drawing. Nobuko was thrilled by this praise but even more excited that she was able to communicate with the friendly group, answering questions about her name, age, school – all the simple things that make up a basic conversation. Soon Nobuko was being complimented on her English, as well as her painting ability.

As things turned out, Nobuko had stumbled upon the ideal way for someone shy to strike up a conversation – put yourself in a promising venue and maybe the other person will start talking first. Thus began a routine every Sunday after art class of heading to Ritsurin’s lotus pond, teahouse or bridge where tourists fed the carp. She would sketch or paint, waiting for someone to gaze over her shoulder and comment on that day’s masterpiece.

Some visitors would take a photo with Nobuko then send it to her along with a short letter or postcard. She would bring these messages to class, once pointing out the commemorative stamp some friendly stranger had taken the trouble to paste on the envelope. People really did seem to care about this young girl who made their visit to Takamatsu more memorable. And Nobuko’s ability to communicate in English blossomed along with her painting skills.

It amazes me how clumsy first encounters can be. I have had total strangers accost me on the street in Japan asking to “practice English”. I appreciate their eagerness to learn but this approach lacks finesse and can be off-putting. Small talk about the weather or commenting on one’s surroundings (“Aren’t the flowers beautiful this time of year?”) is a great way to slip into a conversation but such “ice breakers” are rarely taught in language classes, at least in the places where I have lived.

Many years ago while completing my Master’s degree in England I began to fear that my Japanese ability was deteriorating. One Sunday, I decided to get my nose out of the books and re-join the real world by heading to the National Portrait Gallery in London. My plan was to soak up some culture and, if I was lucky, meet a few unsuspecting Japanese tourists to talk with. As things turned out, I stumbled across an entire tour group from the Osaka area. Moving into position in front of the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare, I waited for a break in their chatter then declared in a rapt tone of voice, “Omoshiroi desu ne...” (Isn’t it interesting...).

A few jaws dropped but before the group could turn and run I quickly interjected, “Where do you all come from?” The stage was set. Surrounded by ten native speakers, I began asking – and answering – questions. “Where did you learn Japanese?”, “Which part of England are you from?” “Why did you come to study in England instead of Canada?” After an hour of strolling through the museum with this entourage, I was reassured that my Japanese skills were still intact. I also thought of Nobuko. Maybe I didn’t paint but I could certainly identify which artwork would appeal to a tour group from Osaka and use it as bait for a brief but fruitful encounter.

There are many ways that we can access opportunities for developing our listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in another language. In my next blog entry, I will discuss some of my own ideas, including online approaches.

On the rare occasions when I get back to Takamatsu, I try to visit Ritsurin. Maybe I am hoping to run into a woman painting flowers by the lotus pond, quietly waiting for a passing visitor to praise her artwork and strike up a conversation. On the other hand, I know that clever girls usually grow into intelligent young women who move on with their lives, and I assume that Nobuko is one of them.

(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!)


40. Confessions of a Tortured Soul

Today’s entry is Number 40 – and we have a guest blogger! Although my friend, Susan, hails from Massachusetts, she has lived in several countries and speaks the languages to prove it – five and a half at last count. Like me, she is a language freak who teaches, as well as learns, assorted tongues. But Susan has reached a crossroads in her life and now wonders whether the classroom is where she should really be. Read on…

Confessions of a Tortured Soul
by Susan

There is an embarrassing story I have heard a million times, often told by my mother in my presence, about my early language learning experiences. She becomes very involved telling it, more often than not to convince her listener of the anguish she went through raising me, and embellishes it with drama and angst each time she recounts it. “I spoke to my kids in Spanish until one day, when Susan was 3 years old...” (she will look at me sardonically at this point) “she said ‘Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t understand you!’. Naturally, I felt so guilty I stopped speaking to them in Spanish.”

She inevitably follows this story up with one about how a year later we moved to Puerto Rico and, since my 4-year-old self needed to speak Spanish in order to hold my own with a little boy at the hotel pool, I started speaking it again. In truth, this was the beginning of my personal love affair with language.

I have an issue with people who say they speak a language or say they are “bilingual”, but when it comes down to it, they can barely ask for a cup of coffee. Nothing bothers me more. At the tender age of 46, I “speak” five languages, English, Spanish, French, Russian and Japanese (five and a half if you count my dreadful German). I say “speak” with quotations because time and age have whittled away the vocabulary in my two “weaker” languages.

On the other hand, if I were stranded on a Russian island with no other language available to me, I wouldn’t starve to death. In fact, whenever she wants to encourage me regarding whatever crazy plan I’ve come up with, my mother always says, “Querida, de hambre nunca te morirás.” (“Honey, you will never die of hunger.”), which feels like a backhanded compliment given the size of my butt these days!

Why do I love language so much? Others may go on about culture, literature and assorted high-minded pursuits, but in my case the fact is that I don’t like being lead around by someone else. Call me American, but I value my independence. For example, the only reason I even started to learn German is because a guy tried to ask me out in Germany using German, of course, and I had to have someone else translate the request. “Forget that!” I said to myself and promptly began learning Deutsch.

There’s also a sadistic side to me that gets pure pleasure out of mortifying people when I turn around and speak to them in their own language, especially if they have just embarrassed themselves by assuming I don’t understand what they are saying. As a high school teacher, I have had the opportunity to do this many times with my students.

Once, while substitute teaching in an inner city school heavily populated by students from Mexico (my dream job!), a young man turned to his friend and said in Spanish, “Look out, she’s watching you. I think she wants you to be her girlfriend!” I turned to him, raised an eyebrow, and said in Spanish, “You really shouldn’t trust skin color when you are deciding whether someone speaks Spanish or not.” Naturally, he was embarrassed as I laughed hysterically. And just as naturally we began a friendship which continues to this day, eighteen years later. 

Being a language teacher has been a blessing and a curse. I have taught English as a second language, as well as Spanish, French, and Japanese as foreign languages. While doing so, I have also been called into service to teach other subjects, such as Geometry, Algebra (in English and Spanish), Computer Science, and Independent Studies. The blessing, especially in the foreign language classes, is that I can impart my love for all things global. I truly love to travel and speak other languages, and it comes through when I teach. My students all tell me (long after they’ve forgotten the pain of actually being in my classroom) how much they enjoy my stories and jokes. I have even had a parent tell me that I was certainly the reason her daughter was living in Europe at that moment (although I wasn’t actually sure how happy the woman was about it).

On the downside, I wonder about my efficacy as a language teacher because of the “accent thing”. Is it really better to have a teacher with an excellent accent who isn’t a good teacher? Will having a teacher with a native accent that you can’t replicate make you so frustrated you’ll want to quit? Could having a teacher who has a very strong accent but grammatically correct language skills help you to communicate better? At this point in my life, I still don’t have any answers.

This brings me to yet another internal debate (who knew I was so tortured). I find myself wondering what my students are really learning from me and whether it has any relevance to their present or future needs. As millions of high school students have asked, “When am I ever going to USE this?!” For example, realistically speaking, French is not a subject that is overwhelming in its usefulness, a point I am willing to concede. Globalization aside, what are my students getting out of my French classes?

In fact, this is one of the reasons I am on a “break” right now, doing massage therapy instead of teaching high school. It is a crossroads where I have to decide whether my career path to date has meaning. My workplace of choice has tended to be inner city schools with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. To me, these are students who need someone with my experience to show them there is a big, wide world outside and that they can access it by learning languages. But how can I get them excited about the outside world when their own is a daily struggle?

One day, maybe I’ll find some answers to the debates going on in my head. In the meantime, if you have any insights into my predicament, I’d be happy to hear them. Contact Don and he will forward your advice – the price he must pay for inviting me to be a guest blogger!

(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!)


39. Precarious Production

In my last blog entry, I talked about the surreptitious way I joined study groups to pick up the language they had to offer then moved on to other cultural fields to infiltrate and exploit. My calculating study approach was meant to expose me to as much new language as possible in order to improve my comprehension skills; however, the ultimate goal was to develop my speaking ability and join the “adult world” instead of sounding like a pre-schooler forever. Within a few years, I entered the aggressive production phase of my evolving Japanese.

Joining study groups was fine; however, I found myself repeating the same  phrases over and over after about six months in a cultural study context and realized that I needed to access more challenging linguistic experiences across more fields if I really wanted to become fluent. I came to the conclusion that, rather than being taught, I needed to cast myself in the role of teacher using the target language.

In my third year in Japan, I began to receive invitations to speak to assorted civic groups on an exotic range of topics, some of which I knew a great deal about (“Canadian folk singers? No problem!”), others of which I was totally ignorant (“Seniors’ benefits in Canada? Hmm. I suppose I could ask my grandmother in Calgary...”). As the only Canuck (what Canadians call themselves behind closed doors) for a hundred-mile/160.93 kilometer radius, I was expected to be the expert on all things stamped with a red maple leaf. I wasn’t really a “Great White North” nationalist. It was just that no one else was available and I was the default person to go to.

For my part, I accepted these assorted speaking engagements because I had come to realize that they were prime sources for my language development. The words and phrases I prepared for these events were permanently branded on to my brain cells by the ultimate memory tool – fear.

Frankly, I do not view myself as an exemplary student. If there is a clear reason to master language used in a field that is unfamiliar to me, with a little prodding I will put in the necessary hours. On the other hand, without a goal, I can be as lazy as my most lethargic university students. Agreeing to speak in public forced me to investigate content that I was unsure of in my mother tongue then convey the meaning by looking up the key words I needed to express myself in Japanese. The process was stressful and the end result terrifying, but my spoken language was certainly evolving.

Topics were as varied as my audiences and sometimes a little too spontaneous for my own good. For one group of 500 elementary school children, my demure talk on primary school life in Alberta mutated into a frenzied representation of wildlife across Canada. Kids being kids, they were much more interested in hearing about bears and wolves eating deer than school schedules. As a result, their questions forced me into unknown vocabulary terrain. My pint-sized audience stared transfixed as I frantically gestured assorted animals in a desperate effort to elicit the necessary language to express myself (see blog entry 12, Eliciting, and blog entry 19, Show me!). Moose racks spreading out from my head, beaver tails slapping the water surface, coyotes howling at the moon. I left with a whole new corpus of beastly terms – and about 2 kilos of weight loss!
But perhaps the most nerve-wracking discussion context I threw myself into was as the co-host of a radio talk show on a station in Takamatsu when I was teaching at a university there. The program involved cultural commentary and was broadcast live every Friday before the 6:00 evening news. Initially, I was asked by a close friend to be interviewed on air and thought, “Why not?” I chose a safe topic within my comfort zone (local souvenirs that go down well overseas) and, given that I knew the interviewer, did a decent job of getting my point across.

My perky, practical little talk was well-received resulting in an invitation to become a regular commentator. The offer fit perfectly into my schedule and sounded like a great way to pick up new language. I could finish my last university class of the week on Friday afternoon around 4:30, jump on my bicycle and arrive with plenty of time to relax, collect my thoughts then settle down comfortably in front of the microphone as the clock ticked its way to 5:55. Of course, the reality was much harsher.

I had not factored in the possibility that my students might have loads of questions at the end of each university class (“It’s Friday. Don’t you all have dates or something else to do?”) and that I would have to pedal like a banshee to reach the studio in time. Then there were the vagaries of the local weather. Icy winds in February, heavy rains in June, sweltering heat in August. Over the two years I spoke on air, I can count the times on one hand when I didn’t arrive soaked in perspiration seconds before the director frantically signaled that we were broadcasting.

To complicate matters further, while I found the first few months invigorating with plenty of topics to chatter on about, after a year of weekly commentary on what titillated my cultural taste buds, I found myself scraping the barrel for untouched topics. I knew the situation was bad when one Friday I caught myself leafing through a large English-Japanese dictionary to retrieve “denial”, “anger”, “bargaining”, “depression” and “acceptance”, the necessary words for explaining Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. What had started out as a light and frothy language learning adventure had mutated into heavy interludes plumbing the depths of “what-will-I-talk-about-this-week” despair!

And there was more misery on the horizon. The listening audience was apparently entertained and I began to garner a following, something I hadn’t really thought about. Getting into a taxi and having the driver turn and exclaim “You’re Don-san, aren’t you?” can be very unnerving. I had achieved my goal of picking up a wondrous range of vocabulary, but was now in need of “infringement” and “privacy”. So this is what it meant to be an “ii no naka no kawazu” – “a frog in a well”, or “big fish in a small pond” as we say in English.

Still, I can’t complain. During my brief career as a part-time radio announcer I had learned language that I would never have picked up otherwise. To this day the words and phrases I frantically committed to memory, sometimes seconds before the red light went on in the studio, are still emblazoned in my brain.

But in the end I moved on, realizing there must be a simpler way of learning “denial” without developing an ulcer.

(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!)