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!


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 K├╝bler-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!)


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