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!


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!)


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