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!)


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