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!


42. After LIOJ

In past blogs I have talked about ways that I, my friends and students have tapped into surroundings to communicate in a new language. But what if you are living in a country where the language that you are studying is not spoken. How do you build – or at least maintain your listening comprehension and/or speaking ability? The following are some ideas I have gathered over the years that have worked for me. Many of the techniques were incorporated into a training module which I gave each term to graduates of the Language Institute of Japan in Odawara, where I was director in the early 1990’s.

LIOJ was perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, The views would have done the grandest hotel proud and those of us who came there, both teachers and students, were constantly amazed by the surrounding beauty. Apart from the amazing setting, the center was known for its innovative programs, including the “Business Communication Program”, or BCP, a residential program where businesspeople from some of Japan’s largest companies came and spent a month immersing themselves in English, often just before heading overseas for long-term assignments.

Rules were rigid – if they broke the “English Only” policy, participants were sent back to their companies – and staff were expected to spend untold hours not only training, but also partaking of meals, trips, and joining in a range of social activities together with students. It was hard work but the results were often spectacular. My experience at LIOJ left me convinced that, if you really want to improve your communication skills and can’t head to a country where the language is spoken, the best way to evolve is by studying daily in “dense” sessions over a shorter period, rather than for an hour or two each week for years and years.

Some participants arrived shell-shocked having been told in the morning by their boss that they were about to be sent abroad and to “catch a train to Odawara”. Some of these men (in those days, women were rarely sent abroad) were about to be transferred overseas for several years and had just one month to get ready. For such individuals, the focus of the first week was more on counseling than language training. We tried to get these unfortunates psyched about the bomb that had just exploded in their world. The transfer would be an adventure, a growing experience for both the men and their families, right? It could be a hard sell but we did our utmost to put a positive spin on things.

However, not all was desperation. Some participants had just entered a company and were at LIOJ as part of an initial training component, while others were there as a “reward”. One company president liked our program so much that each year he gave his best employee the opportunity to take a month off and study with us as a “bonus” for a job well done. The reasons for being at LIOJ were as varied as the teaching staff, who haled from around the world. Some groups were more memorable than others but every term we understood the importance of the training being carried out. To this day, a network of alumni staff and students remains in touch thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

LIOJ’s residential business program was very structured. At the end of each term, we would herd the participants into a room and prepare them for the real world outside our doors in a training session titled “How to study after LIOJ.” The days of classroom study were over and maintenance of hard-earned fluency was now each participant’s responsibility. Techniques were presented in a humorous manner but the message was a serious one: Without extra efforts, language skills would deteriorate. The following are some of the tips we gave our graduates.

  1. Traditionally, the Japanese approach to learning another language is to memorize lists of words in isolation, usually in preparation for a test. All materials at LIOJ revolved around a context, for example, magazine articles or news broadcasts, to make meaning more memorable. We encouraged everyone to continue this context-based learning.
  1. Grammar was a gremlin. For adult learners the study of grammar often formed the foundation of their English learning experience before coming to LIOJ, with endless drills that were safe and familiar. But was this approach effective? Rules for English were often learned in isolation, like math formulas that could be computed but didn’t really lead to an application in the real world. At LIOJ, it wasn’t that we were against grammar. It just seemed more logical to explain structures when students tripped over a phrase that puzzled, for example, in a magazine article or even a karaoke song. Our motto was, “Learn the rules with a reference.”
  1. When it came to reading, we were very specific. Some of our students actually studied dictionaries at lunchtime to “build vocabulary.” More reading means more input and will help you build knowledge of words; however, “reading” a dictionary is definitely not what we had in mind! The general rule was to keep study sessions short and frequent with material you found informative and entertaining. 30 minutes of reading every day with a journal, manual, even comic book that held your interest was much more valuable than a blitz session on the weekend spending hours reading a mind-numbing textbook or thesaurus.
  1. If we look at how a child learns their mother tongue, it’s obvious that a lot of language goes in before words come out. Once listening and speaking have developed, the next challenge is to learn how to read, usually followed by attempts at writing. But for learners at academic institutions around the world, this process is often reversed. First comes the textbook with passages to read and probably write, followed by listening activities and, if you’re lucky, a little mouthing of phrases that may have absolutely no relevance to your reality. This was how I was introduced to French at school and how most learners begin their study of English in Japan.
Fortunately, with the advent of the Internet, an endless range of study options to develop all four skills now exist online (at least for English). With regard to improving listening skills – and subsequently speaking ability – the “How to study after LIOJ” advice still applies. We told everyone to start with “macro” listening, in other words, to catch the gist of what is being said before going “micro”, or analyzing utterances in detail. “Micro” learners tend to focus too much, ruminating over each word and, in the end, losing the overall meaning. Trying to understand every single word is incredibly inefficient and we discouraged it. We told students to catch the general meaning first then go back and listen for details if you really need to.

  1. Listening for gist does not mean that you should be passive. We trained our students to “control” the conversation by interrupting and clarifying when they lost the flow of what was being said then confirming what they understood. This “control” training (see blog entries 27 and 28) was a popular component of the BCP and was mentioned frequently in course evaluations. Students recognized that they had to be more assertive and manage conversations rather than let the language overwhelm them. They also understood that, the more they understood, the greater the chance of improving their speaking ability.
  1. Students were told not to be perfectionists. Native speakers make mistakes in their mother tongue so why couldn’t you do the same in another language? We advised the participants to make opportunities to talk with people, for example, by visiting popular tourist spots in their area, and not to worry about making mistakes. Learners who “over-think”, painfully placing words in order in their head before attempting to speak, end up being out of synch with the conversation – if they speak at all. Just say what you want to say, warts and all!
  1. Finally, we told everyone that, if they did have the opportunity to use their English (or any language for that matter) with another person, use the occasion to self correct. As a non-native speaker, if you make a mistake, the listener will usually signal when he or she doesn’t understand. Then it’s up to you to do some quick repair work. Or maybe the listener will try to guess your meaning. If the corrected version is what you wanted to say, copy it (see “Copy Correcting” in blog entry 8). In this way, students take advantage of every conversation to “clean up” their speech.

At the end of “How to study after LIOJ”, we would tell everyone the more they used their English, the more comfortable it would become. And with comfort, their confidence would grow in an energizing cycle. By choosing materials they enjoyed and trying to maintain a schedule of short, regular study sessions, their linguistic ability didn’t have to decline. And, if they really needed an “English fix”, they could visit us any time at LIOJ.

Sadly, the latter no longer holds true. As everyone knows, Japan has a lot of earthquakes and, several years ago Asia Center, the facility where LIOJ was housed, was declared structurally unsafe. The city of Odawara bought the property and tore the big white building on top of the hill down. The land has been turned into a park with a large open lawn where LIOJ once stood. I have visited twice and was told by neighbors that a surprising number of visitors – perhaps I should say “pilgrims” – drop by to look out over the sea and relive memories of their language learning experiences long ago.

(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!)