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!


43. Write? Wrong!

As creators of Sulantra.com, a language learning website designed to take absolute beginners from zero to functioning in as short a time as possible, we have focused on developing listening and speaking skills. This has meant tossing out what in our estimation is unnecessary linguistic baggage. As a result, we are often asked, "Where's the writing?" Sulantra.com does have written components, such as a handy icon which allows you to see how items are written, as well as a directory that allows you to look up all of the language contained in a course; however, our aim is to put people on the street communicating with each other verbally, not through dictionaries or notepads.

Why did we decide to give listening and speaking skills priority? Because that is what people do when they learn their first language. Think of a small child: after a great deal of listening, slowly but surely the words begin to come out. You need a lot of input to produce that first bit of output. Once you have some aural/oral knowledge then you have a frame of reference from which to tackle written words. In our case, we develop reading skills phonetically in the "Restaurant" section of our Expanded course by referring to menu items learners already know the sound of.

For adult learners, we have targeted specific tasks that we assume they will need for traveling or in the workplace. For example, in the "Restaurant" section, you learn how to order dishes or take that order if you are a server. The material is focused, not scattered as in real life, and is automatically recycled in our spiralling format. Combined with a dash of adult reasoning, this is why you begin talking sooner than you did as a child.

So why do so many of our users keep asking for written materials? I believe it is because they have been "conditioned" to do so. If you have studied languages in a formal setting, such as I did in secondary school, then a book was very much part of the process. For some people it just doesn't seem like learning without the security blanket of a textbook on the desktop. They feel unfocused, adrift on an ocean of foreign sounds.

But for beginners, starting language study via reading and writing can have serious consequences. Chances are there is no one-to-one correlation between sounds in your mother tongue and the language you are studying. Sure, you can approximate sounds with ABCs, but in the end, this approximation may match your personal frame of reference - the sounds in your mother tongue - more than those in the target language. A worst case scenario is that your pronunciation is a blatant mistake and you end up with an ingrained error that is almost impossible to remedy. Ouch!

An unfortunate example of "romanization" of a written language is that of Kosraen, a language spoken in one of the Federated States of Micronesia. With only about 10,000 native speakers, this language needs all of the help it can get to survive, yet it has ended up with three different written versions! 

The first was introduced by American missionaries in the mid-19th century. They arbitrarily decided how the local sounds should be transcribed into ABCs. Of course, their goal was to proselytize. They needed a script to translate the Bible and a hymnal into the local language, which they promptly did. Both tomes are still in use today.

Later, a second group of missionaries decided to clean up the original matching of sounds and letters to develop their own version of how to write Kosraen. More refined perhaps but still a new way of writing old sounds – and making matters more complicated.

Finally, along came some academics and things got really messy. In 1973, the Kusaiean Orthography Committee (“Kusaie” is how the Japanese pronounced “Kosrae” during their occupation of the island – another sound mismatch) installed a new official spelling system. As academics tend to do, they complicated matters by using a phonetic transcription system based on precision rather than simplicity. The end result can be extremely confusing, particularly for visitors. 

I stayed in the village of Waclung, which I pronounced as "Whack-lung" until I realized that the "c" was meant to indicate an extended vowel and the "u" didn't quite match the sound in the English "lung". The village's name turned out to sound more like "Way-loong" to my outsider ears. Meanwhile, a daughter of the family I lodged with was called “Shoe-eh”, which she spelled as “Srue” using the official spelling system. Sight and sound seemed to be drifting further apart with the newest writing system.

What about languages that don't use ABCs? In China, an alphabet-based script, called "pinyin", has been developed for transcribing the pronunciation of Chinese characters. However, unless you study pinyin formally, chances are many of the letters will leave you bewildered. How are you to know that "x" sounds like "sh", "q" sounds like "ch", and "zh" sounds like "j"?

But it is not just the ABCs that wreak havoc and confuse learners. As a resident of Japan, I have had to come to terms with ‘katakana’, the writing system used to transcribe foreign words introduced into Japanese. Yes, there is a separate phonetic writing system used for foreign words, along with another one for indigenous words. Both phonetic systems are derived from Chinese characters, which are also thrown into the mix.

Japanese has a consonant-vowel based sound system with only five vowels 'a' as in ABBA, 'i' as in the Spanish "¡Sí, sí!", "u" as in "Suzette", "e" as in the Canadian "eh?", and "o" for, well, "Oh!" (Pardon my eclectic sound references.) When you recite the equivalent of the ABCs in Japanese, you end up with "a-i-u-e-o; ka-ki-ku-ke-ko; ma-mi-mu-me-mo..." creating a string of consonant-vowel sets. Fine for Japanese until they begin to study other languages. English, which has from eleven to twenty-one vowels depending on the person’s accent and definition of a vowel, is hard enough for a Japanese learner to pick up simply by listening. Transcribe the target words into katakana and the results can be disastrous. 

I discovered this when I moved to Japan and went to the bank for the first time. I lived in the small town of Tamano (see blog entries 27, 29, 34) and an assistant in the company where I worked had filled out my bank account application form with some cultural slips added. Japanese write the family name first followed by given names. I had provided my name "English-style" and the assistant had entered "Donald" in the ‘Family’ blank and "Maybin" on the line for 'Given Names' in katakana. Oops!

I waited patiently for my application to be processed, thumbing through a magazine and listening for my name to be called. Time passed and I became impatient. It seemed that one of the customers was being paged repeatedly but not responding. The idiot was someone called "Donarudo-san". I glanced up from my magazine and realized all eyes were on me! I had not recognized my own name spoken as it is written in 'katakana English'.

There are other unfortunate examples. Four years ago, I coordinated a classroom course in Thai using the same teaching approach as that in our Sulantra.com courses. One energetic participant, a 64-year-old Japanese “salaryman”, was thrilled to join the classes and made every effort to learn the target language. Although his English was abysmal, he had a surprisingly good accent in Thai. Then on the fourth day of our studies everything changed and he began blurting out phrases with very Japanese-like pronunciation. 

The instructor and I were both surprised and talked with the man after class to determine what had happened. It seems the previous evening he had discovered a “wonderful” website that contained many of the phrases we were studying all transcribed into Japanese. The man was speaking “katakana Thai”! Sadly, no amount of clarifying on our part could eradicate the awful accent which was seemingly burned into his psyche.

Perhaps now you understand better why we do not focus on the written language. It’s not that we are against learning how to read and write, just that we think study of the script should be introduced later when learners have gotten their feet wet with the sounds– rather than at the outset when they might develop poor pronunciation – and get wet feet!

(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!)