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!


48. Saving Languages Online - Part 5/6: Opening up, not giving up

In my previous blogpost, I talked about blended courses, or combining computers with classroom training, to develop communication skills in a very short time. In the courses I coordinate, learners start online, continue in the classroom with native "para-teachers" then head overseas to test their ability to communicate in situ.

Throughout each course, I administer surveys to identify changes in how participants perceive their language learning ability, as well as to confirm ongoing interest in learning languages. In one course, Shinobu, a young Japanese woman who had lived in the USA and was fluent in English and Japanese, wrote "I would love to study any language this way, even if only a few people speak it.” This comment has huge implications for endangered heritage languages. A positive first encounter with a language makes some individuals more open to the study of others (see blogpost 2).

Many within a heritage language community assume outsiders have no interest in learning their tongue; however, this is not necessarily the case. As a young man of 19, I was very keen to learn the language of Malaysia, a country I hardly knew existed prior to visiting there on an exchange program (see blogposts 10, 11, 13 and14). This interest was kindled through direct contact and positive experiences. Can online interaction foster such an attitude?

In blogposts 45 and 46, I discussed how an e-Community Center could support a range of services relevant to the heritage community. This site can also provide a doorway for others to approach the community, developing interest and empathy through online contact. Which brings us to a delicate issue: to what extent should people from "outside", including those from the mainstream culture that has oppressed the heritage community, be encouraged to join its activities?

In a recent article about efforts to restore the Comanche language (http://chronicle.com/article/Comanche-Nation-College-Tries/139631/?cid=cc&utm_source=cc&utm_medium=en), academics stated there was suspicion and resistance to outsiders trying to learn the heritage language. One woman was quoted as saying, "I don't think it's important for more people to speak the language. It's important for our people to speak it."

No matter what the reasons (and there are certainly valid ones), exclusivity is an attitude the heritage community can ill afford. To my way of thinking, the more people involved with learning a language, the better its chances are for survival.

Extreme opinions make for good copy and I question whether the majority in a heritage language community are as wary as the Comanche woman. As mentioned in blogpost 44, I have had direct experiences with the Iban in East Malaysia, Haida and Cree in Canada, Kosraens in Micronesia, and Welsh in the UK. In all cases, efforts I made to learn the heritage language were acknowledged positively. I would go so far as to say that the fact an outsider was making an effort to learn the language gave new relevance to its use.

I believe bringing the attention of "outsiders" to any language and reinforcing interest through direct contact, both online and in the real world, is an excellent way to promote any language and culture. This includes non-mainstream languages.

In 2007, I coordinated a short course in Thai, then escorted ("dragged" is perhaps more appropriate) a group of Japanese students to Thailand for onsite testing. After studying Thai for about two weeks, everyone headed to Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani, or simply “Ubon”, a provincial town in the northeastern province of Isaan, to apply their communication skills. Most participants joined the program reluctantly (the main motivation seemed to be credits to meet graduation requirements) but based on a positive experience studying Thai, all boarded the plane for Bangkok excited if a little terrified.

We arrived in Bangkok late and the group's first meal was at a noodle stand where each person ordered in Thai, visibly thrilled at the achievement. With each encounter in the local language confidence grew and, by the time we boarded the overnight train to Ubon, the group was excitedly anticipating their next adventure.

In Ubon, I paired the group with students from a local university. Each morning, the Ubon kids would meet us and explain what they had in mind for the day. The budget was limited, which meant activities were cheap but enjoyable, the kind of things only young people can collectively come up with. I stepped back and let them sort things out for themselves, listening to stories of their adventures at the end of each day and informally recording linguistic progress.

During the course of this short visit it became apparent that, rather than learning standard Thai, my students were picking up the local dialect, logical given the place and people they were spending time with. On the other hand, my students' attitude to learning this local language surprised me. They were clearly enjoying the experience, keen to collect Isaan terms, using them with each other and leaving me in the dark (for an in-depth description of this course check http://jalt-publications.org/archive/proceedings/2007/E123.pdf).

After returning to Japan, participants continued using Isaan phrases with each other, a kind of secret language that kept the memory of their Ubon experience alive. I recently had a reunion with several of the participants and was intrigued to discover that after five years they still remember many phrases, the language apparently welded into their collective psyches.

The point of my story is that interest in an indigenous, non-mainstream language was kindled over a very short period and has been maintained. I believe the same can be accomplished for heritage languages with suitable conditions in place: structured, non-threatening online language training and the opportunity for direct interaction with the heritage community both online and, ideally, in the real world.

Increased contact and the development of interest in a heritage culture and language can also have direct economic benefits for the community. In my final blogpost of this series, I will talk about these potential benefits.

(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!)


47. Saving Languages Online - Part 4/6: Back to reality

I work in a computer sciences department of a Japanese university and most people assume that I am a major advocate of learning online. Not true. I have too many students who are lost in their cyber world, incapable of communicating face-to-face with real people. Seriously.

In my previous three postings, I have talked about the benefits of creating an online presence to rejuvenate the language and cultural heritage of a community. On the other hand, it is crucial to bring computer activity back to reality, to synchronize your online presence with the real world.

Synchronicity varies with each feature of your e-Community Center. In this essay, I will discuss potential activities derived from the “Language Trove” space described in my previous essay. I should also state upfront that I will include discussion of my website, www.sulantra.com, in order to describe from direct experience how my students take online study to the streets in blended language courses.

In blogpost 33, I described how I train learners for one week online, continue studying in the classroom for two weeks then jump on an airplane with everyone and fly to a country where the language is spoken for testing. What does this have to do with heritage languages struggling for their survival? Possibly a great deal.

My website was derived from a classroom training approach I have been researching for over thirty years. As a result, the online and classroom versions are completely integrated, sharing the same instructional format, as well as comparable content. This is important since it means there are no nasty surprises when learners go from their computers to the classroom. After all, our first exposure to new ways of learning can permanently alter our attitude for better or worse (see blogpost 2).

In fact, the key to integration in a blended course lies with the teacher. I ask potential instructors to take a course online before heading into the classroom. I also seek out native speakers who are not teachers by trade, for example, exchange students. My experience has been that certified teachers tend to favour a familiar pedagogy and can be threatened by a new teaching approach. Once my "para-teacher" has gone through a Sulantra Starter course, we have a common understanding of the pedagogy, and the odds for full synchronization of the online and classroom study experience are greatly improved. 

Who would make a good para-teacher for a heritage language course? Obviously a native speaker works best but, in the case of heritage languages, there may not be too many left. On the other hand, there is another group to tap for instructors, which I refer to as the "middle generation". These are individuals whose mother tongue was likely stigmatized during their lifetime, including corporal punishment for using their heritage language at school. When questioned about the language of their childhood, members of this group frequently state they "don't speak it anymore." This is not necessarily true. 

The middle generation may be a little rusty but its members are certainly familiar with the sounds and meanings of the language of their youth. Their direct involvement, for example, as para-teachers or acting as volunteer tutors for young people studying online materials, can provide the impetus to retrieve the heritage language the middle generation still possesses. Through formal and informal involvement with the elders and youth of a community, this group can serve as a critical bridge between what was and what could be, restoring both linguistic and cultural knowledge. The middle generation can plant the seeds for revival, not burial, of the heritage language.

Assuming an appropriate online course is in place reinforced by classroom training with para-teachers, the focus shifts to use of the heritage language within the community. Just as a chat room provides a space for learners to practice online, the community should come up with activities held at specific times and locations in the real world for enthusiasts to use and improve their language skills. True recovery means having the chance to listen and speak - and have fun without worrying about correct grammar or test results. 

For example, why not have traditional cooking classes followed by dinner together? Or learn some songs and have a "karaoke party" every few months? (I have done both while learning Japanese and had a great time.) Language use is validated through interaction. It is up to the community to come up with contexts that give everyone a chance to use the language and, in the process, develop pride in their heritage.

With confidence comes creativity, which also contributes to restoring a language. Too often the focus of restoration efforts is simply cataloguing totems and teepees, relegating the heritage language to a hermetic box instead of considering how it could be "modernized". How far can this modernization process go? Languages are vibrant and those that are flexible and adapt are stronger for it. Just because a language does not contain the word for "telephone" or "computer" does not mean one cannot be invented. Why not use words that already exist, or change pronunciation so that it fits more comfortably into the frame of a heritage language?

Mainstream languages do this all the time. For example, rather than use a bastardized English version of "telephone", Chinese speakers say "dian hua", literally translated as "electric words", a much clearer representation of what happens when you phone someone. As for "computer", the French, ever wary of being inundated in English, say "ordinateur", while Japanese modify the pronunciation "
konpyutah" to suit their speech , as well as reduce the word when its paired with others (e.g. a personal computer is called a "pasa-kon"). If these mainstream languages can create their own versions of modern words, heritage languages can, too.

The reality is that, as the world becomes more globalized through TV, travel and technical innovation, the surge of new ideas - and language - will be ongoing. I feel heritage communities need to re-invent, reach out and invite others into their culture. I will explore this topic in my next blogpost.

(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!)


46. Saving Languages Online - Part 3/6: Virtual Nuts & Bolts

In Part 2 of this series, I discussed how the Internet could be exploited to serve restoration of a heritage language, specifically through an online gathering place, or e-Community Center. In this essay, I will discuss potential features of such an online venue.

The functional "zones" of an e-Community Center should fill specific needs, providing information, and maintaining user interest through an entertaining and possibly interactive format. Features can be as varied as the imagination of the minds planning the site and include such spaces as:

1. Bulletin Board
Obvious content for a "Bulletin Board" includes community notices, such as upcoming weddings, births and funerals, and events that particularly highlight the heritage culture. To ensure ongoing updates, regular contributors should be enlisted, while a place for spontaneous contributions will encourage others to become involved.

2. Arts Center
An "Arts Center" provides locals with a place to display their creative efforts online. It develops interest in local culture and can reach a wider audience via links. The Arts Center can be all-inclusive with modern, as well as traditional works in a range of mediums, such as painting, drawing, handicrafts, music, or even movies. In North America, endangered language artists and projects have achieved critical acclaim, including the Quebecois duo, Kashtin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kashtin), who perform in their native language, Innu-aimun, and the newsworthy Mayan soap opera, BaktĂșn (http://www.latina.com/entertainment/tv/world-first-mayan-telenovela-baktun#axzz2jouFck4d), which describes the trials of a young man returning to his roots while adapting to the realities of modern life. Talent knows no boundaries and can directly involve all generations in the ongoing development of their culture. Who knows? Anything is possible online and your artists could go viral!

3. Our Stories
Stories from the past serve as the foundation for collective identity helping us to recognize who we are, while modern narratives are a reference for interpreting our place in today's world. With technology becoming more compact and inexpensive, user-generated content in an "Our Stories" zone is within reach. Imagine using a smartphone to film grandparents recounting ancestral tales to their grandchildren, or younger family members talking about their contemporary interests over dinner. With an easy to use input system in place, podcasts can be uploaded and are valuable content in a kind of community video station. Levels of access can be decided by the individual who designates the upload as "personal", "community" or "general public".

Rather than privacy issues, some community members may feel more uncomfortable with the technical aspects of going online. For such individuals, a "collection point" at existing facilities with technical assistance could be the solution. The goal is to make it easy for every person to be able to add his or her stories, particularly older generations. Community elders are the keepers of traditional knowledge and ancestral beliefs. The sad reality is that with their passing, we lose the wealth of information each person possesses. Our Stories provides a venue for collecting this priceless resource and acknowledging its value to the community.

4. Language Trove
I believe a well-designed "Language Trove" feature can make a difference when preserving and/or restoring a community’s tongue, particularly if it includes a "Heritage Zone" for data collected from elders, as well as structured courses to develop a solid foundation in the language. If the latter courses are well-designed, they can also be integrated into classroom training with native speaking "para-teachers". I will talk more about this in my next blogpost about combining online features with real world training.

As for the Heritage Zone, language data recorded with elders then uploaded becomes accessible by the entire community. Projects could include creation of a comprehensive online glossary of words and phrases, or development of more advanced training materials. Data collection sessions can be as casual as recording over a coffee, or structured with discussion centered on a specific topic, such as traditional skills or ancestral beliefs. 

In fact, such data collection is a common research activity performed by academics; however, the results are too often hidden away in filing cabinets. Putting the data online increases the potential for ongoing applications in the e-Community Center.

With development of basic communication skills in the Language Trove, the need then arises for a place to practice them in the e-Community Center, for example, an online Chat Room. One-on-one encounters with possible visual contact (e.g. via Skype) could take place in this space, as well as formal sessions held at scheduled times with guests being interviewed about a specific topic of interest to the community. Ideally, this online venue would evolve into a vibrant congregating place for all levels of speakers to practice the heritage language.

Involving the community in all aspects of the above features is critical; however, perspectives may be drastically different. Youthful members will likely be into games and the sophisticated computer graphics (CGs) that come with them. Unless you are sitting on a well-stocked heritage fund, such CGs require teams of programmers and are prohibitively expensive.

Older community member needs are more fundamental. Computers are often not a part of the reality for someone over 50. The biggest hurdle for mature users visiting an e-Community Center will probably be navigating the User Interface (UI). When checking other websites for ideas don’t just browse the content, but investigate how you access it. For good examples of user-friendly UI's, check out websites that target seniors. If the UI is not obvious and intuitive, motivation to use the e-Community Center will quickly disappear. A good UI will encourage everyone to go online.

Can an online e-Community Center really prove instrumental to the recovery of a language and its culture heritage? Obviously grassroots, face-to-face efforts are critical; however, an easily accessible online venue can play a vital role provided it encourages the involvement of everyone in the community, contains content that appeals to all ages, and can be incorporated into on-the-ground, real world efforts. I will talk about such efforts in my next blogpost.

(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!)