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!)


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