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!


50. If I can do it, so can you.

Wow – blogpost Number 50! I never imagined at the start of this project that we would get so far. To keep the tradition of a guest blogger every 10th entry, I have asked Yoh, the systems engineer for Sulantra.com, to write a piece describing his own personal journey learning languages. Fluent in four, he has direct experience using our website and has even tested his ability to communicate in Khmer on the streets of Siem Reap in Cambodia. In other words, he is the ideal author for this special entry. Enjoy!

If I can do it, so can you.
by Yoh

The first time I heard someone call me a polyglot, I felt very uncomfortable. To me, a polyglot is someone who is crazy about learning languages and extremely multilingual. I am jealous of real polyglots. I wish I could be fluent in a new language in 3 months as some websites say you can. To be honest, I have very limited interest in learning new languages and my experience of learning Mandarin, English and Japanese was definitely not an easy journey.

I was born in Leshan, a small city in Sichuan Province, China. There are many dialects in Sichuan and each city has its own, but they say the Leshan dialect is the most unusual. Some researchers say the pronunciation of Leshan dialect resembles an archaic form of Chinese from the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China. Every time I went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, I struggled to speak standard Sichuanese because some of the locals there couldn’t understand my “ancient” accent.

From elementary school to high school, the pinyin test was always a nightmare for me. Pinyin is the phonetic writing system for transcribing Chinese characters, which uses the Roman alphabet. It was designed for Mandarin, not for dialects. Having local teachers whose accent was not any better than mine teaching me how to read in Chinese wasn’t helping too much. I was expected to use only Mandarin in Chinese lessons, but I didn’t realize how bad my pronunciation was until I went to college in Dalian in the north of China. There were students from all over the country and Mandarin was the official language. It took a while for me to get used to speaking Mandarin properly. My English teacher in college, Miss Zeng, told me later that she could not understand me sometimes in the first couple of months because of my thick Sichuan accent.

One day, Miss Zeng approached me about entering an English speech contest. I thought it was a joke. “You don’t even understand my Chinese sometimes, why me?” I asked.

“Because you look harmless and I am too afraid to ask other students. According to the people in charge, each class must have at least one student to join the contest. You have to help me…”

Miss Zeng was a new teacher, and we were her first group of students. We got along with each other very well from the first day. I really liked her so I decided to accept the challenge. For about 3 months I worked very hard on my speech with Miss Zeng and another lovely English teacher, Megan from America. With their help, I surprisingly won the English speech contest, even with my “standard Chinese” accent. Okay, I have to confess that I suspect the amount of time I spent in the office of the English Department did make a good impression with the judges who were also working there.

As in most Chinese colleges, there were no English classes after the second year. What a relief! I thought I didn’t have to learn languages anymore. But I was naïve and it was too early for me to rejoice. During a serious career counseling session with Miss Wang, another teacher whom I respected a lot, she strongly suggested I learn Japanese, which would give me an advantage job hunting in Dalian where there were a lot of Japanese companies. She was right. I wouldn’t have been able to get a job offer from a Japanese company and come to work in Tokyo if I hadn’t taken Japanese classes in college.

So now you see why I feel uncomfortable when people call me multilingual. I was never aiming or dreaming to be able to function in 3 new and different languages. I picked them up because I had to. Even now I still have an accent in most of my languages and constantly encounter new words I don’t know. But I am happy that I have learned these languages, which opened many new doors and are helping me to see more of the world every day.

The only advice I can give people who want to learn a language is that, once you commit to it, you have to bring everything to it. The more time and energy you spend on it, the more you will get in return. It’s that simple. I am not an overly intelligent person and my background didn’t seem suited to language learning. If I can do it, so can you.


49. Saving Languages Online - Part 6/6: The Economics of Endangered

Yoh, the Systems Engineer for Sulantra.com, speaks four languages fluently: Mandarin, learned from elementary school, English started in secondary school, Japanese undertaken at university, and his mother tongue, a dialect of Sichuan that is barely understood a few kilometers from his hometown. He feels that, for young people today, the best motivation to study his first language would be an economic reason.

Although some educators may cringe at the idea, economic incentives to learn another language can be very effective. In Canada, I have friends working for the federal government who have spent untold hours learning one of our national languages in order to get a bilingual bonus. Another friend, a native English speaker from Yorkshire, learned Welsh as an adult and was able to secure a management position in a government agency in Wales. She was selected in favour of two local candidates thanks to her superior communication skills in Welsh.

The above are examples of an "instrumental motivation", learning a language to do something specific and, in this case, gain financial benefits. The promise of gainful employment can engage a community, particularly young people giving them a reason to investigate their culture, develop their language skills, and even remain in their homeland. This is long term, or "integrative motivation".

How can employment opportunities be developed for heritage cultures? An obvious possibility is through "ethno-tourism", or the introduction of one's heritage to outside visitors. In my travels to build Sulantra.com, I am frequently asked about native groups in North America. Hollywood has done an excellent job of piquing curiosity and, although the knowledge may be very distorted, there is genuine interest. Why not take advantage of this interest and open an online doorway to the community with the opportunity for direct experience? For example, in the e-Community Center described in blogpost 45, a space along the lines of "Get to know us better" could include the option of visiting the local community.

Opponents of this suggestion could argue it is "Disneyfication" of an indigenous culture and/or may prove costly. My rebuttal is that it needn't be plastic or expensive. Given the obvious interest of the visitor (after all, he or she did track down the community online), an ethno-tourist should be open to an authentic experience, such as a homestay or meeting with elders to ask questions and be educated.

You do not need to build an amusement park for ethno-tourists. Just offer a genuine experience in the community. Perhaps some components of a visit would be simulated, for example, accommodation in a traditional abode which locals have not used for decades. But it needn't be artificial and, if designed thoughtfully and combined with existing facilities, could be used to educate the young, contrasting traditional culture with the present, knowledge that everyone benefits from.

Another argument against an ethno-tourism approach is that, if successful, the number of visitors could overwhelm the community, possibly "corrupting" the social fabric and undermining the very culture the plan was intended to protect. A solution is to limit the number of visitors and the duration of their stay, something which the country of Bhutan presently does to protect its indigenous culture. The number of tourists waitlisted to visit this small country demonstrates that exclusivity has the potential for success.

With regard to "exclusivity", why not go one step further and reward ethno-tourists who have gone the extra mile? For example, dedicated travelers who have completed an online language course in the e-Community Center before their visit could be made an honorary member of the community. Or an ethno-tourist could be given an indigenous name by an elder at the end of the sojourn based on incidents and impressions of the visitor gleaned by guides, homestay families, etc.

The latter idea comes from personal experience. One month after beginning Chinese studies at university, our teacher assigned us Chinese names using her impressions of us in class. My cohort still addresses each other by these names almost forty years later. They come loaded with special memories and attach us to the target language culture like an umbilical cord.

In 1974, the Canadian government passed legislation requiring all those selling their wares in Canada to provide packaging, manuals, etc. in both French and English, Canada's official languages. In my childhood, I clearly remember reading the backs of cereal boxes and soup cans, comparing the French version with my native English. It may sound simplistic, but it helped motivate a young monolingual boy to learn français. Fascinated by the exotic words, I spent untold hours checking out any labels that crossed my path, and still surprise myself at the words I remember learned at a breakfast table in rural Alberta.

So why not legislate that all goods marketed in a heritage community include labelling that is in the heritage language? Because such a move is costly and some manufacturers might choose to bypass the region and sell their wares elsewhere. But there is an alternative that could allow for bilingual packaging, as well as create employment opportunities.

In Japan, goods are imported from around the world and, although tins, jars and boxes may have details written in English, Spanish or even Arabic, Japanese frequently does not make the cut. The solution? Sticky labels attached to original packaging with information given in Japanese. Why not do the same for heritage languages? Relatively inexpensive, these labels require translation skills that generate income for the translators (i.e. an economic need for fluency in the heritage language) and could encourage community members of all ages to literally look at their language again.

The possibilities for economic advancement of a heritage language are there to be explored. All it takes is some brainstorming, investigation of existing efforts by individuals, groups or governments to strengthen the use of their language, and a pro-active attitude to resuscitate the heart of one's heritage.

(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!)