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!


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 fran├žais. 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!)

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