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!


53. An ASEAN Affair

I fell in love when I was 19. Having traveled little up to that point, I suddenly found myself in the outback of Malaysia on an exchange program, Canada World Youth (see blogpost 10). Absolutely everything was foreign: the heat was suffocating, my western clothes were too tight, the food melted my palate. The beginning of this affair was definitely not auspicious.

Malaysian customs were bewildering. Even basic greetings were radically different with firm, 2-handed shakes between men and a whispered glide across right palms when meeting women. Cultural information had to be learned the hard way - on the street. There were no quick Internet searches in those days. But gradually I was seduced and after six months dreaded the idea of returning home. I didn't want to leave this land where all of my senses seemed on edge and alive. As with all love affairs, nothing would be the same again.

I returned to Canada and pursued my original plan of attending university in Ottawa. But my head and heart were still in Malaysia. I tethered myself to the exotic world I had left behind by finding a part-time job at the Malaysian High Commission (see blogpost 14) and sharing a flat with Indonesian students. After class, I would hurry home, slip into a sarong, and eat curry while chattering with my roommates. I now know that I was suffering from "reverse culture shock", but this lopsided lifestyle seemed crucial to my sanity.

At the end of a year in Ottawa, where I had been majoring in Journalism, I realized that all of my assignments were focused on Malaysia. So I faced reality, packed up my bags and headed to the University of British Columbia where I changed my major to Southeast Asia Area Studies (see blogpost 17). As it turned out, I was the first student at UBC to select this major and the program was a shambles, a pastiche of courses glued together from various departments with no coordination. In my last year, of the nine classes offered seven were unavailable due to professors on sabbatical - and the remaining two courses were given at the same time!

But the classes I did manage to enrol in were fascinating. Countries that I had never been to were brought to life by teachers, such as Hugh Wilson, who mesmerized me with his knowledge of Cambodia. The country had mutated from being a tropical Eden, one of the most educated and sophisticated cultures whose ancestors had built the exquisite Angkor Wat, into a veritable Hell on earth. First, sucked into the vortex of the Vietnam War, it was now being brutalized by Pol Pot, a French-educated engineer who seemed determined to destroy his homeland.

Yet the stories my professor told of a gentle, refined people resonated. Despite the horrors, I wanted to witness this land for myself. As things turned out, I have had several opportunities to visit Cambodia, not only Angkor Wat, but villages without electricity where the children walk barefoot for kilometres to attend one-room schools. They are eager to learn and I believe their spirit holds the key to rebuilding this beautiful country.

Such is the nature of Southeast Asia. For better or worse, the area is constantly altering. Ancient animosities color relations between radically different neighbours. Beneath the tropical canopy exists a mosaic of cultural values imbued by a potpourri of religions, economic systems and languages that may have no thread of similarity. Cross the border and you enter unknown territory.

At 19, I learned this firsthand when I took a train from Kelantan, Malaysia on the east side of the Malay peninsula to Kedah on the west coast, a trip which required several hours of travel through the southernmost provinces of Thailand. We got off our high speed train in Kelantan, passed through the border check then boarded a steam engine to continue on through dense vegetation. As our train puffed through small villages, women would rush alongside holding baskets filled with homemade snacks for sale. My Malay was passable, but when I asked about the contents of the banana leaf-wrapped packages I was met with blank stares. These Thai villagers had no idea what I was saying.

Over the years, I keep returning to this region as fascinated by the people and places as when I was a young man. I have visited Thailand numerous times and now count several locals among my close friends. I spent a week in a refugee center for Vietnamese boat people high in the mountains of Luzon in the Philippines, sympathizing with compassionate Filipino staff as they agonized over how to tell the last remaining occupants that their camp was about to close and they would be homeless once again. I have shared a communal meal - one spoon and one bowl for everyone - with a family in rural Laos. I even spent a month recuperating from illness in Brunei General Hospital. I can now survive in four official languages in the region and want to study the rest.

Which brings me to my language learning website, Sulantra.com. We already have Thai, Khmer and Chinese courses available and, with a little luck and funding, hope to include the remaining ASEAN languages in the future. When we upload a new tongue it goes in as both a language to learn and to learn from. Imagine being able to study Thai from Burmese, or bahasa Indonesia from Vietnamese. With our unique delivery platform this is possible.

The countries of this region are getting ready to embark on an imaginative experiment. Under the umbrella of the ASEAN Economic Community, ten countries in the region intend to create one integrated zone for their citizens by 2015. This EU-like step will mean a greatly increased flow of people across borders as they pursue economic interests and a better life. How smoothly transitions will take place depends on the interaction between new arrivals and the communities they enter. There will be ups and downs, and the need for open dialogue - communication - between peoples is essential.

So which language is the best for ASEAN members to interact in? Some travelers to Southeast Asia say that English will suffice. I disagree. From my experience, I feel the best language for communication is that of the country you are in. In the case of ASEAN, as newcomers arrive on neighbouring doorsteps, they should learn the local language. With it will come knowledge of the culture. In a perfect world, local inhabitants would also attempt to learn the language of their visitors. Any effort to cross the linguistic and cultural divides of the region shows an understanding of new realities and, perhaps more importantly, demonstrates respect.

The countries of Southeast Asia have seeped into my soul. I love to return to old haunts, reminiscing about what was and marvelling at the never ending changes. I feel privileged to have caught the last vestiges of a vanishing world, to have tasted the exotic delicacies wrapped in a banana leaf passed through the window of a steam-driven train by a vendor clutching her basket.

But there is no point in pining for the palm trees of a postcard past. Like the recurring waves of a tsunami, change will inevitably sweep across the region with the approaching ASEAN integration. I can only hope these waves are manageable, their impact reduced through communication at all levels of society. As they say in Malaysia, “Selamat jalan.” – I wish you a safe journey!

(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!)


52. Brain Benefits for Older Language Learners

I recently took a group of seven participants to Sichuan to test their communication skills after 20 hours of studying Chinese both online and in the classroom. I run these survival courses once or twice a year for research purposes (see blogposts 33, 34 and 35) to confirm how quickly you can get someone communicating on the street in a new language, as well as to determine a change in participants' attitudes about themselves as language learners.

In Sichuan, apart from typical onsite tasks, such as using local transportation or bargaining in the marketplaces of Chengdu, we also climbed Mount Emei, a World Heritage site, to watch the sun rise slowly over a sea of clouds in the valley below. The view was magnificent but the climb to the summit was, frankly, hell. Slipping on ice and snow in sub-freezing temperatures while asking for directions in Chinese, I kept thinking, "You are getting too old for this craziness."

In a few months time, I will turn 60. Although I still feel like a kid (and generally act like one), the harsh reality is my joints are beginning to feel the years of wear and tear. Climbing Mount Emei brought this home. At one point, I slipped and slammed my knee into a tree trunk resulting in a limp for the remainder of my visit with a very bruised leg and ego!
I suppose the same can be said for my language learning efforts. Years ago people would praise my ability to seemingly pick up a new tongue after a few days overseas in the company of locals. Now I watch some of my brighter students breeze past in my survival language courses as I struggle to keep up. Sure, I can communicate but it definitely takes more effort than in the past.

Despite the Emei episode, I still see myself learning languages and testing communication skills far into the future (although perhaps in less treacherous terrain!). I find it exhilarating to watch insecure students "blossom" over a few weeks, becoming more independent and confident in their ability to function in a new language. And I still get an adrenalin rush when I put myself to the test and successfully complete onsite tasks with my students. Age does not eradicate one's desire – and ability – to learn a language (see blogpost 26).

There is another reason why older individuals should take up the study of a second language: apparently it benefits your brain.

There are numerous studies, particularly in the field of neuroscience, that suggest learning a second language maintains brain health, possibly even restructuring your brain. Not only does learning a new language evidently delay the onset of age-related mental diminishment, such as memory loss, but changes in the brain’s electrical activity seem to occur from the outset of learning a new language, good news if you are senior and want to get those neurons firing.

In the past, it was believed that after reaching puberty, your brain "hardened" and for most people it was impossible to truly learn another language. More recently, studies into the phenomenon of phantom limbs accidentally revealed that the brain does not harden but, in fact, remains plastic throughout our lives and can benefit from ongoing mental activity, such as learning another language.

On the other hand, to achieve the utmost gain, such language study requires specific conditions, including the recycling and expansion of content, as well as the need for learners to focus on the material they are studying. In other words, review must be built in, for example, in a spiraling format, while learners should definitely not multi-task when they study. (Turn off your cell phone!)

Another condition for training one's brain is the length of time for each study session. Research suggests that the maximum period a brain can effectively input information before losing focus is 100 minutes. My own experience with online language training using my website, Sulantra.com, suggests computer-based learning time should be reduced to about 60 minutes, the apparent limit of my attention span.

In many ways, maintaining your brain's vitality is a lot like developing your physical condition. As the saying goes, use it or lose it. Training sessions should be frequent, regular and relatively short. Saving yourself for a multi-hour training blitz on the weekend cannot be compared to 30 minutes of focused, intense training each day. The practice time may be the same but the results are definitely not.

One more factor comes into play when studying a language online, your brain’s chemistry. We find it easier to maintain interest if there is a little "thrill" added to the study format induced by the chemical dopamine. This is easy to achieve online (just look at gamers as they zap their way through attacking aliens). Getting language learners wired with a dopamine boost can be as simple as bells and flashing lights after each successful user attempt. You hear, see and feel your progress. And, hopefully, with pleasure comes perseverance.

The field of neuroscience is fascinating with new data being published all the time about the impact of learning a language on your brain’s health. Do an online search using key words like "brain", "benefits" and "multilingualism", and you’ll see what I mean.

When I started building Sulantra.com my reasons were simple. I wanted an online language learning website my older family members could use with ease. I was thinking of one aunt who wanted Polish to deal with her in-laws, another who wanted Swahili so that she could venture to Tanzania and watch wildebeests trekking across the Veldt, and my mother who was attracted to French, the native tongue of her favorite teacher in school (see blogpost 1). Sadly some of these family members are now experiencing brain deterioration or have passed away.

As I contemplate the end of six decades of life's adventures, I realize that the chief benefactor of my website may ultimately be me. I envision years of continued language study and, hopefully, travel to places where I can test my communication skills. And while learning new languages online, I will not only continue to make the most of life, but likely be improving the health of my brain. Definitely an excellent reason for lifelong language learning.

Now if only I could remember where I put that computer mouse?

(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!)


51. Tokyo 2020 - English? An Olympic hurdle!

The day after Tokyo was declared winner of the 2020 summer Olympics, I arrived at work to find teachers huddled around the morning newspaper animatedly discussing the event. There was speculation about venues for specific sports, where new facilities would be built, even how the university might involve our students in preparations leading up to 2020. Then one of my more perceptive colleagues pointed out that, without some command of English, everyone would be left by the wayside. Last in the race so to speak.

Then I threw another wrench into the works. Given the range of tourists from abroad who attend the Olympics, maybe our students would have a better chance at the jobs generated by such international events if they focused on languages other than English, for example, Chinese or Russian. I wasn't joking.

Many travelers believe they can tour the globe surviving on "Long time, no see" broken English. This can be a huge mistake. In most countries where English is not a first language, if you REALLY want to go off the beaten track and interact with locals, you need some of their language. Making the effort to learn even a few basic phrases will create a great impression and increase the odds that you will understand and be understood. This is definitely the case in Japan.

Visitors to Japan are often shocked at how difficult it is to get by in English. Even university graduates who have majored in the language and are theoretically able to speak it, may not grasp the simplest phrases. Part of the problem is geographical. As an island country, the opportunity for the average Japanese to use another language has traditionally been limited. Another hurdle is that English classes focus on tests resulting in learners who won't take chances. Make a mistake and you fail!

Then there is the Japanese language itself. It uses consonant-vowel combinations (“ka-ki-ku-ke-ko”) and is missing some key English phonemes. There is no distinction between "r" and "l", "th" comes out as "s" or "z", and there are only five vowel sounds. Stress and intonation can be almost non-existent. It is frighteningly difficult for Japanese to understand and be understood when "This is the wrong road." sounds like "Zisu izu za longu lodo."

What can be done? To my way of thinking, the onus is on the traveler to learn some of the vernacular of his or her destination BEFORE boarding an airplane. It doesn't take a monumental effort to pick up key terms for ordering breakfast or taking a bus. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many of the visitors to my home show up having made absolutely no effort to learn the simplest of Japanese phrases. I refer to these troublesome tourists as "babysitting duty".

Tokyo Metro's subway map

Is it so hard to get around Japan with only English? Imagine you can't order food in a restaurant; the taxi driver doesn't understand where you want to go; the bar you end up in gives you whiskey when you asked for saké. If you're lost, you can't even get directions back to your hotel. The above scenarios are not fantasies but based on actual events which my guests have encountered.

So why not learn a little "nihongo" online? A quick Google search will deluge you with sites for studying Japanese from English. If you want an effective and inexpensive course, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack! But if you don't speak English, options drop dramatically. Try searching for Japanese courses from Thai or Bulgarian. The slim pickings are often lists of words in isolation or mind-numbing grammar tables better suited to math tutorials.

No matter which language you study from, many online courses are simply old-school textbooks transferred to the Internet with buttons and bells added to make them "interactive". This glitter comes at a price. My pet peeve is websites with a well-designed, 1-minute "teaser" to seduce users into signing up for an inferior product. If only the same care had been taken with the rest of the website's content.

Another frustrating fixture of the language training scene are dinosaur products that require you buy overpriced software to access so-called "free" apps. Sounds like someone needs a new business model. As Bill Gates predicted in a 2005 memo, direct downloads have become the norm, making packaged software obsolete.

At this point, I'll plug my own language training website, Sulantra.com. We knew that we were developing an online product from the outset and created complete, straightforward courses that focus on doing specific tasks. We want to give everyone a chance to learn a new language so our 3-hour starter course is free. Best of all, we use ourselves as guinea pigs for all of our courses to make sure they are effective and keep us awake!

Of course, users are not fluent after a Sulantra course. Making speeches at the UN requires years of study and language learning products that promise fluency in one day/week/month are ludicrous, while "sound like a native speaker" is based more on brain chemistry than mental agility. Sure there are rare cases of adults who are able to perfectly imitate the sounds of a new language almost immediately, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most adult learners will never sound exactly like a native speaker. And why should they unless they are thinking of a career in espionage? Having an accent in a new language does not destroy one's ability to communicate. Just ask Sofia Vergara in Modern Family!

Back to Japan hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics. Friends of friends have already begun hinting about "a place to stay" during the festivities. The line is forming; however, I am seriously considering my own elimination round. Study Japanese on Sulantra.com and show me your certificate obtained at the end of the course. Then there may be space for you on my tatami. No more babysitting, eh?

(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!)