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!


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!)