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!)