Learning a language – It’s too hard for me!

Posted on | November 30, 2013 | 1 Comment

(Based on a true story)

A Canadian-born Chinese girl appealed to her mother: “Mom, I don’t want to learn Chinese.”

Her mother said, “Look, we are Chinese. You must learn the Chinese language!”

The girl replied, “But it is too hard for me!”

Her mother gave out the final verdict, “No matter what, you have to learn it!”

Later on the same day, the mother brought the girl’s French homework to the father for help. The father said, “Why don’t you learn some French?”

The mother replied, “Are you kidding? It is too hard for me!”

Accelerative Integrated Method

Posted on | July 25, 2013 | 6 Comments

“It is a wonderful system. Kids love it! Not a single word of English from day one. You cannot imagine how fast they can progress. Kids are already reading materials that are 2 levels above them. There is a grade 6 student who did her research work, completely in French. All parents are happy. The schools are already replacing their core French programs with AIM”.

I was interviewing this candidate to help out in our summer camp. I already heard about AIM and the good reviews that come with it. But whatever this AIM teacher was selling me, my gut-feeling is that – it is too good to be true. She was basically claiming that AIM is the ultimate solution to the problem.

Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM) is a foreign language teaching methodology that uses gestures to help students learn. When you watch an AIM teacher teaching her class, you will see everybody doing a lot sign language as they speak. Basically, there is a sign for every word. Judging from the reviews, this method seems promising.

But I do have problems with some claims this teacher made. She claimed that AIM students perform the same if not better than French Immersion students. I thought to myself, no way! I don’t have any proof to refute her. But common sense tells us that if you spend only a few hours a week in the language, there is no way that you can become better than those who spend hours every day in the language . If this turns out to be true, I can only say there must be something wrong with the implementation of French Immersion. One thing I agree with her is that French Immersion students sacrifice time from learning English, whereas AIM students don’t.

Another claim she made is that it is very effective to build up their French using their existing English knowledge, since both languages have similar linguistic structures and vocabulary. I am not sure if this is something that comes with AIM. My impression is that AIM, like TPR, attempts to bypass our native language by using gestures and signs, so that we understand the message without translating it in our brains. Anything that triggers our native language is going to slow down the process.

I did not hire this teacher at the end, not because of her claims. She was simply over-qualified. I was just looking for an assistant helper for our camp. Overall it was a helpful session to me to learn about AIM from someone working in the field.

Serving the Russian community

Posted on | July 21, 2013 | 3 Comments

Another 7 months have passed since my last post. Time flies. Last few months have been really life-changing to me and my wife. We have opened a school.

My wife has this dream of opening a Montessori school for many years. We are not rich and don’t have much experience running a business. So for a long time we had been scouting around looking for some small and inexpensive daycare business to take over. We finally found one last October. It was a licensed after-school daycare business which only opened in the afternoon during weekdays. We thought it has potentials to expand its operational hours and we could eventually start some Montessori programs in the morning time.

Here is one problem though. The owner of the school was Russian, and naturally all the parents and students are Russians. But we are not.

Almost all the people who heard that we were going to take over a Russian school thought that we are crazy. I believe the previous owners were expecting some Russians to take over their business, and not a Chinese couple. To make the story short. We went ahead and purchased the business. We officially took over the school on the 1st of May.

How are we going to keep the Russian students with us? We don’t have the confidence but we do have some plans. Many people advised us that we might as well start anew and forget about the existing students.

But who would be our new target customers? The mainstream community? Who are the mainstream community anyway? In fact, it could be dangerous to go for the mainstream community (if there is such one clearly defined). A lot of public schools have started to provide cheap after-school programs, and more are coming. They are serving the mainstream community. Our after-school program has to be somehow special.

I scouted around the areas and combed through Russian magazines and newspapers, as well as Russian community directories both online and offline (yes, they are all in Russian). There seem to be only a handful of licensed Russian after-school programs around the area. This seems like a niche market, and so we have decided to keep the existing students. Not only so, but we want to improve the service. I have this hope that one day it will become a well-known Russian school in the area. Yes, crazy idea, I know.

There are two main reasons I brought this up here in my blog. Firstly, it is my update which I owe to my readers (if there are still any left). During these few months, I have also been thinking a lot on multiculturalism and its true meaning here in Toronto. Since multiculturalism is a main theme of this blog, I am hoping to share them in the near future. Secondly, as a startup business, we are facing many difficulties and must make many crucial decisions. I humbly need ideas and opinions from my readers.

My first question to my readers: if you were me, would you keep the existing students, or start targeting new customer segments?

The Elephant of Language Learning

Posted on | December 22, 2012 | 6 Comments

Is there a best way to learn languages? This has been the ultimate question discussed endlessly on the Internet. Even though the Internet polyglots, when “hanging out” together, would tell us there is no best way, in their own blogs and YouTube channels, they would share what they think is the best way. So is there a best way or not? I believe there is.

Read more

The Internet Polyglot Phenomenon

Posted on | December 15, 2012 | 5 Comments

There are the polyglots who speak multiple languages. There are the language learners who try to become them. Then there are those who just love watching people talking about language learning.

There is nothing inherently wrong about people making videos on the Internet speaking multiple languages trying to help and motivate other language learners. What I observe in reality is that people, including my past-self, tend to indulge in watching these individuals, and we would be doing nothing but to watch them and talk about them online, engaging in those never-ending discussions on “what is the best way to learn languages” and  “who speaks how many languages fluently”.

In recent months, the Internet polyglots like to get together and conduct lengthy interviews and discussions together on language learning. A typical conclusion that comes out of these discussions would be: “There is just no best way. Follow your intuition and pick the best approach that suits you.” Now, thanks for the advice!

Pause for a moment and ask yourself how much time you have spent on watching and listening to all these multilingual medleys of monologues, dialogues, interviews, discussions, and hangouts. How about the time you have spent on ‘discussing’ language learning in the forums? Compare this with the amount of time you have actually spent on working on the languages. Now can you see why you are making slow progress?

Do you just want to talk about learning languages, or are you willing to put in some real effort to learn them?

2012 Updates

Posted on | December 8, 2012 | 2 Comments

It has been a while!

It is now near the end of the year (or end of the world to some). I think it is a good time to post some updates.

Perhaps I should first explain why I have not posted for so long. There are a few reasons. Other than the usual ‘busy’ reason, for a non-natural writer like myself, I found writing posts quite time-consuming. Then I somehow found myself losing incentive of writing. I found the whole Internet language learning community gradually geared towards the worship of some ‘polyglots’. Everybody would spent a lot of time talking about these few individuals and no one would talk about language learning or their own journeys. I probably need another post on this.

As for my own journey, here are some highlights in the past 15 months or so.

Let me start from my Brazilian mission. I spent on-and-off a total of nine weeks in São Paulo last summer. It was a wonderful experience, both language-wise and culture-wise. I still miss the place and its people.

Then in September, I needed to revive my French, as my daughter was entering a French-immersion school. I was actually more nervous than her.

October was a month of French and Spanish for me. I attended a French meetup in downtown Toronto and I had a memorable evening there.

Then I declared November a Spanish month. I tried to attend one or two Spanish meetups, but the experience was not good at all.

In December, I learned that I would not be going back to Brazil anymore. At that time, I already felt my Portuguese deteriorating. So I set up a plan in attempt to keep up with the language in the coming few months.

In the first few months of this year, I found myself very much distracted by this whole polyglot phenomenon. I knew it was not doing me any good, but it was unfortunately quite addicting.

At the end of May, I spent 3 weeks in Melbourne, Australia for work. I went to a Spanish meetup. I had chance to talk to a few individuals and the experience was not bad.

In August, I and my family spent a few days in Montreal, and I had a chance (again) to put my French in real use.

My project at work started to heat up in September and I had been doing a lot of overtime since then. But then in October, I decided to start learning Russian! This was a rather shocking decision, even to myself. There is a growing Russian community in my neighbouring suburb. For a reason I would explain hopefully in a future post, I find a real need to socialize more with this community.

I spent another 2 weeks in Melbourne in November and just got back last week. Nothing much on my language learning over there except spending a night on Verbling with a Spaniard talking about the economic crisis.

I hope to post more in the future to talk about each highlight above. I know this is not the first time I said this, but I really have a lot of things I want to share.

Treated as a Local

Posted on | July 9, 2011 | 10 Comments

Here in São Paulo, I am often treated as a local, and I don’t even need to pretend to be one. I am not sure whether I am ‘mistaken’ or this is just the way they treat foreigners.

Other than the people who know me, when I come into contact with a local, I am assumed local by default. Even after talking to me and recognize my very foreign Portuguese, they would still speak to me in Portuguese. There is simply no option to speak English. I don’t have this common problem of locals not wanting to practice their language with me. The only place I speak English is in the office and at the hotel reception (the only people in the hotels who can speak English are the receptionists).

I arrived in the city 4 weeks ago and have been staying here for 3 weeks (I went back home for a week). During this time, I was twice asked for directions and twice pulled into instant conversations on the street.

The latest incidence just happened today. I was walking down the street and a homeless dude suddenly jumped right in front of me and started scolding at me. I have seen homeless people here trying to ‘join’ conversations with the pedestrians, so it seemed something quite common. He was yelling so fast that the only word I heard him repeating was ‘Japonês’. So I told him I didn’t understand what he was saying and I am not a Japanese, but he continued. I waiting for my turn to cross the street and left him behind.

Another funny thing is that sometimes even my colleagues would speak Portuguese to me by accident. At one time, my boss dropped by with a serious look after meeting with the customer. Then he started to explain the situation to me, but in Portuguese. I gave him a blank look. Then he repeated what he said. So I gave him another longer blank look. Then he suddenly realized what he was doing.

How Reading Helps in an Immersion Environment

Posted on | June 19, 2011 | 6 Comments

As soon as I stepped out of the plane and into São Paulo for the first time, I was surprised how much Portuguese I could read.

This is partially helped by my knowledge in French and Spanish. But I believe the main reason is that before I came, I worked on reading a lot. I read Portuguese documents from work, a few short novels, as well as studied conversation transcriptions from BrazilPod. At the same time, I build my in-context vocabulary using LingQ and Anki.

Being able to understand what is written around me makes my São Paulo stay so much comfortable. I don’t have any difficulty reading street signs and warnings, getting around the city by Metro, and understanding restaurant menus. I can also understand TV programs and ads well with the help of words popping up on the screen. If I were to use the typical self-study method to learn the language before I came, namely, work on conversation practices and vocabulary lists, I would have to trade off my time working on reading, and I would not be able to read as much Portuguese as I can now.

The soonest I make myself comfortable living in a foreign place, the soonest I can gain the full potential of interacting with the locals. I am glad to find myself comfortably living in this city within the first week of arriving, thanks to the ability to understand the surroundings.

We Don’t Speak English Here

Posted on | June 16, 2011 | 7 Comments

At my very first dinner in São Paulo, I asked the waiter if he spoke English. He replied ‘não’ with a cold face, as if I was ordering something off the menu. There was nothing wrong with him, just me.

Most people in São Paulo don’t speak English, and they are not ashamed of it. There is nothing wrong with them, just the foreigners who cannot speak their language. I kind of like this attitude.

Today, my colleague back in Toronto was shocked to receive from our Brazilian client a document all written in Portuguese. It was just a set of simple instructions to access their computer network, with screenshots. I told him to use Google Translate, but he insisted on having the document translated into English.

So I relayed the request to my Brazilian colleague, who replied with frustration, “Can’t he use Google Translate?!” He added that the Brazilians have to use English inconveniently when dealing with us. Can’t we be more considerate? Besides, the two languages are not totally incomprehensible between each other.

I really felt for him. Why do so many people expect others around the world to speak English? I don’t refer to just English native speakers. Many non-English native speakers also expect other people to speak English to them.

This is only my first week in the city, and I already appreciate many locals I met here who insist on speaking to me in Portuguese, even though I am not very conversational in the language.

The Importance of Understanding

Posted on | June 14, 2011 | 15 Comments

Without understanding what the other person says, what you say does not matter. There is no conversation.

Most people would agree on this point. But yet some people will still think that you should try to converse in a foreign language as early as possible. What they fail to realize, I believe, is that it takes a lot of work to understand a foreign language, especially if the language remotely resembles your own.

I started learning Portuguese less than 4 months ago. Most of the work I did was input-related. I read and listened to comprehensible content. After I arrived here in São Paulo, I find that I can understand much more than if I were to split my learning between input and output.

To me, speaking to the locals is not really that difficult. The key is to understand what is said to me first. If I understand, simple responses like ‘sure’, “that’s fine”, or “I agree” are often sufficient. If I don’t understand, I become nervous. I would even stumble asking the person to repeat.

I always puzzle why some people would suggest others to engage in conversation with native speakers as early as possible. If you can understand the other person, perhaps because the target language is similar to yours, that is fine. If not, why on earth would you try to say something to someone without any hope of understanding the response. Are you trying to show off or what?

Understand first before being understood. I think the logic is as simple as that.

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