Kiss the babies

Kids can be energetic and unpredictable--why not say "hi"?
Kids can be energetic and unpredictable–why not say “hi”?

The boy points at the baker’s case full of cake and cookies. His mother gazes with deliberate focus behind the counter, which leads the seven-year-old to tap her face in the direction of the sweets. She grimaces as she pushes the hand down.

For the moment her younger children occupy themselves, but she can only count on them not seeing the sweets for so long. In a preemptive act, she buys three muffins, yet her oldest escalates by raising the urgency of his voice and grabbing her face—which now begins to bear a look of defeat. Continue reading “Kiss the babies”

The best school for polyglots

Students at the Wellstone Int'l High School (from their website)
Students at the Wellstone Int’l High School (from their website)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Wellstone International High School, the coolest, most exciting high school I’ve ever seen, of whose students I will remain eternally jealous. I heard multiple languages as I was shown the school, and had the chance to speak Somali, Spanish, and Arabic—but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak French with the Haitian student.

As I was leaving, a retired teacher said to me, “I envy you.” I replied to him, “You envy me?! You got to come here for work! This is the best place to work I’ve ever seen!” The school sets the standard for what global education can and should be.
The best global education

Keeping up the other languages: A six (five and a half?) language week!

As a polyglot I get to talk to all sorts of people!
As a polyglot I get to talk to all sorts of people!

Yes, I’m focusing on learning the Somali language. Somali takes the majority of my linguistic time and energy. But speaking lots of languages makes me a polyglot—and that brings me so much joy. This week I got to talk to old friends, discover great music, and meet new people. Though I haven’t had much time for more than the bare minimum of Somali, here’s how I worked on my languages this week.
My polyglot week

Six ways to get out of the expat bubble

I bet you could practice your language with someone here!
I bet you could practice your language with someone here!

When you go abroad to learn a language, how do you make sure that you’re learning the language? Many people travel with the hope that they will “absorb” the language, and then find that this process does not unfold by itself. Many people get lonely and make friends with the folks they have the most in common with: expats. They quickly get stuck the trap of speaking their native language while abroad rather than the language they’re learning.

How do you get unstuck?

When I visited Spain in college, I had a chance to visit Pamplona for the Sanfermin Festival (the “Running of the Bulls”). In one bar I met a local girl, and we chatted in Spanish. She told me she spent a year in the US—yet she never tried to speak English with me. Surely after a year in the US, she would speak better English than my self-taught Spanish, right?

“Where did you live?” I asked.

“Miami,” she replied.

That explained it! She lived in the US without speaking English.

What could she have done differently? What can you do differently while abroad?
6 ways to get unstuck

Lose your accent! Making the guttural “r” (German & French)

With an eye on your uvula you can pronounce this sound
With an eye on your uvula you can pronounce this sound

Improve your pronunciation of “r” in French and German! Richard explains how to position your tongue and control your breath to make this sound correctly. In this video I explain how to position your tongue and control your breath to make this sound correctly. These are the methods that I used to teach myself how to make this sound back in the day.

Many people get overwhelmed with the idea of sounding like a native in studying a foreign language. Speaking with an accent seems like a normal state. However, with a few tips on being aware of how our mouth makes sounds, a little concentration can produce great results. I made this video series to show you how to increase your awareness of all the parts of your speaking apparatus.

You can sound like a native in any language. Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Speaking a language feels wonderful as you work to move your mouth like a native.

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.


Photo credit: Evil Erin via / CC BY

Know story, know language; no story no language: Stories in the linguistic ecosystem

How can we come together over the language barrier?
How can we come together over the language barrier?

While I continued to talk, I was losing my train of thought. What had I said? What was coming next?

When was this going to be over?

As my face got hot and my chest tightened, I looked out at blank faces of my 17-year-old classmates.

“Est-ce que vous me comprenez?” “Do you understand me?”

Surprised by a direct question, one or two audience-members brightened. “Oui!” I heard.

How soon could I be done with this book report?

* * *

Every student gets nervous presenting in front of the class; mine was in a foreign language. I was delivering my part of a French book-report—French book, French report—on Voltaire’s “Candide.” Stumbling around, I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike: a few good pedals, then a wobble, pedal, wobble—ready to tumble at any time. I had to plumb the depth of Voltaire’s French language, and express it in French in a compelling way.

Finally, my speech was over. I knew my teacher would be merciful, but how about my classmates? At the end, one girl consoled me, “Yours was kind of more interesting, since you spoke without just reading your report.” I wasn’t equipped to even grasp that comment: was that a big deal or a consolation? Was she being nice, or expressing honest relief?

Over 20 years later I still ask myself, “Did I make any sense at all?”

Confronting the language barrier

Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension

Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty
Exploring complexity leads to experiencing beauty

Languages bring me into a world I do not understand and reveal complexities I never imagined. Sometimes I feel like Darwin in the Galapagos. Study and observation bring me joy, and when I immerse myself in these complex phenomena, I discover deeper truths. The more complexity, the more beauty, even if comprehension eludes me. And exploring the facets of language lead me to the subtle dynamics of the culture around it. Continue reading “Week 14 of Loving Somali: Beauty beyond comprehension”

Week 13 of Loving Somali: Am I my brother’s teacher?

The teacher watches as the student struggles--and learns.
The teacher watches as the student struggles—and learns.

Good teachers don’t mind watching students struggle. Some even purposely cause their students to struggle. When it is time for the student to progress, the teacher pushes the student ruthlessly until the student gets to the next level. The student may not believe in himself or herself, but the teacher does, and so opposes the stubborn self-doubt of the student. As my brilliant 7th grade math teacher, Ms. Leona Penner, said, “Patience is for the birds.” This award-winning teacher believed that coddling students prevented them from reaching their potential. Learning requires struggling through discomfort, and the only comfort comes from inevitable progress that results from struggle.

Continue reading “Week 13 of Loving Somali: Am I my brother’s teacher?”

More young language lovers

How do we help kids love language?
How do we help kids love language?

Last week we got to visit some of our friends, and I discovered another young, aspiring polyglot.  His name is Nicholas (funny that the other young language-lover I blogged about is named Nico, short for Nicholas) and he’s 7 years old.  Since he still wakes up at an ungodly hour, his parents bought him Rosetta Stone Spanish for him to work one while everyone else is sleeping.

But Spanish is boring to him because “everyone else” learns Spanish.  He wants to learn something that not so many people are learning, like Norwegian or Aramaic.  (When I asked him if he prefers Ancient or Modern Aramaic, he said Ancient.)  Like me, he prefers the obscure language.

What resources are there?  I recommended Nico’s favorite website,  Here you can find trivia about 600 or so languages.  The author has created some silly cartoons in various languages.  There is a lot of information about writing systems, too.  Since Youtube is not safe for kids without adult supervision, Omniglot’s videos are nice to have.

I wonder what becomes of American children who love languages.  Fortunately, his dad loves learning smatterings of languages and delving into the uniqueness of various cutlures.  But I don’t know about other kids.  Our society does not offer them many resources or rewards for following their passion.  How often have you seen a child start speaking a non-native language to someone?  Other than heritage speakers, I haven’t seen it.  Does anyone have ideas to help keep Nicholas motivated?

I also read this article from Language magazine, called “From the Mouth of Babes” (Language, Angelika Putintseva,  Ms Putintseva is striving to offer an environment for small children to be exposed to and speaking multiple languages in her WorldSpeak Language Center daycares.  The article states that kids can learn and speak Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, and English.  The education focuses on relationships and daily interactions rather than drills and exercises–the natural way that children learn languages.  Ms Putintseva eventually hopes to expand this into a K-5 school.

I researched the school a bit, and a Russian-speaking friend of mine visited the daycare. Maybe some of the article may be too good to be true.  The article was written by Ms Putintseva herself, so it may not be as objective as it could be.  The school is not large, around 20 or so students, though I don’t know if those numbers are just for one campus or for both.  I’m not sure if the French and Chinese programs are still running.  Some on-line reviews (take them for what they’re worth) complain about moving teachers around between campuses arbitrarily.  The program thus may not be as successful as it appears.

Assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I am on the balance happy that this daycare exists because we need places for people to socialize in multiple languages, even if just in pockets.  I’m pleased that someone is trying to create an atmosphere where people can learn languages like this.  I believe that something like this for adults is also necessary.  Groups of multilingual folks exist where they socialize in and teach each other languages, but they are not so well known.  They are a hobby get-together, not a widely-available teaching resource.

What are ways that we can get children more comfortable with a multilingual environment?  even fluent in multiple languages? What are ways we can engage those who are already enthralled with languages?

Photo credit: Julie70 / / CC BY-NC-SA

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Language, fear, and childishness

Courage comes from recognizing fear

Languages have made me braver.  Here’s how I was before I got into languages.  In high school, I tended to sit at the back of the class.  I was smart and I knew the answer most of the time.  I didn’t study much, but I got good grades.  I didn’t take risks.  I didn’t do anything that had a try-out, like sports or performing groups.  I joined the Concert Choir because my friends were in it and they were desperate for boys.  I didn’t like to compete, so I dropped out of band and debate.  I was into fencing for a couple years, but when my coach pushed me to compete more, I dropped out.  Standing out in a group and failing terrified me, so I got out.

I excelled in languages like other academic subjects–but then I went to France as an exchange student my approach to risk-taking changed.  In the beginning, I continued my MO, so in my host family, I was able to sit quietly at meal-time, and then disappear to my room.  On my first day of school, however, I had to change fast.

I was lost.  We had to copy down our class schedule as our teacher explained it–it was not pre-printed–and my French was not so great.  I had to ask a charitable classmate for help.  So I got through the introductory “lesson.”  On the actual first day of school, I couldn’t find my first class, and I was wandering around–the new kid on the After School Special.  Palms sweating I had to ask a teacher for directions, but perhaps because of my brusqueness, she kept on walking.  At this rate, I was going to fail from not showing up.

A change of tactics was necessary.  I stopped and said to myself, “I will be in France 5 months.  In that time, if I sound like an intelligent 5-year-old, I will have succeeded.  Heck, it takes French people five years to get to that point!”  At that, I approached the next teacher I could find, explained my situation extremely slowly and deliberately, and she led me by the hand (literally) to the office to get my schedule and to my first class, already in session for a while.

What did I learn?  I saw that fear would not get me what I needed.  Taking a deep breath, admitting my childishness, and jumping into the water of French language would get me where I wanted to go.  I sounded childish and foolish, I had to stand out, and I succeeded as a result.  I had to keep at it.  After those months, I became fluent in French because I got used to being afraid of sounding dumb–and overlooked the fear to get to my goal.  I don’t think I overcame fear; I learned to set it aside.

Fast forward a few years when I started school in Kiev, Ukraine, and confronted fear and failure again.  Though I was a high-school senior in France, I was a college junior in Kiev.  On most days, I would walk from my apartment to the closest subway stop, where I would meet a couple of classmates who helped me navigate the subway and tram to arrive to campus.  One day, they didn’t show up.  Not knowing the street, address, or even the name of the campus, I had to swallow my pride and ask directions in broken Russian to my own school.  I managed to do it, though I ended walking more than I ever had before, and arrived at least a half-hour late to class.  My teacher’s response to my arriving half-way through class was surprised and unhappy: “Что это такое?!”  (“What is this?!”)  The students who had stood me up stood up to stand up for me.  “He’s our American student and he is still learning how to get here.”  I guess this helped me.  I went from looking careless to just looking stupid.  But I got there as sweaty and stupid as I was.

While I learned that these classmates weren’t terribly reliable, I learned that my own scrappiness got me what I needed.  Sounding like a child, I asked a lot of directions, not sounding so smart, walked a long way, and made it.  I looked bad in my professor’s eyes, even when it worked at as well as it could.  By the end of the year, and after getting lost countless times, I became fluent in Russian (and Ukrainian).

Through language, I learned resourcefulness.  I learned how to tap into all the knowledge I needed: the people around me.  I sounded like a child, but people around me were kind and helpful.  (Except one guy–that’s another story.)  I did not learn how to sound smart–I learned how to deal with sounding stupid, sounding like a child–and that opened me up to volumes of knowledge.

When did you face fear down?  What did you learn?  How did you get over language self-consciousness?