Tricks for Incorporating Games into Language Learning

So you’re interested in incorporating games as a teaching resource?! Good for you!! Whether you are a parents, tutor, teacher or babysitter who is trying to work games into foreign language learning, it makes no difference! Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind as you plan!

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Color Me Creative: A Guide to Teaching A Second Language Through Games

“This is BORING!” has to be one of the most feared declarations for any teacher.  As educators (and I mean parents, tutors and teachers alike!), we constantly have to juggle entertainment and academics in our lessons as a means of encouraging our children to want to learn.  We understand that many times, in order to motivate them, they need to view our lesson through a lens of fun rather than having us fatigue them with endless facts.  This “Mary Poppins concept” is nothing new. But how do you introduce something so intimidating as a second language through fun?! Well, my program (Language University!) introduces a target language through three different pillars of fun: music, arts-and-crafts and games. And in this blog, I’m going to walk you through how we incorporate games into our learning process and leave you with a few tips to help you create your own activities!

Just to give you some context, I mainly work with students ages 2.5 to 11 years old, and my programs are integrated into school curricula, extracurricular activities and summer camps. The goal of each session is for students to have fun and to confidently leave having learned something new.  And one of the easiest ways for students to find their own fun while learning is to have them get out of their seats and move about the room. It’s such a simple idea, but it’s not utilized as often as one would think. For our games, we prefer to play in large, open areas like a gymnasium or a cafeteria (the children deserve it!). When we have to be in a classroom or a living room, we aren’t afraid to move the desks and furniture aside-- which also sends a message to students that we are mixing it up! 

When do we bring in the games? Most likely, the game is going to help solidify the lesson you’ve just introduced. And don’t worry: even if your lesson wasn’t the most thrilling, the children will still be enticed to learn the material, because they want to successfully participate in the game.  Here are a couple things to keep in mind:

  • The activity you select or create should be easy and repetitive, at least at first. Simplistic directions help students become more at ease with the second language, while highlighting the material’s target phrases and words. For instance, when I teach colors, students learn them by jumping on color dots that I previously laid out. In the beginning, I tell them what color to find and I incorporate as much or as little of the target language as I’d like.  I can choose to say, “Trouvez le couleur bleu” (Find the color blue), or I can say, “Find bleu.” Either way, my students can easily figure out what I want from them after a round or two and they will be happy to play along with you!

  • Stress hinders the learning process. Studies have proven this time and time again. So once students feel comfortable with the core with the activity’s core (aka-- they will be looking around for colors), I introduce another layer to the game. Continuing with my colors game example, “The Floor is Laaava!,” students walk/dance around the room as music plays (in this case, we play our program’s colors song) and when the music stops, students have a certain amount of time to find and jump on top of the correct color dot before time runs out and the floor “turns into lava.”  This type of game is great for a second language because it takes the spotlight off of students who may feel pressured when it comes to learning a second language. Students entering puberty and older will feel the MOST pressure. Yet through this game and others like it, students gain familiarity with the sounds, the pronunciation of the words and the phrases because they are hearing them over and over again, without fear. And be assured that most times you will hear your students repeatedly say the color aloud as they search, which encourages organic word replacement.  So in this way, students end up learning their second language without memorizing a list from a book, and it gets them motivated to play and to win! (If you like my example game idea, you can find our Spanish FREEBIE colors lesson here and our full lesson here)!

So, before you write off incorporating games as being more of a headache than a teaching resource at home or in the classroom, think about how you can shift your lessons into something more engaging, light-hearted and all around fun! Learning doesn’t have to stop when the games begin! For tips on how to create games for your classroom, click on our game tricks blog here!

What You Never Knew Your Child Could Do: 5 Myths Surrounding Your Child's Abilities to Learn a Second Language

There are so many opinions floating around when it comes to children learning a second language. “You need bilingual parents!” “My child wouldn’t sit still!” “Start your child later!” “My child won’t even listen when I’m speaking English.” And my personal favorite, “What’s the point if the child can’t even speak yet?” All the advice and theories can seem daunting, especially when you’re not sure what’s true.  So, I’ve responded to five popular myths to show you just how capable your child is when it comes to learning a second language!

1. “Older children and adults are more receptive to learning a foreign language than younger children.”

While older children and adults may be receptive, younger children tend to be more fearless, when it comes to learning a second language.1  As children approach puberty, they begin to develop a deeper awareness of themselves and their place in society. Between the ages of seven and twelve, children also become aware of others’ perception of them.2 This self-awareness has the potential to make them quieter and less daring, and it impedes on their ability to accept new input, like a foreign language.  Ironically, this is exactly when the majority of American students are first introduced to a second language. And it’s a recipe for resentment!

Of course, one can argue that the horrific self-consciousness of high school will dissipate by adulthood. We’ve grown since high school; am I right? And while this may be true for us, a study still found that 38% of university students fear going to foreign language classes more than any other class.3  That’s more than twice the number of people who are afraid of going to the dentist!4 Foreign language instruction is supposed to work towards bringing people and cultures together, and this finding only depicts how intimidating and even frightening a late introduction to a second language can be for older students.

2. “Your child can learn a second language from ‘edutainment’ TV, like Dora the Explorer.       

Not to diss Big Bird, but children cannot learn a second language from “edutainment” programs.5 This is mainly due to a lack of significant input and prompting for response. What does that mean?!  It means that Dora can teach your children how to say “hola,” but she isn’t engaging with them… even if she talks to them through the television screen.  Edutainment is akin to memorizing a few canned phrases from a Berlitz phrasebook before traveling. Yes, you can absolutely learn how to ask for directions in Spanish, but when the Spaniard responds with a phrase you never memorized… Uh oh!  What’s really missing from edutainment is the interactivity of a real, live human being. Interestingly, that human doesn’t have to be a licensed teacher or a native speaker. Even parents with limited language skills can effectively motivate and teach their children!7

3. “Preschool is too early to begin teaching a second language, let alone a baby!”

Experts agree that children and teens may become overwhelmed and less successful if they are introduced to academic concepts above their maturity level. Their only exception: learning a foreign language!6  Children’s lack of maturity is actually what makes them successful. Evidence suggests that it is during the maturation period of the brain that the most effective and permanent language acquisition occurs.7 Preschoolers are only beginning to develop the personality types, learning styles, and gender behaviors that will eventually affect the way they learn.  Without these traits, children are essentially white slates to be written on and they have a natural thirst to learn what you put before them!

But what about babies? Well, as humans, provided we have no significant cognitive disorder, we all go through the same developmental stages despite our race, gender, or socio-economic background. By six months of age, babies begin to babble.  This is important because they are effectively ratcheting through all the possible sounds and intonations that their mouths and vocal chords can produce.  Within only six more months after this, these babbling babies will only use those consonant and vowel sounds found in the language(s) they hear. By two years of age, babies make two-word utterances, form negative statements, and use a rising intonation to ask questions.  You didn’t teach your daughter about intonation patterns, yet she uses them by the time she reaches eight months! With that being said, there is no reason to believe that young children can’t handle learning a second language, since they successful learned their first.8  Let’s give these superheroes some credit!

4. “Learning two languages can cause a developmental delay.”

It is true that some children (usually under the age of three or so) who are learning two languages simultaneously may exhibit a slight delay in producing language. This doesn’t mean that they’re not absorbing the information they receive. Common sense comes in to play, on this one. Children who are learning two languages are processing them both at the same time, so in effect, they are dealing with twice as much new language input as a monolingual child. Despite this, they still pass through those same grammatical and phonetic milestones, which I outlined above. Research shows that monolinguals achieve functional fluency by age five, and on average bilingual children become fluent in both languages by the same age.9  The force is strong with those bilingual babies!

5. “There’s no way to motivate a child into learning a second language.

The fact is: your child can learn a second language without being coaxed. Children’s openness to new input is heavily dependent on their self-confidence and motivation.10 Stress cannot play a factor in language learning (or any learning!). Children are more likely to display stress when they don’t feel safe, comforted and engaged. This is why it is important to teach a second language through a methodology of fun. This is also why music, art and physical activity are the three pillars of our foreign language program, Language University.

And not only can children be motivated to learn a second language without becoming anxious, but studies also prove that the earlier children are exposed to a second language, the sooner they will acquire enhanced problem-solving, reasoning skills, creativity, cognitive development, a boosted self-confidence, as well as a deeper understanding of other peoples and cultures.11 This means that learning a second language actually helps children become better students and people!  So don’t allow anyone to tell you what your child is capable of, because your child really is a superhero, super learner!

 If your child’s preschool or elementary school doesn’t offer a second language (be it within their curriculum, extracurriculars, or summer camps), please reach out!


1.      King, K. A., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: HarperCollins, 57.

2.      Strozer, J. R. (1994). Language acquisition after puberty. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 131.

3.      Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B., & Cope, J. Foreign language classroom anxiety. Modern Language Journal, 70, 125-132.

4.      What is dental anxiety and phobia? (2013, September 18). Colgate Oral Care. Retrieved from

5.      King, K. A., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: HarperCollins, 29.

6.      Stixrud, W., & Johnson, N. (2018, February 15). Teach kids when they’re ready. Edutopia. Retrieved from

7.      Strozer, J. R. (1994). Language acquisition after puberty. Washington: Georgetown University Press, 137.

8.      Mitchell, R., Myles, F., & Marsden, E. (2013). Second language learning theories. Abingdon: Routledge, 31.

9.      King, K. A., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: HarperCollins, 26.

10.    Brown, S., & Larson-Hall, J. (2012). Second language acquisition myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 137.

11.    King, K. A., & Mackey, A. (2007). The bilingual edge: Why, when, and how to teach your child a second language. New York: HarperCollins, viii.

What Etymology Can Do for You

Everyone loves a good origin story. All the best superheroes have one. It turns out that every word we say has one too, whether it is clear to us or not. As you may already know, a word’s origin story is called its etymology, and it tells us the word's genesis and historical development.

In the days of antiquity, the study of language was nearly synonymous with etymology. It is still a part of linguistic study, though in the past century it has taken a back seat to the harder scientific branches of the discipline. Just as a vigorous enthusiasm for alchemy in the Middle Ages eventually gave way to chemistry, modern linguistics partially evolved out of a mystical preoccupation with the occult relationships between words. Roman writer-scholars such as Varro and Tibullus indulged heavily in this area of study, believing that the ostensible similarity of words necessarily implied a deeper connection. What seems to us now like a poetic conceit was to them an endeavor of some gravity.

Here is a famous example: the Latin word for “fire” is ignis, and the word for “wood" is lignis. The Roman scholars took this to mean that since the word for fire is "buried inside" the word for wood, this must imply that the element of fire is inherently buried inside the element of wood. This would be the equivalent of us today surmising that the word smother is naturally related to the word mother, simply because the latter seems to be lodged inside the former. The disappointing truth is that those two words, just like lignis and ignis, have absolutely no genealogical relationship. The absurdity of this practice would be on full display if I were to suggest that the word laughter must be related to slaughter! 

Of course, these are extreme examples. One would be forgiven for thinking that adultery was based on the word adult, that coward and cower were related, or even that locomotive had something to do with the Spanish word loco, but as always, appearances are deceiving. Sometimes vague similarities do signal relationship: the first element in coleslaw, cauliflower and collard are related to kale, as these are all varieties of the same species of cabbage. Who would guess, though, that the second syllable in female has no relation at all to male? Neither does muscle have anything to do with mussel, but it does share a root with mouse! You might be hard pressed to accept that the word true is actually related to tree, borne of the notion that to be ever faithful and steadfast (the original meaning of true) is to be tree-like. In a similar vein, the word robust ultimately comes from the Latin word robur, which means “oak.”

You might find it interesting that there are plenty of words whose etymology no one can ascertain. Scoot, sludge and struggle are just a few. One of the most common words in the English language—big—has no discernible origin. Some words were made up out of thin air for their comedic quality, such as scrumptious, rambunctious, and flabbergasted. And then there are those that were created by deforming another: curtsy is a contraction of courtesy, just as fancy is a contraction of fantasy, and ornery is actually a countrified way of pronouncing ordinary.  

So how does any of this help us in the grand scheme? Admittedly, this is mostly an amusing diversion. However, a great deal of etymological study can give us clues as to the history of human contact and migration. We can use a word’s development, specifically its physical mutation and shifts in meaning over time, as a record of the various interacting peoples and societies who uttered that word, day after day, generation after generation. It’s the sociological equivalent of a core sample drilled from Antarctic ice. For instance, a word’s etymology can tell us what group of people introduced it. There’s a reason that the two most popular flavors of ice cream—chocolate and vanilla—are of Spanish origin. Had Hernán Cortés never landed in Mexico in 1519, these agricultural products, as well as the words we now use to describe them, might never have entered our consciousness. The names of spices like saffron (Persian), cumin (Greek/Hebrew) and cinnamon (Phoenician) tell us what groups traded heavily in these goods. The fact that many scientific and mathematical terms are Arabic—alcohol, alkaline, algebra, algorithm—reminds us that medieval Muslim scholars were making advances in these fields while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. 

This is why I love etymology. Analyzing the development of a single word through time is like following one set of footprints back to its earliest appearance on the soil, centuries if not millennia into the past. To examine the history of an entire language is to trace the events and movements of its speakers and thus attempt to reconstruct the origin story for a whole society.

Comedy of Errors

When I was young, I had an audio cassette of Christmas carols that I played until the magnetic tape literally disintegrated. The archaic vocabulary featured in many of those songs went over my four-year-old head, and my unconscious response was either to ignore it as language only adults could understand or to reinterpret the lyrics according to my limited mental word bank. Due to a quirk of pronunciation particular to the studio singer on that tape, for a long time I sincerely thought there was a song called “Got Dressed, You Merry Gentlemen.” Probably not many people have ever made this mistake, but then again, probably not many people, if hard pressed, could explain what the actual phrase means. It took a few years for me to realize my error, but it wasn’t until I began studying linguistics that I realized the error had a name: by confusing those lyrics I had committed a mondegreen.

I may have been in scarce company with that particular song, but most people have had some experience with mondegreens. So many song lyrics have been misheard over the years that there are websites devoted to collecting them (try Am I Right). One of the most famous mondegreens involves the 1967 psychedelic rock song “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in which the last line of the hook is sung “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” At eight years old, after only one listen of the 45 single from my dad's vinyl library, I joined the millions who have misinterpreted Hendrix’s lyric as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

The word mondegreen was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1954. She recalled that when she was a young girl her mother would read to her from a book of old British poetry, her favorite piece being the 17th-century Scottish poem “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.” The first stanza of the poem ends with the lines “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green,” but young Sylvia Wright thought the final phrase was “And Lady Mondegreen.” After years spent picturing the Earl o’ Moray dying hand in hand with his lover, the poor Lady Mondegreen, Wright declared in her article that any misheard lyric, being perhaps even more intriguing or poignant than the real one, should take the name of her imaginary Lady.

It’s every bit as common to do this with lyrics in another language. The Japanese like to make a game of searching out misheard foreign lyrics in imported pop songs. They call this soramimi (literally “air ear”), nowadays the general term for misinterpreting a lyric sung in a language other than your native tongue. It’s a natural human tendency to reframe unfamiliar input in a way that can be more readily accepted. Behind this phenomenon is the psychological concept known as pareidolia, whereby the mind looks for a familiar sound or image in a random collection of visual or auditory stimuli. Just think of the Man on the Moon, or that face you thought you saw in the burn pattern on a grilled cheese sandwich! It also explains why you think you heard your dog bark “I love you!” 

Pareidolia underlies a number of other linguistic errors. When a person substitutes a word with another that sounds identical or similar, but which still makes sense to the speaker, this is known as an eggcorn. Maybe you’ve heard people say “for all intensive purposes” instead of the correct “for all intents and purposes,” or “supposably” instead of “supposedly.” Calling a praying mantis a “preying” mantis, just like saying “morning” dove instead of mourning dove, is a form of this error based on perfect homophones. Sometimes the substitution is not so similar. I had a friend in middle school who for some reason almost always replaced the word either with the word "order." He would say things like “Order my mom or my aunt will go trick-or-treating with us.” I’ve never met anyone else who exhibited that exact idiosyncrasy, but nevertheless it’s a kind of eggcorn. The term itself comes from a case cited by linguist Mark Liberman on the linguistics website Language Log; he referred to a woman who consistently substituted the phrase "egg corn" for the word "acorn" and wondered what to call this phenomemon. In response, Scottish linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum suggested the word itself. An important thing to keep in mind is that “egg corn” is not an unreasonable thing to call the nut of an oak tree, considering its shape and size. 

An eggcorn is related to an oronym, a pair of nearly homophonic phrases that differ based on juncture, that is, the relationship between two successive syllables. Refer to the classic pairs “I scream” / “ice cream” and “paradox” / “pair o’ ducks” for some prime examples. Jimi Hendrix’s “kiss the sky” mondegreen is another. How similar the homophones are depends on the dialect and enunciation of the speaker, just like the accent of the singer on “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” from my tape. If someone says “dictatorship” and you hear “potato chip,” you’ve experienced an oronym. The same goes if you think you hear someone mention “the lesser of two weevils” or say that something happened “right from the gecko” or tell you to “suture self.” I could go on forever… forever endeavor! As you may have guessed, if the oronym is intended to be humorous, it’s called a pun.

Similarly to a soramimi, when a foreign loanword is reproduced using the phonology of the borrowing language, the term is called a Hobson-Jobson. For example, the phrase flotsam and jetsam comes from the Anglicization of the Old Norman French words floteson and getteson, respectively referring to goods unintentionally and intentionally ejected from a sinking ship (the second word is a variation of jettison). Events of this nature have happened numerous times in history, especially upon confrontation of different ethnolinguistic cultures. The native Spaniards, when they heard the Arabic-speaking Moors refer to a large, edible thistle as al-harsuf, borrowed the term as alcachofa, which fit more readily with Spanish phonology. After filtering through a Northern Italian dialect, the word entered English as artichoke. When French explorers scouting the shores of Lake Michigan heard the native Powatomi tribe call a local area Shikaakwa (essentially meaning “striped-skunk place”), they interpreted the name as Chécagou, which later entered English as Chicago.

When someone replaces a word with another that is only vaguely similar and produces a nonsensical but humorous phrase, this is known as a malapropism. Baseball legend Yogi Berra was renowned for them. Among his more famous Yogi-isms: “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” Also in the athletic world, heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was often parodied for his failed attempts at speaking with an erudite vocabulary. A bit from a 1995 HBO special by comedian Dana Carvey lampooned Tyson’s tendency to do this: mimicking Tyson, Carvey lisped, “You gotta respect everybody’s indivisibles, ya know what I’m sayin’? Everybody’s got friends and entities, that’s no reason to put ‘em up on a pedicure!”

The term malapropism is named for Mrs. Malaprop, a woman who would consistently swap words based on their similarity. She was not a real person, but rather a character in the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Forty years later, Lord Byron would use the word “malaprop” to refer to an error in speech, thus coining the term, though in a simpler form. In the early days of the American film industry, Polish-born producer Samuel Goldwyn (the “G” in MGM) was so famous for making this mistake (partially due to his lack of total mastery of English), he was nicknamed Mr. Malaprop, which apparently irked him quite a bit. Not all of his so-called Goldwynisms were based on replaced words, but rather incongruous situations: he famously said, “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”  

Finally, one of my personal favorite types of speech error takes its name from a real historical personage. A well-respected Oxford don, Reverend William Archibald Spooner, was famous for frequently switching the initial sounds of two words. If you ever said that you’d been “lowing the mawn” and needed to “shake a tower,” then you committed a spoonerism. Rev. Spooner, who served at New College at Oxford from 1867 to 1924, was a small, quiet man who embodied the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. His nervous inattention engendered these verbal gaffes, which never failed to elicit stifled laughter from his students. Only a few spoonerisms have been definitively traced to his speech (“The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer”); most of the others were likely invented by his students as a running game to mock him, such as “The Lord is a shoving leopard.” One in particular is as well known as it is improbable: “Mardon me, padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?”

Speech errors like mondegreens and spoonerisms typically qualify as a type of recreational linguistics, entertaining diversions that don’t quite make the cut for “real” linguistics. However, the truth is that they’re far more important than most people realize. They can actually tell us a lot about how language is processed in the brain. Although practically all of us around the world learn language naturally and effortlessly, a lot goes into producing every word we say. A convoluted network of neurons carries each electrical impulse from the formulation of a thought all the way to the vocal utterance which articulates that thought. Along this path a lot can go wrong, and such amusing errors betray the complex processes that underpin language production. I think it’s important to pay attention to these idiosyncratic mistakes, since we can learn so much from them. After all, like Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  

Pardon My French

The English language owes almost as much to the French as it does to the English! Though estimates vary, approximately 30% of all the words in the complete English lexicon were borrowed directly from French. Beginning with the Norman invasion of England in the year 1066, the French language and its related regional variants have enjoyed nearly a millennium of profound influence over English. The earliest words to slip in were specifically Norman French, and were legal, military or political in nature—castle, army, jury, royalty—since many of these concepts hadn’t existed in Anglo-Saxon England prior to the invasion. New concepts related to knighthood gave rise to new borrowings, like chivalry, gauntlet and armor. So many Norman words inundated the English linguistic landscape, replacing earlier Old English terms, that today we have no sense of these words being French at all: peace, doubt, forest, machine, benefit, squat, fuel, tunnel, mess and flower, just to name ten out of several tens of thousands! 

The Norman language of the Middle Ages was not exactly what we think of nowadays as “real” French. It wasn’t until centuries later that standard Parisian French words began entering our language (and many other languages, for that matter). By that time, though, it wasn’t by force of foreign occupation, but rather by conscious appropriation for the purpose of elevating the speech pattern of the privileged classes. The form of French spoken in the city of Paris and its environs began to achieve a favored status in the 17th century during the reign of the “Sun King” Louis XIV, who ruled longer than any other monarch in European history and still holds that record today. In addition to his numerous achievements in modernizing France, he is remembered for being a patron of the arts and filling his court with a plethora of major artistic and cultural figures, such as the composer Marin Marais and the playwright Molière. It was for this reason that France became synonymous with cultural sophistication, and other Europeans began to emulate the French in their mannerisms and sensibilities.


The English were not immune to the allure of French culture, and despite the unsteady foreign relations the two countries had endured for centuries, words of French origin continued to infiltrate the English language. They especially settled into the niches created as England and its possessions became increasingly prosperous due to its growing prominence a world-wide empire. In some cases, English speakers in the upper social stratum used French when they wanted to adopt an air of refinement: saying enchanté upon making someone’s acquaintance is a prime example. Even today, the usage is sometimes tongue-in-cheek, like a kind of mock erudition, as in, “Is that for moi?” Of course, French is inextricably linked with romance. In one of his most famous love songs, Stevie Wonder refers to the object of his love as “My Cherie Amour.” And don’t forget that in the Addams Family franchise, Gomez nearly swoons when Morticia uses the language (“Tish… that’s French!”).

Since the 18th century, the French language has taken a dominating stance within the realm of culinary arts. Let’s say you’re headed to a fancy dinner. After you enter the restaurant (literally, “restoring”), you’re given the menu and seated at your table by the maitre d’ (short for maître d’hotel, the “master of the hotel”). After your bottle of wine, but before you order your entrée (“entry”), you might want to try some hors d’oeuvres (“outside of the work,” that is, extraneous to the main course). Even dinner, menu, table and bottle are French, though these were borrowed centuries earlier. Maybe your meal features a cheese soufflé (literally, “puffed”) served with a duck confit (“preserved”) with sautéed (“jumped”) onions and potatoes au gratin (“with grated crust”). Maybe you prefer a fondue (“melted”) for the table, and for dessert perhaps tarte flambé (“flamed pie”) or a nice crème brûlée (“burnt cream”). We might not think of dessert as a French word, but it is, literally meaning “dis-serves,” that is, removes what has been served. 

That term Gratin also refers idiomatically to the top echelon of Parisian society, i.e., the upper “crust” or the crème de la crème. These are the movers and shakers that we also know as the élite (literally, “elected”), who have a savoir faire (“know how to do”) about life and social comportment. They consider themselves the old rich, or the vieux riche, a term that English never adopted to counterbalance its well-known antithesis, the nouveau riche. Maybe for most English speakers it was more common to be “new rich” than old, but it’s by no means a new concept in the world: even the Ancient Greeks had their own term for it—neoploutos. In France and abroad, members of both classes of riche might try to come across as bon vivant (“good living”) and display a certain joie de vivre (“joy of living”), a certain je ne sais quoi (“I don’t know what”), that quality so elusive that there is no word for it at all! At night you might find them fraternizing at a local soirée (“evening activity”), attempting to be as adroit (“to the right”) as possible, not being gauche (“left”) and not making any gaffes (“blunders”) or faux pas (“false steps”) and keeping their aplomb (literally, a verticle plumb line). 

Most of these words gained currency in English-speaking countries in the 19th century, partially because English had no words to fully convey the fine distinction inherent in these concepts. High-society gadabouts didn’t have a word for the kind of zeal or vivacity that comes on in a rush, so they took the French word élan (“momentum, impetus”). When that rush of vivacity runs out and you begin to languish about with a melancholic listlessness, you’re experiencing ennui (“boredom”), because boredom just isn’t good enough! 

Many French borrowings describe specific emotional states like these. To me, some of the most interesting French terms regard peculiar psychological phenomena. Most of us have experienced the cognitive glitch known as déjà vu, the eerie feeling that you’ve already lived through your current situation, even though you know rationally that you could never have done so. This expression, very appropriately, means “already seen.” However, few people are aware that there are two other vu’s. The opposite of déjà vu is jamais vu (“never seen”), a strange event in which a person knows consciously that he or she has already experienced a situation which for some reason seems completely unfamiliar. This may accompany a more serious medical condition. Before my grandfather died, his mental state deteriorated due to a virulent form of dementia, one symptom of which is known as Capgras delusion. He was firmly convinced that my mother and aunt had been replaced by identical imposters; they looked like his daughters, and they talked like his daughters, but they weren’t really his daughters. This is a particularly bizarre kind of jamais vu, and needless to say, my mom and her sister were left bewildered by it.

The third vu is much more universal and is known as presque vu (“almost seen”), that feeling you get when you’re trying to think of a word or name but can’t quite recall it. You know that you know it, you’ve said it before, but it just won’t come to you! We usually call this “having the word on the tip of your tongue,” and wouldn’t you know it—this phrase itself was borrowed from French: avoir le mot sur le bout de la langue. Finally, there’s a related phenomenon that the French call l’esprit de l’escalier (“staircase wit”). That’s when you think of the perfect reply too late; the phrase refers to that witty retort that didn’t enter your mind until you reached the bottom of the stairs! It’s probably as universal an experience as can be found. So universal, in fact, that it qualified as a plot point in a Seinfeld episode (“The Comeback”), even though George Costanza never mentioned the French term.

Pardonnez-moi. I’d like to think of a witty bon mot as an appropriate dénouement for this blog, without being too recherché. I know I have one. It’s on the tip of my tongue. I probably won’t think of it till I’m at the bottom of the stairs. I feel like this has happened before. Wow, déjà vu!  

What's the Scuttlebutt?



Maybe you’ve heard that question asked before. It’s a time-worn cliché, a quaint and jokey way of inquiring as to the latest gossip, like what you might kibitz about with your co-workers around the water cooler. But what does that silly word actually mean? It turns out scuttlebutt is the term for a large wooden barrel with a hole drilled in it (that is, in mariner slang, a butt which has been scuttled). During the heady days of the British Empire, sailors in the navy would typically gather around the scuttlebutt to have a drink of water while sharing the news and gossip of the day. Essentially, it was the 19th-century maritime equivalent of the break room water cooler. By the early 20th century, the term had come to mean “gossip” in general.

This is one example of the linguistic event known as semantic shift. A great many words and phrases, even some of the most commonplace, have changed their meanings over time. It might not be surprising that happy used to mean “lucky” or witty meant “wise,” but would you ever have guessed that centuries ago the word sad meant “satiated” or that giddy meant “possessed by a demon”? A special subset of this phenomenon involves the re-appropriation of industry jargon from literal usage to a broader, figurative application. Scuttlebutt is just one of many old nautical terms that have been adopted into the mainstream. When an experienced sailor would familiarize a novice with the principal ropes and lines on the ship, it was said that he was showing him the ropes. Other words and phrases that have come to us from the sailing world include tell-tale, overbearing, taken aback, three sheets to the wind, and slush fund, to name only a few. Another is figurehead, the carved figure adorning the prow of a ship, symbolic but functionless. The word now denotes the ostensible leader of an organization or movement who has no real power.

Plenty of other industries have spawned similar figurative words and phrases. Take masonry, for example: if I say that customer service is the cornerstone of any business, I'm really referring to the stone at the bottom corner of a building, usually engraved with the date and architect’s name. In surveying, a benchmark refers to a mark placed on a stationary object for use as a reference point on a map, that is, a standard by which something is measured. Even the word broadcasting literally used to describe (and still does) an agricultural method by which seeds are scattered by hand over prepared ground, rather than sowing more deliberately via seed trays or a seed drill. 



One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon arose in the printing industry. In the early days of the press, printers had to set each piece of moveable type in a locking frame called a chase, a method which took a considerable amount of time just to be able to produce a single page. They would repeat the process for each new page and for any subsequent printing runs. To save time and expense, a technique was developed that involved making a papier-mâché cast of the original chase, and then pouring molten metal into that cast to form a new solid plate of type. Now publishers no longer had to reset type every time they wanted to reproduce a particular page; they simply used that previously formed metal plate as many times as necessary. The term they coined for this device was stereotype. It was a copy of the original, and it had all of its elements pre-formatted and unmovable. The sense of the word then broadened to signify “an image perpetuated without change,” and then became further idiomatic as it approached its modern meaning. In French publishing houses they had their own special name for the stereotype plate, inspired by the clicking sound that the mold made when it first came into contact with molten metal: cliché.

And that’s the scuttlebutt!

A New Year's Resolution to my Students

As we head further into the holiday season, I have to remind myself to take a moment to reflect.  It’s our third winter in our classrooms.  There could not be more to do. But I’m taking a breath in, and releasing... and… honestly, I feel rushed. And I feel overwhelmed.  But more than that, thankfully, I feel blessed.  I knew my decision to start a foreign language program would be difficult to sustain in the beginning, and that sacrifices would be in order.  While I do feel the weight of these things, I also feel fulfilled teaching children in the hopes of bringing more kindness and understanding of others into this world. I am happy to have found my path in life.  There has been so much that I have experienced in these three, short years.

For instance, I have witnessed shy, little children become creative, intelligent and funny students with a true wonder about this world.  Our preschool students, who once struggled in differentiating colors, leave school discerning them all in two languages.  Even our youngest students, who have yet to see their third year of life, play games where second-language word replacement seamlessly enters activities. And with the release of our album last year, I have parents explaining that their children, many of who were once intimidated by “hola” or “nǐ hǎo,” now sing whole songs in Spanish and Chinese, without being prompted or coaxed. My students impress me every day with their wit and perception.  I love that I have the opportunity to teach in different schools, because I get to witness the growth and development of so many students each year.  With that being said, I want to make a few promises this coming year.  These are not promises that I believe I cannot keep or that I haven’t kept, but like this busy holiday season, they are moments where we lose ourselves in the chaos.  And as an educator, my students are of greatest importance to me, and I want to do my very best by them.

So, to my students…

First, I promise to come in every week with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.  My dream is to open your heart and mind to other languages and cultures, and I know that the best way that I can achieve this is by keeping the learning process light and fun. So I will remember, even on the coldest, darkest, winter days, that I am happy and honored to be here on this Earth to teach you, and I promise to give you my all.

Second, I promise to be silly with you, even if I am not feeling so silly that day.  I have learned that you are your happiest when you are dancing, singing and being goofy, and I promise to match that amazing energy.  Your spirit, charisma and thirst for learning motivate me every day and I promise to help you maintain that beautiful zest for life.

And last, I promise to ensure all of our lessons are fun, stress-free, and light-hearted, like all of you.  You inspire every vocabulary word, song, dance, game and adventure we put together in our program, and I promise to help you smile, laugh and learn with every class.

My little scholars and muses, you are everything to me and I hope that I can continue to help you grow as students and human beings for the rest of my life.  I love you all!

Universal Language, Pt. 3

One of my favorite “music videos” is a three-and-half-minute clip from the 70’s of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein extolling the virtues of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose ninth symphony Bernstein was then preparing to conduct with the New York Philharmonic. There is one line that stands out to me: “that dubious cliché about music being the universal language almost comes true with Beethoven.” Whether or not this statement holds water, whether or not Beethoven was indeed able to “communicate a universality of thought,” as Bernstein goes on to say, is not for me to affirm or deny. However, I have continually pondered the idea itself that music has for so long been considered the universal language, and if that cliché ever really does come true. There must be a hint of truth for it to have become such a pervasive platitude. So then, can we call music a language at all? Or is it more than that?

It was in Phonology Lab, after returning to college at home, that I began to learn about the scientific correlation between music and language. I still have a copy of an article I found in an academic journal with the snappy title Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. The article detailed the ways in which newborns begin the acquisition of language: they first start distinguishing sounds based on variations in pitch, rhythm and timbre their parents’ voice—”the most musical aspects of speech”. It seemed at once simple and profound: infants perceive language in the same way that they perceive music! I was blown away by a further study conducted by Charles Limb, an otolaryngeal surgeon at Johns Hopkins. He and a team of researchers put a jazz musician in a functional MRI machine along with a portable keyboard and measured his brain activity. They had him play a memorized piece of music, followed by a piece made up on the spot as part of an improvisation with another musician in a control room. The researchers found that the brains of jazz musicians who are engaged with other musicians in spontaneous improvisation show robust activation in the same brain areas traditionally associated with spoken language. Limb said that improvisational jazz conversations "take root in the brain as a language.” He went on to suggest that the human brain shows signs of having evolved to process music first, and speech resulted as a fortuitous by-product. The overarching idea of all this research is that the first language our brains developed to process was music.

So there is obviously an intimate relationship between music and language. Anthropologists have claimed that, among several other important traits, music and language are two “Cultural Universals,” phenomena that appear to occur virtually without exception across every culture on this planet. There is something innately human about both the production of language and the creation and performance of music; they are inseparable from our existence, part and parcel of even the most primitive human society. I recommend that anyone interested in this phenomenon watch a fascinating documentary called Alive Inside, which expounds the truly enlightening influence of music upon the human mind. The film follows the efforts of social worker Dan Cohen to introduce iPods with personalized playlists in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Some patients, having spent years in a near catatonic state, almost instantly awakened in response to the music they had grown up listening to. Patients that had previously shown no ability to meaningfully interact with their family returned to a state of coherence. Those that appeared to have no capacity for recall began reliving long-dormant childhood memories as if in real time. Those that could string together no more than two sentences at a time found their voices again. This to me underscores the intimate relationship not only between music and language but between music and human connection.

I could scarcely have known that my dispiriting tenure as warehouse manager would lead to something I finally came to consider a true vocation. I had a coworker named Kyle who had become to me an assistant manager in all but name, and who walked out of the building in exasperation one day, every bit as dissatisfied as I had become. Several months later I followed suit. However, before quitting he told me about his girlfriend Lia and the idea that she had for a business: a language education program for young children. Even at that moment, before I had a clear inkling that I would soon be abandoning my managerial position, the idea struck me as something I would love to be involved with. Distracted by the stress of the job, I had little wherewithal to entertain the idea in earnest. Six months after my ignominious departure I reached out to Kyle and asked to meet him for a drink. He told me again about Lia’s vision for developing a language program, and with little ceremony I intimated that I wanted to join her in whatever capacity possible. It was ever present in my mind that teaching young children was not my bailiwick, that I would be even farther out of my comfort zone than when I was twelve or thirteen playing piano in concert for several hundred people at a time. I knew, though, that considering my acumen in both language and music, our combined forces might produce a superior product. After one meeting, neither Lia nor I had any doubt about our compatibility in building and growing our program.

Early in the development of Language University it became obvious to both of us that music would need to be a major component of the curriculum. Our original vision had consisted of two recurring songs for the beginning and end of each class, plus two or three more for special activities. It turns out that we did create two recurring songs, but we ended up with 25 more. About three classes in, we decided that each lesson would have to feature an original song. All of a sudden the next seven months cast a long and heavy shadow as I considered the workload that awaited me. With Lia’s help in writing the lyrics and choosing the melody, however, what at first had seemed so daunting rather quickly became a labor of love (“labor” being the operative word). It had occurred to me in the beginning that songs with a recognizable melody would lend themselves to an education program far better than original tunes. Old folk and parlor songs have such staying power because of their catchy melodies and inherent nostalgia, and their ubiquitousness means that most children (and their parents) are already intimately familiar with them. The main challenge that we faced was to write Spanish lyrics that would both fit the rhythm of the song and teach the appropriate vocabulary. Sometimes this presented difficulties, but more often than not it would fit together with very little cajoling, especially when Lia provided the major part of the lyric writing.

Armed with two guitars, my Roland XP-80 synthesizer and a cardioid condenser microphone, I spent the majority of our first year of operation recording and mixing the songs that would end up constituting Language University’s soundtrack. In order to keep our growing repertoire diverse, I made it a point to arrange the musical accompaniment in a different style each time. By this point, the intimidating prospect of creating an album’s worth of music had long given way to a sincere enthusiasm for allowing creativity free rein. For each lesson’s song I would take the titular word or primary phrase, pronounce it several times aloud, and let arrive to my mind the first folk tune whose melody could easily fit the dynamic rhythm of that word or phrase. Then I would choose a style that either lent itself to the metre of the lyrics or made logical sense given the particular topic. In my mind I scoured the musical lexicon I had spent the previous 20-odd years compiling, reviewing every period and genre that would create as varied and interesting a playlist as possible. I recorded ballads in the traditions of pop, folk and country, a polka, a calypso, a march, an uptempo waltz, a Christmas song in the Renaissance manner, and even “Cielito lindo,” the favorite tune of my Costa Rican host mother. I made arrangements inspired by the early rock ‘n’ roll of Chubby Checker, Ritchie Valens and Chuck Berry, as well as the iconic surf rock of Dick Dale and the Deltones. I also chose to highlight a few Latin styles where possible: rumba, salsa, merengue, cha-cha, bossa nova and Afro-samba. Just to name a few.

I can’t remember now if that first year flew by or crawled at a snail’s pace. I’m sure at various times it seemed like both. I do remember slipping my guitar inside my gig bag for the last time before summer break, incredulous that Lia and I had actually managed to create an album’s worth of (semi-)original songs. Realizing the urgency of offering our music to the public, and still feeling the impetus of the prior ten months’ work, in July I set about mixing every one of the 27 songs that we had slated to populate our track list. I manually equalized and ran compression on every instrumental track; I re-recorded any guitar parts that had not come through clearly; and finally I spent all of that August cutting, splicing and pitch-correcting every vocal and narration track. By the end of the summer I considered the collection of songs to be as professional as one person could hope to produce on a MacBook. With the assistance of a reputable CD manufacturing company in New Jersey, in November Lia and I were proud—and “proud” is too ineffectual a word for it—to announce the release of our album, ¡Listos! When you witness the fruition of more than a year’s expenditure of creative energy, you can’t help but feel more than pride. It’s a kind of energetic catharsis, and afterward you can hold in your hand the tangible product of your rigorous labor. To exemplify it I can only invoke the well-worn metaphor of depositing a disparate amalgam of raw materials into a crucible and burning it down into a refined alloy. I suppose a more banal but more realistic analogy would be the act of planning and cooking a large multi-course meal for a banquet, except that once you’ve listened to a CD the songs aren’t gone forever. Still, as the alumnus of a math and science charter school, I would be remiss not to opt for the chemistry metaphor.

If someone had told me thirteen years ago, as I climbed from Pacific Coast Highway up Sunset Boulevard in a leased Hyundai, that over a decade later I would finally find a semblance of success and achievement back in the hometown I couldn’t wait to leave, the concept would have seemed too ridiculous to warrant a response. I was still high on the hubris of being twenty years old. I wouldn’t have been able to accept the fact that some of the more permanent aspects of my personality would balk me of a mainstream career in entertainment. I’m too introverted to be a performer and too private to crave fame. There is no virtuosity to my guitar playing, my voice is untrained, and the few lyrics I’ve written are stilted and overwrought. However, as early as my preteen years, after winning several state-level composition competitions with Mrs. Hoffmann’s sponsorship, it didn’t seem far fetched that I might be able to do something with music, and so I envisioned even then a career path that might be impelled by my talents such as they were. It took me until my thirties to realize that it’s not my vision that was unrealistic, but rather my target audience. All that time I was aiming for the wrong demographic!

My father once told me that to be of service to children is to live in a state of grace. When I heard him say it, there was not a shred of suspicion in my mind that I would end up doing just that. I’m still not a natural performer; I don’t improvise well, and quite honestly I find the intricacies of early childhood language acquisition as enigmatic now as I did when we started. Despite this, I can only make one true declaration about myself: I am a teacher. In Lia I am fortunate to have found a fellow teacher, with more native aptitude for the occupation, and in many ways much more of a performer than I. Her native talents are manifold, and they somehow adventitiously fill in any gaps left by my shortcomings. She has given me the greatest opportunity to apply my skills, a real gift that comes rarely in life, and I love her for it. Looking back now, I don’t regret spending a year ranging the convoluted reticulum of Los Angeles streets and boulevards, nor the ten months suffering through the worst job I’ve ever had, and I certainly don’t regret my aimless days in between. I’ve come to realize that I’m actually happy not to be a performer. My striving to occupy any position within the entertainment industry was ultimately a pipe dream that only distracted me from the profession I would inevitably find myself suited to. I am a teacher. Maybe I was just biding my time until the confluence of circumstances could reveal this vocation. The word vocation literally means “calling,” and sometimes I allow myself a mystical indulgence in the idea that it was all meant to happen as it did, that I’ve been called to do it, and it’s not even over yet. We’ve only just started on this journey. Who knows where we—Lia and I, the team we assemble, the program we continue to build—will end up going.

Universal Language, Pt. 2

Without realizing the significance of the synchronicity, it was around this time that I began to develop a sincere interest in foreign languages. I had always been intrigued by them. At the age of six, I discovered two Berlitz travelers’ courses on cassette tape that belonged to my father, one in Italian and the other in Russian. The Italian program made sense to me since my father’s family hailed from Abruzzo, but I couldn’t account for the Russian one. I opened to the first page of phrases and saw this: “Это мой первый визит в Советский Союз”. Fascinated by the mysterious glyphs of the Cyrillic alphabet, I decided it was imperative to find out what kind of sounds could be paired with such an enigmatic script. I chose to memorize that sentence, which was Romanized thus: Eto moy perviy vizit v Sovetskiy Soyuz—“This is my first visit to the Soviet Union.” That was 1990. I could not have had any idea that in only one year this phrase would be rendered completely useless, but even if I’d known I probably still would have learned it. I had no concept of the political undertones of the Russian language, especially at that time, nor did I understand what the Soviet Union was. All I knew was that I was hooked on this incredible phenomenon—using different words, different phonology, and even different letters to communicate the same idea in my own tongue, like slowly decrypting a secret code. I played the tape and read its companion booklet ad nauseam, until I could repeat each prompted phrase before the native speaker did. I didn’t know at the time that learning phrases by rote was not an effective way of learning a language, just like only playing notes exactly the way they’re written.

I never did become fluent in Russian, though I can still read the Cyrillic alphabet. Regardless, my exposure to those Berlitz tapes managed to light the spark of interest, and by the time I was 14 and concurrently becoming well versed in jazz piano, I began studying Spanish. I had never before taken to a school subject so readily. In high school I took Spanish I as a freshman and finished Spanish IV as a sophomore, though because AP Spanish was inexplicably cancelled the following year, I would be forced to take a hiatus until I became a senior. During my junior year without Spanish, I took it upon myself to learn as much about whatever other languages I could practice. I was fortunate to attend a charter school with a very international student body; nearly 40% of my classmates were foreign born. I would canvass many of my friends about their native tongues, and from them I would piece together bits of information until I could reach a very rudimentary level of proficiency. I still remember the conversational basics of Korean, German, Hindi, Polish and Hebrew. After school I would learn the basics of Latin and Ancient Greek from my art history teacher, who had a Master’s degree in Classics. During lunch I would often take my tuna salad sandwich into the classroom of my world history teacher to practice Italian. I believe Mr. Stella habitually sacrificed his own lunch break to teach me utilitarian phrases and verb conjugations because of a kinship he felt for me: his parents had been born one village over from my grandparents’ hometown in Abruzzo.

By the end of high school I had become a full-fledged language nerd. Having been surrounded for several years by kids my age and younger who did differential equations for fun and programmed new applications for their graphing calculators, I had no compunction about joining the fold in my own way. Objectively, this would have seemed a rather sad and lonely existence, but for the fact that I had a serious girlfriend with whom I spent an equal amount of my free time. She was even more intellectually ambitious and enterprising than I was; she belonged to more clubs than I could count, she was in the highest-level math and science classes (and has since gone on to be a geneticist), and she even painted and wrote beautiful poetry. She was also from Shanghai, and as I became more enamored of her, I found myself increasingly interested in the Chinese language, which I spent almost the entire sophomore summer learning. Even I think that’s pretty sad, looking back on it now. Compounding this was the embarrassing revelation that she and her family spoke Shanghainese, not the Mandarin Chinese I’d been studying, and which was essentially a completely different language. Though she and I have long since gone our separate ways, my fascination with Chinese language and culture abides, and I know that the current trajectory of my life was irreversibly propelled by my time spent with her and among my other high school companions.

In a way I also consider myself lucky to have attended a high school which since its inception has shared its premises with Cab Calloway School of the Arts, many alumni of which have gone on to have successful careers in music, theater and visual arts. Two of them had been my friends since first grade. One ended up at Juilliard, and the other made it to Broadway. Others have done improv with the Groundlings, studied at the Actors Studio and joined conservatories like the Peabody Institute, the alma mater of my first piano teacher. In exchange for allowing Cab Calloway students to take calculus and physics classes at my charter school, we were similarly permitted to take some of their music and art classes as electives. Halfway through sophomore year I joined the band as a percussionist. In middle school I had been first chair almost exclusively; now, among the ranks of the best in the state, I was so far down the roster that I was lucky to be able to ding a triangle or whack a tambourine ninety measures into a concerto. Still, I could feel for the first time how powerful the weaving together of unique individual sounds could be, especially when produced on beautiful instruments by musicians who would go on to join professional symphony orchestras and play with famous artists. I was proud to share the stage with them during our performances, which were often attended by local enthusiasts who had no connection otherwise to the school. The Cab Calloway band was that renowned. During one concert in particular I played a set of huge log drums on a contemporary suite inspired by the music of Africa, with its intricate polyrhythm and syncopations—the same modalities that underpin the ragtimes of Scott Joplin. As the suite progressed, I could actually see the expression of the audience members change, as though we were not just entertaining them but actually getting something across to them. They appeared to fall into a trance. Through this music we seemed to be tapping into some primal region of the human psyche and providing a kind of ineffable, primordial communication, and we all sensed it too. It was actually amazing, and I’ve never forgotten that evening.

In college I majored in Foreign Language and Literatures, studying world languages and history, and consuming foreign prose and poetry. During my freshman and sophomore years I took advantage of study abroad programs in Costa Rica and Italy, respectively. Aside from my primary goal of learning Spanish and Italian, I somewhat less deliberately acquainted myself with the acoustic guitar. Facing a dearth of pianos in Costa Rica but still needing some kind of creative expression, I bought a cheap nylon-string classical guitar at the San Pedro Mall and spent every free moment practicing scales and chord changes. Most of the songs I learned during that year were traditional and modern popular Latin songs, mainly so that my host family could sing along. The famous nineteenth-century Mexican tune “Cielito lindo” was my host mother’s favorite. I spent winter and spring of the following year in Siena, a beautiful Medieval city in Tuscany at the southern limit of the Chianti region, though my study group and I traversed the majority of the peninsula from Turin to Reggio di Calabria. I was surprised to find that in the country where the piano was invented, I couldn’t find a single one. I likewise turned to the guitar, specifically that of my Italian host mother, a mildly churlish divorcée originally from Sicily. Although she seemed visibly burdened by the foreign students she was financially obligated to host, she eventually warmed to me after I began learning to play Italian songs on her classical guitar. I learned a famous Sicilian folk song called “Lu sciccareddu.” I think this meant a lot to her, as the song is an unofficial anthem of her homeland of Sicily. Only after I learned it did I discover that in The Godfather, Part II the young Vito Corleone sings it to himself as he waits in a quarantine cell at Ellis Island in 1901. My host mother’s boyfriend was a congenial man from Avellino who taught me to play and sing many classic Neapolitan songs, like “‘O sole mio” and “Luna mezz’o mare.” I continued thereafter to flesh out my repertoire of world folk music. As I collected a small personal library of traditional pieces from Spain, Austria, Ukraine, and several others, I began to experience for the first time the power of joining language and music.

Universal Language, Pt. 1

I remember leaving Los Angeles for the last time, struck by the sobering realization that I wasn’t going to have a career as a recording artist after all. I wasn’t exactly heartbroken, but I couldn’t help feeling perplexed over what I had been doing wrong. I had tried several inroads: networking with various production staffers in Hollywood, accumulating contact hours with minor studios, and enlisting the help of a somewhat successful actor cousin of mine. I had made at least one sincere effort to become a studio musician, a sound engineer, a film composer, and a dialect coach. I’d even applied to UCLA School of Law in a last ditch effort to enter the music or film industries through the back door as an entertainment lawyer. As I drove my car west down Santa Monica Boulevard to get a last look at Hollywood, I noticed that one of the independent recording studios where years before I had applied for a job was now a Chipotle. Another one was simply vacant. I made a left on La Brea towards the 10, one of the many interstates that snake through Southern California like a latticework of pipes and conduits. In my downtrodden state, there came to my mind a thought: at one time I’d had the notion that through some kind of capillary action I might percolate upward through the glittery, palm-studded surface streets and arterial highways to infiltrate the rocky soil of the North Hills, eventually settling among the cream of the crop on Mulholland Drive. Instead, I was being flushed down the 10, toward the 405, straight into LAX and onto an eastbound airplane with the rest of the entertainment industry’s jettisoned refuse.

As I headed south to cross Melrose Avenue, I passed Pink’s, the famous hot dog stand opened in 1939. On this particular afternoon in July, like almost every other day of the year, there was a line that literally wrapped around the entire restaurant, probably more than an hour wait. I’ve never waited more than three minutes for a hot dog in my life. The absurd image of all those people queueing up for what they believed to be the best hot dogs on the planet made an instant impact on me. “That,” I said to myself, “is Los Angeles.” Endless waiting, waiting, waiting—standing in lines, idling in traffic, sitting by the phone for a call back, continually checking the computer for an email response. An interminable wait, with bated breath and fingers crossed, for something that you believe has got to be the greatest thing on Earth, but almost always turns out not to be worth it. The greatest hype often belies a lackluster product, and most people wouldn’t eat a hot dog if they saw how it was made. I was glad to be leaving, and I hadn’t even really gotten in. The phony glamour and cloying smarminess of Hollywood’s industry players had already left me feeling ill, the way you feel after finally finishing an all-day sucker at the fair. Even as I wished LA good riddance, I could neither avoid the pangs of envy nor shake the nagging suspicion that I just wasn’t connected enough, outgoing enough, or talented enough.

After shelving my dream of playing and writing music for a living, I became itinerant for a while, taking a series of jobs, tutoring Spanish and ESL, spending a few months in London, then in China. I returned to Costa Rica where during college I had once tended bar and played electric piano at a neighborhood cantina, hoping I might find a teaching gig at a private language school in San José. After returning home, I was hired as the operations manager of a warehouse and distribution center that a high school friend and his business partner had recently purchased. I thought that for once I might as well stop living a fantasy and relegate myself to the travails of the real world. I wouldn’t suggest to denigrate warehouse managers if they excel at their work, but I did not excel, and I was decidedly ill at ease with my new métier. Sometimes after a 14-hour workday of fielding a slew of customer complaints and wrangling intractable employees, I would sink back in my chair and listen to music on the computer. It could be anything from Marina and the Diamonds to the Moody Blues, from Miles Davis to Mendelssohn. I would inevitably analyze the harmonies, chord progressions and rhythmic structure of any song I’d put on, which somehow relaxed me more than simply listening and enjoying. As much as I loved the mere experience of spending an hour running down a random playlist, I couldn’t help striving to understand how any of these people were able to achieve the degree of fame and success that they did, whether because of or in spite of their particular circumstances.

I thought back to my first piano lesson at age nine, plinking random keys with my index fingers like an old typewriter, hoping to unlock this black-and-white enigma before me. It made no sense to me at all. It might as well have been a Rubik’s Cube. Still, even then I knew I wouldn’t give up on it. I would continue muddling through scale after arpeggio after étude until I unlocked the code, and eventually what at one time seemed so arcane would become as natural and effortless as swimming or riding a bike. I took lessons from a phenomenal teacher named Helen Hoffmann, who had studied at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University. With her I spent the next five years on a desultory journey from a forest of early folk tunes and children’s songs through a sea of Baroque keyboard suites and partitas, and up into a constellation of Impressionist waltzes and ragtime duets. My repertoire swelled with gavottes, minuets, sonatas, nocturnes and cakewalks. I became acquainted not only with looming giants like Beethoven and Liszt but also with the unsung heroes of classical piano music, such as Friedrich Kuhlau, Gabriel Fauré and Dmitri Kabalevsky, for whom Mrs. Hoffmann had a special predilection. I myself became partial to the dark and atmospheric Symbolist pieces of Erik Satie, who was influenced by the Dada art movement in his hometown of Paris and was even friends with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.

Around the same time, I discovered the eclectic library of LPs in our basement that had resulted from the merger of my mother’s and father’s respective vinyl collections. While my piano teacher was singing me the praises of Muzio Clementi and Béla Bartók, I was becoming simultaneously cognizant of Boz Scaggs and Billie Holiday. During the same five years I burned through almost every album in the case, everything from The Who and Pink Floyd to Al Green and Joan Armatrading to Deep Forest and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Regardless, even as I absorbed the varied sounds of these artists, I couldn’t help scrutinizing them with reference to the high art music that preceded them by centuries, about which Mrs. Hoffmann taking it upon herself to educate me. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the composers of the common-practice period, spanning the time of François Couperin’s pedagogical harpsichord pieces to the elaborate ragtimes of Scott Joplin’s final years.

It always struck me that Scott Joplin died in 1917 after struggling his entire life to be taken seriously as a classical composer like his French contemporary Claude Debussy. He climbed the social ladder as well as any black musician in the South could in those days, leaving his family of Texas railroad workers to make a living as an itinerant music teacher and performer of ragtime. This had always been considered nothing more than a danceable kind of parlor music, a Sousa-style march mixed with African polyrhythm and syncopation, repurposed for the piano and befitting no venues other than brothels and beer halls. Joplin made his way from Texarkana to St. Louis to New York City with the abiding vision of elevating ragtime to the level of respect reserved for people like Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff. Mrs. Hoffmann, to her credit, made it a point with her students to validate Scott Joplin as a serious composer and vindicate his highbrow aspirations. However, she flatly refused to accept the legitimacy of the new music that had emerged publicly the very year of Joplin’s death and which almost instantaneously eclipsed all popular music that had preceded it. It wasn’t just that she didn’t like jazz or didn’t know how to teach it—she wouldn’t even deign to discuss or acknowledge it, much less permit me to desecrate her piano by learning it. This was baffling to me even at an early age, considering that the person who had recommended Helen Hoffmann to my mother was my uncle, a cornet player and leader of his own five-piece jazz orchestra. The only music my uncle Jim ever listened to was Big Band and Dixieland jazz! Though I’d never had any real proclivity toward the genre, I had become totally sated with the Baroque and Romantic piano pieces that Mrs. Hoffmann had been feeding me week after week. I needed something different, and for whatever reason, this was one arena she was not willing to enter with me.

In order not to let me abandon my music studies, Uncle Jim enlisted the services of a jazz pianist he had played with in the seventies. John Southard taught piano out of a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in downtown Wilmington, Delaware, and he agreed to take me on. I had gone from playing a Steinway concert grand in Mrs. Hoffmann’s beautiful Victorian parlor to beating on a dilapidated and untuned Kohler & Campbell upright that even Scott Joplin wouldn’t have condescended to play. I didn’t care, though. It didn’t matter that some keys would stick or that others had the ivory half chipped off, and it didn’t matter that I always had to compete with the din of city traffic and the pounding footsteps of upstairs neighbors. I was playing a kind of music entirely new to me, and, along with the required standards, Mr. Southard let me pick anything I wanted. I learned the principles of improvisation, strange new chords and cadences, cool jazz, blues, bebop, stride, swing, even the Charleston! I was introduced to Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk. From there (at my own insistence) I went on to learn piano arrangements of The Beatles, Elton John, The Carpenters, Carole King, and almost every hit Billy Joel ever had. My favorite part of each lesson was the jam session, during which Mr. Southard would play accompaniment on the bass end of the keyboard while I improvised a melody line on the upper half. He later taught me how to apply this technique to any song I learned to play alone. I no longer had to drill scales or chord inversions or play every single note exactly the way it was written. I could be creative, improvise, embellish, and most importantly, I could make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes sounded better than the notation! It was like finally learning to speak a language fluently rather than memorizing canned phrases. I was learning to produce my own sounds rather than simply reproduce someone else’s.


            Winter is quickly falling away and I am so relieved to meet the spring sun again.  2016 was incredibly busy and 2017 looks like it will be even busier.  This winter, we chose to not search for new schools for the spring, so that we could work on other projects for Language University, including one that we hope will reach children across our nation and maybe even across the world one day.  All in good time though.  I am still trying to take everything in stride, but it’s hard not to let my dreams get away from me, knowing that a few years ago, this program was all just an idea tucked away in my mind.

            Who would have thought that our students would sing and dance along to our Spanish songs on our CD, or that teachers would tell us that our students are going home and teaching their brothers and sisters Chinese? Is there anything more humbling than that?  I am grateful for every step forward we are able to take, and for every life we are able to change.  We are here such a short time on this earth, and I am proud to be able to dedicate my life trying to make a difference.

            This summer, I will be finishing my graduate studies at Middlebury College (finally!) and I am so looking forward to opening summer programs for 2018.  I wonder how many children and schools we will be able to meet.  Again, I am trying hard not to jump over each milestone and rush to the next, but as I said, it’s difficult not to want to see what the future has in store for our little company.

            As we work this spring and summer to release a codified curriculum for teachers and parents, I just want to say again how grateful I am for this opportunity to introduce foreign language and cultures to all of my students and their families, and I am grateful for all of the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.  I’ll be sure to keep everyone posted with our plans and I thank you all for your love and support.


French for the Summer

I’m 37,207 feet in the air over the Labrador Sea.  While it seems as if we are flying at a slow creep, we are actually traveling over 560 miles an hour.  Paris is still a half-day away. And although I’ve taken the opportunity to visit the city and the country on several occasions, I’m still nervous. Is that funny or sad?


Since the 6th grade, I knew I wanted to speak French.  To me, French sounded like a secret, and I wanted to be in on it.  Yet almost immediately, I realized that learning a foreign language would be one of the most difficult things I could have chosen for myself.


It’s almost ironic in a way that something so innate to us as humans could be so hard to achieve.  And yet, if we all grow up hearing multiple languages, we learn them without even trying. And once conquered as a child, these languages will stay with us throughout our lives.  It’s as if we get to experience multiple worlds within our own planet.  And not just view them from the outside, but as an insider. It’s like a superpower.  But that particular superpower never truly happened for me, as it has for other lucky bilinguals out there.  So here I am, 28-years-old, about to start my fourth year in Middlebury’s graduate degree program for French, and I still don’t feel as if I have the natural knacks of learning other languages as some do.


But I am by no means complaining.  It is because of where I come from that I am so determined to grow our language program and make this superpower happen for my students.  I believe that an education and empathy for others are two of the greatest attributes we could ever ascertain as humans, which is why I want them both for my students.


So, regardless of how strenuous or stressful my upcoming semester might be, I have to remember my main goal in life: to learn so that I may teach. Wish me bonne chance!

Breath in. Breath out. (Is it summer already?!)

An entire school year complete.  Allowing myself to finally say this aloud, I am not surprised that an involuntary sigh of gratitude and relief immediately fills my lungs and escapes through my mouth.


This year has been a dream of five in the making and I’m in awe every time I think about it.  The amount of time and work our LU team has put into each week’s lesson would surprise anyone, but I am so proud that we have solidified such an amazing core group of lessons, songs and crafts for our students.


In saying that, I would like to thank Paul for all of his determination in terms of our songs, sound effects, and (soon-to-be!) CD.  Because of his deep passion and understanding of music, we have a program that not only teaches children foreign languages, but engages them through interactive songs.  Now when we explore the jungle and the moon, the children are even furthered invested in what they are learning and that is everything to me.


I’d also like to send a big thank you to our Craft Specialist, Mary Kay.  Your crafts bring my imagination to life.  Through your diligence and creativity, we have shaped a diverse, enchanting and well-rounded program. You help us leave a lasting effect on our students and their parents with every passing week. Thank you.


As we move closer to the summer season, I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. I am sure our days will quickly fly by, just as the school year did.  Because of this, I wanted to take a moment to remember how I feel at this exact moment.  I am completely humbled. Thank you all again and happy summer, everyone!

A New Year

I cannot believe it. 2015 is almost a year of the past and it has been one of the quickest of my life. Language University is now in full swing and looking back on last year’s blog for this time, I see that I have met my 2015 goals without even thinking about it.  With that being said, I would like to take a moment to reflect on what has come and what will (hopefully) be for 2016.  

Last year, what I wanted most was to meet my students, and meeting them was nothing short of incredible.  I cannot help but laugh and smile when I am with them because they are so honest and enthusiastic about life.  It is amazing how much they continue to teach me as I teach them. Every time I step into the classroom and hear them sing one of our songs or clap their hands in excitement, I am reassured about my dream to help mold our little futures into open-minded and kind human beings.

My second goal was to be able to confidently speak about LU’s present and future.  In my mind, I believe I have only just recently learned to speak to the extent I wanted as one of our newest schools joined us.  Of course I could talk about how our program works and the importance of children learning a second language, BUT I am not a seller.  I do not like to talk numbers and I never grew up believing business would be something I’d be interested in pursuing.  Yet, what I have realized is that when you are honestly passionate about what you are fighting to achieve and you are open and diligent with those you want to reach out to, everything works naturally.  I now understand that having a small business doesn’t have to be a cut throat job. It is a never-ending opportunity to find others who share your dreams so that you may work together to realize them.  

My third and final goal was to meet and work with people in our communities and plan a future for our students and ourselves.  This is one of the best parts of having LU.  Because of how our program works, we never have to feel like we are in schools to make money and leave.  We create bonds with the teachers and administrators because, again, we want the same things for our children.  I can honestly say that everyone I have met thus far has been nothing short of welcoming and encouraging.  And again, I thank you all for your kind words.  

As for planning for LU’s future, I am most looking forward to listening to our first cd (with music and lyrics by Paul), introducing our mascots (thanks Amanda!), growing our business, and potentially even creating a summer camp for next summer!

With all this being said, welcome 2016! I am honored to meet you.


Digging in the Soil

There are many reasons to be fascinated by language. For one thing, every human being with even moderate mental faculties engages in the use of some type of language. You don’t have to wonder why you’re doing it or even notice that you’re doing it, but you’re still going to continue doing it, and throughout your entire life. It’s one of the most innate activities we humans engage in. The part of the movie Cast Away when Tom Hanks’s character draws a face on a volleyball and names it “Wilson” is not simply meant to provide some sympathetic, if slightly unnerving, comic relief. It’s a realistic illustration of the terrible toll that not having someone to communicate with can take on a person.

To me, the study of language for its own sake is fulfilling enough, but imagine most people don't feel that way, and I can easily understand that sentiment. I have known people who love mathematics passionately and spend hours on end immersing themselves in the field, simply for the love of it. This to me is akin to choosing to eat only kale and Swiss chard out of pure passion for bitter greens—of course, there are people who do that kind of thing, and they very well may have the right idea. The truth is that many of the world’s technological advances and modern conveniences are ultimately owed to those who have devoted themselves to mathematics, so I am personally thankful for people who indulge that kind of obsession.

I think the need for foreign language education is enough per se to rationalize linguistic pedagogy, but as a scientific field of study linguistics tends to be considered obtuse and less than useful in modern society. True, linguistics is not necessarily a “hard” science like biology or chemistry, but as it seeks to analyze a universal and inalienable human phenomenon, it occupies a significant place in the grand scheme of human sciences. If I had to frame the field of linguistics in such a way as to “legitimize” it in the real world, though, I would explain it in terms of all the other disciplines that it overlaps with.

If you delve into linguistics, and you really dig around in the soil, you will eventually hit the roots of many other subjects:

  • You’ll see how language and anthropology are inextricable, since language had to develop in order for us as a species to become as successful as we have been at migrating and settling. You might be interested in how language is linked to ethnic identity, or how in some tribal communities men and women use different forms of the same language, or even the fact that baby talk is not a universal phenomenon.
  • If you study etymology and philology, you will discover how language can act as a series of footprints left from the events that have made up human history. Sometimes it only takes one invasion, one war, one event to change the speech patterns of an entire society.

  • You might explore genetics a bit when you find that the FOXP2 gene is primarily responsible for speech and language development in humans. Several members of a well-studied British-Pakistani family exhibit a defect of this gene, and they have displayed limited capacity to learn and pronounce even the simplest words.

  • You’ll have no choice but to learn something about neurology, because a number of massively complex neural networks in the brain underpin every aspect of language development, comprehension, and usage. Damage to a certain part of the brain (Broca's area) will result in the inability to string together words grammatically, all the while managing to comprehend the speech of others and maybe stammering a few meaningful words; damage to another part (Wernicke's area) will cause a patient to speak fluently in full sentences but utter nonsense words and not understand anything spoken by others.

  • You might touch on psychology, how our underlying thought processes affect our individual speech patterns, and, conversely, how speech can affect thought patterns. You might be interested in the relationship of language to hypnosis and the power of suggestion, negative thinking and depression, and the inborn ability of children to acquire language.

  • You’ll find that language is a large part of the field of sociologyparticularly when dealing with prestige dialects, youth jargon, regional variation within a linguistic community, and prejudice surrounding certain accents.

  • Eventually, you may stumble upon the crucial role that language plays in politics, whether you examine the importance of oratory, issues of gender associated with certain languages, or even propaganda and the “cult of personality.”      

  • Finally, you’ll come into contact with a variety of high-level arts and cognitive sciences: literature, music, rhetoric, philosophy, computer programming, and artificial intelligence.

So, the overarching principle of human language is the universality of experience. Linguistics seeks to examine the origins, the mechanics, and the higher implications of language as a universal phenomenon. It really is one of the relatively few things that all fully functioning human beings do. There are accounts of “feral” children being found without having acquired language, but studies have suggested that these children’s mental development was severely stunted by their isolation, and that only in such extreme instances of neglect will a human not acquire speech. We don’t need to read of the horrible “pit of despair” experiments performed in the 1970’s—in which baby rhesus monkeys were placed in isolation chambers after bonding with their mothers—to understand what deep psychological damage results from being bereft of social interaction. Language and communication are at the core of that very basic human need; to explore this idea scientifically is to attempt to grasp the taproot of our humanity.

Welcoming a New Year and LU

After ringing in 2015, I admit that I was a little wary of welcoming the New Year because of all that I had wanted to accomplish in 2014.  Paul and I are still diligently working on growing Language University, but I cannot help but want to get started with our new business and new concepts right away. As we push forward, we are truly hoping that 2015 is our year to be able to put our ideas and experiences to the test and get the opportunity to reach out to children as they join the globalized world.   Since I am so anxious to get started, I have decided to take a minute to compile everything I would like to achieve this year and where I hope to be by the time we are counting down to 2016.

           1. I want to meet my students.  I have actively worked on Language University for the past year and dreamed and planned for its existence for the past five years. I cannot wait to meet the children that I will have the opportunity to help mold into open-minded, confident students. I have so much planned for their classes and their futures, and I will be honored to work with each of them.

           2. This year, I want to incorporate and confidently talk about Language University and our ideals.  Of course, talking about Language University is not difficult for me now, but I want to be able to express exactly how our business functions, what we are striving to accomplish, and how LU has operated in the classroom thus far.  I want to be able to speak from experience instead of articulating everything hypothetically.

           3. Finally, this year I want to meet and work with new people, as well as plan for a wonderful future for LU, my students and myself.  This is the year where I want to make everything that I have dreamed into a reality for the program and everyone involved.  I believe this is the year where it will all happen!

           I know that I started this blog feeling apprehensive about 2015, but after writing about everything I hope to achieve this year, 2015 sounds even better than 2014.   So here is a toast to change, a new year, and to fulfilling dreams.  2015- you’re mine!


Guys and Dudes

Hey guys! What’s up, dudes?

How often do you say those words? I mean, really think about it. If you’re a Millennial or GenXer, “guy” and “dude” may constitute upwards of ten percent of your normal day-to-day speech. Now, how often do you sit and ponder where they actually came from? If you have a life, probably never. You certainly don’t need to know the origin of one single word in a language in order to speak it well, but every word does nonetheless have an origin, and some are more interesting than others. Even most language nerds can’t muster more than an ounce of excitement over words like concatenate or supercilious. But guy and dude it’s words like these that go through quite a lot to end up peppering our daily conversation. They tend to arrive on the scene with some fairly interesting résumés, and we like to give them more than a nonchalant glance.   

It’s amazing to me how a single event can inject a language with a word or phrase that gains significant currency and survives long after the memory of the event has faded from public consciousness. In the case of our first word, that event is a thwarted terrorist attack in the early 17th century. If you’re familiar with Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta or the 2006 movie adaptation, you might recall this folk rhyme as recited by the protagonist:

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot;
I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Well, in the United States especially, the Gunpowder Treason has mostly been forgot. Even in Britain, where the event itself took place, the observances associated with the Fifth of November have largely been replaced by the festivities of Halloween, particularly among British youth. Of course, keep in mind that it happened over 400 years ago—in fact, Shakespeare’s Othello had only just premiered one year earlier—so it stands to reason that the memory would have dimmed by now. But the plot in question has bequeathed to virtually all of us in the anglophone world a remarkable memento: the word guy. On that particular November 5th in 1605, a midnight search of the undercroft beneath London’s House of Lords discovered a man guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder with matches and touchwood in his pocket. An anonymous tip-off letter sent to Lord Monteagle a week earlier had suggested that he and his fellow Lords would be blown up during the opening of Parliament. The man with the gunpowder did not deny these intentions, and gave his name as “John Johnson.” After several days of torture, he finally admitted his real name: Guy Fawkes. He also gave up the identities of his twelve co-conspirators. Their intent was to destroy the House of Lords and assassinate King James I, along with virtually the entire English Protestant political establishment. The plotters were all Catholics and had become disillusioned with James, who after two years on the throne had all but reneged on his promise of leniency toward the English Catholics. Fawkes and his cohorts sought to restore Catholic power to England, and they believed their plan was righteous and for the good of the country. The following year brought about the execution of the plotters, a strengthening of Britain’s overall support for the King, and a notable rise in anti-Catholic sentiment.


Guy Fawkes interrogated by King James I

To commemorate the foiled plot and James’s deliverance, sermons and celebrations were conducted every November 5th, eventually evolving into Bonfire Night (also known as Guy Fawkes Night) in the United Kingdom. Traditionally, revelers would light fireworks and bonfires, burning effigies of Guy Fawkes or other figures of contempt, including the Pope. Bear in mind that the Gunpowder Plot was still fresh in the consciousness of the Pilgrims who sailed to Massachusetts and established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Along with their provisions they imported their cultural traditions to the New World. On both sides of the Atlantic, the practice of parading the grotesque Guy Fawkes effigies around town and burning them at the fire produced the term guy in reference to these figures, even if they were not of Fawkes himself. Years later, the word was eventually used as an epithet for any strange or oddly dressed person. Ultimately, and primarily in the United States, it became an informal synonym for any man or person in general. These days, as many people say “guy” as say “man” in daily speech, and even a group of women can be saluted with an informal “Hi, guys!”

Bonfire Night also gave birth to the Guy Fawkes mask, a stylized version of which is seen in V for Vendetta (as illustrated by David Lloyd), later appropriated by the hacktivist group Anonymous. Not to downplay his involvement, but as a matter of record Guy Fawkes wasn’t the mastermind of the plot; that was a man named Robert Catesby. However, because of his association with the gunpowder itself, Fawkes would end up becoming the name (and face) permanently associated with the Treason. If Robert Catesby had been the symbol of the plot in the minds of the British public, you might be saying instead that your uncle Rick is a really nice “bob.”


But what about dude? It’s possibly the most pervasive American slang term in modern conversation. What mate is to the UK and Australia, dude is to the US. Nothing as shocking as a plan to blow up Parliament was responsible for this ubiquitous colloquialism; rather, a maligned and ridiculed fashion trend spawned the word and spread it among the populace. It was originally a somewhat derogatory term for an effete, excessively fastidious and image-obsessed man, similar to a fop or dandy. In the year 1883, there emerged among New York City gentlemen a craze for aesthetic dress and mannerisms, often in pretentious imitation of the British. Nineteenth-century London fashionistas such as Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde were typical inspirations. The American aesthetes took themselves seriously and did not call themselves “dudes” except facetiously. Baby Boomers and glam rock enthusiasts will be familiar with the 1972 Mott the Hoople song “All the Young Dudes” (written by David Bowie), whose title refers to this original foppish stereotype.

Decades later, the term came to refer to East Coast city slickers who vacationed out West to experience the cowboy lifestyle. Real cowboys called them “dudes”—this still a somewhat pejorative nickname—and thus the dude ranch was born. It wasn’t until the African American community took the word in the 1960’s and began imbuing it with a new sense of perceived “coolness” that the word was divorced from its unfavorable associations. It was concurrently appropriated by the Southern California surfer community and eventually diffused far and wide, so much so that a large swath of that state is unofficially known as the “dude belt. Many words have been popularized by the surfing and skateboarding cultures of Southern California: we have surfers and skaters to thank for endowing words like gnarly, bro, sick, and epic with their current slangy meanings and making them so commonplace in the US. However, dude is probably the most famous Americanism to have been squeezed through the SoCal filter, and now—just like guy—it has generalized to such a degree that I have heard many a twenty-something declare “there are too many ‘dudes’ at this party.”

Back in my formative years there was a show on the Nickelodeon network about a group of teenagers working on a dude ranch—the obvious title: Hey Dude! By this point, the term as we now use it had become widespread enough to function as a facile pun. The word’s “cool factor” has been further bolstered by such pop culture milestones as the Quincy Jones album The Dude and the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, the protagonist of which is called “The Dude.” The latter production garnered a cult following so dedicated that it even generated a tongue-in-cheek but still kind-of-serious “religion” called Dudeism. Check out if you don’t believe me. You can even become an ordained Dudeist priest.

So, guy and dude have come a long way just to end up coloring the modern American vernacular. To me, the most impressive aspect shared by these two words is the fact that they were both originally terms of contempt, eventually being stripped of their negative undertones and pressed into service as indispensable colloquialisms. Think about that the next time you say you’re getting a beer with the “guys” or call your neighbor Keith a cool “dude.”





Lucky Charms

When I was young I loved Lucky Charms cereal. It serves no nutritional purpose—in fact, it’s barely food. Other than the milk, it’s nothing more than various forms of carbohydrate, plus some food dye. Nevertheless, I have nothing but good memories of it. My favorite thing to do with the cereal was to eat as many of the oat pieces as possible so I could gather a mound of marshmallow charms in a single spoonful. General Mills claims that the marshmallows make up 25% of each box by volume, but by my recollection that’s a bit of an overestimate. In any case, I always looked forward to wading through the boring cereal part so I could enjoy the fleeting rush of the marshmallows’ glycemic load.

I like to think that I’m not the only one who ever did that. I can’t imagine there are too many kids who eat Lucky Charms for the toasted oats. Today, I find that a scientific field of study is like a bowl of marshmallow cereal. The majority by volume is dry, hard, and boring—the more “nutritious” stuff that forms the base of the material, necessary but dull and unexciting. Scattered among the chunks of cardboard, though, are the coveted sugary charms, the yellow moons and green clovers that make the whole experience worthwhile.

An unfamiliar scientific discipline can be a dark, convoluted, intimidating place. I love linguistics in general, but it’s those little easter eggs I find while foraging through the underbrush that make me glad I ever ventured into the woods in the first place. Wait, I think that’s too many metaphors for one blog. Back to the Lucky Charms… below are 14 of the marshmallow bits I’ve discovered while studying language. Not everyone will find all these trivial pieces as appealing as I do, but I guarantee that every person will be intrigued by at least one:

  • On the mountainous and forested island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands of Spain, there is a language known as Silbo Gomero, which consists entirely of whistles. Long before the arrival of the Spanish, it was used by the indigenous Guanche people to communicate across the island’s steep hills and deep ravines from over two miles away. It is still used today by a large number of La Gomera’s 22,000 inhabitants. Silbo Gomero does not have its own independent grammar; it is simply a whistled method of speaking the Spanish language, with different pitch and duration patterns representing particular vowels and consonants. Before Spanish, it was used with the native Guanche language. Studies have shown that Silbo Gomero is processed in the same parts of the brain responsible for regular language comprehension.
  • Words in all languages undergo changes in meaning, some quite drastically. In the Middle Ages, the word nice meant “silly” or “foolish,” and the word silly meant “blessed” or “fortunate.” To someone from the year 1350, the admonishment “Don’t be silly, she’s very nice!” would make no sense at all. Notice that the cognates of these words in other languages retain the original meanings: in German, selig still means “blessed,” and in Spanish, necio still means “foolish.”
  • Most of us know that an oxymoron is a word or phrase with seemingly contradictory elements: “bittersweet,” “serious fun,” or “awfully good.” Shakespeare was an oxymoron enthusiast, viz., “Parting is such sweet sorrow” and “O heavy lightness!” Some phrases are called oxymorons for comic or satirical effect, such as “military intelligence,” “American culture,” and “business ethics.” One of my favorite oxymorons is the surname of Oxford language professor and Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien, at least according to his own preferred etymology. Tolkien himself said his name was derived from the German word tollkühn, meaning “foolhardy.” The underlying Germanic roots mean “dull” and “keen” (that is, “sharp”), making the German word and his name a perfect semantic oxymoron: “dull-sharp.” But let’s take it a step further… what does the word oxymoron literally mean? The Greek root oxy means “sharp,” and moron means “dull”; thus the word oxymoron is itself an oxymoron, and it means the same thing as Tolkien in reverse: “sharp-dull.” For this reason the man sometimes called himself by the moniker “Oxymore” as an inside joke. Some scholars have found evidence that Tolkien’s surname may actually come from either a Norman or Prussian place name, but I choose to stick with his own version.
  • Many acronyms have well-known meanings: FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and NBC (National Broadcasting Company), for example. Others are less familiar. Sometimes it’s because they abbreviate foreign words, such as KGB, which stands for the Russian Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (“Committee for State Security”). The word also might not even be recognizable as an acronym: Taser actually stands for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, referring to a 1911 young adult novel. 

  • Just as many people talk in their sleep, deaf people have been found to sign in their sleep. Deaf babies also make random, nonsense signs in the same way that hearing babies babble verbally. Perhaps an even more intriguing phenomenon occurs among deaf children born to hearing parents who do not teach their kids a standardized sign language such as ASL, whether due to poverty, isolation or neglect. These children will begin developing their own unique sign language—often known as kitchen signs—in order to describe the actions and objects they encounter in their daily lives. When other deaf siblings are present in the family, this homegrown sign language can become much more elaborate as it gets fleshed out among the children. Though kitchen signs never quite approximate a real codified sign language, they have far-reaching implications regarding the universality of language development, as well as the critical period hypothesis.
  • Hyperforeignism is the act of attempting a native pronunciation of a foreign word but doing so incorrectly. For example, the “Taj” in Taj Mahal should be pronounced so as to rhyme with “dodge” and not “massage.” The usual English pronunciation is hyperforeign. The same goes for the j in Beijing: it should be pronounced as in the English word “jingle.”

  • Old English had a love affair with compound words. If you ever read Beowulf in your high school English Lit class, you might be familiar with the literary technique known as the kenning. This is a figure of speech in which two words are combined to refer more poetically to a mundane concept. In Beowulf, the sea is given names like hronrad (“whale-road”) and fiscesethel (“fish-home”). The human body is at one point called a banhus (“bone-house”). In one Old English translation of the Bible, the sun is referred to as heofoncandel (“heaven-candle”). Not many people would guess, however, that the modern word lord started out as a kenning. In early Old English, the word for the head of a household or manor was a hlafweard, meaning “loaf-ward,” that is, the keeper or guardian of the bread. In those days, if you controlled the allotment of food, then you were the master of the house. Over the centuries, this very common word started shortening and simplifying, going through a transformation something like this: hlafweard —> hlaford —> loverd —> lourde —> lord. In Anglo-Saxon England, the woman of the household was the “bread-kneader,” which in Old English was hlæfdige. This word, of course, became lady.
  • The field of psychology has given rise to a crop of new coinages, odd agglomerations of Greek and Latin roots whose inscrutability masks the sometimes absurd nature of the referent. Some maladies are disturbing and truly serious. Others may be equally serious to the patient but hard to actually take seriously. Two of my favorites are bromidrosiphobia—the hallucinatory preoccupation that one is emitting offensive body odor or bad breath that is detected by everyone else—and gamomania—the pathological obsession with making extravagant marriage proposals. A person with both afflictions is likely doomed to a lifetime of disappointment. 
  • The word like has become one of the most common fillers or hedging words in English. It’s especially prevalent among Millennials and is the bane of their parents’ existence. However, the word in its modern form has been around since at least the 1950’s, was used extensively by the Beatniks and subsequently by the Hippies, and has always seemed to be linked to rebellious youth culture. After being further popularized during the 80’s and 90’s via association with the Southern California “Valley Girl” stereotype, the word took on a life all its own. Many other languages have their own filler words. Most of Latin America has este (meaning “this”); Mandarin uses nèige (“that”); Arabic speakers often say ya’ni (“he means”); and young Romanians usually say gen (“type” or “kind”) at the end of sentences. Another term for these “meaningless” words that fill empty space in conversation is speech disfluency, and the phenomenon seems to exist to some degree in every language on Earth.
  • The word sneeze actually used to start with an f. In Old English the verb was fneosan and was pronounced exactly as written. That word ultimately shares a root with the Ancient Greek word pneo, which means “breathe” or “blow.” From that Greek verb we’ve derived words like pneumatic and pneumonia. The relationship to the act of sneezing, of course, centers around the lungs or the expulsion of air.
  • Africa is famous for having “click” languages, of which only a relative few survive. These clicks are not stylistic; they actually have phonetic value, and they’re as crucial to meaning as a vowel or consonant. In the opening scene of The Lion King, the song “Circle of Life” begins with a chant in Zulu. If you listen carefully, you can hear a click. About 24 seconds in, the lead male vocalist Lebo M sings the word Siyonqoba,” meaning roughly “We will overcome.” The q in that word actually represents a click made with the tongue against the roof of the mouth, as if to imitate popping a cork off a bottle. Without that click the word would make no sense in Zulu.
  • Trademark genericization is one of the many ways of coining new words. When I cut my finger I look for a Band-Aid, even if it’s actually a Curad bandage. Sometimes a person with a cold will ask me for a Kleenex, even though I may actually give them a Puffs tissue. You might say you’re doing a PowerPoint but actually use Keynote. If you’ve spent a significant amount of time in the South, you may have heard a waiter ask what kind of Coke you want—a Sprite or a Dr. Pepper? The list goes on. Companies that put up resistance against this have unwittingly resigned themselves to fighting a losing battle. It’s simply what happens to words, trademarked or not. Most people forget that the following words were once—or still are—registered brand names: aspirin, breathalyzer, heroin, jacuzzi, novocain, popsicle, taser and velcro, to name only a few.

  • Back to The Lion King for a moment… the phrase hakuna matata really does mean “no worries” in Swahili (it’s literally “there are no problems”), although virtually no one in Tanzania or Kenya ever uses it in conversation. Most likely because there usually is a problem.
  • The Klingon language was developed by linguist Marc Okrand for use in the Star Trek franchise. I doubt that anyone, even Okrand himself, could have predicted that today there would be a respectable number of fluent and semi-proficient speakers; Klingon translations of Hamlet, Gilgamesh, and the Bible; and even an opera entirely in Klingon. So many movies and TV shows have made reference to the language (just watch any random episode of The Big Bang Theory), that it can safely be asserted that Klingon has become fully cemented in pop culture, and not just in the world of science fiction fandom. A man named d’Armond Speers even attempted to raise his son as a native Klingon speaker; apparently the boy came to understand quite a lot, but by age five stopped playing along. Watching everyone roll their eyes as soon as your dad starts speaking a TV alien language would probably turn you off to the idea. By the way, the Klingon Language Institute is located in Flourtown, Pennsylvania.

It’s Happening!

I wanted to begin with a whimsical quote that speaks depths and touches the soul, something I could say to make everyone reading immediately understand where I’ve been and where I hope to go.  Well, the only wise words I hear in my head right now are from Dory in Finding Nemo telling me to “just keep swimming.”  So, I will.  I am ecstatic and honored to not only be able to create and run my own business, but to craft a program that will help create a better world for our children, by our children. What a dream!

           I still remember 22-year-old me sprawled out on a rickety, hostel bunk bed in Europe writing a journal entry about how I wanted to create a foreign language program.  I had no idea how I was ever going to put something like this together or if I even could.  Yet I couldn’t deny that my time abroad had made me realize how important language skills are to us as humans and friends and how much I wanted to help unite the world through cultural and language education. In my travels, I saw how frequently multi-lingual skills were used in not only the education systems, but in everyday life.  I was disappointed thinking about how infrequently we find preschools and elementary school curriculums here in the United States that include a foreign language despite it being the most critical time to learn.

           In the past, I received much criticism about wanting to teach without ever having taken a Praxis exam or choosing the education track for my undergraduate or graduate studies.  But I do not regret my decision.  I know that some of the best teachers are found through their passions and not through their test scores.  I strongly believe that it is our experiences that makes us who we are and whom we want to be, and I am proud to have created all I have through my language courses, past experiences, my passion and my determination.

           Learning a foreign language is life altering in more than one sense.  Not only is it an incredibly difficult feat with an incredibly rewarding impression, but it also opens the mind to new experiences and new ideas.  For me to have the opportunity to help people realize their true potential, and help open their minds to different cultures and peoples is a dream in itself.  Thank you to everyone who has helped me become the person I am today and for believing that I could make a difference. A special thank you goes out to my dad, my travel bug mom, my beautiful grandparents, my amazing siblings and friends, my Kyle, my Uncle Mark and Aunt Lori for their special guidance, and to my new business partner, Paul. Thank you all for your faith and support.


-  Lia Andrews, Founder of Language University