What’s the point of learning Russian?

Graduation day at the Bright Minds Center in New York City. Bright Minds is a bilingual Russian/English preschool. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Graduation day at the Bright Minds Center in New York City. Bright Minds is a bilingual Russian/English preschool. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Here’s a guest post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

When my editor, Patrick, assigned me a story about how the Russian language is dying, I thought he was being funny.

I pointed out that, yoo hoo! — I speak Russian and so does my entire family. I invited, no, dared, him to step into a crowded elevator in New York City and start complaining in loud Russian about someone’s B.O.

And then I headed to Bright Minds Center in Manhattan for graduation day, where classes in Russian are offered for kids age 2 to 15… and business is booming.

“In the first year, we signed up 60 kids. Now we have around 300 families,” co-founder Anna Volkova tells me. In fact, the school has expanded so fast since 2008 that they are now looking to open a second branch. But when I ferried this news back to my editor, he directed my attention to a national survey conducted by the Center for Applied Linguistics, which paints a different picture. Russian now places last among foreign languages taught in American elementary or secondary schools. At just 0.3 percent, it ranks behind Greek, Arabic and Native American languages.

That wasn’t the case before the Iron Curtain fell. But the US government’s interest in Russian studies was closely tied to their interest in keeping the Soviet Union in check.

As Russian language expert Kevin Hendzel explains, “When the Soviet Union first collapsed, the language money went away from Russian and into Ukrainian and Kazakh and the Baltic languages because there was no capability in the United States. And after 9/11, all the money got pulled into Arabic and Pashtu and Dari and Urdu and a lot of other languages. In a limited pool of dollars, you tend to move them around to where you feel a need.”

That need hasn’t been keenly felt here in the US for years. And the former Soviet satellite countries are dropping Russian as a second language faster than Vladimir Putin can say Pussy Riot. Without government funding, interest in learning Russian depends more on its pop-appeal, but even during the Sochi Olympics, the cultural ambassadors Russia touted were mostly… dead. Safe to say there are just aren’t a surplus of youngsters out there jonesing to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in the original.

But there is still one place where Americans are required to know Russian, and that’s Outer Space. Starting in 2011, NASA made learning Russian a requirement for all astronauts, the same year it began relying on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station. But recent tensions over the crisis in Ukraine have had the Russians threatening to end their participation in the International Space Station program. That doesn’t mean American astronauts should put away their Russian grammar textbooks quite yet.

“The Russians take some delight in being the means by which the Americans are able to get to the space station, and there’s still a fair amount of decent science being done up there that can’t be done really anywhere else.” Kevin told me. “So I think what you’re going to see is the effort will continue.”

And according to Kevin, the chill that’s settled over US-Russian relations may paradoxically end up driving us back into Russia’s arms — linguistically speaking that is.

“Within the government, I think they’re looking at it and saying, “We may have run away from this a little bit too quickly. Let’s put a little bit of money here. Let’s put some more chips on the table. Let’s be aware of the advantages that knowing a language at a native level, or certainly at a technical level, give us.”

And yet, Russian will never again be as widely spoken as it was when the Soviet Union straddled the globe like a sumo wrestler, threatening to sit on countries that dared say Nyet to Russian. But just as I was starting to feel depressed that Russian would soon just be a lonely secret I shared with 144 million other native speakers, I met up with linguist John McWhorter, who reminded me just how unlikely the spread of Russian was to begin with.

“Russian is really, really hard. And I say that as somebody who loves Russian very much. Just all of the jangling stuff on the nouns, all the brick-a-brack with the verbs, just try to say something as simple as ‘I went to the store.’ The verbs of motion. Just try to count! It’s a magnificent nightmare.”

You’d think the languages easiest to speak and learn, would also be the most common. But it turns out tanks and bombers spread a language much more effectively than the promise of regular verbs.

“And so it just shows that there’s nothing about the way a language happens to be put together that allows it to spread and become a language of empire,” McWhorter informs me. “Any language can become a language of empire so long as certain conditions are met.”

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Dmitry Golden, and his daughter, a student at Bright Minds Center in New York City. (Photo: Alina Simone)

Of course, politics and war aren’t the only way a language can spread. Forty years ago, we may have had a lot more Americans speaking Russian as a second language, but the number of Russian immigrants in the US was infinitesimal. Not so today.

At Bright Minds Center, 90 percent of the kids studying Russian are from mixed parentage with only one Russian-speaking parent.

Many of the kids even end up being trilingual, like Dmitry Golden’s daughter, a student at Bright Minds, who speaks Spanish as well as Russian because her mother is a native of the Dominican Republic.

As the saying goes: languages are best learned on the pillow. Or to put it another way: To Russian, with love.


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Some people have re-imagined English as Anglish, with no words derived from French or Latin

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet


Here’s a guest post from Tom Rowsell.

It’s common knowledge that languages are fluid things which merge into one another and evolve to become new languages. But the way they change isn’t necessarily natural or arbitrary. The changes that occur to languages are often the result of wars, genocides, mass migrations, political meddling and religious taboos. The point of any language is to make oneself understood and this fact has meant that geography maintains the distinct character of different languages so that they remain intelligible to those inhabiting a certain area.

Linguistic purism is usually about preserving a language and protecting it from being corrupted by the introduction of foreign words. But Anglish is a bit different from other types of linguistic purism because it isn’t intended to preserve the English language as it is spoken now, nor as it has ever been spoken. Instead Anglish is a form of English stripped clean of the last 1000 years of non-Germanic influence, while also being brought up to date in terms of modern syntax, grammar and spelling.

So words like love, which is derived from the Old English word lufian, remain as they are in Anglish, while words like horticulture, the first part of which is derived from the Latin hortus meaning garden, have to be altered. The Anglish translation of horticulture is wortcraft, which is a compound of wort, meaning plant, and craft, meaning work.

Anglish speakers are a fringe movement of linguistic purists who want to streamline the English language and rid it of words of un-Anglo-Saxon origin. They don’t speak Old English as it was, because they keep the modern versions of words derived from Old English ones, but they replace words derived from French or Latin with what they consider to be the most appropriate Germanic English equivalents.

Anglish speakers haven’t had to invent an entire language as such, because most of the normal English words we use in daily conversation are of Old English origin. But although spoken English is primarily Germanic, the vast majority of words in the English language are of non Germanic origin, and this is where Anglish purists have had to be inventive. The words they have created are quite charming but confusing at times. Fortunately the Anglish Moot have provided an online Anglish Wordbook (wordbook is Anglish for dictionary) to help you learn the lingo.

In many cases you can guess what is meant because Anglish is quite intuitive. “Expand” is replaced by swell while “edit” is replaced by bework. The Anglish movement has roots way back in the late 1800s when Elias Molee advocated an English purged of its Romance components. He made his case in two books; “Pure Saxon English” and “Plea for an American Language, or Germanic-English”. He proposed a language similar to Anglish called Tutonish, which was intended to be a “union tongue” for all the Germanic-language speaking peoples, with a schematised English syntax and a largely German- and Scandinavian-based vocabulary.

In 1989 Poul Anderson wrote a short text about atomic theory in a version of English free from Romance elements. The text entitled “Uncleftish Beholding” is seen as the blueprint for the modern Anglish movement and what it can achieve. These opening paragraphs give you a feel for how Anderson made scientific speech seem more accessible and almost folksy.

    “For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
    of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
    to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
    watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
    The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
    together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
    knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
    barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
    as aegirstuff and helstuff.”

The compound words like ymirstuff and aegirstuff reference figures from Nordic mythology, like the primordial giant of creation Ymir and the God of the sea Aegir, in order to describe the base elements of the universe in a Germanic context. Anderson also borrowed from German words to create “waterstuff” and “sourstuff”, coming from Wasserstoff (hydrogen) and Sauerstoff (oxygen).

It is unlikely that the Anglish dialect being created by linguistic enthusiasts will ever become widespread, but it is not without value. One thing about Anglish words is that they are more consistent and easier to understand if you have never heard them before. This is a great lesson for journalists, poets and authors struggling with vocabulary. Language is after all, a means of making oneself understood. If we endeavour to express the more complicated concepts of life and science with the most basic Anglo-Saxon language possible, then we may find the language is not only easier to understand but also sounds better.

Tom Rowsell is a professional writer and the director of “From Runes to Ruins”, a documentary film about Anglo-Saxon history. He is currently employed by the translation and interpreting company, EmpowerLingua.


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No longer mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr can restart his career as a comedian, not that ever stopped.

Jón Gnarr (Photo courtesy Melville House)

Jón Gnarr (Photo courtesy Melville House)

On the night he was elected mayor of Reykjavik in June 2010, Jón Gnarr gave his supporters a taste of what might be to come.

“Welcome to the revolution!” he declared. Like much of what he says, it was tongue-in-cheek. Maybe.

Four years later, Gnarr has retired, having served a single term. He’s written a book and is trying to figure out what to do next.

Gnarr used to be a punk rocker — an anarchist too, and one of Iceland’s best-known comedians. His campaign for mayor was an extended piece of performance art that morphed into a real-life show, “right after I got elected,” he says.

He became mayor at a time of desperation for many of Reykjavik’s residents. The 2008 global meltdown had hit Iceland harder than just about anywhere else. Three major banks had collapsed, the government was bankrupt and overnight, people found themselves knee-deep in debt, their savings wiped out.

So they voted for a man who made ridiculous campaign promises that no-one expected him to keep: promises about additions to the city’s zoo and swimming pools, and most poignantly, a pledge to eliminate all debt.

Gnarr’s political party — a new one — was made up mainly of artists and musicians: Besti flokkurinn means “Best Party.” Part of the name’s appeal was the pun in English (“I was at the best party last night”). The wordplay doesn’t work in Icelandic, but Gnarr says most people got the joke anyway.

Once elected, Gnarr immediately ran into problems. There were insults from real politicians, who told him he was “incapable of doing my job, I’m not qualified, and I’m a clown.”

They tried to show him up, Gnarr says, by using the densest possible bureaucratese.

“I mastered the Icelandic language very well; I’m very good at Icelandic,” he says. “But in Iceland, like in many other countries, the political culture has evolved into some sort of subculture with a different language. They have terms and words that ordinary people just don’t understand.”

Gnarr and his Best Party colleagues countered this way of talking by satirizing it — to the point of absurdity.

They came up with fake initiatives — outrageously condescending ones that were supposed to show how much they cared about certain groups, like the disabled and women.

“I openly said that we were willing to listen to women, and that we would even have meetings with women,” says Gnarr, fighting laughter. “We would record everything that they would have to say, so that future generations could listen to it.”

Gnarr knew he was treading a fine line, but most people seemed to get what he was up to.

“Sometimes I would sound ridiculous, but I’m harmless,” he says.

There are some of Reykjavik’s residents who wanted him to be a little less harmless, a little more Rage Against the Machine.

Jón Gnarr, then-mayor of Reykjavik, dressed in drag at the head of the Gay Pride 2010 march through Reykjavik (Photo: Matt Riggott via Flickr)

Jón Gnarr, then-mayor of Reykjavik, dressed in drag at the head of the Gay Pride 2010 march through Reykjavik (Photo: Matt Riggott via Flickr)

But that was never Gnarr’s revolution. Yes, he was tapping into the outrage at the political and business cabal that had ruled Iceland. His response was to poke fun at it — to show it up as irresponsible — and leave Icelandic voters in a better position to make more informed choices next time.

And, funnily enough, this anarchist high-school dropout is now regarded as having brought much-needed stability to the mayor’s office.

He generally didn’t interfere with the day-to-day running of Reykjavik — he left that to city managers. Instead, he pushed hard on issues like gay rights and improving public spaces, while also overseeing painful budget cuts.

Most refreshing for many was his refusal to run for a second term.

Leaving politics has allowed Gnarr to write a book and visit the United States. His first time in the US was in 1989. People would ask where he was from. His reply didn’t help. “They didn’t have a clue — they didn’t know what Iceland was,” he says. “But nowadays when I’m somewhere and being asked where I’m from and I say Iceland, and people say ‘Ah! Björk.’”

Björk, perhaps inevitably, is a close friend of Gnarr’s. And as well-known as she is around the world, Gnarr is also also becoming a sort of global cultural ambassador for Iceland.

He jokes that the country should rename itself Björkland, in recognition of its artistic riches.

“Once I was in a radio debate with the former mayor, and she said that we were just a bunch of artists,” he says. “She spoke of artists like some sub-humans, like people who can’t pay their bills or organize their daily life or something. That made me very angry. And I said what is this country of ours famous for if not for art and artists? From the very beginnings with the Sagas, and now especially with music, Iceland is world-known for its music and its musicians.”

It’s not clear even to Gnarr what’s next for him. He says he’s still trying to make sense of his four years in power.

He’s none too happy with the results of Reykjavik’s recent elections. Young voters stayed away from the polls, his political allies didn’t do well, while a party that opposes the construction of what would be Reykjavik’s first mosque did do well.

Gnarr’s only plans for now are, as you might expect, out of left field.

“I will definitely go to Texas,” he says. “But I’m not sure what I’m going to do there. I have noticed that many of my followers on Facebook are from Texas. So I’ll definitely have to go there and talk to the Texans.”

Sitting mayors in the Lone Star State facing re-election: you have been warned.

Listen to the audio at the top of this post to hear a great conversation with Jón Gnarr, including the story of his name: he was born Jón Gunnar Kristinsson — and that’s still the name on his passport. The Icelandic government refuses to recognize Gnarr, which it says is not a traditional Icelandic surname.


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How FIFA overcame soccer’s language barrier

Photo: eko via Flickr

Photo: eko via Flickr

Here’s a guest post from The Big Show’s Nina Porzucki.

The World Cup kicked off this with a match between Brazil and Croatia officiated by a Japanese referee. How do Croatians, Brazilians and Japanese communicate on the field?

After the Croatian team lost the opening match, the Croatian player, Vedran Corluka complained that he couldn’t understand the referee.

“He was speaking Japanese,” said Corluka, “so it was real difficult to communicate with him.”

This isn’t the first incident of miscommunication on the soccer field. In fact, miscommunication is what gave birth to one of the most infamous symbols of soccer.

Ever wonder what players are saying to the referee on the field?

Peter Walton has heard it all. He is a former Premier League referee. But when Walton, or any FIFA referee for that matter, talks back to players it should be in English and not Japanese or any other language.

FIFA referees take English courses to learn the basics of what they need to know to communicate on the field.

“’Off’ for example is universal and everyone knows what ‘off’ means when you red card a player,” said Walton.

Not always so. The red card was actually born out of a misunderstanding about “off” on the field.

The year was 1966. The World Cup was being hosted in England and it was a tense quarter final match between host England and Argentina. The referee for the match was German.

Around 35 minutes into the game, the referee called a foul against Argentina.

Argentina’s captain, Antonio Rattin, questioned the foul. The problem was, as he said in an interview later, he was speaking Spanish, which the referee didn’t understand.

Things got increasingly heated. There were wild gesticulations and raised voices in various languages. And then the German referee sends Rattin “off.”

“Because of miscommunication, because of some language barrier and also because of body language issues, the ref didn’t communicate to Rattin or Rattin didn’t pick it up, and [he] stayed on the field.”

The Argentine captain refused to walk, stopping the game for eight minutes – an eternity in soccer. He finally did leave the field and the game resumed but most importantly, that moment of complete breakdown in communication forced FIFA to innovate

“FIFA said look we’ve got to have a way of communicating to the players and the public at large when there’s been some disciplinary sanction,” said Walton.

The idea came from the head referee of those 1966 World Cup games, a man called Ken Aston. Aston was stopped at a traffic light one day and it suddenly occurred to him.

“Yellow, take it easy; red: stop, you’re off”

And so the red and yellow cards were born.

They were first used in the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico and have since become a symbol of soccer. As soon as the referee puts his hand in his pocket, the players, the coach and the entire crowd knows.

In fact, the act is so entrenched that you don’t even need the cards themselves. Referee Peter Walton found this out the hard during one Premier League match when in the middle of the field he reached into his pocket and there was nothing there.

“To my dismay, [I] found that I’d left my red and yellow cards in the locker room,” he said. “There I was in front of the worldwide TV audience and what did I do? I just put my hand in the pocket and pulled out this imaginary card and held my hand aloft with no card in it and said, ‘There’s your caution.’ I thought I got away with it until the TV picked it up and if you Google my name on YouTube you’ll have a laugh yourself.”

It is quite a funny video.


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A history of Hebrew, told one word at a time

Ben and Jerry's ice cream in Israel is labeled "glida," the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in Israel is labeled “glida,” the Aramaic word for frost. In modern Hebrew, it means ice cream. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Here’s a guest post from Daniel Estrin, who lives in Jerusalem.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the history of words over centuries.

In Israel, linguists are still compiling a similar dictionary for the ancient Hebrew language.

English as we know it has been around about 860 years.

“Without bragging, the history of Hebrew is much older,” said Gabriel Birnbaum, a senior researcher at Israel’s official Academy of the Hebrew Language. About three times older.

Birnbaum’s job is to write the entries for the Hebrew Historical Dictionary. Four days a week, seven hours a day, he sits alone in his small office, surrounded by dusty volumes of ancient Hebrew texts, and types out definitions.

“The ideal is to have all the words with all their history, how they started, when they started to be used, the whole of the treasure of the Hebrew language,” said Birnbaum. “The English have it, the French have it, the Hungarians have it, so we should also have it.”

Hebrew was born around the 12th century BC. It’s the language of the Bible; Jesus knew Hebrew. But a few decades after Jesus’ death, Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, and they adopted different languages.

“Hebrew for 1,700 years wasn’t spoken by anyone,” Birnbaum said. “Some people call it a dead language. But if it was dead, it was a very lively corpse.”

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

A boy reads the ancient Hebrew text from a Torah scroll at his Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall holy site in Jerusalem. (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

It really wasn’t dead at all. Jews wrote their literature and liturgy in Hebrew, and recited prayers in Hebrew, as they do to this day. In the late 19th century, waves of Jews moved to the Holy Land, and revived Hebrew as a spoken language.

But how do you order ice cream in an ancient tongue?

“They didn’t have words for office, or eyeglasses, or for matches,” said Birnbaum. “So from where will we take this? Of course we can coin new words. But first we have to use all the words we have in our sources.”

That’s how the mysterious Biblical word chashmal, referring to God appearing with fire and light, became the modern word for electricity. In an ancient Aramaic translation of a Biblical passage, manna from heaven is described as thin as frost, or glida. Today, glida is the frosty stuff you order at the ice cream parlor.

Hebrew is based on “roots,” patterns of letters that are the building blocks of the language. The three-letter combination in the word “write” also appears in the words for “article,” “reporter,” “letter,” “spelling,” “address,” and anything having to do with writing.

More than half of the roots in modern Hebrew come straight from the Bible.

“If I give you a text of Old English, you won’t understand a word. Those words have changed a lot,” Birnbaum said. “Now you take an Israeli child, you give him a text from the Book of Genesis, or a text from the Book of Samuel, he can understand, not to exaggerate, 70 percent of it. He can understand it.”

The Hebrew Language Academy began compiling its historical dictionary in 1959, but only came out with a first edition in 2005. There are many words from the past few thousand years to comb through, not to mention all the new words of the last century.

Linguists at the Hebrew Language Academy are still coining new words for terms that didn’t exist in the Bible or the Middle Ages – and Israelis often email the language academy to request new words.

Staffer Tzipi Senderov said there’s been high demand lately for one particular word.

“People always write the same thing. ‘I need to know the Hebrew term for cupcake,’” Senderov said. “Then we have to say, ‘There is no alternative,’ and people are like, ‘Why, can’t you find an alternative?’”

They did. The Hebrew Language Academy has posted two options online for the public to choose from. So far the more popular choice is ugoneet, which in English translates to “mini-cake.” The other contender is mufeen mekushat, or “decorated muffin.”

Do these alternatives to cupcake sound tasty?

“No, and it wouldn’t catch, whatsoever,” Senderov said. “That’s the problem.”

All the Hebrew Language Academy’s new words will eventually end up in the historical dictionary. But sometimes, its new words just don’t catch on.

At birthday parties across Israel, a cupcake may just stay a cupcake.


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Eight words and phrases that make most sense at the World Cup

Photo: Cristiano Oliveira via Flickr

Photo: Cristiano Oliveira via Flickr

Like most sports, soccer has its own technical language. It also has its own slang and neologisms. Here are eight of them.

1. A hora da onça beber agua. (“The jaguar drinks water.”)

This Portuguese phrase is a popular colloquialism in Brazil. It means the moment of truth. It’s often used in a soccer context.

2. Handbags

This is much-used by soccer players in Britain. It refers to a mini-fracas among opposing players, as distinct from full-on fisticuffs. It often involves shouting, pushing and possibly forehead-on-forehead contact—but not head-butting. David Beckham has been known to classify such a minor confrontation as “only handbags.”

3. Drogbacité

Named after Ivory Coast veteran star Didier Drogba. In 2006, Drogba intervened in Ivory Coast’s civil war, imploring both sides to lay down their arms and negotiate. The apparent success of his speech led to the expression drogbacité, which means a combination of good timing, speed and grace under pressure. See the video below for the drogbacité dance.

4. Catenaccio (“The chain”)

An ultra-organized, defensive method of playing soccer popularized in Italy in the 1960s. Don’t expect to see the Italians play that way at this World Cup: these days their strength is in attack, not defence.

5. The Beautiful Game

The origin of this phrase to describe soccer may be British. But it was popularized by Brazilian superstar Pele. And it sounds better in Portuguese: o jogo bonito.

6. Moñas (“Ringlets”)

In his book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano describes how the these elaborate figure-of-eight moves were once loved by crowds in his native Uruguay. During the 1930 World Cup, the the move intimated and confused teams from Europe. One Uruguayan player even reputedly fooled French journalists into believing that the Uruguayans learned to perform moñas by chasing chickens.

7. Life and Death

The best soccer related quote may be one attributed to Bill Shankly, former manager of English club Liverpool. “Football is not a matter of life and death,” he said. “It’s much more important than that.”

8. Soccer? Football?

Don’t get me started. Just read this.


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What happens when the doctor says ‘hospice’ and you understand ‘poorhouse’?

Ospizio al Colle del Piccolo S.Bernardo, Italy. Languages such as Italian ('ospizio') and Spanish ('hospicio') have words that sound like 'hospice'. But they mean something different: old people's home, poorhouse, refuge for migrants. (ro_buk/Flickr)

Ospizio al Colle del Piccolo S.Bernardo, Italy. Languages such as Italian (‘ospizio’) and Spanish (‘hospicio’) have words that sound like ‘hospice’. But they mean something different: old people’s home, poorhouse, refuge for migrants. (ro_buk/Flickr)


Here’s a guest post from Los Angeles-based reporter Daniela Gerson.

Beware of false friends — similar-sounding words with common etymologies. False friends like hospice and hospicio don’t mean the same thing.

The Spanish-language pages of Medicare and the National Institutes of Health translate hospice as hospicio. To Los Angeles resident Manuela Flores this just seems bizarre

Hospicio is a place for orphans,” says Flores, an immigrant from Nicaragua who has lived in the United States for nearly three decades. Spanish speakers from other countries give different definitions— to some it’s a refuge for migrants, to others a home for elderly people who have no family to support them. But whatever the variation hospicio means a place for the destitute, and definitely not somewhere you want your loved ones to end up.

Nicaraguan-born Manuela Flores misunderstood what hospice meant. (courtesy Manuela Flores)

Nicaraguan-born Manuela Flores misunderstood what hospice meant. (courtesy Manuela Flores)

Flores says until recently she had never come across the concept of hospice care, and she would not even know how to give a name to it in Spanish. In English, hospice means an end-of-life program that includes at home medical services as well as psychological and social support. For anyone who is eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, hospice care is free. But Hispanics nationwide are making use of hospice services at lower rates. Researchers have found linguistic and cultural barriers are part of the reason.

“You have patients being offered basically to go to the poorhouse to die and they say, of course I don’t want to do that,” says, Jason Bowman, a Brown University medical student who has devoted himself to studying hospice care and Hispanics ever since he took a trip to Ecuador and learned the word was being mistranslated. Bowman, working with Dr. Joan Teno, recently completed a national study that documented that the rate of whites being treated with hospice was 30 percent higher than Hispanics.

“I think it is heartbreaking,” Bowman says, “because the Hispanic culture possibly more than any other that I’ve studied would benefit most from the central themes of hospice which are quality care focused around family and friends and support, holistic incorporating religion and spirituality, avoiding invasive sterile environments like a hospital.”

The Spanish and English words for hospice have the same Latin root: hospes. In Spanish the word came to mean a home for the poor who were unable to care for themselves. In English, the concept of hospice as a service to care for the dying took off in the 1940s in Britain. It was brought to the United States in the 1960s.

Overall, hospice care in the US is growing. And people who provide the service are starting to market it to Hispanics.

Hospice of the Valley in central Arizona is one such organization that’s creating marketing materials that cross cultural divides.

“It was difficult for me,” a man identified as Delmar Contreras says in a video produced by Hospice of the Valley. ” I was kind of skeptical of the whole idea of hospice, being a Hispanic, and we take care of our own. Me and my lady were struggling, how take care of Mami.” Contreras goes on to explain that when he realized that hospice was actually the best way he could care for his mother. “It’s the best decision that I ever made. I could never take care of my mom that way.”

That’s one person who was won over, but there are millions more facing deep cultural barriers. In California, Silvia Austerlic meets with groups of migrant workers as a cultural liaison for Hospice of Santa Cruz County.

“I say that I work for hospice and I ask, ‘Have you heard about hospice?’ And always there are many people who never heard about the service,” says Austerlic, a native of Argentina. “I say, ‘That’s great, so let me tell you.’ We don’t use the word in Spanish, hospicio; we use the words servicios de hospice.”

She uses the English word to avoid confusion. Then comes the key step of explaining a new concept.

“Hospice is a program, but it’s also a philosophy,” says Austerlic. “When I say it’s a philosophy I look into the eyes of farm workers and they all nod. They understand it’s not just someone coming to your house at the end of life. It’s a different relationship with death. It’s not how you want to die. It’s how you want to live until the end.

That’s something that Manuela Flores, the Nicaraguan immigrant, wishes had been explained to her. Flores says her medical provider used the English word, but his explanation was inadequate. When her mother-in-law died less than 48 hours after her family had approved hospice care, Flores was terrified that they had “signed off on the death of la señora.”

Flores believes immigrants like her need to better informed about programs like hospice. “I am not going to return to my country,” she says in Spanish. “I am going to end my life here with all of my family. And so I need to know. Regardless if we know English, we are working here and we need to know about programs like this. There are people who have died without knowing about these programs.”


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