Tag Archives: language learning

Learning English on the fly

Podcast contents

00:00 English-proficient kids help their English-challenged parents

01:14 Monica Campbell visit an ESL class

02:23 “Their kids are learning to be Americans, but they don’t have the opportunity to be Americans in the same way.”

03:23 Some schools are holding separate PTA meetings in Spanish, says Patricia Baquedano-López of UC Berkeley.

03:58 Vietnamese immigrant and ESL student Quang Dang tries to keep up with his 4-year-old daughter.

06:27 Another student from Mexico is learning English so she can ensure her special-needs daughters gets help at school.

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: Christopher Connell/Flickr/Creative Commons


08:58 Monica’s father and the “Champagne of teaching.”

11:37 Is there less of a demand for ESL classes? Don’t some immigrants get along just fine not speaking English?

13:04 Joy Diaz learns about Arabic and influence on Spanish from her daughter’s preschool teacher.

14:07 Singers Juan Luis Guerra and Celia Cruz (unconsciously) pepper their Spanish with Arabic.

14:45 It is, of course, all about the history of Spain.

17:15 This wonderful song is “Bilingual Girl” by Yerba Buena.

Please write a review of The World in Words on ITunes or Stitcher, or wherever you get listen to the podcast. Thanks!

Listen above or on iTunes.

The World in Words is also at PRI and on Facebook .

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A welcome addition

If you like the kind of reporting I do in the podcast and in this blog, you’re going to love this: a new digital online magazine devoted to in-depth language reporting. It’s the brainchild of Michael Erard, who’s made several pod appearances.

I’m in the Kickstarter video, as is my multilingual soccer T-shirt:


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A Crash Course in Portuguese With Angelique Kidjo and Fado Novato

With the next World Cup and Summer Olympics in Brazil, get ready to hear plenty of Portuguese. Some people are learning it: Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo listens to Portuguese lessons on her iPod. American singer Shay Estes is studying the language so she can sing that mournful Portuguese folk music known as fado. Estes is the singer with Kansas City-based Fado Novato.

My erstwhile soccer-playing pal Eduardo Krauser translated the satirical “Como Foi Criado O Logo Sa Copa?” riff pictured above. His translation goes like this:

HOW WAS THE WORLD CUP LOGO CREATED?

Tourist arrives in Brazil
Delays at the Airport
High prices, exploitation, trickery
Prostitution, drug trafficking, robbery.

Pollution, poverty, corruption and lack of investment in education!!! This is soccer country and the sixth largest economy in the world!!!



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Hamas Puts Hebrew in the Curriculum

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Hamas-run schools in the Gaza Strip are offering Hebrew language classes to some 9th graders for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show pal Matthew Bell

One place that was not on President Obama’s Middle East itinerary this week was the Gaza Strip. Back in 1998, President Bill Clinton was the first sitting US president to visit Gaza. He even brought the first lady along. But with the Islamic militant group Hamas in firm control of the Palestinian territory, it’s tough to imagine a sitting US president setting foot there.

Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist. So, it might come as a surprise to hear that Hamas-run schools in Gaza have started offering Hebrew language classes. Government-run schools in Gaza put the main language of the Jewish State on the curriculum at the start of the school year.

In a spartan classroom of ninth-grade girls at the Hassan Salma co-ed school in Gaza City, teacher and students begin what feels like a scripted routine for some visitors.

“What’s the capital of Palestine,” the teacher asks in Hebrew?

“Jerusalem,” the students respond in unison.

Thess are some of the first Gaza public school students to study Hebrew in nearly 20 years. Nadine al-Ashy is a 14 year-old with a knack for languages. She say Hebrew is, “easier than English.” And of course, “it’s the language of our enemy.”

“We must know how they think, how they talk about us.”

Almost everyone I speak with in Gaza gives me some version of a common Arabic expression that goes like this: learn to speak the language of your enemy, so you can protect yourself from his evil deeds.

Nadine’s Hebrew teacher, Maysam Sayyid il-Khatib says there was a lot of interest in signing up for Hebrew class. So, I ask, is there any chance this could somehow lead to better relations between Israelis and Palestinians?

“No,” she responds matter-of-factly. “We are not looking for developing things with the Israelis. We are learning Hebrew to protect ourselves and to defend our country from the Israeli occupation.”

On the streets of Gaza City, it’s easy to find people who speak good Hebrew.

Like most middle-aged men in Gaza, a 44 year-old taxi driver who gives his name as Saber speaks Hebrew fluently. He worked in Israel for 12 years, back in the days when tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza had jobs there. He says more young people in Gaza should be learning Hebrew.

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

Many older Palestinians in Gaza speak Hebrew well, because they spent years working inside Israel. Now, they say Hebrew is useful for watching Israeli TV. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

“At home, I watch Israeli TV every day. Not just the news, but movies too and I read Israeli newspapers,” Saber says.

These sources in Hebrew offer insight and perspective that is missing from the Arabic language media. Saber says his kids don’t really understand Hebrew. But he wants them to start. Never mind the fact that few Palestinians from Gaza are allowed into Israel. Saber suggests that it is especially important to hear what Israelis are saying about the Gaza Strip during times of war.

There are 400 government-run schools in Gaza. Only 20 of them offer Hebrew as an elective for 9th graders. But Hamas officials want to expand the program. Mohamed Abu Shuqair is deputy minister of education.

“Why Hebrew,” the minister asks? “Even if we don’t agree with the Israelis on many things,” he says during an inteview at his office, “we are still living in the same region. Israel is more developed than Gaza. Palestinians can learn from Israeli TV and websites.”

There is another reason for putting Hebrew on the high school curriculum, Abu Shuqair says. “Many people say Hamas in Gaza is close-minded,” he says. “We are so open-minded, that we even teach the language of our enemy here.”

That might be debatable. But there does seems to be a tacit acknowledgement in this decision on teaching Hebrew. The Hamas leadership appears to be looking toward Israel, with its stronger economy – rather than Egypt, with its new Islamist-dominated government – for the sake of Gaza’s future.



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Speaking Freely in the New Burma


This summer, Aung San Suu Kyi will be stepping out onto an international stage. She will finally be picking up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and speaking her mind  in various European capitals.  It will be a far cry from the 15 years she spent under house arrest, unable to participate in elections and speak to her Burmese compatriots.

Suu Kyi, now a member of the Burmese parliament, recently completed her first trip out of Myanmar in 24 years. In a speech in Thailand, she praised President Thein Sein’s efforts to bring democracy to the country. But she didn’t shy away from criticizing more entrenched forces that are less open to change, in particular the military which she called a “force to be reckoned with.”

Next, Suu Kyi heads to Paris, Oslo, London and elsewhere for a series of high profile appearances. Her words will be closely analyzed back home– by those who love her and those who fear her.

It’s clear that the government of Myanmar is giving Suu Kyi freedoms that it previously denied her: to travel, to vote, to speak. More than that, the government’s actions appear to have given her belief that these new freedoms are permanent. That belief is almost as significant as the freedoms themselves.

Still, it’s early days, and not everyone can afford to be confident as Suu Kyi. “Most of the people still think that politics is dangerous,” said Kaung Myint Htut, chairman of the Myanmar National Congress Party. He’s has trouble getting his people to support him publicly.

Press censorship has been relaxed. But it has not disappeared. About 75 percent of stories are published uncensored, said Saya Mg Wuntha, founding editor of a journal, People’s Age. “But it’s very difficult to write about corruption…and about the military,” he said.

Some are more fearful. Aung Zaw is a political dissident who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, where he is the editor in chief of The Irrawaddy newspaper. He won’t return to Burma until he is guaranteed the “freedom to criticize and write without fear.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • Young Burmese are flocking to language schools to learn English. More on that story here.
  • Burmese punk ban Side Effect and their free speech challenges. More on that story here. And while we’re on the subject of punk, here’s a conversion between Marco Werman and me on the Sex Pistols and British royalty.

Finally, if you’ve been wondering why this is the first podcast in more than a month, here’s what I’ve been up to. Thanks for your patience.


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Up Close With Language Super Learners

More in the podcast this week with Michael Erard about his new book,  Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. This is the second half of my conversation with Erard. Part One is here.

Erard talks about why hyperpolyglots are driven to learn so many languages. He also describes the lives and practices of several language super learners:

Alexander Arguelles, who spends nine hours a day, divided into twenty-minute chunks, on language-learning. It used to be fourteen hours a day before he got married.

Gregg Cox, dubbed the “Greatest Living Linguist” in 1999 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness credits him with speaking 64 languages, though he says he doesn’t speak that many.

Helen Abadzi, who drills the sounds of languages into her brain with the help of a device called a digital language repeater. The repeater plays digitally recorded audio snippets over and over at various speeds.

Erard conducted an online  survey of hyperpolyglots. In the podcast, he talks about the results. He also talks about how writing the book influenced his own thinking—like when can you say that you know a language? As far as the US government is concerned,  it’s if you speak it at home.  But in Canada, the government is more likely to credit you for having learned a language, even if you don’t speak it at home or work or school. So, Erard now believes that the US government underreports the number of US residents who speak more than one language.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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The Road to Hyperpolyglottery with Michael Erard

Language writer Michael Erard’s new book is about people who appear to have a special gift. You, perhaps, and I (and Erard for that matter) struggle to learn one or two languages to a basic conversational level.

Hyperpolyglots aren’t like that. They take on Arabic after breakfast and will have mastered it by dinner.

OK, not exactly. But there is a gulf between  language super-learners and most of the rest of us. You only have to read about some of the hyperpolyglots in Erard’s book.

Erard says most hyperpolyglots are men. Many share a “geek macho profile” that in some cases demands that they don’t “leave any languages uncounted” in their repertoire, even when they don’t have full mastery of some of them. Another of Erard’s findings (based on a survey he conducted and interviews with some of the participants): hyperpolyglots are more likely to be introverted, gay or left-handed.

The patron saint of hyperpolyglots has to be  Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774-1849). Though he never left his native Italy, he learned scores of languges– just how many is disputed.   One account claims that Mezzofanti learned as many 114 languages, though 60 is more likely (and of those, he had mastery of perhaps 30).  He’s far from the only hyperpolyglot on whose behalf  inflated claims have been made.

Like many hyperpolyglots, there was a sense of showmanship about Mezzofanti. He staged public displays of his linguistic prowess, and received guests from around the world. Not dissimilar to TV game shows in which more recent hyperpolyglots have performed (sometimes not all that well).

One of the big questions about Mezzofanti and other hyperpolyglots is: why? Why learn so many languages?

There is the geeky completism (not that you ever could achieve true completism: too many languages for that). There is the desire to learn. There is, for some, a devout faith in one’s methods. What sometimes isn’t there (but does exist in casual language learners)  is a desire to verbally communicate with others. That’s not always the case– some hyperpolyglots are professional interpreters– but for many, the learning is on the page or between the earbuds.

In the podcast, Erard compares a typical hyperpolyglot’s method (they “attack the languages” with grammar and vocabulary drills) with the immersive approach of Hippo Family Clubs (also known as LEX). The Hippo Clubs bring together groups of people, sometimes from the same families, who want to learn several languages simultaneously. The emphasis is on immersion, community and non-judgmental trial by error.

Erard also talks about a term he has coined: the will to plasticity. Linguists and educators have long argued over which is more important in learning a language: personal drive or brain plasticity. Erard argues that hyperpolyglots have both in abundance, and each sparks the other.

This podcast, incidentially, is part one of two. Erard will be back next week to tell the individual stories of some of the hyperpolyglots he met in researching his book.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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