Living Language

As a language educator and translator, travel is critical to my professional development and language maintenance. Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It evolves and shifts in response to developments in the culture it serves. Think about it – is the English we speak in Texas the same as the English they speak in New Jersey? Or Australia? The speech patterns, accents, and word choices in these places have developed differently because each place has a distinct culture with its own set of influences.

Take my own speech patterns. I’m Texan born and raised, with a clearly evident Texas accent. But when I’m in a professional setting, I unconsciously turn my accent off and use a neutral dialect. When students or colleagues happen to hear my native accent pop up, their absolute astonishment just confirms how completely I switch dialects at work. And when I speak another language, my native accent disappears altogether.

I grew up in an English speaking home. French was added to my curriculum when I was in second grade, Latin in fifth, Greek in eighth (okay, to be honest, I took it to avoid PE class). I picked up a fair amount of Spanish along the way, and began to study it formally in college. Grad school – for Hispanic Literature – added Portuguese to my repertoire.

Because I have an ear for the sounds of a language, I imitate and internalize accents very easily. I’ve always been able to “sound right” when speaking a foreign language. But I hadn’t had much opportunity to go overseas and immerse myself in the languages or cultures I was studying, so it was all still a shade mechanical. I had actually already been teaching and working as a translator for several years when my first chance to go to a Spanish speaking country arose.

I went to Mexico for a few short days with several other Spanish teachers. And that was it. I was hooked. Different accents, ethnic clothing and food, new vocabulary – I couldn’t soak it in fast enough. I got to visit monuments, see exotic wildlife, and bargain with vendors in the mercado. The heavy black rebozo I bought is still one of my most prized possessions.

And I came home with a whole new appreciation for the history and culture of the language I was teaching. Teaching about the Mayans was much more relevant after walking through a Mayan village, and discussing the impact of the guerrilla movement in Chiapas took on new dimensions after teenaged Mexican soldiers stopped our vehicle to see if we might be taking contraband weapons to the guerrillas.

That was only the beginning. Since then, I have spent time in several other countries, most notably Costa Rica, Ecuador, and my favorite, Spain. Spain is where the language emerged, spinning out from Latin as the Roman Empire fragmented and other cultures found their way into the Iberian Peninsula. The Visigoths, followed by the Muslim invaders from Northern Africa, lent their vocabulary and cultural practices to a language already carrying traces of the Basques, the Celts, and the Greeks.

Every Spanish textbook points out that words starting with AL come from Arabic, while most words ending in MA come from Greek. Those facts were just abstract minutiae to me until I walked through the Mezquita de Cordoba, where Spain’s Muslim and Christian traditions coexist in casual harmony within the same structure, built on the site of an ancient Visigoth church. Until I walked over a 2000 year old bridge still in use by people whose modern dialect descends directly from the archaic language of the builders.

Once a language student begins to see those connections, history stops being dry facts to memorize. Language suddenly becomes a dynamic living entity, intimately connecting generations of experience and sociopolitical evolution. And those of us who speak that second or third or fourth language learn that bilingualism opens a door into a world that would otherwise only be available to us at the most superficial level.

And that’s when the fun starts.

My Bilingual Mind

One of my students asked me recently what it’s like to be completely bilingual. And how you know if you are. And when did I know I was?


First, I’m about as bilingual in English and Spanish as anyone can get. In order of competence, I speak English and Spanish, then French, with some Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and a few  words of Euskera.


I really had to think about my answer, as becoming bilingual is a process. I didn’t wake up one morning and think hey, I’ve arrived! Bilingualism is here! I WORKED for it. Yes, languages come more easily to me than to most people (which is only fair, since I have zero talent for math and science). But learning a language is time consuming, and labor intensive, and requires a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone into another culture and language in the full knowledge that embarrassing errors and moments of frozen mental blankness are going to happen.


The truth is that when I graduated from college with a degree in Spanish and French, I was not bilingual. I spoke Spanish. I spoke French. But looking back, I had not yet arrived at the comfort level and innate facility with the language that is the hallmark of a truly bilingual person. Grad school brought me closer, but even with a master’s in Hispanic Literature, I was not as comfortable with the language as I wanted to be. It took years of practice, and immersion trips, and spending time in Spanish speaking households and places.


Now, after 23 years of teaching and working as a translator, I am truly bilingual. Any topic I can address in English, I can address in Spanish. Any social situation that I can handle in English, I can handle in Spanish. (Truthfully, I might actually handle social situations better in Spanish, since I learned those skills with a deliberate eye toward learning to participate appropriately in cultural experiences.) Does that mean I know every single Spanish word there is? Of course not. But I don’t know every single English word either. There are some topics I cannot converse about in either language – things like calculus and nuclear physics come to mind.


So what is it like to be a bilingual person? I can’t speak for all of us, but I see the world differently than I used to. My perspective is broader and more inclusive. I see nuances of language, culture, and history that a single language speaker might not notice. I occasionally forget who I’m talking to and reply in the wrong language. Many of my friends are bilingual and international, which means that I have constant input from a variety of perspectives.  I’m comfortable traveling alone in places that my English-monolingual friends might not be. I ask a lot of questions, I constantly analyze social and cultural context, and I talk to strangers, especially when I see people with limited English struggling to communicate.


Living bilingually has made my world richer, more complex, and more interesting. There are moments of frustration, when the idea I want to express works better in one language, and I have to struggle to find the words for the equivalent concept in the other. But I love everything about the process of communicating with people from other countries and cultures.


This is the message that I want to share. Learning a language is time consuming and labor intensive. There is no magic wand – I don’t care what Rosetta Stone promises, it still takes years of effort and practice and attention to detail. The magic is in the result, when you discover that being bilingual opens doors for you everywhere you go, socially, professionally, and intellectually. And it’s pretty awesome.

Minnie Lou

Very early Tuesday morning, I got a call I had been both dreading and expecting. My grandmother was gone.


Minnie Lou Pinchback Britton was born in 1925 in a tiny backwoods town in Louisiana. She left home before she was 18 to go to nurse’s school, entirely against the wishes of her father, who hid her acceptance letter to the school. When her best friend got accepted, she figured she must have been accepted too, so she packed and left.


She went on to have a very successful career in nursing. She put my grandfather through dental school, and raised two daughters. By the time I came around, she had left the profession. My early memories of her are of her cooking killer fried shrimp, taking me swimming at the Riverside country club, and signing me up for vacation Bible school one summer when I spent a couple of weeks at her house.


She was the first person to put a gun in my hands – just a BB pistol, but still! How many people can say their grandma taught them to shoot? She totally scandalized my parents by allowing a sixteen-year-old me to go on a movie date with a friend’s (utterly harmless) 20-something son. She indulged my adolescent passion for shopping, and she dragged me to church whenever I was there.


She was always willing to listen, and sometimes we would talk for hours. About nothing. And everything.


In the last few years, we have watched her get weaker, and smaller, and crankier. We watched her give up the things she loved doing, one by one, as they became too much effort for her. Her lungs didn’t work very well, she was diabetic, and she had some autoimmune issues that slowed her down. As her physical strength faded, so did her filter. You know that filter that keeps people from saying and doing things that other people might not understand? That one. And phone calls to her were often followed by the family comparing notes about whatever hilariously inappropriate thing she said this time.


She was the only person I knew who could use “Jackass” as a term of affection. And in recent months, she took up throwing things at people who annoyed her. Rumor has it that she caught my grandfather squarely between the eyes with a pickle a couple of months ago because he asked her once too often if she was going to eat it.


When she was hospitalized this time, we all were pretty sure this was it. I went to visit her a few days ago, and when I arrived, she looked so tiny and frail and helpless in that bed, with fluids and a unit of blood dripping into her veins. Until she opened her mouth to inform me that this transfusion should perk her right up and then she’d get up and kick me in the butt. Ha!


Well, this time the transfusion didn’t bring back her butt-kicking powers. On Sunday, she started pulling off monitoring equipment and told the family that this was it, she was done. She meant it. At around 4:00 Tuesday morning, she slipped quietly away.


She was 89 years old, and she and my grandfather had been together for 70 years.


She was one hell of a woman.

Welcome to 2015


New Year’s is traditionally the time when we set our goals for the next 365 days. The second week of January is when we traditionally decide that we don’t really need to keep those resolutions…


Not this time. Not for me.


I’m actually not making resolutions. I’m making progress. I’m taking steps to embrace and pursue ALL my interests. No more “I’ll do that next year” or “Maybe in a few months when ____________ happens” (fill in the blank with the hypothetical of your choice). No more complacency and boredom. I am dangerous when I’m bored.


It’s time to make things happen. One of my greatest challenges has always been my difficulty in choosing one thing to focus on, because I like too much stuff! So when I can’t focus, I often just end up doing…nothing. Then one day I came across Barbara Sher’s book Refuse To Choose. She talked about being a Scanner – someone who is interested in and good at a wide range of topics, which may or may not be related. What a concept! It suddenly came to me that I don’t HAVE to give up any of my interests. I just need a place to address them all. And now I have one.


In the blog section, look for my take on these issues and more: animal welfare, immigration, education, travel, and generally living the very best life I can. Please check out the product pages – Younique makeup (cruelty free and hypoallergenic!!), the Eleven Paws Boutique at Café Press, and my Teachers Pay Teachers store (where other educators can purchase my original classroom materials). There are also pages featuring my translation and copywrite services. Later in the year I’ll be adding pages for photography and ebooks, and one of my gifts to you will be the page with links to some of my favorite sources of information and inspiration.


This is my year to build the life I want. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

What About The Dogs?

Today the Montgomery County Animal Shelter received a call to pick up EIGHT beautiful purebred boxers. Not from a hoarder. Not from an abuse case. From the home of a woman who died.


These poor dogs had apparently been alone with their human’s body for at least a week. Each was locked in a crate, and thus had no access to food or water. And now, because they have nowhere else to go, they are in the shelter, where we are trying hard to get them placed with rescues.


I wish I could say that it’s unusual for the pets of the deceased to wind up in shelters. It isn’t.


In Montgomery County alone, this is the second case of dogs being found with the dead body of an owner who died unnoticed and alone to come to my attention in less than a month. We also get a truly depressing number of pets dumped at shelters by the heirs and families of people who die or go into nursing homes.


I cannot imagine what kind of heartless people can cavalierly dump the beloved pets of their deceased parents or grandparents at a shelter, knowing the likelihood that the animal will end up being euthanized. But it happens every day – not just in Montgomery County, but everywhere.


So to my animal loving readers: make plans for your pets just as you would for your children. If something happens to you, who gets the dogs? Are you sure the person you choose can and will take on the responsibility? Can they afford to keep your pets if they develop veterinary needs later in life?


One good friend of mine adopted a middle aged corgi after he was dumped at MCAS. The nasty woman who turned him in had agreed to keep him for the rest of his life when his original owner – a woman in her nineties – went into a nursing home. This woman – such a devoted friend – kept this poor dog barely six months and then dumped him at the shelter. The shelter explained to her that an eleven year old corgi with some minor medical issues was not highly adoptable and did not stand a good chance of getting out alive. She didn’t care. As she explained it, no one told her how much responsibility owning a dog entailed, or she would never have agreed to take him. And this is a low maintenance nice little dog! Mercifully, we were able to place him with a friend of mine who will give him a good home for the rest of his life.


This corgi’s original owner thought she had provided for her beloved pet. Unfortunately, she put her trust in the wrong person. The little guy was lucky enough to end up in a much better situation, but how many pets like him die in shelters because of poor planning by their original families? It is especially bad when the pets are older or have some veterinary issues, because they become much harder to place.


Every pet owner who reads this, please:

  • I don’t care how old you are. Designate in writing who should get your pets if something happens to you. Please be sure that you have discussed it with the people in question so that you are sure they are willing to accept that responsibility
  • Make sure there is more than one notarized copy of the document specifying who gets your pets, and under what conditions. Your attorney should have this on file with your will and other estate planning documents. If you don’t have an attorney, keep it with your other important personal papers where it can be readily found, and make sure someone else has a copy.
  • If at all possible, make financial provisions so that the person inheriting custody of your pets will be able to afford their care. You can set up a trust that pays the vet bills, or dispenses a set amount per year for the remainder of your pet’s natural life.
  • If your pet has any special needs or quirks, make sure that information is always written down somewhere, along with the name and phone number for your vet. I keep that information on my refrigerator. I use it for my petsitter, but it’s handy to have in case someone had to assume responsibility for my furkids.


They are completely dependent on us for everything. We commit to them for the rest of their lives – not the rest of ours. Please, make sure they are taken care of, no matter what.