Shannon Hill http://shannonlhill.com Thu, 26 Feb 2015 05:27:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.1 Full System Breakdown http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/full-system-breakdown/ http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/full-system-breakdown/#respond Thu, 26 Feb 2015 05:27:26 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1108 You may have noticed some turmoil in the local animal welfare community lately. In this case, the uproar is more than justified. The unethical, disruptive, destructive garbage going on at MCAS has taken down a cohesive, unified, highly functional system in which volunteers and employees mostly worked well together. If there were any personal differences, […]

The post Full System Breakdown appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
You may have noticed some turmoil in the local animal welfare community lately. In this case, the uproar is more than justified. The unethical, disruptive, destructive garbage going on at MCAS has taken down a cohesive, unified, highly functional system in which volunteers and employees mostly worked well together. If there were any personal differences, they were treated as personal and rarely had any effect on the work.

 

Since the unfortunate back room deal in which Care Corporation was sold to Dr. Ross, the “new management” has shattered the unity of the shelter community. In the absence of the director (the one fired by Dr. Ross because she just didn’t fit into his plans), the new management seems to be learning the hard way that networking animals to rescue and foster is a little trickier and more involved than previously thought. The director (the one Dr. Ross fired) knew who to call at every rescue group. She knew what foster would be a good placement for which animal. And she juggled her countless contacts easily, which might be why Dr. Ross underestimated how much the system depended on her.

 

In the absence of the former director’s leadership, a huge separation between employees and volunteers has appeared. On a personal level, friendships are falling apart. But let’s talk about the impact on our ability to save lives. Our primary and most effective tool for networking animals in the shelter is social media. The person designated by the new management as the “primary contact person” for putting out requests for rescue and foster online has blocked a ridiculous number of active volunteers. Result: One broken network. If volunteers can’t SEE the posts about animals in need, we cannot do anything to help them. Even if other people share the post, a post from a person who has blocked us remains invisible, as does the animal in need of help. Even if we happen to find out about a particular animal whom we might be able to help, we have no way to contact that “primary contact person.”

 

This choice shows remarkable lack of insight on the part of the new management.

 

When Dr. Ross fired the director, the volunteer community went ballistic, literally to the extent of holding a protest in front of the shelter. (If you’re wondering, yes, I was there.) Dr. Ross tried to save face by claiming that he had not fired the director to replace her with someone else. He explained that he intended to run the place himself.

 

Frankly, I don’t think he can. Running the shelter is a full time job. Networking animals is a fulltime job. And being a veterinarian in that shelter is a full time job. One man – with what appears to be very minimal shelter experience, and less managerial experience – cannot do all three jobs with any degree of success, particularly in a shelter of this size. It is especially telling that his standard response to any incident or mistake seems to be that he didn’t know about it.

 

MCAS should be run by a person whose passion is saving animals, but who also has the knowledge and leadership skills to make it happen. I’d like to think Dr. Ross came in with good intentions. But he clearly does not grasp how the system worked, and he broke it. Possibly beyond repair.

 

It takes every member of the system to save lives effectively – every employee, networker, fundraiser, transporter, foster, adoption coordinator, and more. It takes tremendous transparency, massive networking, a willingness to think outside the box, and ultimately a strong leader who can unite every faction toward a common goal.

 

I find it very difficult to believe that the “new management” doesn’t understand these basic principles.

 

The results speak for themselves. We are seeing more and more days in which the number of animals coming in far exceeds the number of animals going out through adoption, foster, or rescue. Rumor has it that the shelter is just about at capacity, which means that euthanasia for space won’t be far behind. How many lives will be lost to wounded egos and lack of leadership?

 

Even one is too many.

The post Full System Breakdown appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/full-system-breakdown/feed/ 0
Animal Rescue: The Ultimate NONprofit. http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/animal-rescue-ultimate-nonprofit/ http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/animal-rescue-ultimate-nonprofit/#respond Thu, 19 Feb 2015 04:28:34 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1103 Recently I saw a comment from an animal shelter volunteer (who should have known better) indicating her belief that rescue groups are in it for profit. I was stunned. How anyone can volunteer at a shelter or with any other type of animal welfare group and still believe that a rescue could possibly make a […]

The post Animal Rescue: The Ultimate NONprofit. appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
Recently I saw a comment from an animal shelter volunteer (who should have known better) indicating her belief that rescue groups are in it for profit. I was stunned. How anyone can volunteer at a shelter or with any other type of animal welfare group and still believe that a rescue could possibly make a profit is just beyond my comprehension.

 

If this confusion still lingers among our own volunteers, the general public (aka civilians) must be even more confused. So let me tell you how rescues really work.

 

First, where do rescues get their animals? Most groups pull animals from local shelters. This in turn frees up space in crowded shelters, which helps the shelters avoid euthanizing animals due to space constraints. It also means that the rescue group pays for any veterinary care the animal might need, which lifts that burden from strained shelter resources. Some animals may also come to rescue groups as strays picked up by good Samaritans, and some are surrendered by owners who can’t or won’t keep them, but don’t want to turn them over to a shelter.

 

One of the most common questions rescuers face is why their adoption fees are “so high.” They are NOT high, in most cases! Adoption fees for most rescue groups in my area run between $150 and $250, whereas shelter adoption fees tend to run $80 – $100. Here’s the difference:

 

For a shelter adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, and probably microchipped. However, in many cases, the shelter knows very little about the animal’s past, behavioral needs, and any underlying health issues. That’s not the shelter’s fault. It’s just what happens when hundreds of animals coexist in cages while waiting for adoption.

 

For a rescue adoption fee, your new pet is spayed or neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and evaluated by someone in the rescue group. The rescue pet has probably been in a foster home, where they’ve had more opportunity to see how how he interacts with dogs, cats, kids, people. They should have been able to address any behavioral needs or issues, and the animal will have been vetted much more extensively. Very often, animals released to rescue are the ones with medical needs that shelters can’t handle.

 

One example would be Sofia. Sofia was a beautiful young mastiff who came into our local shelter in terrible condition. She weighed 80 pounds, when she should have weighed 130. She had an ugly mass on her face, and her eyes were swollen shut from an infection. The infection turned out to be bilateral entropion, which basically means that the lash line of each eyelid was rolled under. The lashes were literally in constant contact with her eyeballs, and the resulting irritation had become a raging infection. She needed major medical care, a suitable environment in which to recuperate, and time to gain back the other 50 pounds. None of those are available in a shelter that has several hundred animals in house at all times.

 

Sofia’s vet care cost around $2300. I know, because I did the fundraising to cover most of it. Her adoption fee was $200. Because she was in rescue, we had the luxury of choosing from several applications to find the most suitable home for her. We had the time to let her get truly healthy so that her real personality could come out, and she could recover from abuse and neglect. But the rescue sure didn’t make a profit on her or any other animal.

 

And now there is Darius. Darius is currently with the same rescue that saved Sofia. He’s a charming young tabby cat taken into rescue at the request of a small rural shelter. When someone found Darius and his siblings in a dumpster, the shelter already had ten other young tabbies in residence. They knew that Darius would not stand much chance of adoption with them. So they reached out to Smart Rescue, one of my favorite groups.

 

Smart was happy to take Darius, and he had been doing well in his foster home. But they noticed he was having some weird problems with his ear. It took some serious investigative work to figure it out, because what Darius has is very rare in a young cat. Finally a specialist was able to diagnose him with Apocrine Cystomatosis.  This is a disorder of the sweat glands that typically hits older cats, and the only treatment is surgical removal. The really unfortunate part for Darius is that the disorder produces constant cyst growth, and his are inside his ear. The cysts make his ear constantly inflamed and infected, and they are so severe that they have produced vestibular episodes, which are sort of like vertigo for animals. He is in constant pain. The vet has recommended removing the entire ear, inside and out. It will eliminate the source of his pain and allow him to be comfortable and healthy. The estimated cost – even after a rescue discount – is about $3000.

 

Tell me again how rescue is a for profit enterprise. Seriously. There is only one way for any rescue to pay the huge vet bills that regularly come their way. Donations!

 

If you feel the urge to help Darius, please click on this link. Every dollar counts.

 

http://www.youcaring.com/pet-expenses/ear-surgery-for-darius-the-cat-/309536

 

The post Animal Rescue: The Ultimate NONprofit. appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/animal-rescue-ultimate-nonprofit/feed/ 0
A Catastrophic Betrayal at MCAS http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/catastrophic-betrayal-mcas/ http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/catastrophic-betrayal-mcas/#respond Sat, 14 Feb 2015 01:55:25 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1100 Today is not my usual day for blogging. But something has happened that is so outrageously wrong that it cannot wait until Wednesday.   Last week, I said that I was hoping that Dr. Aubrey Ross would turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Today he […]

The post A Catastrophic Betrayal at MCAS appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
Today is not my usual day for blogging. But something has happened that is so outrageously wrong that it cannot wait until Wednesday.

 

Last week, I said that I was hoping that Dr. Aubrey Ross would turn out to be the best thing to ever happen to the Montgomery County Animal Shelter. Today he has shown that he may well be the worst.

 

Anyone who has been involved with the shelter for the last several years knows who Minda Harris is. She started out as a volunteer, and became the best damn director MCAS had ever seen. She built a huge, thriving, active volunteer program, she developed relationships with dozens of rescue groups, and she fought like hell to save every animal she possibly could. Because of her, MCAS has weekly offsite adoption events. Because of her, the old, sick, and injured get a chance. Because of her, countless people have opened their homes to foster or adopt animals.

 

She is one of the main reasons that MCAS saw their euthanasia rate go down even as the intake rates continued to rise.

 

When Dr. Ross very suddenly, quietly, and unexpectedly purchased Care Corp in December, there was the usual concern that new ownership would mean sacrificing current employees to allow the new guy to bring in his own people. But Dr. Ross assured Minda that her job was safe. Tim Holifield, the founder and former owner of Care, personally assured me that Dr. Ross was a great guy who understood how vital Minda’s role is.

 

Today, February 13, 2015, Minda Harris was fired from Care Corp. because she just doesn’t fit into his plans.

 

And that was a huge mistake. A betrayal of catastrophic proportion.

 

Dr. Ross is the owner of a for-profit entity whose business model cannot succeed without volunteers – at least, not if he gives a damn about saving the animal lives for which he is responsible. The volunteer community was already seriously compromised because of policy and personnel changes made by Dr. Ross. This catastrophic decision makes it clear that Dr. Ross doesn’t understand how dependent his success is on the volunteers. It also showcases that either (A) he really has no clue that Minda is the heart and soul of the volunteer community or (B) he knows it and is threatened by the community’s deep loyalty and allegiance to Minda.

 

Either way, he has now guaranteed himself permanent status as the unwelcome outsider who is single-handedly destroying what hundreds of people spent years building.

 

Care Corp.’s contract does have an expiration date. I’m pretty sure today’s terrible error in judgement means it will never be renewed.

 

We will not forget. And we will not forgive.

The post A Catastrophic Betrayal at MCAS appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/uncategorized/catastrophic-betrayal-mcas/feed/ 0
Big Changes at MCAS http://shannonlhill.com/animal-welfare/big-changes-mcas/ http://shannonlhill.com/animal-welfare/big-changes-mcas/#respond Thu, 12 Feb 2015 05:31:03 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1097 A couple of years ago, Montgomery County decided to privatize the county shelter. The theory was that privatization would allow the shelter to use the measly, minuscule, inadequate budget provided by the county more effectively. The management company would be able to hire and fire without going through civil service procedures. They would be able […]

The post Big Changes at MCAS appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
A couple of years ago, Montgomery County decided to privatize the county shelter. The theory was that privatization would allow the shelter to use the measly, minuscule, inadequate budget provided by the county more effectively. The management company would be able to hire and fire without going through civil service procedures. They would be able to make more flexible decisions about hours and staffing. And we were all hoping that the result would be more lives saved.

 

The existence of a for-profit management company became extremely controversial. Some people complained that Care didn’t live up to their promises, and some got worried when Care also acquired the management contract for the shelter owned by the City of Conroe. Many worried that the for profit structure would end up taking money away from the animals. Since for profit companies cannot accept donations or volunteer hours, this necessitated the establishment of the Montgomery County Animal Society, a nonprofit whose function was to serve as a hub for volunteers and donations, which in turn would fill those gaps left by the aforementioned measly, minuscule, inadequate budget.

 

Statistics do show that during Care’s tenure, live release rates rose, even as intake continued to increase, largely thanks to the shelter director and her army of employees and volunteers. (Intake finally dropped for the first time in years in 2014.) One of the best things about the Care Corp. era was that the original owners gave the shelter manager the autonomy to do what she does best: rally the volunteers, move animals to rescue, and save lives. Lots of lives.

 

Then we all logged in to Facebook one day and saw the announcement that Care Corp. had been sold to Dr. Ross, a veterinarian who had been employed by the shelter. And all hell promptly broke loose.

 

Who is this guy? What kind of experience does he have? Would it affect the staff? The hours? The volunteers? The work with rescue? The clinic? Hysteria reigned supreme, to the point that the former owner of Care Corp. sent out an open letter in the hopes of appeasing the outrage. Ironically, had he addressed the sale this directly in the first place, some of the initial panic might not have happened.

 

Predictably, the new guy wants to put his own stamp on the place. Equally predictably, every change has further fractured the employee and volunteer communities, because we still had no answers. Was he qualified? Competent? Willing to listen?

 

FINALLY, after several weeks of turmoil, Dr. Ross held a meeting with the volunteer community to address their concerns. It did help, but frankly, my observations suggest that it was a case of too little, too late. Especially in light of what happened next.

 

Residents of the greater Houston area have probably seen Dumpstergate on the news. Per the official story, a couple of employees were told or decided to clean out a storage area full of donations. They told Dr. Ross that the donations in question were damaged and unusable, so he gave permission to dispose of them. They did. Along with substantial quantities of undamaged donations, including a couple of cases of food just donated that very day. The employees were caught in the act by horrified volunteers, who spent the rest of the day dumpster diving to salvage whatever they could. This debacle went on for two days, because even after Dr. Ross was informed, he apparently did nothing to stop it.

 

Result: The employee and volunteer communities are seriously divided. Certain employees have taken to social media to criticize other employees and mock volunteers. Volunteers have voiced their outrage over the wasted donations and their concerns over the future of the shelter. There is an online petition seeking to kick out Care Corp. and give the shelter to a nonprofit organization. There are Facebook pages both for and against the new management. So what is Dr. Ross doing to quell the chaos? I don’t know.

 

The undeniable fact is that the Care Corp. contract will come up for renewal at some point. And if the volunteer community is not happy with his leadership, he will be in for one hell of a fight.

 

Dr. Ross needs to understand RIGHT NOW exactly how vital the volunteer community is to the success of Care Corp. He needs to cultivate a strong relationship with the volunteer community, because his business model is such that he literally cannot succeed without our support.

 

Understand me – I WANT Dr. Ross to be the best thing that ever happened to the shelter. If he’s not, it literally becomes life or death for the animals that come through the doors. Going back to direct county management would be catastrophic, and I’m undecided on the subject of nonprofit management. So I’m hoping to see him exhibit strong leadership skills, which would include listening to the volunteers, requiring appropriate employee behavior, trusting and empowering his shelter manager, and above all, learning how the MCAS family works before he tries to reshape it. I don’t envy the task ahead of him.

 

Especially since we’ll all be watching.

The post Big Changes at MCAS appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/animal-welfare/big-changes-mcas/feed/ 0
Airbnb – Culture With a Small “C” http://shannonlhill.com/travel/airbnb-culture/ http://shannonlhill.com/travel/airbnb-culture/#respond Thu, 05 Feb 2015 02:52:32 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1086 Today’s column is for both my regular travel-loving audience and for my educator friends. I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite online resources for culture with a small “c.” If you don’t know about www.airbnb.com, you really need to check it out.   AirBnB started out as sort a glorified clearinghouse for […]

The post Airbnb – Culture With a Small “C” appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
Today’s column is for both my regular travel-loving audience and for my educator friends. I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite online resources for culture with a small “c.” If you don’t know about www.airbnb.com, you really need to check it out.

 

AirBnB started out as sort a glorified clearinghouse for couch surfers, but has expanded into a huge international service that allows people to list any and every kind of lodging, from an ancient van fitted out as a tiny mobile apartment (that you share with its nouveau hippie occupants) to huge estates that rent at an astonishing $3000 per night. Per their site, they offer lodging in 190 countries!

 

From the traveler’s perspective, AirBnB is a fantastic opportunity to stay in unique places, spend time living the way locals live, and meet people you’d otherwise never see. For the cultural traveler, this is exactly what we’re looking for – not just trendy tourist spots, but total immersion into the lifestyle of your destination.

 

You can read the bios of the hosts to find out how much contact they’ll have with their guests and what level of service they offer. You can read very honest reviews from recent guests. You’ll see detailed pictures of the available properties, sometimes right down to the resident pets. Some of the more unique properties include igloos, treehouses, the aforementioned van, and even castles. You can share a room, or rent an entire estate. The service offers infinite flexibility and possibility.

 

Airbnb for Education

 

For my educator friends, this website gives me a way to show my kids what homes really look like in other countries. Those details (culture with a small “c”) are never accessible through textbooks. So far, my kids have learned that in many places, the washer and dryer are in the bathroom or the kitchen, because that’s where the water pipes are. They are fascinated by two-burner stoves, oddly shaped kitchen sinks, and refrigerators that are just tiny by American standards. They’ve deduced that people in Ushuaia like bright colors, and that Nicaragua has a lot more middle class housing than they would have thought.

 

Using AirBnB also gets the kids much more invested in looking at the geography of the country we’re studying, as they look to see which city the home is in, what the area offers, whether it’s safe for tourists, and how to get there. When they ask why a nice B&B is so cheap in some places and so expensive in others, it opens a dialogue about the value of the dollar against the country’s currency.

 

I use these lessons as a springboard to get my language students to discuss history, activities, daily life, trip planning, safety, money, and a host of related topics – all in Spanish. Even my quietest students are happy to tell me (in Spanish) where to click on the screen to help me navigate to their favorite property.

 

Best of all, several students have told me that our AirBnB days have inspired them to plan future travel to some of the places we’ve studied. And to tell you the truth, I’ve found new destinations for myself too. I would never have developed an interest in Ushuaia, Argentina, if we hadn’t spent some time looking at it on AirBnB. Now it’s on my list of someday places.

 

Go take a look. What do you want to add to yours?

The post Airbnb – Culture With a Small “C” appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/travel/airbnb-culture/feed/ 0
I Travel By Myself. http://shannonlhill.com/travel/travel/ http://shannonlhill.com/travel/travel/#respond Thu, 29 Jan 2015 05:17:48 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1077 I long ago realized that if I have a choice between traveling alone and not traveling…I’m traveling alone. I’ve traveled with friends, and sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made me wonder why the hell I was friends with that person at all.   I’m the first one to admit that traveling alone used to […]

The post I Travel By Myself. appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
I long ago realized that if I have a choice between traveling alone and not traveling…I’m traveling alone. I’ve traveled with friends, and sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made me wonder why the hell I was friends with that person at all.

 

I’m the first one to admit that traveling alone used to scare me. And there are still some places in the world where I am not entirely comfortable traveling as a single woman. But on the whole, traveling by myself is incredibly liberating.

 

From an entirely selfish perspective, when I travel by myself, it’s all about me. What do I want to do today? Where do I want to go? Where do I want to eat, shop, take pictures, people watch? Do I want to meet people, join a tour, or just be alone to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere?

 

As a teacher, I spend my life being responsible to and for other people. Especially when I travel with kids. Don’t get me wrong – I love the kids, and I enjoy traveling with them. But the responsibility of being the adult in charge of a wandering herd of adolescents is…HUGE. So when I have a chance to spend a few days being responsible only for myself, it’s a lovely change of pace and an entirely different experience.

 

Take my regular trips to Spain. First, I went with friends. It was awesome. Loved it. Then I went with students. It was beyond awesome, because I had the thrill of watching my kids experience another world. And then finally I went alone.

 

And you know what? I met people. I went into stores I would have missed. I took pictures I would have overlooked. I spent time in the small towns and the low-tourism rural areas I love – people told me regularly that I was the only American they had ever met. I had tapas in Basque bars, I hiked the mountain with a local guide, I rummaged the hardware store for local tools and handmade Basque ceramics. I convinced a pair of mounted policemen to let me photograph their horses, and I listened to taxi drivers tell me their life stories in the matter of a few blocks.

 

Because I was alone and on my own schedule, if I found someone interesting, I could stop and talk. That netted me on of my favorite overseas experiences – the day I walked out of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa to find a dog rescue event in full swing. Since I live and breathe for my dogs, I went straight over. The Spanish rescue volunteers and I ended up having a fascinating conversation comparing the state of animal welfare in our respective countries. To be completely honest, the museum itself didn’t do much for me – the art was a little too modern for my taste – but the hour I spent with the rescue volunteers was priceless.

 

A few recommendations if you’re contemplating a one person trip: Be alert. Observe everything. Ask questions. Talk to strangers. Smile. Go where the locals go. Take pictures. Buy local handcrafts instead of hokey teeshirts. Say thank you. Dress appropriately. Follow local customs – which means informing yourself thoroughly ahead of time. Be respectful. And never, never, never complain about how the USA is so much better than wherever you’re visiting.

 

Give it a try…you’ll get to know the the culture you’re visiting on a whole new level. And you might get to know yourself better in the process.

The post I Travel By Myself. appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/travel/travel/feed/ 0
Living Language http://shannonlhill.com/education/living-language/ http://shannonlhill.com/education/living-language/#respond Thu, 22 Jan 2015 04:20:32 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1069 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 […]

The post Living Language appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
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.

The post Living Language appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/education/living-language/feed/ 0
My Bilingual Mind http://shannonlhill.com/education/bilingual-mind/ http://shannonlhill.com/education/bilingual-mind/#respond Wed, 14 Jan 2015 20:40:16 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1063 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 […]

The post My Bilingual Mind appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
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.

The post My Bilingual Mind appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/education/bilingual-mind/feed/ 0
Euskera http://shannonlhill.com/travel/euskera/ http://shannonlhill.com/travel/euskera/#respond Sun, 11 Jan 2015 03:19:52 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1061   Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea (The Chartered Community of Navarra) is a semi-autonomous region in the northern part of Spain. It also happens to be my favorite place to visit. My Spanish speaking readers may be wondering what language Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea is  – take a good look. These unfamiliar words are written in Euskera, or […]

The post Euskera appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>

© 1996-2014 INTERNET Red 2000, S.L. – SPAIN

 

Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea (The Chartered Community of Navarra) is a semi-autonomous region in the northern part of Spain. It also happens to be my favorite place to visit. My Spanish speaking readers may be wondering what language Nafarroako Foru Komunitatea is  – take a good look. These unfamiliar words are written in Euskera, or Basque.

 

The Basque people are a separate ethnic group that lives in Navarra and the surrounding areas, loosely referred to as Euskadi. Their language is one of their most distinctive traits as a group. Most languages can be connected to other languages, and in most cases we know how modern languages evolved. Spanish, for example, comes from Latin, with substantial influence along the way from Greek, Arabic, and some Native American languages – the last because the conquistadores adopted indigenous words for things that simply didn’t exist in Europe.

 

Euskera, however, is a linguistic isolate. In regular non-academic language, that means that it is not connected to any other known language, modern or classical. It’s one of a kind.

 

Language changes and evolves in response to the lives of the people who use it. New technology, new cultures, new foods – they all mean that new words are needed. Some words fall out of use with time (heard anyone say “groovy” lately?), and others disappear because the item they name becomes obsolete (record player, eight track). So I find it fascinating that the Basque language has managed to sustain itself for 2000 years or so, in a small geographic area.

 

They made it through invasions, cultural and technological evolution, political redivisions, and even outright persecution. The Spanish Inquisition thought that the Basque villages harbored witches, and killed dozens of accused heretics. As recently as the twentieth century, Francisco Franco (the fascist dictator who ruled Spain from 1939-1975) tried to eliminate the Basque language and culture as part of his campaign to make the Spanish people as homogeneous as possible. He made it illegal to use the language in schools, stores, advertising, and any published material for 20 years or so, but the Basque people established underground schools called ikastolas – at great personal risk – to teach their children their forbidden language.

 

No one knows better than the Basque people that language is one of the most important symbols of identity. They fought successfully for the right to maintain both their language and their unique cultural identity. These days, Spain rightly recognizes them as a unique and vibrant cultural asset.

 

Footnote: Did you know that thousands of Basques immigrated to the United States to escape poverty and persecution? In fact, the largest Basque festival in the world takes place in Elko, Nevada every year.

The post Euskera appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/travel/euskera/feed/ 0
Minnie Lou http://shannonlhill.com/general/minnie-lou/ http://shannonlhill.com/general/minnie-lou/#respond Wed, 07 Jan 2015 19:30:03 +0000 http://shannonlhill.com/?p=1058 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 […]

The post Minnie Lou appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
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.

The post Minnie Lou appeared first on Shannon Hill.

]]>
http://shannonlhill.com/general/minnie-lou/feed/ 0