Mother Tongue Tuesday: Japanese


Japanese road sign

Last month I listened to Reverend Kakihara from the Tacoma Buddhist Temple speak at a Lenten series in my church. The minister, born in Japan, described his faith beautifully and I learned many things about Buddhism, especially about Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji Buddhism which he practices.

At the same time, watching his mannerisms and listening to his speech patterns felt like a step back to an earlier time of my life. My career in English as a second language began with hundreds of Japanese students who came to Western Washington University in the early 1990’s in the Asian University America Program (AUAP).

I assisted in ESL classrooms as a university student,. After classes, my conversation partners made me sashimi and served me green tea in a formal ceremony. I learned about the three writing systems of the language, the alphabet sounds and even managed a limited vocabulary with words like really, you’re welcome and thank you (not too hard since “Domo Origato, Mr. Roboto” was popular not too long before my college days).

green tea

The green tea I drank was not from a bag like this. It was a powder and my friend prepared it with what looked like a mortar of the mortar and pestle variety.


Sashimi was one of my first food adventures.

Most of all, I got the chance to see Japanese young people experiencing a radically new language and culture, something I better appreciated when I went on my own brief adventures.

Japanese Tidbits from the UCLA Language Project 

  • Japanese is a language isolate, meaning it is not easily related to any other language
  • Japanese uses three writing systems: kanji, katagana, and hiragana. Kanji is based on the Chinese writing system and has thousands of characters. The other two systems are more similar to the English alphabet (although not related in the slightest) because there are limited letters that represent specific sounds that can be rearranged to create words.

kanji rice

  • Japanese is a subject-object-verb language rather than the subject-verb-object order of English. “I give money” would translate to “I money give” in Japanese.
  • Japanese marks the adjectives as past or non-past similar to the way it works with verbs.
  • Japanese does not mark nouns as singular or plural.
  • Matsuo Basho was one of the innumerable famous Japanese poets.

I don’t have any Japanese students today but I’m lucky to still have a few connections with my former students and friends. And as hard as the language is to learn for English speakers, it can be done.

Here’s a video with English subtitles of a college friend from the days when I worked with AUAP students. Marci went on to master the language, is now living in Japan, and convincing students like Noriko to come to America to study. (Marci starts at 00:51.)



Of Screaming and Munching Goats


I showed my son this video with Elsa from Frozen singing “Let it Go” as she gets interrupted by screaming goats and he said, “Yeah. Goats have been out for a while now. They’ve been sticking them in YouTube videos all over the place. It’s kind of old.”

So once again I’m behind the teenage what-is-in curve. But I can see why they got attention in the junior high crowd for a time — goats are goofy to look at and have guts of steel. Perfect for the thirteen to fifteen year old humor needs.

The other day I ran downtown with my camera to see them in action near the old Tacoma Elks building while they crunched down acres of brambles. I sure wish I’d had these four leggeds in my backyard the time I had to clear brambles. The folks renovating the crumbling building had the right idea.

Goat. Even the word makes me smile. It’s from Old English with no French influence. Goat is beautifully short, with two stop sounds, and a vowel made in the back of your throat. No wonder we make videos with them adding comic relief.

I don’t have a clear reason for this post except that these are goats, and I needed goofy critters after a week of over caffeinated baseball games, junior high field trips, late night classes and general day in the life mayhem. (And I have nothing against Frozen. The video just gave me the needed goat giggle.)

Mother Tongue Tuesday: Arabic



The young woman stood before me speaking English clearly with an accent that rounded out sounds. Her eyes lit with joy as her tight curls framed her face.

She struggled with her writing, she said, and wondered if she could join our ESL classes. When she told me she spoke Arabic, I understood the trouble. Most of the Arabic speaking students I have met wrestle with writing more than with speaking, and I imagine I would struggle much more with written expression, too, if I studied Arabic.

Arabic uses a writing system that, like Dari, reads from right to left. The alphabet has 28 letters that are, for the most part, nothing like the English Roman alphabet. A quick look at Wikipedia had my eyes spinning in their sockets when I tried to begin to learn this system.

Here’s the alphabet’s pronunciation from the BBC’s language page. (Which I just found! Hurray!).

Other Arabic Tidbits according to the UCLA Language Project and the BBC’s Fantastic Language Page

  • Arabic is a Semitic language in the Afro-Asiatic sub-group varieties of Arabic.
  • 200 million people speak Arabic as a part of their everyday lives. About a billion people use Arabic to study the Qur’an.
  • Arabic words adopted into English include cotton, lemon and guitar. (I always wondered about that guitar word. It has a non-English feel.)
  • Many plurals in Arabic are formed by changing the word in the middle rather than adding a suffix. (In English we often add the suffix -s.) For example, one dog is kalb and two dogs are kilaab.

I asked a wise friend who stretches far beyond the American Top 40 to tell me her favorite singers in Arabic. She could not narrow it down to one, so I picked a Moroccan singer at random for you from her list so you can hear this language of our world yourself:


Sea Monkeys: Not as Cute as I Thought


sea monkey

I once thought I could grow monkey people. The comic book ad promised underwater critters with a bald father, mother and two kid monkeys with gills on their chests and smiles on their faces. The mother monkey wore lipstick and a matching red bow in her hair.

“So eager to please,” the ad read. “They can even be trained.”

I wanted to grow these people-like beings in a bowl in my room like the family in the inset. My heart longed for those ‘instant pets’ to live on top of my dresser drawers.

So I scraped up my allowance and mailed away for the “monkeys” for 1.25 plus shipping.

When the brine shrimp arrived in the mail, I was still excited. I knew it must only be a matter of time until they transformed. If I strain my memories, I can see and hear my parents in the background shaking their heads and telling me: “Brine shrimp!” But their voices are faint. My belief was strong.

And so I waited. I waited and stared at the bowl, knowing the shrimp would shape up into sea monkeys that looked like the ad.

They didn’t.

The shrimp eventually died, and then I remember feeling that I must have done something wrong because surely – surely — an ad wouldn’t lie about a product. In the end, I blamed myself. Heck, even now I’m just starting to believe they lied. The lie was so good and so wonderful it was much more pleasant to believe it than to see through it.

Here is what a brine shrimp looks like. I know I would not have spent my $1.25 plus shipping on the ‘monkeys’ had I known they looked like the horrific beings that wrestled with Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.


By Hans Hillewaert (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

“Kid Logic” , one of my favorite shows on This American Life, describes children’s hilarious mistaken beliefs from childhood. Most of them did not involve a deliberate deception from an ad company. If you’ve got a few minutes while painting a bedroom (as I did this past week), take a listen. I promise you’ll laugh at the lady who thought her friend’s dad moonlighted as the tooth fairy.

And if you have another moment while sitting at the keyboard, I’d also love to know what logical-at-the-time thing gave you wrong ideas when you were young.



Mother Tongue Tuesday: Moldavian


Before my students educated me, I had pictured the Soviet Union as one solid mass of land with only Russian speakers across the expanse.

I also never heard of the tiny landlocked sliver of Moldova tucked between Romania and Ukraine until many of my students said they came from there. When I began to listen, I heard the melody of their language ringing differently from Russian and found, even though I know a smattering of Russian, I could not catch any of what they said using that knowledge.

After running to my computer to find out more, I discovered that Moldova is a tiny country that Stalin carved out of Romania, a place I had heard of because of Bram Stoker, gypsies and Ceausescu.

Although Russian speakers flooded Moldova during the Soviet era, the language of the natives remained Romanian. It fascinates and irritates me how often language is used for political power.

Romanian is, not surprisingly, a Romance language, according to which is why Romanian sounds so far from the Slavic Russian.

I once had an Italian student in class with the Moldovans. While they couldn’t understand one another outright, much of the vocabulary was the same or similar.

Romanian and Moldavian Tidbits from UCLA Language Project

  • Moldavian is considered a separate language from Romania for largely political reasons.
  • It is now written in Roman script rather than Cyrillic since the Soviet Union collapsed.
  • It shares 70 percent of its vocabulary with other Romance languages, especially Italian.
  • Word order is mostly subject-verb-object (like English).
  • Romanian has masculine, feminine and irregular grammatical genders.

When I see the news of Ukraine today, I see the faces of my students and their families who live in Eastern Europe. In looking up Moldova, I learned that the country is also living on edge as they watch events develop in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Language and language teaching has a remarkable power to divide and also to unite. As I watch the news, I am rooting for the uniting.

We all have babies, after all, no matter what language we speak, and I’m betting you can guess what this commercial actress is saying about diapers.









Living Out of Sync



When my husband went to his 20th high school reunion, he told his classmates I had stayed home with our newborn infant.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said someone, sniggering. “I’m so glad we are done with that.”

We often hear this since we were not able to have our second child until we were almost 40.

Sometimes I do feel like I’m behind everyone in the race to finish raising our children or like I’m caught in some Groundhog’s Day style of my life 10 years ago with my now 14 year old. I’m not angry enough about it to smash an alarm clock but here’s a video to give you the feel:

But most of the time I’m loving it. I marvel at the parents and teachers I get to meet. I would never know them if I hadn’t had a child at this moment in time.

This Friday I went on a field trip with some of those teachers and Quinton’s preschool class to the Windmill Gardens. I had been here before with my oldest but the experience is new and fresh with my youngest. I helped strap each and every child safely into car seats, navigated children who produce more energy than the sun, and marveled as they learned to spot tulips with our fearless guide Leslie.

We found gleaming goldfish in tanks, stared at the plastic alligator to be absolutely certain he was not real, and planted verbena in square pots with dirt falling off our fingers remembering to keep it out of our mouths.

We capped off our time by sitting on the paved path near the greenery and the Tea Madame Tea Shop with our tiny plastic cups of Gold Mountain Rooibos tea (Some of us loved it. Others not so much.)

On the way back to school, a blonde called out to the teacher that she wasn’t buckled after I could swear I’d gotten them all.

“I’m sure you did,” sighed the patient teacher as she climbed out of the driver’s seat to get the girl snapped back together.

Before having Quinton, I thought I remembered what it was like to have a little one (and others constantly tell me they remember) but I find it’s so much more memory inducing to do it again.

For a taste of my life if yours are grown or nearly grown, break out one of your child’s favorite books and read it to a young child today. I promise you will fill up with memories you’d forgotten and also face the shock of realizing it’s not the same to read it to someone else.

In the end, having a child now shapes my life. Whether you have your child in your teens, 20’s, 30’s or 40’s or you raise a grandchild, your experience will be your own.

I agree with the author of Ecclesiastes with that time and place for everything but that time and place may not be the same for everyone. Abraham’s wife Sarah, after all, was 90 in Genesis. Mary was in her teens. I’m betting there are other examples in other traditions of people doing things out of the normal time that worked out marvelously.

I stand in good company and let people snigger all they want. I’d even bet that many of you have found joy in doing things at the ‘wrong’ time of life.

Field trips with a van full of preschoolers fill my days with smiles, unbucklers and all.

Mother Tongue Tuesday: American Sign Language


Have you ever had someone interpret your words into American Sign Language (ASL)? I’ve seen it done many times but before I taught my ‘regular’ English class this quarter, I had never experienced someone standing next to me, interpreting every small comment I made to the rest of the class.

At first I thought, “Oh, don’t interpret my muttering to myself about finding a handout! How embarrassing!”

We were all very uncomfortable the first day of class, including me, the hearing students, and the deaf student who probably felt like he had a spotlight shining down on his head as ‘different.’ I found myself speaking slowly and clearly to the point where a hearing student kept asking where I was from, thinking I had an accent.

Later I began to see that the flying hands next to me helped one of my students feel a part of what was going on. The signs in the air made me think more about what pulls a class together aside from the content I’m teaching.

It’s rather stunning how the small things we say to each other, especially at the beginning of class or as an aside glue us together as a group and do need to be interpreted.

We’ve now grown used to each other and to the interpreters who help us stay glued together. I’ve even quit talking in a slowed down ‘accent,’ thank heavens.

ASL in my past

When I first started studying linguistics in the early 90’s, scholars debated whether sign languages were ‘real’ languages. I wrote a paper defending ASL’s status as a language, and I do believe the rest of the world has come along with me. (Not, I am sure, because of the short paper I wrote that only ever saw the eyes of my Western Washington University professor). For more on ASL as a language, read what the Center for Applied Linguistics says about considering ASL a foreign language.

I also had the chance to work with Joseph Garcia who pushed forward the baby sign movement for hearing children and parents. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t why people are more accepting; it’s harder to disrespect something you’ve tried yourself.

ASL tidbits:

  • ASL has a grammar, vocabulary and is mutually intelligible to those who speak it.
  • There are different sign languages around the world. This linguist’s site has a map of the world’s sign languages from ASL to the Kenyan sign family.
  • In ASL the indirect object comes after the subject and then the signer shows the action (verb).

The girl throws the dog a bone. (English)


* I found this sentence on

I am so grateful to the deaf student for coming to my class this quarter. He’s brought a new dimension to what we are learning and reminded me of a few things I’d forgotten about a rich language.

K signA sign R sign R sign  I signe sign


Funky Family Phrases



The Sick Canary Theory and The Volkswagen Theory

At one point in my life I heard these phrases everyday and thought everyone knew them.

When my mother was young, her parents told her she could get a bird. In the store, she picked out the sickest of the lot because she felt sorry for it and wanted to help it. The thing promptly died after she got it home, leaving my mom bird-less.

The Sick Canary Theory described any situation where we bought or otherwise got attached to something or someone broken, thinking we could fix or save it (like a slacker boyfriend). Pain resulted for both the sucker who chose the bird and the sick canary the sucker wasn’t equipped to help.

We also had The Volkswagen Theory. In this my mother said she would never own one of those goofy beetle bug cars with the engine in the back (Apologies to bug owners everywhere. I happen to like those round rumbling cars).

Of course, one day we got a Volkswagen that ran so well even Mom admitted it was a fine vehicle. So if we ever said we would never do or have something (like in an anti-bucket list) we’d always say, “Ah-ah-ah! Remember The Volkswagen Theory!”

When I studied linguistics in school, I discovered that within languages there are many variations. A popular quiz like this one in the New York Times fairly accurately pinpoints the region you are from based on the words you use and how you pronounce them.

I remember in those classes the professors and studies I read said that people even develop speech styles within their own families. You might notice this when meeting a brother or sister of someone you’ve known for a long time. I was thinking of this scholarly reason when I came up with the idea for this post on my own family’s funky phrases.

Aside from our phrases, we had crazy fun names of cars: Creepy Cream for the Chevy Nova, Blue Beast for the Ford Grenada,Blueberry for the Honda CRX my dad drove all over the state, and Buttercup for the Volkswagen dasher that broke mom’s anti-VW will.

How about you? What things do you say in your family that only your family ‘gets?’ Maybe we were alone in our idiosyncratic speech. Somehow I’d doubt that, and  I’d love to know your family’s word stories.

Mother Tongue Tuesday: Dari


What better day than April Fools’ to start a series on a complex and virtually impossible to pin down topic like world languages?

In spite of the risks that I will get them wrong and look like that fool, I have the marvelous opportunity to learn about many languages because of my job teaching English as a second language. And although I’ve been doing this job for 20 years, the world is so full of languages, I still get new students speaking languages I know next to nothing about. 

Whenever someone walks in with a language new to me, I zip back to my office computer to look it up before I see the student in the next class. Part of this is to help my students. When I know more about their language, I am better able to help them learn English.

Of course, I also don’t like looking ignorant and am plain curious.

So here it is. My first Mother Tongue Tuesday post. These are not my Mother Tongues. And, while I’ve studied a few of the languages quite a bit, most of them I only know a few words in (see my post on learning Russian–which I am not keeping up with very well). If you see I’ve made an error with a language, I’d love for you to set me straight (gently, of course).

For the most part, I’ll use Ethnologue, the UCLA Language Materials Project and Wikipedia as sources, especially if I have not studied the language extensively and do not know someone I can easily ask. I’ll try to put up videos so you can hear the language and keep my fingers crossed that those videos are accurate. 

I don’t know how many Tuesdays I can keep this up. When I get to an end of the languages my students have spoken over the years, I’ll let you know. If I’m still having fun, I may continue with languages I’ve never been able to hear in person.

Dari: Language of the Afghans

“I didn’t know that,” my husband said when I told him they speak the same language in Afghanistan that they do in Iran. Which — it turns out is not entirely true but mostly. What I’m writing here is not hard to find out but I never bothered to look until I met my newest student from Afghanistan with her soft eyes and careful handwriting.

After I got to my computer, I learned that many like my student speak Dari, which is written in a Persian script very similar to what the Arabic speakers use. I carefully tried to copy this script for her the other day, not realizing that I was writing it backwards — left to right instead of right to left. I’m impressed she could figure out what I was doing . Imagine watching someone writing English backwards and figuring out what they were doing!

Here is the breakdown on Dari:

Language family: Indo-European (Dari is in the same language family as English, meaning it’s much more similar to my first language than Arabic, which is Afro-Asiatic.)

Where they speak Dari: Afghanistan and Eastern Iran

Famous person who speaks/spoke Dari: The poet Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī)

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi

Dari Tidbits:

Sometimes also called Persian or Farsi although there is a Persian-Farsi and a Persian-Dari

Dari adds a bit to the end of words for the indefinite pronoun (a/an). This looks like:

book = ketab

a book = ketabey

(I found this article bit of grammar at

And here is a rather scratchy sounding video of someone teaching Dari if you’d like to hear it: