Wednesday Wonders: Stretching Some Sentence Skills



Not too long ago, I was correcting papers and wishing the writers would not be so inventive with their sentence structures and vocabulary.

I would see something with a phrase, a comma, or an unfamiliar word like ‘thalassemia’ and sigh.

I had an prickly sense that something was off but wasn’t strong enough on the structure to make the fix without some checking. Only after looking up the words and the grammatical structures, could I make the right corrections.

I thought to myself: “If I were writing, I would never have tried it this way.”

Then it occurred to me.

If I stick to only what I know, I won’t grow in style or ability. The writers making those mistakes did me a favor by making me stretch.

Pricilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor also pushed me with the suggestion that I take a sentence from another writer and make it my own. To do this, I must carefully examine how the writer creates the sentence and then craft my own sentence in the same form.

I chose two lines from ‘Welding with Children’ by Tim Gautreaux.

“Tuesday was about typical. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over their kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again.”

The first structure is something I might write on any given day. It’s simple with a subject, verb, and adjective phrase.

The second sentence structure never would have come to me with its interruptions and commas sprinkled all over the place. It’s the kind of thing that gives a grammar teacher headaches, and, yet, it works so well to give voice to Gautreaux’s character and set the stage for his conflict.

Here is my version, using that same foundation, worked through with the meaning of another story:

Football night was the usual. My new friend Susie, never one to worry about style, you know, fiddled with her neon spirit hats, two of course, and listened while Josie the cheerleader was babbling at me once more.

It’s turtle-slow work, this sort of sentence skill building. I know, for example, that the last verb form I used is not quite the same as the original version, but I couldn’t quite make it work. And I sure wouldn’t want to craft like this while trying to make a word count.

Still, I do like it. I like the stretch from both proofing those papers and the sentence work. Language  holds more twists and blind corners than I figure I’ll ever have time to explore.

That’s just the way I like it.

May you stretch in words and other ways-

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Mother Tongue Tuesday (on Wednesday): Marshallese


The other day in my 1000 Places to Visit Before you Die calendar, I saw Chuuk Lagoon. It sits in the Pacific, far out and filled with sunken Japanese ships. Because it was the naval base for most of the Japanese Imperial fleet, the U.S. bombed the lagoon in 1944.

Now it’s a graveyard and a place where divers love to look under the sea for hulking ships as they slowly corrode away while worrying environmentalists about their leaking oil.

Some of my students come from places near these islands that sprinkle the Pacific. One moved to Washington from the Marshall Islands, which the United States used to launch the attack on the Chuuk Lagoon in World War II. The Marshallese student brought me this headdress I would love have the guts to wear. The next time a crown is in the dress code, I will be ready to go.



Marshallese Tidbits (from Wikipedia and Ethnologue) 

  • This language was much harder to find great chunks of information about since only about 55,000 people speak it. The UCLA Language Project which I so often go to has nothing on Marshallese. Still, it’s use is described as ‘vigorous’ in Ethnolgue and I know my former student and his friends communicate in it frequently because I’ve seen their Facebook posts on my instructor account.
  • It’s has several classifications, including Austronesian and Malayo-Polynesian.
  • Marshallese is also known as Ebon and has two major dialects.
  • One of its closest linguistic relatives is Chuukese, the language spoken on the islands in my calendar.
  • It has many consonants with with a grand variety in ways to form them from patatilized to velarized — two things that push at my memory of pronunciation but which I would struggle to fully explain.
  • Marshallese does complicated things with its pronouns and with word order that involve markers and a radically different way of dealing with nouns.

One of the first things my student told me about his islands involved nuclear testing and its lasting effects on the area. Once again, I learned much from a person in my class, but sometimes I wish they wouldn’t teach me so much. My ignorance on this subject was much more comfortable than knowing what happened when we blew up another pristine place in the world and how it keeps affecting people today.

At least the people there were able to retain their fascinating language with forms and sounds so different from English. I do hope we will be able to do more in the future to help the Marshallese and their words flourish.




Mother Tongue Tuesday: Russian


After a day in Tian An Men Square with a trip to the mausoleum to see Mao Tse Tung, I stayed in a hotel nearby with many other tourists. I went down to the lobby to write for my first NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) because my mother was sleeping in our hotel room. I was surprised to hear Russian from the group sitting crowded together on the couch across from me.

After so many days and months of struggling to pull out words from Mandarin, the Slavic sounds felt comforting and reminded me so much of my life before that they made me homesick. I even felt slightly capable again because I could pick out the different words so much more easily. Slightly capable.

Russian has crazy verb changes, more consonants than I can often wrap my tongue around, and enough challenges to keep me occupied even when it makes me nostalgic to hear it in Beijing.

Russian Tidbits 

  • Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet with two letters that don’t make a sound in themselves but change the sounds of the letters written before them. My Russian speaking friends have enjoyed watching  me try (unsuccessfully) to get these sound changes right.
  • Russian changes words. A lot. Women put different endings on adjectives to describe their feelings than men do. An English equivalent would be something like: He is happy and she is happiette.
  • Probably because it has so many changes in the words to indicate the use of the words, the order is very free. A Russian speaker often uses Subject Verb Object order but can switch things up and still easily be understood.
  • The basketball star Sue Bird for the Seattle Storm has a father of Russian ancestry. Their name was originally spelled ‘Boorda.’

It feels somehow wrong because so many of my students would object to the lack of dignity, but here is one way I like to work on my Russian: My son watches kid videos on YouTube and doesn’t mind if they are in other languages. It gives me a little language challenge and keeps me from getting bored like I do in English with trains that have a very limited plot line.


Mother Tongue Tuesday: Vietnamese


Not too long after I started working with the Ukrainian welders, I began a class with Vietnamese studying Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC). This class was much smaller – about 5 instead of 25 -and much quieter. Many of them had come to the U.S. when the war ended in 1975 and wanted me to learn Vietnamese almost as much as they wanted to learn English.

They had great confidence in me and my language abilities, but I’m afraid their mother tongue flew beyond my abilities. When people ask, I say I speak English, a good deal of German, some Russian and a little of a lot of other languages. Of all my little of a lot of langues, Vietnamese is my most challenging because of its tones and because of the need for formality in its pronouns. It’s called a tonal language because each syllable has the potential for seven tones. The UCLA Language Project says these tones are: ” mid-level, low falling, high rising, low, rising after an initial dip, high broken and low broken.” 

If you’ve never tried a language with tones, it’s a little like singing to get the pronunciation correct. If you don’t sing a syllable right, the word may turn into another word or simply not be understood unless you have a gifted listener.

Vietnamese also blows me away in complexity because it requires a different pronoun depending on my age and status in relation to the person I’m addressing. I once heard a guest lecturer talk for over half an hour about the different pronouns for ‘you.’

One thing is much easier in Vietnam than for a person learning English, though –it only has one verb form so there is none of the English monkey business with past, present, future or (gasp!) future perfect continuous is necessary.

Vietnamese Tidbits

  • It’s classified as belonging to the Austro-Asiatic family along with many languages in southeast Asia.
  • For many years, it was written in a script based on Chinese characters and within a few hundred years adopted a Roman script originally created by Catholic missionaries.
  • Jonathon Ke Quan, the famous actor in the movie The Goonies, was originally born in Saigon.

I stumbled on this YouTube video to give you a taste of a Vietnamese poem translated after each stanza. “Jealousy”, a poem about a ridiculously possessive boyfriend, has everyone in the audience laughing, even the reader. I picked it for the sounds of Vietnamese but I can’t help but also wonder at what is under that nervous laughter in a high school setting. For me, it wasn’t all that funny. 


Mother Tongue Tuesday: Ukrainian



When I first started teaching immigrants instead of international students like the Japanese young people in my last post , I had a classroom full of Ukrainian men mixed in with a few Russians along with one Armenian. Many had been welders or miners in their first countries. 

They studied in a welding program and my job was to teach them the English they would need to understand welding in the United States. I taught terms like butt joint, corner joint, direct current and bead

Everyday Anatoliy with the silver hair stood a foot above me and said: “Karrie! Ni Boom Boom!” “Karrie! No understand!” (Not exactly a teacher’s favorite words to hear.)

The shock of moving from Japanese university students and culture was matched by the joy of working with a happy crowd of learners who had recently immigrated and wanted nothing so much as to get enough practical English to make it in their everyday lives.

Ukrainian tidbits from the UCLA Language Project

  • Although it is in the Slavic language family, Ukrainian is distinctly different from Russian. For example, the word for goodbye in Ukrainian is “do pobachennya.” The Russian word is ” do svidaniya.” 
  • Ukrainian, like Russian, loves to change the adjectives and verbs according to case and gender. Perhaps because it changes the words to match their purpose (subject, verb, object) in a sentence, the word order is very flexible, especially in comparison to English.
  • Ukrainian is written in the Cyrillic script. 
  • Bob Dylan’s grandparents immigrated from Odessa, Ukraine. (I can’t determine if they spoke Ukrainian or Russian.)

With all that’s happening in Ukraine in the world news, I see my students in that welding basement before the remodel of the school. I hope and pray that we can all get back to building things by laying a bead or cutting apart metal with oxy-acetylene torches rather than tearing each other apart. 

For  a super quick six minute history of the area and the difficulties in the region, here is John Green with a video explanation, including maps and pictures. (I asked my Russian and Ukrainian colleagues to watch this and tell me what they think, but they shook their heads without watching, saying their history could not be squished into that short of a YouTube video. I can see their point but, short of studying the country for a semester or scanning scholarly articles, I thought watching Green gave me a glimmer of understanding.)



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:


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.









Puzzle Patterns, Bells and Structure


Joining Romano-British potsherds   334

I often think of decoding grammar as piecing together a giant word filled jigsaw puzzle. A thousand pieces to put together on a kitchen table is really not so daunting compared to the complex ways English and other languages fit together, moving with our new ideas and needs for communication. The analogy somehow helps me get it together in my mind, especially when the puzzle feels as trying as this guy’s vase.

The other day I was talking to my class about parallel structure, that part of sentences where the pieces need to fit together. In parallel structure, the writer has a series of items that need to match or run parallel to one another. I wrote up a few examples to explain what I mean by this. Examples always work better for me in the puzzle of English than explanations.

With parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, running, and looking at different art forms.

Without parallel structure in verb forms:

I like knitting, to run, and looking at different art forms.

With parallel structure in adverbs:

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and aloofly.

Without parallel structure using adverbs and a prepositional phrase (I think I’ve been guilty of this one):

The great barn owl sat on the post regally, solemnly, and with no interest in his onlookers.

With parallel structure in noun phrases:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and the horses who might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

Without parallel structure in noun phrases and an infinitive:

The lady sat on a fence thinking about the ways she could get off the fence, the marvelous view she had while staying on the fence, and to wish the horses might let her stay for a few more minutes without demanding more grass.

While I explained this, it occurred to me that another story I had just read by Miki Craighead would be the perfect example to help students understand the way parallel structure fits together. In my textbook there were several examples of patterns to show students to help them find the patterns of structure. The patterns were not very original and did not come with an interesting story. They looked something like this:

a, b, c, ?

10, 20, 30, ?

So I told them the story of Miki’s family bell system with its code for each of the children.

That pattern has a delightful story of children playing and a creative father who designed a sort of Morse code to call his kids in when needed. The pattern looked like this:

____ – , ____ – -, ____ – – -, ____ – – – -, ?

I sensed my students liked the bell system better than the overworked alphabet. And a neurologist I once listened to kept me spellbound for a 3 hour lecture by sprinkling stories into his lecture about Brain Rules. In any case, I am hoping Miki’s story lifted the grammar up a bit out of the drudgery for them.

Money where the Language Mouth Is


IMG_0101This past week I decided that to become a better teacher, I needed to commit to a language again. This has been on the back of my mind for some time. I’ve had several excellent excuses for not working on my own language learning, including an infant who was not fond of sleeping or letting his mother sleep.

He’s three now. He sleeps. And last summer a speaker at the state ABE/ESL conference in Yakima, WA let me practice my rusty German with her. Heide Spruck-Wrigley (link this) always gives a wonderful presentation that I would recommend seeing if you are in the language business and get the opportunity. She backs her words with solid research and sprinkles in hilarious stories like this video of a poor guy learning English:

Heide is also is a native German speaker. I pulled up my courage and told her in a small group session that I once spoke German and she gently shifted our conversation into her first language to let me practice. The experience of trying to decode another language while frantically trying to remember the vocabulary and structure I needed to respond in something like a conversational time frame stuck with me.

“Ah!” I thought. “This is what my poor students feel like everyday! No wonder they aren’t so chatty with me before class.”

Of course, I know this when I use my native language with them. But experiencing it myself gave me such a powerful feeling of empathy. I wondered what else I could get from learning another language alongside my students.

I said something along these lines to the Russian speaking administrative assistant Inna who works in the office where I go to make copies before class.

She nodded and said she tells new learners: “Nothing works. Not books or any special program. Just practice.”

“Hmm,” I thought. Sounds a lot like writing and anything else worthwhile.

So I asked my patient coworker if she’d help me by practicing with me in Russian. She agreed with a smile and a nod.

It’s not like I haven’t walked this path before. A part of me is screaming: “You’ve done this! You’re just going to find another excuse and make a mouthful of mistakes again!”

I’ve learned Russian in fits and starts for as many years as I’ve had Russian speaking students. One of my other Russian speaking coworkers shakes her head at me when I bring students in to her for interpreting.

“You should know Russian by now,” she says. She’s right. If I’d kept at it from the start I would.

Life pulls me away, I get busy and, because it’s not vital to my everyday existence, it’s easy for me to let it slide. So far this first week of practicing I’ve worked on a few phrases with Inna, found a free program on the Internet and cracked open a few of the books on the language section of my office library at home.

I suppose I’m hoping that writing about it here will keep me going through the embarrassment and drudgery that learning a new language brings because, since I started Russian on my own in (gasp) 1997, I have managed to learn a few things. And not just words to use with my Russian speaking students but also experiences to share with those who speak a multitude of other languages in my classes.

Besides. Something indescribable happens when I speak another language — something about the practice opens new worlds and novel ways of seeing the world I’m in right now.

Do wish me luck.