Mother Tongue Tuesday (on a Wednesday again): Korean


Korean Primer

I’ve worked with many Korean students over the years, but woven throughout my life I’ve also been blessed with many Korean American friends.

These lovely friends have touched my life in ways large and small. One lady came to my house to teach me her language. A professor friend once helped me write an essay when I was in high school. Other friends invited me to their sheep ranch in the Green River Valley and took me to festivals where I had sweet bean deserts.

When I was young my mother’s best friend was another nurse whose two young boys became marvelous violin players. We once went to their immaculate home where we had won ton soup the mother made without any packages, and then we listened to her boys play for us. We were all delighted and crushed when those boys were accepted at Julliard, causing the family to move away to the East Coast.

These friends and students I have known have had an inner strength that allows them to move forward. Once a Korean friend from church was attacked in her tutoring business. Even though she probably weighs half as much as I do, she put up a tremendous fight. I pitied the fool with a knife who thought he could rob her without consequence.

When I think of the language these amazing friends all speak, I am always most impressed by the alphabet my friend started to teach me.

Once a king in Korea decided to reform the ridiculously complex Chinese-based character system Korea used at the time. King Sejong worked in the 1440’s to devise an alphabet called Hangul with 28 symbols, spelling the different sounds of Korean. Some call it a syllabary instead of an alphabet because the symbols represent syllable sounds.

This logical and simple writing system has dramatically increased literacy for Korea. If you’d like to read more about one of the youngest and (in my opinion) best writing systems in the world, check out this excellent article in The Economist. English spelling could use a little reform like this, too.

Other Korean Tidbits from the UCLA Language Project

  • Korean grammar is complex enough to hurt my head. While it does not use articles or plural nouns, it has a variety of ways to change its verbs including markers for the social status of the speakers. It uses 7 different cases for nouns, including the usual nominative, accusative, dative, genitive and others I had never heard of before.
  • It uses Subject-Object-Verb word order.
  • It is technically a language isolate but many scholars argue that Korean should be included with other Altaic or Uralic languages like Japanese, Turkic and even Finnish.

Famous Korean Americans 

Michelle Wie, golfer

Toby Dawson, freestyle skier

When I went to Germany many years ago, I felt a bit less homesick sitting in the McDonald’s, sipping coffee. Almost 15 years later, I traveled across the world in the other direction to China. It amazed me how at home I felt in the Korean restaurant down the street from my apartment.

After meeting the remarkable people who speak Korean, spicy noodles and won ton soup had begun to feel like home.


Mother Tongue Tuesday: German


I once was quite certain I would be a German teacher. I knew like I knew that German was fabulous, and I had spent plenty of time already studying it (like 2 years). I transferred from the University of Washington to Western Washington University with the more than rather dour Herr Brockhaus because I was so certain I wanted to study to be a teacher. The UW said to wait on the teaching courses until I had my German most of the way finished. (The perils of the UW would make another story, but I now think 18 years into teaching that they were were right.)

Without writing The Story of My Life in one blog post, it’s hard to explain how I landed in ESL. It’s simplest to say not nearly as many people want to learn German as they do English. Thinking of offering tidbits of this language, I studied more than any but English overwhelms me (not least because I’ve forgotten so very much. I don’t use it except lately on a little language app). But in the spirit of the students I have known both here and for a short time in Germany, I’ll give it a go.

German Tidbits from my Memory and from Ethnologue 

  • It has a 60% lexical similarity with English, meaning many of the words are the same in English and German. (Studying German made reading Old English understandable. German and English, I like to say, are close cousins.)


  • There are several varieties aside from the standard Hochdeutsch (High German). These are often known as Plattdeutsch (Low German). High German translates refrigerator as Kuhlschrank. The Plattdeutsch speakers in my German friend’s kitchen laughed as they told me refrigerator is something that sounded like Hooheehoeshrank with plenty of sounds from the back of the throat. (I can’t verify this so maybe they were just joshing my young self. I did, however, find Plattdeutsch translators like this and wasted a lot time looking for that word, so it looks like their refrigerator joke lives on in my older self.)


  • Over 41 million of the almost 70 million native German speakers also speak English, which explains why I’ve had so few German speakers needing my ESL classes. I have several friends and relatives from Germany but their English is so good I feel foolish using them to practice my German.


  • German has crazy articles. To learn the language well, you need to memorize male, female and neuter articles and then know subjective, accusative, dative and genitive forms of those articles. These make the a, an and the of English look as easy as playing patty cake.

Famous American German Speakers

  • Theodore Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) had German immigrant grandparents and many sources I’ve found say he grew up speaking both German and English.


  • Sandra Bullock grew up in Germany for many years. This video example of German has her speaking it quite well (to my ear).









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: 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.)



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.