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: 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.