An Evening in the Philippines

Last night we had the good fortune to be invited to dinner by Estela, a friend of ours who is Filipina. There was a Filipino restaurant we used to eat at occasionally in Utah, but it’s been a long time since we had real Filipino food. Estela is an amazing cook, and she prepared several classic Filipino dishes for us. We started out with two kinds of lumpia, or egg rolls. The first ones were “fresh” (i.e. unfried) lumpia, which are like a very thin, light crepe wrapped around julienne carrots, palm hearts, and curly lettuce.

Fresh lumpia usually have peanuts in them, but Estela’s were peanut-free, so my enjoyment of them was multiplied by all the peanut-laced lumpia that I had drooled over in the Philippines and been unable to eat. They were even better than I’d ever imagined, especially with the accompanying garlic/chicken broth sauce.

Possibly even yummier were the fried lumpia with tangy sweet/sour sauce.

I had to try several of both kinds in an effort to make up my mind as to which lumpia I preferred. In the end, I was unsuccessful at choosing between them, but I enjoyed the trial immensely.

Estela had also, of course, cooked quantities of that delightful, fluffy rice–every grain separate and perfect–that is extraordinarily difficult to reproduce for the uninitiated (i.e. me). No meal in the Philippines (even breakfast) is complete without rice. In fact, they have this funny word, ulam, that means “what you eat with rice.” Supposedly, the corresponding English term is “viand,” a word I’d vaguely associated with meat (in a Norman, Robin Hoodish sort of way), but certainly never uttered myself before my introduction to Filipino cuisine. If you look up viand, you’ll find it defined unhelpfully as “an article of food,” sometimes with the appellation “of a choice or delicate kind.” We just haven’t got the ulam concept in English.

In this case, the ulam was adobo, chicken braised in a savory sauce, which is a sort of national dish in the Philippines. Just like with the rest of the meal, Estela’s version was delicious.

To round it all out, Estela created a dramatic pancit, silky translucent rice noodles with vegetables and meat. So yummy.

Dessert was “sticky rice,” which is made out of exactly what it sounds like, but turns out to look something like cake. The rice is mashed into a pulp and mixed with sugar and coconut milk, and then baked (I think). Estela’s had a bonus of actual strips of buko (green coconut), like the kind they put in your buko juice (green coconut water) when you buy it off the street in the Philippines. I couldn’t find a picture, so you’ll have to imagine it.

Even more distressing, I didn’t get a picture of Tony singing Karaoke afterward. Karaoke is a sort of national pastime in the Philippines. It is ubiquitous and indulged in by young and old alike. Tony crooning schmaltzy love songs in Tagalog (to the rapturous delight of Estela and her Filipina friend), was one of the sweetest things I’ve seen in a long time.

We’re all a little homesick for the Philippines today!

photo credits: fresh lumpia, fried lumpia, adobo, pancit

Running Away to Home, La Bella Lingua, Dune, and the Woman Who Laughed at God

I keep starting more books, and can’t seem to finish many of them. But here are a few reviews to start off the year:

Running Away to HomeRunning Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having done a very similar thing myself, I enjoyed reading Jennifer Wilson’s account of how she took her family to the Czech Republic in search of her ancestors. I loved all the little details of their acceptance into her ancestral village, and how she and her suburban American family learned a different way of living and seeing the world. However, the book lacked a certain internal consistency and completeness. At times, Wilson simply rambled. And she kept bringing up interesting themes and then dropping them without warning, never to be revisited. The concluding chapters read a little insincerely, almost as if she’d written them before she ever went, and been planning to write the book all along.

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting LanguageLa Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I certainly enjoyed reading this book, since I’m as weak in the knees over the Italian language as Hales. However, this is more of a light cultural history of Italy than the “love affair with Italian” of the subtitle. She does attempt to tie the narrative together with little incidents in her quest to speak Italian, but much of it just comes off as bragging about how much time she’s spent on her many Italian vacations. Hales’ prose is also sometimes a trifle too sexual for good taste (although one could argue the same about the Italian language), and it’s all a bit too self-conscious. And she will keep making sweeping generalizations about all the languages in the world, even though it’s fairly obvious that Italian is the only one she’s ever tried to learn. Still, I learned a lot of new phrases and interesting etymologies, and my Italian “cultural literacy” was certainly enhanced. This book is definitely worth a read if you have anything more than a passing interest in Italy and Italian.

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stunning. Really stunning. I don’t know what’s kept me from reading Dune all these years. I’ve always wondered how George Lucas pulled the genius of Star Wars out of thin air, and now I know he didn’t. The entire feel of the Star Wars movies is there, and several characters and scenes were lifted almost directly out of this book. (I’m a bit annoyed at Lucas now for turning the powerful all-female Bene Gesserit into the male-dominated Jedi. But whatever.) However, Dune stands on its own (as does Star Wars) as a masterpiece. The thematic breadth is epic, the symbolism apt and profound, and the depth and scope of literary allusions quite impressive. It’s a ripping page-turner too. And Frank Herbert knows his Arabic. This book totally made me want to go back to Tunisia and spend some time in the desert looking for sandworms.

Dune MessiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, I was warned that there’s a sharp drop-off in the sequels to Dune, but I thought I’d give this one at least a try. It was O.K., but resembled a little too closely the pulp science fiction that kept me from reading Dune for so long in the first place. The main thing I enjoyed, again, was tracing the origins of Star Wars. I can’t say I really liked the plot. Unfortunately, Jessica, my favorite character (and Duke Leto, my second favorite) are both virtually absent from this book. Duncan is just creepy, Alia is . . . strange. Paul is more tragic and haunted than ever, but less likable. And there are no really grand epic vistas here. Herbert puts in some interesting philosophy, but nowhere near the depth of the original Dune. I will probably not be continuing on with the rest of the several books in the series.

The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish PeopleThe Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People by Jonathan Kirsch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I eventually got bored with this one and dropped it somewhere between “In the Ruined Citadel” and “Abominable Heresies.” Kirsch revels in the sensational. His narrative is liberally peppered with his own scantily supported suppositions, even as he tries to observe the forms of a well-researched, fairly scholarly work. Still, I enjoyed reading some of his clever theses, especially in the chapter “A Goddess of Israel,” in which he advances the idea that women may have written some of the oldest parts of the Bible.

View all my reviews

What are you reading (or planning to read) this year?

Easy Foreign Language Program

Foreign language is pretty important to our family, because we love to travel and learn about other cultures. So I am always thinking of new ways to help my children (and myself) learn and retain languages better. One of the most visited pages on this blog is my ten tips on teaching children a foreign language.

Our most important focus language right now is Italian. Tony and I are fairly conversant. We keep it up by listening to Italian pop music all day long. The children have had quite a bit of exposure too. They are a little shy about speaking, but their passive vocabulary is pretty good. But somehow, this term I had a really hard time coming up with a good daily foreign language program for them.

The library CD’s (it was called something like “Drive Time Italian”) didn’t really work out for us. They were deadeningly boring. Livemocha is fun, but it’s too much of an artificial drilling experience. They learned the words, but it didn’t really help them to use those words in speech. And a lot of the books from the International Children’s Digital Library are just too advanced for them.

My mother-in-law has quite a nice collection of language-learning CD’s, including tons of Spanish, and a smattering of Russian, French, and yes, Italian. The French and Italian programs are both by Michel Thomas. Have you heard of him? He was a language teacher whose Beverly Hills Polyglot Institute taught the rich and famous how to speak French. I’m not kidding. The back of the CD hails him as the French teacher of celebrities like Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Emma Thompson, Warren Beatty, and Princess Grace of Monaco. (All of them well-known, of course, for their superior facility with the French language.)

Thomas’ system is actually pretty good, I think. His major coup is making it seem effortless to speak in a new language. Considering the fact that a belief that languages are “hard” is one of the main factors that contribute to failure, he’s got a great point. His method is pretty fun too. Tony has been listening to the French CD’s and whispering to me seductively in French lately. So I thought I might try out the Italian ones on Axa.

Well, it was another example of how my great educational ideas sometimes fizzle when I try to apply them to my children. Problem #1: when Michel Thomas explains things in English, he has such a thick German (or is it Polish) accent that Axa can’t understand him. Problem #2: All the Italian pronunciation is done by a student. A student with a pretty atrocious accent. So when Axa said she didn’t like it, I was secretly relieved to put it away and not have to worry about her own nice accent deteriorating in imitation.

Then I was back to square one. I still needed a way to teach her Italian. I started racking my brain again. And then it hit me. When I was studying Arabic in college, my professor showed us a delightful Egyptian film called Al-aragoz (The Puppeteer). We watched in tiny segments of a couple of minutes each. During each viewing, my professor would play difficult parts over and over, until we could understand the Arabic dialogue. Although we watched that film for at least a year, we never did end up finishing it in class. I watched the ending years later.

I know more than one person who has learned English largely from watching Hollywood films and American television, so I thought it was worth a try. I decided on a movie that I wouldn’t mind watching over and over, but which Axa would also enjoy (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast).

Now we watch a little bit of it in Italian on Youtube every morning. In 10-15 minutes, we make it through maybe a minute or two of the movie. I play perhaps 15 seconds of it and then ask Axa what the character said. She can often repeat it back, or at least pick out a few words. Then we move on to the next little bit.

It might sound tedious, but that’s why you have to pick a really great movie. About once a week, we go back and watch from the beginning. After several weeks of this, we have watched twenty minutes or so of Beauty and the Beast. Axa has remembered and learned quite a bit of Italian. And she’s enjoying it. In fact, she says Italian is her favorite subject after handwriting. Go figure.

photo credit

The Evolution of Orkin

A strange and mysterious script has been discovered on white boards and documents throughout this house. So far, the cryptic writing has not been deciphered. However, yesterday I received a clue as to its origins. In fact, I witnessed a shadowy character actually writing in what I now have cause to believe may be a metamorphosed dialect of Orkin, my children’s invented private language. Figure 1 (see above) is my subsequent secret photograph of the writing in question.

If you have ever lived in a country covered in Arabic graffiti, you might initially come to the same conclusion I did: Orkin must be a derivative of Arabic. (Disregard the large lettering of “SUN,” which consists not in Russian characters, but only slightly dyslexic English, meant to throw us off the scent.) However, here the intrinsic subtlety of the Orkin mind comes into play. Phonologically, Orkin still sounds much as it did when we lived in northern Italy. Not so much as an asphyxiating Arabic consonant or a nasal French vowel has invaded its pure Italian tones. It appears that the devious originators of this enigmatic tongue have simply emulated the Persians and Turks, adapting the Arabic characters to fit their own unrelated language.

But here’s the cleverest part: the subject I witnessed writing in Orkin (my six-year-old daughter Axa, to be exact) was writing the Arabic script backwards, from left to right. Try writing a normal sentence beginning with the last letter and ending with the first, and you’ll understand how mind-boggling this looked to me, who can’t even write Arabic very quickly forwards, let alone backwards. However, it only makes sense. I taught her to write in English, and I don’t know that she’s ever seen someone up close writing in Arabic. The only shame is that she’s a lefty, so writing right to left would be a perfect fit for her. I’ve always thought it was too bad that left-handedness is so discouraged in the Arab world. Right to left writing would so beautifully eliminate the bother with ink smudges, strange paper angles, or that way of holding the pen that looks like it hurts.

In fact, upon further examination, this is looking like a nefarious conspiracy against lefties, perpetrated by the unusually united forces of the Arab and Western worlds. In English, where the scriptory cards are heavily stacked against them, lefties are allowed to contort their hands and smear their words by writing left-handed. However, in Arabic, where their left-handedness would be an asset, they are forced to use their right hands to write instead, negating their inherent advantage. Ah, the injustice.

Left-handers of the world, did you know that you have a powerful and under-utilized ally? Barak Obama is one of you! And if you ask me, it’s time he stepped up to the plate and showed that he really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize. If you are a lefty, or have a friend or relative affected by the current worldwide conspiracy of discrimination against lefties, please join me in writing President Obama and calling for him to work with world leaders, the UN, NATO, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, Greenpeace, the International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors, and all other international bodies and governments to end the international oppression against lefties, in which all of us are intentionally or unintentionally complicit!

Teaching Children a Foreign Language

Someone wrote me this week asking how I teach my children Italian. Even before we moved abroad, I had given this question a lot of thought. Our Casteluzzo Academy curriculum (at our homeschool), includes some very ambitious language goals. But what really matters with language study for children are the little everyday details. Here are 10 tips on how to make the most of language learning whether your children are seventeen months or seventeen years old.

1. Start right away. It is never to early to learn a foreign language. My children are three and five, and we’ve been exposing them to foreign languages since birth. But it’s never too late to start. Many people (myself included) have learned multiple languages as adults. Whatever age you are, there is no reason to wait. Start now, even if all you do is watch a cartoon  together in your target language. Most DVD’s have a language menu with at least a couple of language options, including subtitles.

2. Tell them it’s easy. That’s right: it’s not just possible, it’s easy to learn a foreign language! One of the most important early tasks children’s brains perform is learning to speak a foreign language–their own! Explain to them that their brains are designed to learn a foreign language easily. It is true, and it will give them confidence. I have observed that even for adults, one of the most important factors for success in learning a foreign language is how hard we think it is. Tell yourself it is easy, and it will get at least a little easier.

3. Be a good example. Just like with everything, children listen to what you do, not what you say. If you want them to learn a foreign language, start studying it yourself. It shows them that learning a language is important. It also helps them to see that it’s work for you too. When I make an embarrassing error or have a funny language situation happen to me, I always tell my children about it. That way, they understand that making mistakes and laughing about them is all part of the process of language-learning. Studying yourself can also have a more direct effect on your children. When we were in the United States, I would check out Pimsleur CD’s from the library and put them on while I was cooking dinner. Sure enough, pretty soon I would hear my children repeating phrases right along with the CD.

4. Study with them. Don’t just sit them down with a workbook. If you must do a workbook, do it together. Better yet, read a story in the language, or listen to one together. Use an interactive computer program together. My children love reading picture dictionaries together. Our favorites are the “First 1000 Words” series from Usborne, which have a different scene on each page (e.g. farm, school, hospital, etc.), with everything labeled in the target language. These can be found in the more common languages at most libraries, and there is a matching internet site with pronunciation audio files for all the words. If you make language-learning time a special time with you, it will have positive associations for your children. Language-learning is not a solo activity. Talking and listening together is the best way to learn.

5. Make it a game. My husband likes to study Italian situationally. He imagines himself having a conversation with someone about something, figures out how to say everything he would like to say, and then memorizes it. Then he goes out and has that conversation, sometimes multiple times with different people. Sometimes beforehand he practices with me, or with the children. When it is a no-pressure situation, children like to have a little pretend conversation. In fact, they will happily have the same conversation over and over again, especially if you use funny voices and exaggerated gestures.

6. Find a friend. Children need a reason to speak a language, and there’s no better reason than a friend who doesn’t understand English. A child or a foreign-language-speaking playgroup is fine, but for my children an adult works better. Across the street from us lives Beatrice, a sweet widow with no grandchildren who has become a sort of Italian grandma for my children. We visit her, help her with her yard, take her cookies, and invite her to Church when the children are singing. Sometimes she comes over and invites Axa to her house for an hour to see her rabbits, make a snowman, or help in the garden. Since Beatrice speaks no English, their language of conversation is Italian. Axa loves her, so she is motivated to speak to her.

7. Do it every day. Five minutes a day is much more effective than a half hour once a week. Find a way to incorporate a little bit of your language into every day, whether it is learning a few new words or phrases, listening to folk-songs, reading a picture book, or talking to a native speaker. Children love routines and rituals. If your language study is consistent and enjoyable, they will look forward to it and ask for it if you forget.

8. Use multimedia resources. Especially if you are not a native speaker, use CD’s, movies, and computer programs to help your children learn. One of our favorite free online resources is Livemocha. My children and I like to do a lesson together, taking turns saying the words after the person on the computer. They also love to help correct other people’s English-speaking assignments. It really helps them to hear someone trying to learn their language. We also enjoy ItalianPod (also available for Chinese, Spanish, and French). Each ten-minute lesson includes a funny dialogue in the target language, and then a conversation in English where two people talk about the dialogue and explain it to each other. Do preview the lessons beforehand, as not all of them are appropriate for children. Both websites have a basic free version (the one we’ve used) and an upgraded paid service.

9. Make it come alive. If you possibly can, plan a visit to the country whose language you are studying. It will give your children motivation to study, provide a great immersion capstone experience, and maybe even help them meet some friends and future penpals. If not, have a special night where you eat food from that country, dress up like the people, read folk-tales, and maybe even have a visit from someone native to the country. Or visit your local Chinatown, Little Italy, Hispanic neighborhood, etc. When we lived in Fallbrook, California, I shopped at the local Mexican grocery store. They had good, cheap produce (including wonderful mangoes), delicious fresh, warm tortillas, and lots of other fun and interesting foods. And opportunities to speak Spanish with everyone in the store.

10. Enjoy the journey. Learning another language is more than just a tool to boost test scores and increase job opportunities. It is a a way to make friends with new and interesting people, and a celebration of the fascinating, beautiful world we live in. Don’t make it a chore, make it a pleasure. Make sure you’re learning a language that you really love. For example, just because everyone says Spanish is the most useful second language for Americans doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right language for your family. Maybe you’d be happier with Arabic, Chinese, or French. Involve your children in choosing the language they will learn. And if you do get bogged down in drudgery, put the language study aside for a day and treat the whole family to a nice dinner at an ethnic restaurant with cuisine from your chosen country.

photo credit

The Blood of the Soul

Once while out on an evening walk, Tony and I decided to cut through the cobblestone stillness of our little town square. At that time of day, with the bells striking and mists curling up around the church tower, the town resembles nothing more than an Italian Brigadoon, about to disappear again into a hundred-year enchantment. However, on this particular evening it just so happened that the entire square was full of chairs, and a stage had been erected on one end. A local acting troupe was performing a play to the rapt attention of what must have been half our little village. Never ones to pass up an impromptu cultural occasion, we decided to stick around for a while and test out our budding Italian skills. Much to our dismay, after ten minutes of listening intently, we had failed to distinguish even one recognizable word. Finally, we gave up and returned home, thoroughly deflated. Was our Italian really as bad as all that?

Our relief was great a few days later when we mentioned our linguistic failure to a friend. She informed us that the play had been performed not in Italian, but in Piemontese, the regional dialect peculiar to Piemonte, our northern corner of Italy. Intrigued, we asked around a little more about this mysterious language that is apparently alive and well, despite being unofficial and even sometimes discouraged. In learning about Piemontese, we learned a little more about Italian itself. When in 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was formed by uniting a collection of kingdoms, duchies, and city-states that were then coexisting on the Italian Peninsula, only 2.5% of the population actually spoke Italian. What did the rest speak? Their regional dialects: things like Neapolitan, Sardinian, Venetian, and yes, Piemontese. In fact, the language we now call Italian is derived from the dialect spoken by educated Florentines. The Florentine dialect won out largely because of Dante, whose Divine Comedy was read all over Italy.

I can’t help cheering for the underdog, so regional languages with a small native base fascinate me. I’m especially interested in how they manage to survive in the modern world, when populations are so mobile, and mass media so successful in promoting cultural homogenization. In Europe, one of the factors on the side of traditional languages is the European Union. The story of Europe in the 19th century was a story of nationalism. Out of the decaying empires rose nation states, each consisting in a group of people who shared a common culture, an attachment to a certain piece of land, and a language. Unfortunately, in the general mêlée some nations ended up without a state. Many of these stateless nations were ruthlessly repressed by the dominant nation state with control over the territory where they lived. And one of the best ways of breaking up and dispiriting an undesirable minority is to forbid them from speaking their own language. This is not a purely European phenomenon. It happened and is happening all over the world.

However, the stability and security provided by a centralized European Union makes countries less desperate to insist on a single dominant culture, allowing some of these lesser-known languages to make a comback. One of my favorite European ideas (a close second after the EU directive on Free Movement of Persons) is the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which encourages states to protect and promote regional and minority languages. To me, it is a powerful symbolic and practical affirmation of human dignity, and a celebration of the linguistic treasures that help us understand ourselves, each other, and our roots. Did you know that in the European Parliament, although only the 23 official EU languages will be guaranteed an instant translation, members are free to address the body in any language they like, be it Welsh, Asturian, Basque, or even sign language. Just another reason I love my adopted continent.

This is good news for languages like Piemontese, which though it didn’t manage to get made an official language of the 2006 Turin Olympics, still boasts over 2 million speakers out of the 4.2 million people residing in Piemonte. Considering the fact that some of that population are immigrants from other parts of Italy, South America, Africa, and beyond (or Americans, like us), the percentage of native Piemontese who still speak their language is considerably above half. While I’ve most often heard it from people the age of my grandparents, the language has also become “cool” in many teenage circles. And in some little villages in our area, young children can be heard speaking Piemontese to each other as they play. At the moment, I’m still absorbed with learning Italian, so I’ve only mastered the most basic phrases in Piemontese (since it’s a well-received gesture here to toss them into Italian conversation), or what I’ve seen proudly painted framed in flowers on people’s houses. But I love hearing it and knowing that it’s flourishing, as much a part of the color and culture of this place as cobblestones, chestnuts, and castles.

Pizza and Conversation

Sorry you didn’t hear from me yesterday. But I have a good excuse. We came home from Church at mid-day, opened our front door, and were nearly bowled over by the heavy scent of gasoline emanating from our apartment. I took a deep gulp of fresh outside air and dashed heroically into the house to see if I had left the gas stove on. I hadn’t, and we don’t really have any other ways to leak gas into our house. So we went upstairs to talk to our landlord. He was not at home, but when his wife phoned him, he confessed that he had indeed spilled gasoline that morning as he was filling up his car in the garage. Not only does our apartment share a wall with said garage, but it also has a row of six lovely frosted windows looking into it, which are not exactly hermetically sealed. To top it all off, our internet cable comes in through a rather large hole drilled into one of those window-frames.

We opened all the windows and doors to let the gasoline fumes escape. Unfortunately, just at that moment our neighbor across the street decided to start burning her rubbish. The thick, acrid smoke immediately began pouring into our house through all those open doors and windows. So yes, even though it was cold and slightly drizzling, we decided to take an impromptu afternoon walk rather than the cozy warm nap we had originally planned, while we let our apartment air out. I dressed everyone in three or four layers of warm clothing, and we set out. It turned out to be quite a nice walk in spite of everything, but when we returned our house remained uninhabitably gassy and smoky.

Fortunately, at church that morning we had received an invitation to pizza at the Branch President’s house. So we piled into the car and set off for a delightful evening. President made nine pizzas, all of different types, and all delicious. I always see tuna pizza on restaurant menus here, and think it sounds awful. But it was actually quite tasty mixed with some carmelized onions. And the roasted pepper, green olive and prosciutto pizza was delectable.

What we really enjoyed, though, was the company. I looked around at one point during the evening and realized what an an eclectic group we were. There was Presidente Pepe from Argentina with his wife, who is from Chile. Carlos, himself a son of Argentine immigrants, although he grew up in Italy, was there with his delightful new Swiss wife, Naike. President’s in-laws were there from Chile as well, and then there was our family, the Americans. We had not one bona fide Italian among us, although we were all jabbering away at each other more or less in Italian. I say more or less, because the Chilean grandparents spoke only Spanish, which is also in common daily use among the South American Italians present. Tony and I spoke a fair amount of English with Carlos and the President’s son. And there were various discussions of what this or that word meant in English, Spanish, Italian, or Chilean Spanish.

Naike had made a delicious flourless cake with chestnuts and swiss chocolate. And I got to try a persimmon, which lately I see hanging orange and incongruous on bare trees everywhere. I had been under the impression that they were inedible without being boiled for hours. But the raw one that was given to me melted in my mouth like an exotic orange jelly. The 81-year-old Chilean grandfather kept insistently trying to feed Tony fork-fulls of his pizza. The Chilean grandmother was delighted that I remembered from my time in Chile the sweet tamale-like humitas, the cheese empanadas, and above all, the porotos (the peculiarly Chilean word for beans). She told me about the many years she had lived in Argentina, but how angry it always made her during those years for people to insinuate that she was Argentine. One of her anecdotes involved her indignantly retorting to someone that she was “more Chilean than the porotos,” which charmed me because I remembered it as the ultimate expression of Chilean pride. My favorite story, though, was the one where she was on the bus and someone said she had an Argentine accent. Her eyes flashed as she told me (dramatically acting it out as she said it) how she took the ice cream cone she was eating and squashed it right onto his forehead.

A good time was had by all, including our children, who speak the languages of Italian pizza and Swiss chocolate equally well. It just reminded me how fun and rewarding it is to share food, experiences, and conversation with people from different parts of the world. These days this famous Augustine quote pops up everywhere: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” It’s true. But having other people read your their own pages can sometimes be almost as good as reading the book yourself. (Isn’t that why you like to travel vicariously through me? I know it’s why I love reading travel blogs and travelogues.)

Oh, and if you’re wondering, our house smelled much better when we returned. We had the children sleep in our room as a precaution, since they normally sleep right up against the offending wall. However, as of today the gasoline spill is officially all cleaned up, and things are back to normal. As normal as things ever get around here, at any rate.

Jane Austen and the Mock Turtle

I like to read treatises and how-to books on education. But I also enjoy distilling educational theory out of books that have nothing to do with education. It fascinates me, for instance, to hear the Mock Turtle’s summation of the subjects offered at his school: Reeling and Writhing, Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision, Mystery (ancient and modern) with Seaography, Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils, Laughing and Grief, as well as Dancing the Lobster Quadrille. That’s Lewis Carroll’s whimsical but accurate summation of the typical education of his day (for boys. You’ll notice that in the same chapter Alice carefully mentions her French, but earlier as she tries to think how to address a mouse in The Pool of Tears, she can remember the vocative only from her brother’s Latin Grammar).

It’s a curriculum that modern classical educators in the U.S. are trying to revive. Here in Italy, whatever other complaints there may be about the school system (and no, I’m not sending my kids to Italian schools any more than I’m sending them to American schools), my husband’s coworkers all at least took Latin or Greek in high school. In fact, Italy has always been at the forefront of Classical Education. You’ll notice in The Taming of the Shrew (set in Padua) that Baptista, to distract his daughter Bianca from her suitors, engages the services of two tutors (who turn out to be the suitors in disguise); one for music and mathematics (preserving the traditional Ancient Greek identification of the two) and the other for Latin and Greek. In Climbing Parnassus, my new favorite book on education, Tracy Lee Simmons paints a similar picture of the rich education available to both boys and girls (of means) in 15th Century Italy. It was this same education, transported to Britain shortly after, that prevailed there virtually unchanged (and was later exported to America) for three hundred years, until the end of the Long Nineteenth Century.

The English, though, were a bit behind the Italians when it came to equality of education. To read what young women were expected to learn in England at the time, we can turn to Jane Austen. A few months ago, I happened to pick up a lovely complete edition of her novels at a thrift store in Ireland for three euros, and I must say it made a welcome change from Thomas Hardy, who seems to be the favorite author in Ireland. Austen’s books are all peppered with references to female education. In fact, Pride and Prejudice could be profitably read as a treatise on the proper education and upbringing of young ladies.

Aside from the lessons on the importance of moral education implicit in the story of the Bennets’ disastrous parenting style, we have the famous conversation in which the “accomplished woman” is defined. In fact, we have three successive definitions, offered respectively by Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley, and finally Darcy. By the time Darcy offers his, the bar has been set so high for accomplished women that Elizabeth is “surprised at [his] knowing any.”

Let’s take a look at these different ideas of women’s education. Mr. Bingley (always easily pleased) is content with the merely decorative woman who can quietly “paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses.” Miss Bingley in turn eagerly lists her own carefully acquired accomplishments of “music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages [i.e. French, German and Italian],” as well as the all-important “certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” For her, and the society of the day, the point of all these pursuits (which Austen continually ridicules as likely to be given up as soon as a woman marries) is to catch a husband. Not until Darcy speaks do we hear something a trifle more academic: “the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

The genius of my favorite 19th century educator, Charlotte Mason, is that at her school she effectively took this list of accomplishments for women and combined it with the traditional classical curriculum that created the educated men of the day. But she also added something more–the conscious cultivation of proper moral habits whose lack is so evident in the Bennet household. The result was a happy synthesis (offered equally to both boys and girls) that developed a cultured, well-informed, well-rounded person of high moral character.

Charlotte’s junior-high-aged students studied the following: Old Testament, New Testament, Plutarch, Arithmetic, Geometry, Dictation, Recitation, Geography, Botany, Physiology, Natural History, German, French, Italian, Latin, Writing, English Grammar, English History, French History, Literature, Singing (in multiple languages), and Physical Education. I am not joking. This is taken verbatim off of a weekly schedule from a class in her school. Their education would also have included drawing and painting, handicrafts, and studies of composers and artists. Greek would have been added in high school, along with Geology, Astronomy, and European history. (And don’t worry, they were only in school for four hours per day.)

My goals and methods are in the spirit of Charlotte Mason’s, and the curriculum I am using is basically the same as hers. I want both my daughter and my son to be educated AND accomplished. I want them to to be fluent in other languages so that they can learn from and communicate with not only the Classical authors but also with people they meet all over the world. I want them to grow up equipped not only with the mathematics and science and technology skills to be competitive in our global economy, but also with the ability to appreciate (and create) music, art and literature that will enrich their own and others’ lives. And I want them to understand that it is not how much they know, but how well they apply their knowledge to make the world a better place that matters. Is this too high to aim? I think not. Of course there will be ups and downs, good days and bad, but it is an ideal that has been attained before in previous centuries, and I firmly believe can be attained again. In the words of Charlotte Mason, “Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children; and that, in the faith that mothers work wonders once they are convinced that wonders are demanded of them.”

Adventures in Language Acquisition

I don’t study Italian a whole lot lately. In college most semesters I spent a good twenty hours a week studying various languages. Even on my mission, we had an hour set aside each day for language study. But that was all before I became the homeschooling mother of two preschoolers (with no dishwasher, dryer, or Trader Joe’s). Excuses, excuses. I know.
So last week I decided to turn over a new leaf, the leaf called Livemocha, which I mentioned a few days ago. I can communicate with people pretty well, and understand just about everything, but I conservatively started myself out in Italian 201, which describes itself as “For students who are comfortable enough to ask a few questions and follow simple conversations.” I breezed through the lesson, which was about buying fruits and vegetables. I’ve bought fruits and vegetables in Italy approximately a hundred times, so I figured I already knew most of the vocabulary.
When it came time do to the writing exercise, which was making a list of the items in my shopping cart, I thought nothing could be easier. I dashed off a list of groceries likely to be found in my cart and submitted my exercise. When it was graded a few hours later, I was shocked to find that my “easy” exercise was riddled with errors. There were errors of spelling, improperly formed plurals, and messed up articles. I even spelt the word “kilo” wrong!
My shock quickly turned to embarrassment. So much for the language skills I thought I had. How had this happened? I had never, ever gotten back a paper with anywhere near this many red marks in any of my Latin, Russian, Arabic or Spanish classes. When my ears stopped burning, I started thinking it over, and eventually I did come to a conclusion.
I’ve always been more of a grammar-translation sort of person when it comes to language learning. In my very traditional Latin classes, I thrived on memorizing verb conjugations, and translating and diagramming sentences. My Arabic teacher made us do a lot of immersion, but I still spent hours studying so I could replicate the proper placement of each little short vowel mark and understand its grammatical implications. I tried to never say anything until I knew just how to say it. Even when I arrived on my mission in Chile, I’d been exposed to Spanish growing up, and then spent an intensive two months studying it in the Missionary Training Center before I had to really say anything.
Then we moved to Italy. And we didn’t speak a word of Italian. Well, actually, we did speak a word. That word was dov’e, which means “where is . . . .?” Yes, we used it a lot. But we rarely understood the response, resulting in a lot of wandering around lost. We still shake our heads over the time we asked, “dov’e Megashopping” because it was the only sign we had seen near our hotel that we could pronounce, and we at least wanted to be able to make it back there. Only after I’d said it did I realize that I sounded like the classic Ugly American who can’t live without megashopping even on a relaxing vacation to Italy.
In Italy, I had to just jump in with both feet, making mistakes right and left. My classic strategy was popping in a Spanish word whenever I didn’t know the Italian one. Every once in a while, it was the right word. More often, it was at least close enough that the patient Italian at the other end of my conversation eventually figured out what I was trying to say. Slowly, but surely, I improved. My sentences contained more Italian and less Spanish. I actually understood what people were saying. And since it happened so often, I lost all fear of making mistakes, freeing myself to practice and learn.
I’d never learned a language just by speaking it. I didn’t know I could. And that’s why when I got over my shock and embarrassment about that error-riddled Italian exercise, it turned to elation. I’m no longer chained to my grammar book until I’ve memorized every tense from remote past to passive conditional. Even though I mistook the gender of uovo and mis-spelt it, when I ask at the grocery store for eggs in Italian, I get eggs. It’s like when I put away my piano books and discovered I could play by ear. Or when I ended up in Italy with no cookbooks and started making up recipes myself.
Of course, I still want to know how to spell “eggs” correctly. So I’ve gone back to Italian 101. But in the meantime, at least I can talk. And just for the record, I know “K” doesn’t exist in Italian. But I’ve seen chilo spelt “kilo” lots of times at the market. So there.

Want some Italian with your doughnut?

A couple of years ago, I signed up for a new social media site with a twist: it was set up to help users teach each other new languages. The idea isn’t exactly new. People have been using chat rooms to practice their language skills with strangers for years. In fact, the first and only time I ever entered a chat room, it was to practice my Arabic shortly after returning home from a study abroad in Syria. I was immediately overwhelmed by Arab men, shamelessly hitting on me and hinting around about green cards. It was so uncomfortably close to actually being in an Arab country as a single American female that I soon left, deciding I’d have to practice my quickly atrophying Arabic language skills somewhere else.

In the fall of 2008, we had been in Italy for a few months and I was desperate to learn Italian. So I signed up as a beta user on, a new language-learning site with a social networking component. There were online courses for several different languages. And you could become friends with native speakers who would help correct your spoken and written exercises. It sounded great. Unfortunately, along with Italian, I marked that I was interested in learning Arabic. My inbox immediately filled with very friendly friend requests from single Arab men.

So although I played around with the online Italian lessons, I could never bring myself to become active in the livemocha community. Until now. Actually, I didn’t really become active myself, but I did tell my husband about it. And after he had subsequently gushed about it to me for a few days, I finally did go back and found some friends who speak Italian. And now I do livemocha too. Amusingly enough, I did receive the following response (in Italian) from someone whose friendship I had requested: “Are you Italian? Do I know you? Why have you asked to be my friend?” I guess I’m not the only one afraid of stalkers.
Here’s how it works: you sign up just like on any other social networking site, except that you also are asked which languages you speak and which you want to learn. Then you can enroll in courses and find friends. Your friends will chat with you in your target language and correct your spoken and written language exercises. And you get to do the same for them. It’s a site that helps people connect in a meaningful way and provides a real service without getting weird and greedy about it, and it’s free (although you can also pay for a more Rosetta Stone-style course that they’ve developed and insist is awesome. I haven’t tried it).
Tony loves livemocha since a good part of his job description at the moment consists in learning Italian so he can communicate with his colleagues. So he’s made friends with an Italian named Fabio who wants to improve his English so he’s not embarrassed to his colleagues. They spend all day logged in and chatting to each other, helping each other sound smarter at work. And we could all use to sound a little smarter in whatever language we happen to be learning, couldn’t we? Well, I could. So I’ll be hanging out at livemocha, and you can friend me if you want. I’ll correct your English papers. But if you need a green card, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
(Oh, and by the way, I’m not being paid by livemocha to post this. I’m just an impressed user.)