Category Archives: Language

sugar sammy

Last week Public Radio International’s “The World” featured  Canadian Comedian Sugar Sammy.  Sugar Sammy has found a way to poke fun at the hot issues surrounding the French and English language conflict in Montreal and other regions in Quebec, from the perspective of an Indo-Canadian living in French Canada.


Francophone – Anglophone tensions are up in Quebec right now (the only Canadian province where French is the sole official language – English speakers represent the minority) and have been highlighted with the latest news frenzy over an incident dubbed “Pasta-gate.” The international news has targeted the region’s well-funded language law enforcement that cited a restaurant for using the Italian/English word “pasta” instead of its French equivalent and tried to ban it. (Click here for a good article about the incident from The Guardian.) Last time in Quebec, when exasperated that I couldn’t find someone who spoke English  (It’s still hard for me to get used to a French-speaking region a short drive from our U.S. borders),  I was quickly reprimanded for the belief that they should speak English. Why shouldn’t I speak French? Point taken. Resistance to the global move towards English language supremacy is nothing new. And there is a long history involved with the Quebec conflict, much more complex than language alone.

The Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants, Samir Khullar – or Sugar Sammy as he goes by – has found a way to get the dueling French and English speakers of that region laughing at each other and themselves –  at least during his shows.  I think it’s brilliant – it may not change policy today, but laughter is always a good icebreaker and I believe begins the process of compassion and understanding.


Sugar Sammy believes in a demographic in Montreal that live in French and English on a daily basis. After years of doing separate French and English shows, he has started to do bilingual stand-up comedy shows – something he was told would never work – to French and English-speaking audiences. He has experienced much success, with sell-out shows. He even has the politicians playing along.

Sugar Sammy can make you laugh in four languages – English, French, Punjabi and Hindi . He now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). As a half Mexican/half German with a French first name, I’m intrigued. I’m crossing my fingers that our summer trip may coincide with an Illegal English Edition show because, sadly, we don’t know French. Yet.

I remain convinced that bilingualism is a true gift – I send my kids to full Spanish immersion public school in California. I just hope we can all get along and appreciate our capacity for speaking different languages. In a place like Quebec it might be a long shot. But Sugar Sammy might just make it a little easier and a lot more fun.

Photo credit: CBC

You can learn more about Sugar Sammy here. 



I’m interested in words. Language is fascinating  – its history, progression and influence. I’m curious how certain words came to be and where they came from. The idea that if Dante Aligheri were alive today, we would have a conversation in his little-changed Tuscan Italian is mind-blowing. I’ve read that the Italian greeting “ciao” comes from the word “schiao” – Venetian dialect shortened for “sono vostro schiavo” or “I am your slave.”  “Salve” – a greeting used frequently in Northern Italy where we lived but unfamiliar to most people outside the region – comes from the latin verb “salvere” or to be in good health.

Then there are informal contractions used out of context or awkwardly. I lie awake at night when my Italian PhD student friend  and European business owner-acquaintance use the English word “wanna” in their written correspondence. I haven’t had the heart to confront them, but my insides knot up  to see an inappropriate use of “want to.”  But, somewhere and somehow Euro-English – the official language of the European Union –  has decided that “wanna” is okay – even in formal correspondence. But I digress.

It’s interesting to hear how words have been borrowed and imitated and transformed by foreigners. When I taught Business English in Italy, I heard “chattare” ( an Italian verb rooted in the English Internet word “chat”), along with “stress”, “weekend”, “computer”, “video”, “blog” and “clic.” I would love to collect these words in some sort of index or glossary.

Which brings me to Hobson-Jobson.

“A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. By Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell.”

More than 100  years ago Yule and Burnell collected more than 2,000 entries – with notes –  of Indian words borrowed, used and sometimes changed by the English living there. This legendary dictionary of British India was called the Hobson-Jobson, a scholarly but fun glossary published in 1886 – and lists Anglo-Indian words like shampoo  (from the Indian word “champi or head massage), bungalow, pyjama, curry and bangle. The book also – perhaps indirectly – gives us a historical and social snapshot of the relationship between the two countries. The book can be seen as a memoir, BBC News writes, of colonial India.

For example, the Indian word dam is defined as originating from the damri coin that once existed but now means something is worthless (Damri – Dam – Damn). An exceprt from the Hobson-Jobson text reads:

“Damn  is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say : ” No, I  won’t give a dumree!” with but a
vague notion what a damri meant, as in Scotland we have heard, ” I won’t
give a plack” though certainly the speaker could not have stated the
value of that ancient coin.”

Word lovers can get their hands on a new edition of the Hobson-Jobson next year launched as part of the Oxford World Classics Series. You can learn more about it here via BBC which is broadcasting a radio program focusing on the ever loved Hobson-Jobson.

words photo credit: National Institutes of Health NIDCD

my two favorite places to learn italian in italy

With an independent spirit, a love for European languages, culture and travel and a passport tucked in my back pocket, I have discovered the  valuable experience of participating in a language and culture program abroad.  Over the last 15 years and after much research, I had the opportunity to enroll at language schools in the beautiful cities of Siena in the Toscana region and Verona in the Veneto region.

Dante Aligheri Society of Siena

I enrolled in my first study abroad program when I was in my mid 20s. I left a career job to spend four months traveling in Europe, partly alone and partly meeting up with friends and family. For one month of the trip I enrolled in the distinguished Dante Aligheri Society in Siena. The program included daily morning language classes and afternoon cultural excursions. While I had the option to rent an apartment on my own or with classmates, I opted for a homestay with an Italian family – a good choice as it allowed me the experience of living with an Italian family and practice of the language.

Siena is a wonderful, awesome city full of history – really, strangely frozen  in time. An ideal place to study Italian language, history and art, the excursions to Siena’s old churches and private buildings normally not open to the public were worth the program cost alone.  I was there during the Palio horse race, and the family I was staying with  gave me an unforgettable  private tour of their contrada’s museum with items dating back many centuries.

palio horse race, siena


I also won’t forget the must-do-at-least-once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the Palio race while standing inside the piazza (worth the hours required to wait if you want a prime spot) or witnessing horses inside Catholic churches being blessed by priests before the race started as locals poured into the streets .  But don’t expect to immediately begin mixing with the locals. Siena locals or Sienese, to me, are quite reserved and I felt a distinct separation between students and residents.

Lingua It, Verona

Fast forward from Siena about ten years  and I find myself, in my 30s, living in Northern Italy not far from Verona, the beautiful city setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (the original “balcony” tucked in an alley is still a favorite of tourists).

juliet’s famous balcony in verona

By luck, I learn of the fabulous Lingua it Italian language school in Verona. There I took individual and group lessons on a weekly basis. Opened up by my Italian friend and his friends, the school has expanded from a wide range of language courses to guided tours and courses on art history, literature and cinema, cooking and more. Located in the historic center, Lingua it’s personable and passionate staff and my fellow students became  an extended family for me. In fact, the group of friends I met through this school eventually threw me a baby shower before my little girl was born. With the Roman Arena (we saw Aida there under the stars), symphonies at the local concert hall (Mozart once played there) to the numerous beautiful piazzas and gardens and nearby wineries, Verona has become one of my favorite cities in Italy.

Have you studied a language abroad? If so, where?  Do you have a favorite program to share?

Click here to learn more about the Dante Aligheri Society in Siena.

Click here to learn more about Lingua It in Verona.

Palio race picture credit:

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

streaming italian

We’re going back to Italy for the first time since we moved back. And I’m determined not to slip into English when we are there. But the reality is that after speaking Italian daily during my three years living there, it’s been many more years since I’ve been back in the States with few opportunities to keep it up. Time to dust off my Italian dictionary.

Or not?

I’ve  looked for better opportunities to keep it up. I speak with my Italian friends in town, but their English is so good, we end up slipping back into it in a matter of minutes. We forked out extra money for satellite connection to RAI Italian television but the cost kept going up, and we dropped it.The Italian language course through the local adult school is geared towards “travel Italian”, and I don’t feel I quite fit in. Having lived in Italy , I’m not exactly an Italian travel enthusiast, although I enthusiastically travel Italy. I’ve crossed over that never-to-return fence into Italian residency, and feel a sort of fake surrounded by American Chianti tasters and Tuscany villa renters, attending conversation classes and wine tasting nights with rose-colored glasses on. I could just see myself show up and blurt out real-life horror stories as I kill their dreams of happy, helpful, pasta-eating Italians.  

But I have now found a wonderful outlet to get the Italian flowing again. Italian streaming radio. I even found a talk show on Milan’s Radio DeeJay with a host that has the accent from the area we lived. It’s like being back. While my spoken Italian is not getting much practice, my comprehension is  fine tuned. I understand almost everything. I’m getting ready.

For fellow expats returned home, European travel and language lovers and those just curious, here are several online resources to get you started streaming European radio live to your house or Ipod.

Listen Live EU

Tune In


3 paths to working abroad

How exactly does one go from vacationing to living and working abroad?

For some, the seeds of wanderlust were planted early – we had parents who love to travel or come from somewhere foreign, and we experienced different cultures as a child. Others, following college, took part in the obligatory backpacking trip  alla Rick Steves. Then, later, maybe as a single working professional, you saved every penny and vacation day for travel or took part in an extended language immersion or volunteer program. But it wasn’t enough. Each time you returned home, you were already planning the next trip…and for a longer period of time. There comes a point when a shift happens – being a tourist isn’t enough and you want the experience of living and working in another country.  It’s a dream many have and some realize. In this post I’ll highlight three different paths to finding work abroad – from London and Luxembourg, to Germany and Italy.

Jennifer taught at the American School of London. She found the position through a friend of hers already working there. “Living in London was a wonderful experience. I loved the culture, the museums, art, food, city life, being part of Europe. At the age of 26 it gave me a broader perspective on the world. I also loved working with international students and families. Everyone traveled on their breaks and shared their experiences in the classroom. I worked in London for five years and then my husband and I moved to Luxembourg to teach at the International School of Luxembourg. We really enjoyed living there among so many nationalities and languages such as German, French, English and Luxembourgish. There is also a large Scandinavian community and an Italian community there.”

For those interested in teaching abroad, she recommends researching web sites National Association of Independent Schools and International School Services (ISS offers international conferences for job seekers in February in Boston and San Francisco.)

Leslie and Maureen worked for the Gap Corporation as store managers in San Francisco. As Gap was entering the German market in the late ’90s, they both learned of an opportunity to work there, applied and were accepted for partner store manager positions in Stuttgart and Berlin. Leslie described the experience as “wonderful” and found the German people to be “warm and welcoming and made me feel comfortable in my new home.” Maureen said Berlin was “cosmopolitan, full of culture” and she will never forget experiencing the 10-year anniversary of the Berlin wall coming down and the influence of the changing east/west landscape. She also said the German work experience – which included a role in training and development –  advanced her career and helped prepare her for a new job in corporate communications for the international market when she returned home. They both agree that transferring with a company offers many advantages, including handling moving logistics which can save you money and allow you the time to focus on learning the language, the country and its culture. Their advice for someone looking to work abroad is to first look within the company you work for and inquire into any work abroad programs the it may sponsor.

me and my students

I moved abroad to Italy without promise of a job and found work once I arrived there, as an independent English teacher/tutor following efforts to continue my PR career full-time in Milan (see previous post Detour.) This is a riskier path without the safety net of a company transfer, and logistics, bureaucratic red tape and uncertainty were all mine.   Prior to leaving, I read several books including “Living and Working in Italy”  that were somewhat helpful other than Chapter 3’s  “Permits and Visas” . Contrary to Chapter 3’s well-meaning but naive advice (I have my doubts the author ever set foot in an Italian questura immigration office), the process for getting a work visa was not cut and dry or consistent. I didn’t arrive with a visa, nor did I have to return to the States to obtain it, as Chapter 3 suggests. By some back room deal , Italian-style flexibility, minor miracle I received my work permit and permission to stay, when I was hired by an English school catering to small businesses in the area and could supply a contract. Teaching English abroad may sound competitive, but in a city with few native English or Americans (ie; not Florence or Rome), I found there is an abundance of work – either with an English school or on your own. It also may help you with the Very Real Challenge of obtaining a work visa abroad, as employers must prove why you should fill the position instead of an EU citizen. And, surrounded by a demand for English –  the international language for business – you realize that by some random chance you were born in an English-speaking country and hold a highly sought-after skill that can allow you to work abroad.

If you want to teach abroad independently, keep in mind a few things.

  • You won’t get rich teaching english independently, and that is why many supplement their income by tutoring on their own (although some schools unfairly discourage it).
  • Some people pay to take courses to receive “teaching english as a foreign language” certifications. (I didn’t.) If you have a solid and related background (related education, previous teaching experience) and take initiative, you can research and self teach best practices and curriculum on how be creative and effective teacher. Not all schools required it when I worked abroad (although it may be changing).
  • Decide where you think you want to live and research English schools in the area. If you are in the country, meet with each school to learn of their needs, requirements and pay (or connect via email prior to leaving as an introduction). You can also check out the Transitions Abroad site.
  • Look for reputable schools with good reviews and a commitment for a teacher long-term – ask if they offer assistance in obtaining a work permit or visa.
  • Before you leave, visit a teaching supply store and load up! On each visit home, I re-stocked to bring fresh ideas and curriculum back to Italy.

Moving to another country to work requires you to balance adventure with responsibility and a realistic outlook. So, before you go, plan, save money (you’ll need it), research and read up on opportunities, and make connections. Read the”how to” guides to working abroad, but casually and with flexibility (And a sense of humor. ) And prepare to make that transition from dreaming to realizing the dream of working abroad. I have a feeling – much later on – you’ll look back and be glad you did.

I’m a coatí

My daughter loves nature, wildlife and animals so she is thrilled with her latest homework assignment. She got to choose a poem about a rainforest animal to present at her class”poesia y postre” (poetry and dessert) night next month.  

The poem she chose is from award-winning and local Chicano poet (he lives in our town and works at our university) Francisco Alarcón. In his collection of bilingual/environmental poems,  “Animal Poems of the Iguazu”, he addresses wildlife and habitat preservation and introduces children to the wonders of the natural world  -through the Iguazú rainforest of South America.   The artwork  in his books – by Maya Christina Gonzalez, a San Francisco-based artist – is wonderful – playful, colorful and vibrant.

 [Alarcón has written other literature for children, as well .  Try not to smile when working in your veggie garden after reading “Laughing Tomatoes” from his Spring poem collection. ]

The Iguazú (also spelled Iguassu) is part of a national park between Brazil and Argentina. It has 275 falls and the surrounding forest is full of rich flora and fauna, and home to hundreds of species of birds like toucans. It is now officially added to my Places we Need to Go list.

The poem she chose to present – in both english and spanish –  is about a Coatí(member of the raccoon family and found in the Iguazú rainforest) How cute is he?

It goes like this.

Coatí (by Francisco Alarcón)

I’m a coatí, very proud, of my great tail

so curious, so hungry, with my big nose

sniffing out, the food I know, you all carry


un coatí soy, muy orgulloso, de mi gran cola

muy curioso, muy hambriento, con mi gran nariz

voy olfateando, la comida que se

que todos cargan

His poems teach adults something too. From the same collection, the poem, Giant Ants  will remind those of us who love to travel how we can get caught up with photo-taking and facebook-posting instead of Just Being in the Moment. I plead guilty….

It goes like this.

Giant Ants (by Francisco Alarcón)

from our perch, we ants can spot, many people

walking in file, like giant ants, on steel pathways

holding digital cameras, taking lots of photos, of each other

ignoring the great, and tiny wonders, all around them


Hormigas Gigantes

desde nuestros miradores, las hormigas podemos, divisar mucha gente

caminando en fila,como hormigas gigantes,sobre senderos de acero

com cámaras digitales,en mano sacándose,muchas fotos entre si

ignorando las grandes,y pequeñas maravillas, a todo su alrededor