Friday, September 29, 2006

Back Online

Well, I’m now safely ensconced in my new home in southern Wales. I’ve moved here to study in a translation studies program at Swansea University, and I am sure I will read lots of interesting books about translation so I can gain new ideas that I can then share with you.

My new university has a nice collection of translation links that might be of use to you.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Secret Weapon

Here is my essay from the Bryn Mawr College Cookbook. It’s about how food can be used in language education, so it might be some food for thought for those of you learning a new language.

The Secret Weapon

During my years teaching English in Sweden, I’ve frequently come back to food as a topic of conversation in class. I don’t do this just because I happen to be very interested in food. Many students don’t want to talk about politics or religion, because of an understandable desire to avoid conflict, and only some are interested in sports, movies, or books. But everyone has an opinion on food, and no one is afraid to try out their English, no matter how tentative, when the subject is as basic, and as essential, as food.

Beginning students tend to prefer to simply repeat the English words for various foods, tasting the words in their mouths. Intermediate students like to talk about what they ate for breakfast that day or what they usually eat on certain holidays, or they enjoy announcing which foods they like or dislike and why. The most advanced students discuss food memories, and they laugh at mistranslations or other silly mistakes, such as the misspelling of “pea soup” not uncommonly seen on English menus in Sweden, or the student who insisted he liked to drink “bear,” or the woman who advised that crying babies should be fed “glue.” She meant “gruel,” although that’s not necessarily so much better.

But whatever their level, all of my students are very curious to learn about food in the United States, and to compare it to food in Sweden, Poland, Lebanon, Russia, Denmark, France, Japan, or wherever they originally come from. And learning about the eating habits of Americans seems to teach by extension. A student might ask about typical American Easter foods, but then the class wonders whether all Americans celebrate Easter, and what other religions exist in the United States, and how the different races and religions get along, and suddenly we’re talking about issues much bigger than what Americans generally eat for a yearly holiday meal. Starting with that most everyday of subjects – food – helps the students gain a deeper understanding of a country and a culture that seems very far away to them.

A little physical reinforcement of all this new knowledge doesn’t hurt, so I gladly bake for my students, bringing in American treats. For example, they have enjoyed fudge, oatmeal raisin cookies, chocolate chip cookies, muffins, and brownies. I make them guess at the ingredients and tell me the names in English: “Oatmeal in a cookie? Strange, but it’s really good!”

More than once, though, the dinner tables have been turned. Students eagerly tell me about their national dishes or favorite foods, and they teach the class the correct pronunciation, and bring in recipes, pictures, or even samples. I’ve been offered, among other items, ice chocolates, traditional Swedish curd cake, freshly baked scones with jam, spiced wine, gingerbread, and “lussekatter,” the Swedish buns made with saffron.

I’ve almost come to think of food as a secret weapon not only for language education, but also for inter-cultural understanding. It’s long been known that breaking bread together has a symbolic meaning, but I didn’t quite expect that just discussing bread could have such significant benefits as well. Using food as a subject and a starting-off point, my students enthusiastically practice their English while simultaneously attempting to learn more about what people and cultures outside their own country are like.

Seeing how food makes them more curious and more open has made me realize that the time has come for more people to literally talk turkey.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Moving & Bryn Mawr College Cookbook

I won’t be posting for about two weeks, because I will be in the process of moving to another country and will be computer-less. I’m not sure how I’ll manage without my computer – many of us translators and writers use a computer every day. But I’ll look forward to posting again from my new location.

In the meantime, I’d like to announce that the Bryn Mawr College Cookbook has just been published. I organized and edited this cookbook, the proceeds for which will go to my beloved alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.

This book contains nearly 90 recipes for appetizers, salads, soups, side dishes, spices, main courses, desserts, and drinks, ranging from Korean dumplings, blintzes, chicken and yam chowder, fudge cake, and cassoulet to bolognese sauce, cranberry jelly, curry, bourbon balls, and Mayan hot chocolate. There are also 13 essays on food-related topics such as dining at Bryn Mawr, the joys and bonds of teatime, and discovering the perfect berries. Over 60 illustrations and photographs are included as well, most of them of the college. The alumnae featured in this cookbook come from the class of ’28 (with a recipe from actress Katharine Hepburn) through the class of ’06, with stops in almost every decade in between.

If this interests you at all, please check out the book.

The next post will contain a short essay I have in the cookbook, since it relates to the subject of the past few posts – learning a new language. After that post, the next time I write will be from Wales!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Websites for Learning Languages

The past two posts gave general advice for learning languages. Here are some websites that could help you do that; these are just a few of the many useful websites out there, and I have focused primarily on English and the Scandinavian languages here. Don’t forget to look at the references linked to on this blog as well. Also, of course, there are lots of great self-study books for languages available. For example, my favorite book for learning English grammar is “English Grammar in Use” by Raymond Murphy; I’ve used it with dozens of students and I recommend it to those of you want to improve your grammar skills.

Here are some sites for languages in general:

The Foreign Service Institute offers free self-study courses for French, Vietnamese, Turkish, and other languages. I tried some of the Chinese course and am eager to do more.

Land of Links has lots of links about various languages

Here are some reference sites for Scandinavian languages:

Scandinavian Dictionary

New Cross-Nordic Dictionary

Some sites for Swedish:

Swedish Lessons

Swedish-English Dictionary


Danish Grammar and Vocabulary


Norwegian Learning Links


Icelandic Grammar

All sorts of links about Iceland and Icelandic


English-Finnish Vocabulary Quizzes

Finnish-English Dictionary


Der Bay



Common Errors in English

English Page

Tower of English

English Etymology

Feel free to let me know about other interesting and useful language links!

Monday, September 11, 2006

More Tips for Learning a Language

The last post looked primarily at passive language learning skills such as reading and listening. They are important skills, but the more active skills of writing and speaking are also essential to practice, though that is harder to do, especially if you don’t live in a country where people speak the language you are learning.

In terms of writing, it is not much fun to fill in lots of worksheets, even if that is a good method if you have a self-study textbook with an answer key. More enjoyable and useful would be to use that time-tested technique of having a pen-pal who is a native speaker, especially if that pen-pal is willing to correct your mistakes. These days, you can use regular mail, e-mail, or instant messenger to write to your pen-pal. It is also possible to find language groups online, to take online courses that focus on writing, or to find a private tutor willing to work with you via mail or e-mail. Students have certainly sent me many e-mails and asked me to correct their texts. It’s an easy and helpful way to get better at writing.

As already mentioned, the best thing would be to live in or visit a country where people speak the language, so you can practice and get more confident about your speaking skills. Failing that, you can adapt the pen-pal method mentioned above and have a native speaker with whom you get together regularly or with whom you exchange conversational tapes or cds. You can also use a service such as Skype to chat. If you want to work on your pronunciation alone, record people (whether on tv, radio, or in person) talking in the language you want to learn, and then record yourself saying the same words and phrases. Compare your pronunciation and accent to the native speakers’ and keep working at it until you feel more comfortable and sound more natural.

The next post will look at some websites that could help you as you learn a new language.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Learning a New Language

Awhile back, guest blogger Penny Milbouer wrote about why it isn’t so common to study languages in the United States. Studying languages may not be supported in schools, but what can you do if you want to learn a new language on your own?

Obviously, the best method is to live in a country where they speak the language (unless, of course, you want to learn Latin or another language that is rarely or never spoken now). Being surrounded by the language in question and having to use it to buy groceries, go to the doctor, socialize, or participate in other everyday activities forces you to improve your language skills quite quickly. A problem can occur here if you move to a country where everyone wants to learn your native tongue and insists on speaking with you in that language instead. That’s a common problem for people who have English as their mother tongue. When I moved to Sweden, I found it challenging to practice my Swedish, since so many people could speak English and enjoyed doing so. “It’s so fun and cool to speak English,” I was told a number of times, despite the fact that I thought it was more fun and useful to speak Swedish.

It’s not always possible to move to another country to learn a new language, so in my opinion, the next best tip is to read books voraciously and actively. When I first learned Swedish, I studied a book on grammar and vocabulary. At the same time, I read lots of children’s books. Sure, there were times when I felt a little silly carrying a big pile of picture books through the library, but it was definitely a great way to improve my Swedish. Children’s books use simpler language than books for adults do, which naturally makes it easier to read them, plus there are pictures that help explain what is going on in the story, which then helps you decipher any tricky words. If you can find a native speaker to read those books aloud to you and to listen to you attempt to read them, that’s an extra bonus that benefits your pronunciation and listening skills. Plus, story time is definitely not just an enjoyable treat for kids!

Once you have grasped the basic grammatical rules and have memorized plenty of vocabulary, and once you can read and understand works for children and young adults, you can move on to periodicals and books for adults. I enjoyed looking at Swedish food magazines, and of course the pictures and the format of such magazines helped me learn more words. Other people have told me that they liked starting out with magazines on fashion, cars, gardening, or other topics that often are accompanied by illustrations, before attempting to read articles on culture or politics. Some countries also offer easy-to-read periodicals aimed at teaching immigrants both the language and about the culture. Similarly, there are many easy-to-read novels, often shortened versions of classics, so those are worth trying. As for adult literature, I remember how proud I was when I completed my first novel in Swedish (it was a translation of Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s enjoyable novel “Na├»ve. Super.”) and how eager I was to keep reading literature in Swedish. A mistake many of my students make is to feel they have to understand every single word they read, so they get bogged down by looking up each difficult word they encounter when reading and they eventually give up, believing they just aren’t good enough yet to try reading in English. However, many words can be understood from the context, and guessing often is good enough. I recommend only looking up words you can’t figure out from the context or words that seem particularly interesting for whatever reason. If you stumble across a foreign word in context enough times, you’ll gradually get a good understanding of what it means and how it is used by native speakers. Also, reading teaches you grammar, almost without you being aware of it. You see what is accepted as correct and that soon influences how you write and speak in the foreign language.

While I am not so impressed by much of what is shown on television and don’t even own one, I do think that watching tv or movies can sometimes be a useful way to improve language skills. Depending on what is available where you live, start by watching a program or film in which the people speak your native language but the subtitles are in the language you are learning. Subtitles are generally simplified versions of what is being said, which makes them easy and fast to read. Eventually you should try to tune out or turn off the spoken language and only concentrate on the subtitles. Next, you can watch programs in the foreign language and have the subtitles either in your native language or else in the same language you are learning (DVDs often seem to have this option these days), for extra reinforcement. Besides helping you improve your skills in general, watching television or movies can also expose you to different dialects, which is also important. Some of my students definitely appreciated the idea that they were doing homework by watching tv shows in English!

One of the biggest challenges, I think, in learning a new language, is being able to understand people on the radio. Talking to people in person or listening to someone on tv or in a film is difficult, too, but at least there you are helped by the way their mouth moves, other facial expressions, and body language. When listening to the radio, you only have the voice to go by and people often speak more quickly on the radio, so it important to train your listening skills from early on. One semester, I brought in a CD of news, interviews, and other radio programs in English to one of my intermediate classes. The students were pretty confident about their language skills and they spoke without too much hesitation, but they nearly all failed to answer the questions on the worksheets I gave them about the radio programs. They needed to listen to each show at least 5 times before they started understanding what was being said. But when I incorporated using the same CD in class with a group of students who were just beginning to learn English, I found that they were soon able to summarize each radio program after hearing it just once, and that they could answer most of the questions correctly after listening to it twice. So I recommend buying a similar CD or else making one yourself by recording radio shows and listening to them multiple times. Some countries have easy-language radio shows specifically for foreigners, so you could begin with those. Unless you are planning to just read in the new language, being able to understand what people are saying is an essential skill to possess.

In the next post, I’ll give some more tips for learning a new language or for improving your skills in another language.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Translation as Anthropology

As someone who likes to read anthropology texts for fun but who unfortunately only took one anthropology course in school (typically for me, it was a class on the anthropology of food!), I really appreciated this quote from Dr. Rajendra Singh, a linguist at the University of Montreal:

“[T]ranslation is best defined as that branch of anthropology in which the field comes to the investigator’s office.”

This is such a succinct way of describing the translator’s job and the necessity of understanding the cultures behind the languages involved in a translation. Too many people believe translation is simply a matter of finding a replacement in the target language for each word in the source language and they forget how much more is required of the translator. Let’s be anthrotranslators, researching every aspect of the languages and cultures we work with.