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Pick a Vowel, Any Vowel

It’s fall quarter at Stanford and time to get back on the bicycle. (Only if you’re in Egypt or the Gulf is it time to get back in the camel races.)

Because if, between coursework and independent study, you’re already a fair way through Volume I of Al-Kitaab, the standard series of university textbooks for Arabic language and literature, it’s time to embrace the trinity.

The Three Vowels.

When I first learned that Arabic had only 3 vowels, I rejoiced…for about 3 seconds. I’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to foreign languages, there’s always a catch…that catches you sooner or later.

That’d be sooner, if you’re reading aloud.

Reading aloud in Arabic is much like sight-reading a new piece of music: at some point, you have to stop tentatively tip-toeing around sotto voce and have the confidence to pick a note, any note, and commit to it.

Let’s consider the name of the city of Homs, Syria. I’ve already written about Homs, the home city of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad’s family and one of the epicenters of the freedom and democracy movement that began on March 15. Sadly, I can also name the top 10 most dangerous neighborhoods ‒ dangerous for protesters ‒ in this city of over 1 million.

(As I write this, the Syrian military is pounding Homs, with nail bombs on the ground and shelling from the air, to punish them for demonstrating ‒ 20,000 strong ‒ after Friday prayers, in favor of a no-fly zone they never wanted to have to ask for. But Assad just keeps on killing them, as military aircraft hover low over the Baba Amro neighborhood, terrorizing residents and randomly striking their homes.)

In Arabic, you write Homs with 3 letters, all consonants: حمص (ha, mim, sad). On maps of Syria and in the media, you’ll see this transliterated as Homs, Hums, or even Hims.

Which seem to me 3 very different vowels, but what do I know?

Examiners in Arabic, trying to place your level of proficiency, inquire whether you can read in Arabic, no matter how slowly (you have no idea), if the words are “properly voweled.” Those pronunciation notations, called diacritics, are commonly left out and eventually you’ll know what’s missing (doubtful, but OK).

But once I began to pronounce Arabic myself, with meaning, not just as a mimic of proper diction, I got the same sense as when I first learned French and Italian: the world’s most beautiful and poetic languages unfold like flowers.

So, you can be content reading Arabic silently in the Stanford library, or eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations in Middle Eastern cafés…

(Except for the café down the street, run by these Egyptian guys who told me, when I tried talking to them: “Oh, Arabic is too hard for us. We prefer English.” I’m going to tell your mothers you said that.)

…or you can take a breath and give it your best guess. Once you do, 2 things will happen: you’ll get immediate, positive feedback and you’ll wonder why you didn’t say something sooner.

Because Arabic speakers love to talk. To anyone and everyone. About anything and everything.

For ever and ever.

One of the funniest stories I’ve heard in a long time was from a friend who does business in Iraq. Where 1-hour conference calls turn into 4-hour marathons, what between the ancient communications infrastructure – you think AT&T constantly drops calls! – and the apparently national compulsion to go on and on about…feelings!

This, from political appointees in the Iraqi Ministries of Health and Commerce!

“Feelings, oooooooooohhhhhhhhhh feelings…” Makes perfect sense that insufferable 1970s ballad would be a hit in Baghdad, but even their fellow Middle Easterners draw the line at Perry Como.

I don’t think I have any feelings in Arabic yet, except deep appreciation for native speakers and their (very kind but) undeserved compliments, which I gladly accept about anything except my cooking.

Inevitably, by this time somebody’s already cooked something for me, so when I’m grilled about my feelings, I can claim for at least an hour that – so sorry – I’m chewing.

Pronounced “mmmmmmmmmm,” no vowels required.

Une amie ou une étrangère?

Brief intermission from coverage of the Middle East. For fun, some friends and I decided to see if we could each write a credible piece of fiction, a poem or short story…in somebody else’s native language. This is harder than it sounds. With apologies to the French, here’s mine (based on a true story about the daughter of a family friend):

Voici l’histoire d’Emelina, qui choisissait de disparaître.

Emelina est la deuxième fille d’une famille célèbre de notre village, qu’est situé dans l’extrême sud de la Californie, à côté de l’Océan Pacifique. Au XIXème siècle, les ancêtres d’Emelina avaient reçu une concession du roi d’Espagne et finalement la famille Delgado a gagné une grande fortune grâce à leurs vergers d’avocats.

Emelina était une très belle fille, avec beaucoup de talents artistiques. Elle était mannequin et travaillait dans une entreprise du mode qui s’appelait Bégonia. Elle faisait aussi tous ses propres vêtements à partir de ses propres dessins. Pendant qu’elle était élève au lycée, elle a fait un portrait du maître d’école; ce portrait se trouve toujours dans l’hôtel de ville.

En 1980, Emelina est allée à l’université. Après, elle a travaillé dans une galerie d’art à Los Angeles. Un jour, à une fête à la galerie, elle a fait la connaissance d’un médecin suisse et elle est tombée amoureuse de lui immédiatement.

Mais, il y avait quelque chose qui n’allait pas. Sa meilleure amie a dit qu’elle avait pleuré toute la nuit précédant la noce. Aucun de ses amis ou de sa famille n’avait été invité au mariage et le jour suivant le couple est parti à Genève sans dire au revoir.

Quelques ans plus tard, j’ai voyagé en Suisse toute seule pour jouer à La Fête de la Musique Ancienne. Quand je descendais le train, tout à coup je l’ai vue! J’étais absolument sûre.

Pendant qu’elle me regardait à travers la foule, je l’ai salué de la main. Elle s’est détournée et a marché dans l’autre direction.

Je ne l’ai jamais revue.

#OBL est mort

Something tells me Osama bin Laden would be furious to be reduced to a Twitter acronym. He who wanted to drop-kick society back 1,400 years to the Caliphate…with him as the Caliph, of course.

Oh, plus the Imam Mahdi, The Prophesied Redeemer Awaited By Followers. (Remind you of anybody?)

I found out about bin Laden’s death the old-fashioned way: by listening to people gossip on the London tube.

I had a semi-legitimate reason: they were speaking Arabic and I was happy about how much I understood, being happy at present with 20%.

Two of the guys were probably Egyptian, I surmised, and the other guy was something else and was learning Arabic very slowly with Rosetta Stone. They were talking about some other guy “yadros” (studying) “al-handasa” (engineering) at some “jami3ah” (university) − remember what I wrote before about what the 3s mean − somewhere in “Misr” (Egypt), but they pronounced it “MAH-sr,” and also pronounced certain consonants in a strange way.

Strange only if your professor is a native speaker of Levantine Arabic, although at Stanford you learn Egyptian Arabic, too, if for no other reason than to sing pop lyrics accurately.

One of the guys took a call on his mobile phone from “my mother” (walidati).

No clue about the 3rd guy, who turned out to work for Hewlett-Packard, which made the previous conversation suddenly make perfect sense…which is how it usually works when you’re learning a new language.

Still trying not to be obvious here, which is really hard to do in a virtually empty car en route to the airport on a bank holiday.

But then they started talking about dead people.

So, something about Libya and the number 6 and “son of”…could it be Colonel Qaddafi? Seriously?

So, it had to be Saif, not the Saif al-Islam we know and love but haven’t heard from on the news lately, thankfully (which probably means he evaded the sanctions/travel ban and is drinking margaritas on a beach somewhere), but Saif al-Arab, Qaddafi’s unimportant younger son.

(How frustrating it must’ve been for Saif al-Arab, overshadowed all his life by his younger brother Khamis, whose elite military brigade is even named after him.)

Saif al-Arab was apparently living at or near a NATO military target. So, the UN Security Council resolution is finally starting to hit Qaddafi close to home, after over a month of air strikes.

But the Egyptian guys weren’t done. Then they started talking about…Osama bin Laden? Haven’t heard that name in awhile, since he’d taken a break from sending rambling videos to Al Jazeera. Isn’t that evil cowardly murderer still hiding out in some cave in Afghanistan?

Not even close, as it turns out.

Having exhausted my Arabic, I had to come clean about my blatant eavesdropping and get the full news report in English.

The 2 guys were indeed Egyptian, and laughed when I told them on what basis I decided that.

Before we tell you anything, though, you need to answer some questions about how you came to study Arabic in the first place. Looking at you…well, I guess you never know.

Right back at you.

So, they caught me up on the morning’s events, with some astute political commentary absolutely free.

The Egyptians had a lot to say about the Pakistanis, little of it complimentary. They didn’t believe for a moment that #OBL had been living for several years within shouting distance of a military base and nobody suspected a thing.

Either they should be fired, or they were in on it. We voted unanimously for the latter.

Keep in mind that Egypt overthrew its dictatorship only 3 months ago and has a long way to go “to cut off all the tentacles of the octopus.” Although the #jan25 movement was successful partly because of the faith Egyptian citizens place in their military’s neutrality, they’re oh so familiar with rampant, inbred police corruption.

“Somebody was paying” to keep bin Laden’s presence a secret. Simple as that.

Egyptians’ new-found taste of freedom seems to make young people who actively participated in the revolution hyper-aware, even hyper-critical, of other countries that aren’t there yet, and may never be. These guys attributed Pakistan’s apparently duplicitous behavior to the fact that the USA gives the Pakistani military billions of dollars per year to find bin Laden, so it’s in their best interest to keep not finding him and cashing those checks.

Fair enough. However, the Egyptian military gets billions per year from the USA, too. Just because Mubarak is gone doesn’t mean that cash flow ends, or are you prepared to give that money back?


By this time, we’re at Hounslow Central station, just 3 stops from Heathrow.

The wrap-up: what can be the significance of this one man, especially this bin Laden, who by the looks of him seemed most likely to inspire absolutely no-one?

In a positive sense, Egypt’s one man was Wael Ghonim. Someone who, while not officially in charge of anything, exemplified the goals of the peaceful revolution and articulated it perfectly.

Then, after Mubarak resigned, went back to his day job at Google. (He’s since taken a sabbatical to start a technology non-profit in Egypt.)

By contrast, the job description bin Laden really wanted was The One Who Is Worshipped By True Muslims (as defined by him) Everywhere 24×7.

“9/11” is self-explanatory. Bin Laden was the mastermind behind the most devastating terrorist attack in American history, an attack he didn’t answer for until almost 10 years later.

Ten years he was alive and well and his victims in the Twin Towers, on the 4 airplanes, and at the Pentagon were not.

I don’t wish anyone’s death, but sometimes the world needs to rid itself of certain people and I think #OBL qualifies. The Egyptians put it this way: we’re all better off that he’s gone, that despicable low-life killer and misguided embarrassment to Islam.

He wasn’t Egyptian, al-hamdu lillah (“thanks be to God”)!

However, the threat he represented isn’t over. The moment we think it’s over, we’re all in serious trouble.

Whether it’s the transition to a newly democratic government, or the fight against terrorism in an established democracy, there will always be dynamic personalities whose life’s work is to undermine those ambitions. Self-styled leaders who attract like magnets an easily recruited − and easily replenished − farm team of weak-minded fanatics to do their dirty work.

Although Osama was thousands of miles away when 9/11 took place, it was his brainchild and he made sure the whole world knew that, and gave him credit.

Bin Laden’s naïve foot soldiers didn’t just stop believing in him as of early Monday morning. Al Qaeda wannabe successors – Yemen’s “regional commander” Anwar al-Awlaki, for example, who’s on the CIA target list and probably looking for a new HQ right about now − would jump at the chance to fill that power vacuum.

Meanwhile, Egypt is finding out that democracies are hard work! Standing your ground in Tahrir Square was the easy part. There are so many things you don’t have to decide and deal with if somebody else has been deciding and dealing with them for you for 30 years.

It’s like starting a workout routine when you’ve never exercised before. It’s going to hurt for awhile. You’re going to fall off the wagon.

Dictators, terrorists, and other undermine-ers are counting on you, us, and everybody else to get lazy and frustrated, and to lose our nerve (or our will, or both).

Push through it.

Two of this week’s best quotes:

From Syria: “I want to be a citizen who is accountable, and can hold accountable.”

From Ground Zero: “Obama 1, Osama 0.”

3aweduni (they got me used to it)

We learned the real facts of life from Dr. Seuss’s ABC.

“Big B, little b. What begins with B? Barber, baby, bubbles, and a bumblebee.”

Admit it: all these years later, you still know it by heart. It’s imprinted on your brain, right there next to the lyrics of You Are My Sunshine.

There’s a reason why we learned the English alphabet this way, and why it worked so well (for most of us). It also explains why the only way to learn a new alphabet − for me right now, the Arabic alphabet − is the same way: from the beginning.

As painful as that is, being drop-kicked back 4 decades into illiteracy.

Speaking is easy for babies and toddlers because adults hang on your every word. Any sound you make can keep a group of grownups occupied for hours, guessing what you just tried to say and how cute it was and a big prize to anyone who can get you to do it again.

Pretty please!

Just when you’re on the top of the world and can say way too many things, including swear words you weren’t supposed to be hearing, school starts and mute-ness is goodness. After gabbing endlessly with your adoring public for your entire life, you’re being rewarded for silence now?

“Be quiet and write on your paper. Trace the letters by following the dotted lines up and down. When you’re done, go to the next line and copy the same letters again. Don’t bother the other kids while they’re trying to work.”

Wow, is this the opposite of fun.

Just when you really get the hang of it, you’re graduating with a Masters degree. Perfect time to enroll in Beginning Arabic at Stanford.

“Baa, baa, baa, baa. What begins with Baa? Bayt (house), baab (door), balad (country), bint (girl).

Baa baa baa.”

See? You’re speaking Arabic already.

There are 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet, but most appear in 4 forms: standalone, initial, medial, and final. Thus, there are 100 written possibilities, some of which look remarkably similar without a magnifying glass.

Here’s my decision tree to read ONE WORD in Arabic script:

Do I recognize any letters that connect only to the letter before it but never to the letter after it? There are 5 and I already know which ones these are. Check.

Next, do I recognize the first letter of the word (in the initial form)? Usually I can narrow it down to 2 or 3 possibilities, even more if I know the context…meaning, show me a picture of something.

Now I look at the letters that follow. This is harder, because all of them will be in the medial − appearing in the middle of the word − form, meaning they connect to other letters on both sides. (Was cursive really this hard?)

If the text is online and I enlarge the font to 46 pt., I usually can figure this out. I can also type the letters I think they are, in Microsoft Word with the Arabic on-screen keyboard enabled, until I can replicate the shapes.

Just like kindergarten: I know my letters perfectly as long as they’re printed VERY BIG and not touching each other AT ALL. Change the font and you lose me. Unfortunately, none of that is real life…in English, either.

Finally, I look at the final letter of the word, which is in − just like it sounds − the final form. Unfortunately, some final letters look suspiciously like other letters in other forms, so I make an educated guess based on what I know so far.

OK, I know what all the letters are. (If I don’t, I need to go back to Step 2 and repeat.) Let’s look at any vowel diacritics or other symbols that I know change the sounds of letters, or add sounds that weren’t there before, to my ears.

(So here’s where the French got that idea!)

Added together and sounded out, what is the resulting word in Arabic? Now what does that Arabic word mean in English?

If this is the process for one word, imagine one sentence, by which time we’ll all be collecting Social Security.

Suddenly I’m working in this confusing new kitchen where coffee pot begins with A, corn with Th, and beet with L. Dinner might be awhile, folks.

The cheater’s road is to hear an Arabic word, write it phonetically using the Roman alphabet (complete with numbers, as described in Arabic to the 3rd Power), then transcribe it to Arabic script when I get around to it.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty good at transcription. I have to stop giving in to temptation or I’ll never learn to read and write in Arabic properly, doomed to do what I do Japan: let’s see, this little picture in the email you sent me looks sort of like that little picture on the destination list of the train ticket machine, so my guess is (wrong)…

This is exhausting. I’d rather just talk, if you don’t mind.

There’s this café near campus, run by some Jordanian guys from the beautiful, ancient − 6th century BC − city of Petra (in Arabic, البتراء Al-Batrā).

I never asked them if they were Jordanian. I didn’t need to. They have a photo of the king and queen displayed prominently behind the cash register.

“MarHabaa (hello),” I say one night, stopping by after class around 21:30/9:30pm for kibbeh – the ground lamb, burghul, onion, and cinnamon meatballs to which I am addicted – to go. You can count on Middle Eastern restaurants to be open late. Who even starts eating much before that hour?

“Kayf al-Hal? (How are you?)” Caught off-guard, but realizing immediately that I’m learning Arabic from a book and so it’s probably best not to reply too creatively, the owner says, “al-Hamdu lillah.” (Fine, thanks to God. In Arabic, you never fail to give God the credit.)

Then he says in English, “What happened to you?”

“3aweduni,” I say. They got me used to it.

3aweduni is a song by Egyptian pop singer Amr Diab. The music video was shot in the beautiful country of Sudan, which looks nothing like you probably imagined.

Arabic to the 3rd Power

Call me rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrRasmi − and please oh please roll the R, French speakers − and tell me whether you’re “huna” (here) or not.

First-Year Arabic, Stanford University, ready for takeoff.

Immediately thereafter, when the sum total of what our professor knows about us is our names and GPS coordinates, comes that eternal bottom-line question that catches everybody, except the Greek and Iranian students and me, completely off guard: are you married?

The simple answer is either “na3am” (yes) − read on for the story of 3s − or “laa” (no). However, if it’s the latter, you don’t get away with simple. You’d better have ready a good explanation − in English, for now − of why and what steps you’re taking to remedy that sorry situation.

In Arabic, apparently there’s just no way of saying “no comment,” or “it’s none of your business.”

So, says our new professor, amused by the shocked silence…which of course is exactly why he did it…I’m telling you up front that everything is everybody else’s business in Arabic, whether you want it to be or not. If you’ll notice, that’s the very first item in your syllabus. Especially university professors who you met less than 5 minutes ago and are intent on grading you partly based on your match-ability, or matchmaking success rate, as the case may be.

Fair warning: you’ve got 10 weeks. Better start “studying” for that “final exam” now!

After an overview of the Arabic Marriage Commandments and firm deadlines to comply with them, the next topic of importance is Arabic for Smart Phones: what 3 stands for! The Arabic alphabet includes numbers, too?

This is getting worse by the minute.

It’s Arabic for the 21st century. When you’re texting your friends in Arabic, 3 stands for the letter ‘ain, sometimes spelled ‘ayn or even cayn, there being no Arabic transliteration standard equivalent to, say, pinyin in Chinese and thus no consistency between our texts, the dictionary, and the Stanford Arabic Department itself.

This letter looks like a backwards 3. (Although “backwards” is accurate in this particular case, I’m careful not to use that word to describe anything else.)

How useful, you’re thinking…until you realize that sound doesn’t exist in English. It’s sort of an “ah” way back in your throat, or down in your stomach, or somewhere from which, for English speakers, consonants simply cannot come forth.

Unfortunately, that sound is everywhere in Arabic, starting with the name of the language itself, so you have untold millions of opportunities to make this same basically uncorrectable mistake. If I was a spy, I’d worry a lot about this.

Our professor is quick to clarify that you may not say 3 to avoid pronouncing it. Nice try, though.

Besides the elusive 3 (ع ‒ oh, and let’s not forgot a 4th possible spelling, ein), he cleverly doesn’t volunteer that this numeric alphabet isn’t done with us yet. We not only have more numbers, we have more numbers with apostrophes:

2 is ء hamza (a’a, which goes with alif, the letter a); 3′ is غ gheen (gh); 5 or 7′ is خ kha (kh); 6 is ط ta’a (t); 9 is ص saad (s); 9′ is ض daad (d).

…and finally, 7 is ح ha’a (h), as in ha-ha-ha, he says, laughing.

Very funny.

He tells me in the first class that my pronunciation is “mumtazah” (excellent, feminine form of the adjective). “Ooooo, it gives me the chills,” he says. In a bad way. Your terrible-ness is surprisingly less terrible than it could’ve been, but I can hear already that you’re going to make twice as many mistakes, being a native English speaker with French already.

If you try to sneak Italian in there, too, I’m going to make you stand in the corner all by yourself − wearing a dunce cap, he mimes − until you start listening better in class.

Since Arabic has only three vowels, they get a serious workout. Since Italian is a language in which Every Single Vowel Must Be Pronounced No Matter What, the phonics sort of make sense to me. However, in Arabic, each vowel has two settings − short and long − and precision is critical to meaning.

For the long vowels, the longer you hold the vowel, the more you mean it, he says, demonstrating with great flourish. (Ever heard the mosque call to prayer? That’s one word.) To learn how to do this, he times us with the second hand, as if we were training to be opera singers. Right away I see how this system works in my favor, buying me lots of extra time me to figure out what to say next.

Actually, I’m not sure there’s any real need to figure out what to say next, because if our professor is any indicator, Arabic speakers, like Italian speakers, have this chronic On-and-On Syndrome. So, as long as you smile a lot and keep eating, you’ll never have to say much of anything.

You knew you could trust me, 5 years post-Le Cordon Bleu, to maneuver my way into yet another academic food situation.

It took our professor only 1 minute to start talking about food and 1 week to start bringing food to class. “Senna helwa ya jamilah…” and he’s hoping that everyone in class has a fall birthday, or we’re just going to have to start making some UP, since birthdays in Arabic involve no fewer than 3 cakes each.

So, going on and on (about how delicious it all is) and eating more and more (while your host/professor continues to feel offended that you’re not doing your part) will get you straight As in Arabic and a health club membership.

Next basic: the fine art of Arabic one-ups-man-ship. If somebody says to you “sabaaH al-khayr” (good morning, or literally “morning the good”), you reply with “sabaaH an-nur” (“morning the light”). From there, the greetings naturally escalate to mornings wonderful, spectacular, magnificent, etc.

I can be more flowery than you and I can’t wait for you to give me the chance to prove it to you.

Similar methodology for welcomes.

When somebody knocks, we usually say, “Hi! Come on in.” It means “Hi! Come on in.”

The Greeks and Iranians in class are wondering what’s wrong with us that we think that anemic welcome is at all welcoming.

Welcome to Welcome Overdrive:

In Arabic, “ahlan wa sahlan” means welcome, but let’s break it down: “ahl” means family, “wa” means and, “sahl” means easy.

(…unless you’re in Lebanon, where “wu” must also mean “and,” which I figured out by listening to the sad and beautiful song Sabah wu Masaa − “Morning and Evening” − by Fairuz, the Lebanese diva of all time, beloved throughout the Arab world and in the West. Listen to Fairuz on National Public Radio!)

So, “ahlan wa sahlan” really means “Welcome! Please come in! You’re family! We love you! Are you hungry? How’s everyone? We’re so glad you’re here! Our house is your house!”

Trust an Arabic-speaking person to turn a 3-word phrase into some big long flowery thing. But admit it: if you still don’t feel welcome after all that, it’s your own fault!

Think back to ancient times. You’re duty-bound to offer food and shelter to strangers. But are they friends or foes? Sure, they’re carrying swords, but they don’t seem to be pointing them at us.

If you say “as-salaamu 3alaykum” (peace be upon you) and they reply “wa 3alaykum as-salaam” (and upon you be peace), there’s a gentlemen’s agreement that they mean it. Otherwise, they’d just say give me all your belongings and be done with it.

We’ve ripped through the past 3 weeks: Verb conjugations in the present tense. Pronouns, possessives, and prepositions. Adjectives and adverbs. (The latter are particularly important in such an expressive language, unlike in English, known for its sparity and noun-heaviness and thus ideal for technical explanations.) “Easy” translations and interpretation.

Effective immediately: script only, you slackers. You either know the Arabic alphabet by now − I’ll give you a little leeway on your calligraphy − or this isn’t the class for you.

Next week: more verb conjugations and midterm oral presentations. Please bring your PowerPoint slides on a flash drive.

We also look forward to learning 14 new verbs − 6 of them about cooking, eating, or drinking − insha’Allah (God willing, a nice way in Arabic to get out of committing to maybe or maybe not).

This is Stanford: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen!

Michel, Rhymes With Pickle

Michel works in deli food industry sales in the USA Mid-Atlantic, so he’s a genuine pickle expert. But just when I thought I’d heard everything, here’s a guy with a perfectly good French name who prefers to be named after his PRODUCT?

I know this because I pronounced his name the French way, which I mistakenly thought was the only way, and he quickly corrected me, after which I didn’t know whether to feel silly, surprised, or…frustrated to realize that my expensive French education was void (and could even offend a culinary colleague) mere moments after I exited baggage claim at Dulles!

I paid for part of my expensive French education not covered by scholarship by teaching English to French elementary school students. They’d been learning English at an international school from well-intentioned but non-native speakers and thus, per their alarmed parents, required rapid “retraining.”

One great way to teach kids a foreign language is to use food as a context. Food being my favorite subject, just ask me for my top 1,000 ways to justify this curriculum. It worked so well for me at Le Cordon Bleu that I was eager to replicate it with 5-8 year olds, who quickly mimicked my American accent, driving some of their parents crazy. (One mother said she loved my teaching style, but could I please teach her child British English? Sorry. British English is a foreign language to me, too.)

My students and I went to farmers markets and bought produce. We chatted with cheese vendors (and talked ourselves into free tastings). We looked in bakery windows and checked out the selections, then discussed how “cette tarte au citron” (that lemon tart) really cost maybe 50 centimes to make, yet sells for 3 Euros. “What do they do with all the extra money?” Even more mystifying were the macaroons, which are just egg whites, sugar, and air. You put them on a tray (and, unless you’re working at Fauchon, you don’t even bother making them into the “macaron” shape), turn the ovens off, and leave them there overnight. Dust them with sliced almonds “perdues” (literally, “lost,” but in cooking, “leftover”) the next morning and sell them for a Euro apiece. Now, that’s free money.

We cooked and baked and experimented with different flavors. We had a good mixture of cultures, so we solicited recipe suggestions from the class, as well as recommended sources for said ingredients. Since we were ideally located in 12ème, Place de la République, a largely immigrant neighborhood, we had plentiful marketing choices that kids who lived 3 Metro stops away remarked they’d never seen before. That opened up pint-sized political discussions about how some people who lived in Paris came from somewhere else far away, but loved France so much they wanted to stay and can anybody find these countries on the globe that I just happened to have brought along to class?

Cooking is also great for language acquisition because it’s structured just like a story. OK, we start with this and then we do that and after that we add something else. Then do that again until the other thing happens. Cooking also comes with its own vocabulary that kids from food-centric cultures can relate to right away. France is the only country in which 1st graders can correctly identify an endive. The older kids know their way around cuts of meat, too. “La carré d’agneau” (rack of lamb) we eat “au moutarde et herbes” at grandma’s house for Christmas. Didn’t you know that?

We learned all kinds of ways to say this is delicious, incredible, divine, and awesome in every way, not to mention can I have more of that and can we please please please make that again next week? Even the parents who were underwhelmed by my American accent didn’t mind at all the edible “proceeds” their kids brought home every Tuesday night.

Of course, stories are good for learning languages, too. That’s how we American kids learned English, insisting our parents read to us, endlessly, the same 4 or 5 books until everyone in the household, whether they wanted to or not, knew every line forwards, backwards, by heart, and in our sleep.

Since I couldn’t fathom a kid growing up normally knowing nothing about Dr. Seuss, I started there. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. Green Eggs and Ham (ideal for practicing the conditional and conditional perfect verb tenses). “Now, the Star-belly Sneetches had bellies with stars/The Plain-Bellied Sneetches had none upon thars,” about which even my youngest students immediately, without any prompting from me, got the moral of the story, which is, as they put it, “you have to be the same nice to everybody.” (If you speak French, this grammatical error makes perfect sense.) We have think tanks full of Ph.D.s who can’t get their heads around that dead-simple concept.

But one story they just couldn’t fathom: Mrs. McCave, who had 23 sons and named them all Dave. I tried to localize it: “Madame Martin, who had 23 sons and named them all Pierre.” They said, in unison, “That’s not possible.”

When I told them my full name, they had no trouble with Jeanette, since it’s very French. Herting they couldn’t figure out. “What kind of name is that?” When I told them it was German, they sighed deeply, as if that explained everything that was wrong with the world.

Two of my former students, a girl “à l’école maternelle” (in kindergarten) and a boy in 3rd grade at the time, are siblings. Their mother is from Champagne – she paid the student fees “in kind,” which was fine with us – and has a typical French surname. Their father has one of those “What kind of name is that?” surnames − suspiciously Middle Eastern, we’re not sure, but in any case it can’t be good. (It shouldn’t matter that they’re Moroccan Catholics who immigrated 3 generations ago, but it does.)

Before they became parents, this couple had many serious discussions about which surname to give their children. The mother is a professor at an academy of art and she’s seen how blatantly the applications of some very talented students are dismissed by the admissions board, despite stellar portfolios, simply because they had “foreign-sounding” names. It’s the unspoken reality (and not illegal): these kids “aren’t really French,” despite having been born in France to French parents, and sometimes grandparents, and thus some less gifted, less accomplished, but more “genuinely French” students with “better” street addresses – often such an obvious clue about your “pays d’origine” that students and job applicants try to lie about it – are given preference.

So, this couple thought it over throughout her first pregnancy. Their conclusion: “liberté, égalité, fraternité” is never going to mean what it’s supposed to mean in the French Republic until we stop this racism and discrimination nonsense. Not only are we going to give our kids their father’s surname, but also we’re going to tell everybody why. We’re also going to teach our kids early on how to respond to people who tell them their family name will hold them back. (Anybody who tries to hold these kids back will be run right over. I guarantee it.)

All important historical firsts begin small, with somebody or two, they say, and this one is going to begin with us.

Ecco La Sposa!

It takes 2 years to learn French; it takes 2 minutes to learn Italian. Now, why is that?

Italian is easy because Italian people are easy.

French people are impatient, picky, and really, really critical. They’re very protective of their language – and, despite everything I’m going to say next, I don’t disagree with in principle − and nothing but perfection will do. Unfortunately, there are untold thousands of possible mistakes to be made between “Bonjour” and perfection (and, believe me, I’ve already made every single one at least once and am not near the end of the road yet).

This reality opens you up to months and years of unrelenting disdain, necessarily followed by profuse apologies and promises by you to try harder in the future. (Ask anyone with a French spouse and French in-laws whether love really gets you any breaks in the fluency department.)

Might be worth asking a neutral party to help you translate the following phrase, just to have on hand: “You’re getting on my last nerve and if you don’t back off, I might try my oleander-flavored crème brulée recipe on you in the very near future.”

Italian people, on the other hand, know perfectly well that nobody except sommeliers and opera singers has any real need to learn Italian, so they’re impressed that you’re making the effort and thus will keep blatantly lying to you about speaking well until you actually do.

Also helpful: Italian has a somewhat flexible structure. Unlike in French, where word order is carved in stone next to Napoleon’s tomb at Invalides, in Italian you can move words around, within reason, and nobody calls the language police.

Now, tell me which of the above teaching methods works for you.

One thing French and Italian have in common, both being Romance languages: lots of adjectives and adverbs. This makes for great story-telling and for great exaggeration while doing so. This also means 10 million different ways to talk about feelings, which makes American men in particular feel as though doom is rapidly approaching. “Come on. How many different feelings could there possibly be?”

Because English, by contrast, is rich in ways of avoiding this subject.

American woman: “I want to talk about feelings.”
American man: “Here we go again.” “Anything but that!” “Don’t go there.” “Oh, &@#(*).” “Give me a break!”

Which leads us to weddings.

In American weddings, as in American politics, there are 2 major parties and, just like conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, they don’t agree on much of anything.

First, there’s the “Night Court” party: I want a 5-minute civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers attended by nobody. Sign the papers, snap a quick photo on the courthouse steps, and once we’re safely on the red-eye to Greece, change my marital status on Facebook.

Then there’s the “Sound of Music” party: I want to be the ravishing beauty in the Princess Grace knock-off, next to 9 clearly inferior bridesmaids wearing blue taffeta, walking down the aisle in front of 400 guests to a full orchestra playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. (Oh, and Dad, I’ll be wanting you to pay for the whole thing, even though I’m 32 and graduated from Yale.)

In France or Italy, why choose? Have both! (That’s the culture, but it’s also the law. Religion is religion, and it’s important, but you’re not really married until you go to city hall.)

“Ecco la sposa” is sort of the Italian equivalent of “here comes the bride,” but let me give you a better sense of it: I’m standing on the steps outside the cathedral with the rest of the guests, watching the bride and groom come out…next to these little boys, maybe 5 years old, so proudly dressed in their Sunday best, who are pointing and sighing, “Ecco la sposa!” (“Look at her, she’s sooooooooo beautiful!”), so longingly, as Italian men are so good at doing.

(Ask any Italian male between the ages of 5 and 95: who is the most beautiful woman in the world? No question: Sophia Loren. Keep in mind that Sophia Loren is 76 years old now. She’s still stunning and still as beloved in Italy as she was in Desire Under the Elms with Anthony Perkins, in a rather-different-from-Hannibal-Lecter role, before most of us were born, and in Man of La Mancha with Peter O’Toole, which premiered during the Nixon administration.)

Little American boys that age, who are missing the T-ball playoffs to go to this dumb wedding anyway, have only 1 question: how soon can I rip off this itchy tie and find some dirt somewhere, so I can embarrass my mom and sister for posterity by looking really messy in the family photos?

The French, ever competitive, think they have the best wedding cake.

The typical French wedding cake is “le croquembouche,” which is made with “les petits choux” (cream puffs) glued together with caramel – “réalisé avec des choux à la crème pâtissière et du sucre caramélisé montés en cône” − and there’s nothing like boiling hot caramel on your fingertips to send you right through the roof. There’s also the macaroon version, referred to as “une tour des macarons,” “une pyramide des macarons,” ou ”une pièce montée en macarons.”

Whatever you call them, done well, these are architectural feats and you have no chance of getting a pastry internship at Pierre Hermé or Lenôtre – let alone Ladurée, which sells 15,000 of these a day, worldwide − without having mastered this design.

So, here you have either little cream puffs or little macaroons, all lined up and marching together perfectly in step, just like the military parades on 14 juillet.

Just to be funny, I call it La Tour Macaronée, which can be used to describe “la pâte” (the dough), but usually refers to a style of poetry from the 16th century. I have this mental image, not of a tower OF macaroons, but rather a tower that was going along one day minding its own business and was attacked by macaroons that attached themselves to it like sea anemones. The poor tower couldn’t get rid of them, so might as well decorate them with marzipan flowers and sell the whole lot for 500 Euros.

I have a pastry chef friend who works at a famous bakery in Bologna, the food mecca of Italy. (Notice I blog a lot about pastries and bakeries? This is pure marketing. I don’t like sweets, but I know you all do.) Although he knows perfectly well how to make un croquembouche, he isn’t impressed.

“The French, all they serve is cake? We have a dessert course!” Now who’s being competitive?

He’s right. After you’ve made it through the antipasti, followed by 10 or so – I’m not exaggerating – courses of various pastas, meats, and vegetables, including the traditional (and delicious) Italian wedding soup, accompanied by copious volumes of wine throughout, there’s the dessert course: as much fruit, pastry, and coffee as you could possibly consume. The operative word is “possibly.” Think of it as mile 23 of the marathon and somehow you’ll muddle through.

Although the content and quantity of food at these magnificent culinary events – and the operative word is “event,” so plan on staying for the whole thing – varies somewhat by season, region, and personal taste, Italian weddings all serve one thing: sugared almonds. These, like the promises of marriage, signify the union of the bitter and the sweet.