Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

A Little Foreign Language Goes a Long Way

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


[Readers of this essay may wish to read my essay from July 2010, "What is Normal - Part 2. Writing Systems".]

In the past 30-odd years, I've flown more than 1.5 million miles (2.5 million kms), and that, along with my hosting activities back home, has provided me with a lot of occasions to be with people whose first language is not my own. Those of you who've met me know that I am a gregarious person. However, in order to socialize, one must be able to communicate, and that can be challenging, even intimidating.

I remember well the first time I really felt inadequate in the foreign-language department. [Most notably, it was not during the 7-week trip I took through Asia and Europe to get to the US initially. Everything then was so new and novel that I didn't notice that my foreign language skills were non-existent.] It was in 1985, and I was returning to the US from a vacation in Australia, when I stopped over in Tahiti, French Polynesia. Each morning, I shared breakfast with a number of other tourists, none of whom spoke English. Now when one makes eye contact with someone at close quarters, if one cannot speak to the other person in a common language, one's only option is a smile (and possibly a nod, assuming a nod has no negative implications in that person's culture). But what to do for Act 2? As it happened, I not only made eye contact, I shared a table with these people, which made for a quiet meal after I'd used up my 10 words of French and they their 10 words of English. Right there and then I decided that I really needed to do something about it. Despite the pervasive use of English around the world, I had no good reason to assume that other people could or should speak that language. At the very least, I should try to meet them on their home turf whenever practicable even if that meant learning just a handful of words and phrases. A little effort can get a lot of respect.

A second situation involved a trip to Germany where I stayed with a friend who spoke English. However, one afternoon, I spent time with her mother who had no English at all. I quickly used up my minimal German, but we pressed on and she helped me prepare food for a Chinese meal I cooked that evening. We had a task to do and we managed to communicate non-verbally. We also spoke in our own languages, not because the other would understand, but the tone one uses and where one puts the stress can communicate meaning.

In 1992, I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to give a series of lectures. My wife and 8-year-old son, Scott, came with me. Scott is also gregarious, so when people made eye contact with him, he always said, "Hello". On this occasion, our translator and guide had prepared a small card for him to carry that said in Russian, "Hello, my name is Scott and I am an American". Then when someone smiled at him or greeted him in Russian, he'd take out his card, smile, and show it to them. One day, the other person responded in English, but my son was expecting to hear Russian, so he didn't really listen, and was quite surprised when I explained what had happened. [During that same trip, several weeks later in Finland, he learned to communicate with others via music.]

As I stated in "Travel: Home Stays" in January 2010, I am a traveler, not a tourist, so I like to get off the beaten path. But even if one is a tourist, to take full advantage of one's travel experience one really needs to interact with the locals even if it's just to ask the price of something, to buy a coffee, or to find a public toilet. I urge you to take the plunge. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Do You Speak English?

On many occasions while traveling, I've asked someone, "Do you speak English?", and often they've replied, "A little!" More often than not, their "little" really is quite a lot.

Although English is my first language, I really didn't get to study it formally until I was in my late 20's, when I started learning Spanish. It occurred to me very quickly that if I was to get a handle on Spanish grammar, I should probably understand the grammar of my first language. As a result, my formal English training took place in the US, whereas I'd first learned the language in Australia.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Growing up with parents and relatives who occasionally spoke an older variant of German, I got to learn a handful of words and phrases. However, the speaking of German was not promoted in my house even though it was the first language of my parents. [Although they were born in Australia, they spoke German at home and learned English in school at age 5.] A few of my oldest cousins had a decent grasp of the spoken language.

My first foray into learning German was the purchase of a Berlitz cassette course in 1980. It was rather dry and monotonous to work at on my own, and although I learned quite a bit, I never did finish the first 90-minute introductory tape. [Recently, when having a major purge of my stuff, I came across this course, still in its nice carry bag. I was delighted to find a good home for it with a friend. As he still owns a cassette player, I'd have to say that he's an old friend.]

Some 10 years later, I signed up for a 10-week course at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Each Saturday, I sat in class for 3 hours listening, learning, and speaking. The first week, the instructor arrived and spoke for 90 minutes, in German only! It was a shock to all of us attending, as we had not known it was to be a complete immersion class. The books we got were also in German only. I soon went out and bought an introductory German book in English, which saved me from complete failure. Each week for the first few weeks, fewer and fewer students showed up. I'm sure it wasn't nearly as romantic as they had imagined.

After that, I worked a great deal on my own with books learning more grammar and vocabulary. And as I traveled, I tried it all. However, my main problem was that I had no comprehension skills.

More than a few languages are Germanic, so some knowledge of that language has helped me read information as I've traveled.

After a month in Europe recently, with two weeks of that in Germany, I had four weeks of private German tutoring. It certainly was intimidating. I am told with great authority that, "It gets better/easier as you go along". In any event, I'm certain that I don't work that hard for money!

¿Habla Usted inglés?

Years ago, I had been considering taking a formal German class, but as it happened, I got sidetracked into Spanish instead. In any event, some proficiency of Spanish seemed more useful here in the US, and as far as I could tell, Spanish was a lot easier to learn than was German. [While German has three genders, Spanish has only two, which is still one too many! And whereas there mostly is no pattern to the gender of nouns in German, there is in Spanish. Thank Heaven for small mercies!]

My formal Spanish training was also done at Georgetown University. The first course involved 30 hours over 10 weeks. Thankfully, it was not an immersion course. I did well and I liked it; however, I put in a lot of work. Afterwards, I set out with my backpack and my present-tense-only Spanish to Latin America where I probably insulted or confused a lot of people with my efforts to communicate. A year or so later, I followed up with a second course although that was far less enjoyable partly due to the need to spend time recording and listening to one's own voice.

The Romance languages (of which Spanish is one) have many common words and constructs, which gives me a boost when dealing with Italian-, French-, and Portuguese-speaking people.

Anata wa eigo o hanashimasu ka

After my first trip to Japan, I learned that I had been completely unprepared for the communications barrier. So, before my next trip, I set about learning some basic Japanese (as well as buying a bilingual map of Tokyo).

My goals were simple: I didn't need to be able to read or write (which would take a lifetime commitment, especially as there are three writing systems to learn) just to be able to speak and understand simple statements and questions. I did not attend any formal class; I simply studied using a small 120-page phrasebook. The good news came with the revelation that Japanese has the same five vowels as English with sounds approximating those in Spanish. Ok, no problemo!

One of the first things I learned how to say was, "I do not speak Japanese", in Japanese. This, of course, confused many listeners; after all, I had just spoken to them correctly in Japanese! Now no matter how little I can speak in any language, I do try to speak correctly and therein is a real problem. If one sounds like one knows what one is doing, listeners assume that one really does!

Although I ignored reading and writing, I did learn to read the kanji digits 1–10. Prices in local markets and street food stalls are often in an interesting combination of kanji and Arabic digits. For example, a price of 400 yen is often written as 四00, with a kanji 4 followed by two Arabic zeros. So while I could figure out how much I was paying, I had no idea what I was buying!

In general, I found that once people believed me when I said I really didn't speak Japanese, they actually did understand the little I had. And my being able to remember the little prayer one says before a meal (i·ta·da·ki·masu) won me a lot of points. [There's also one to say after a meal, go·chi·so·sa·ma, but I rarely remember to say that one.]

During one trip, I was riding on a train and I wanted some information about my stop. Opposite me sat several Japanese teenage schoolgirls. When I asked them in what I considered was correct Japanese, they looked at each other and giggled out loud. Now as most Japanese since WWII have learned some level of English in school I switched to English in the hopes of a better result. Unfortunately, they giggled even more. Frankly, I suspect they would have giggled if I'd just held up my finger.

Now if you can get passed the reading and writing (as in, ignoring it), you might be pleasantly surprised as how simple the grammar is compared to Western European languages. Verbs are always used in the infinite form; there is no conjugation. YEAH! There are no articles (I think perhaps because German used up the whole world's supply) or plurals. To turn a statement into a question, one simple adds a suffix. In fact, speaking Japanese is as easy as using chopsticks; well, maybe not quite.

By the way, the title of this section is written in Romaji, the method of writing Japanese using Latin (Roman) letters.

Speaking in Numerous Tongues

I know quite a few people who are fluent in at least three languages, and a few who can get by in four, five, and even six. And I met one woman who managed seven, including Latin. Whereas in the US knowing a second language can command premium pay, someone selling international ferry tickets in Tallinn, Estonia, for example, might need to speak English, Russian, Finnish, and Swedish, just to apply for the job, and that's without much if any extra pay.

One Language at a Time, Please!

While some people can casually switch from one language to another when talking in a group, as for me, I can only handle one foreign language at a time. Any attempt to speak in a third language while I'm immersed in a second usually results in my talking in that second language instead.

I'm reminded of an incident during my first time in Costa Rica. There I was, immersed in Spanish when I came across two young women waiting at what looked like a bus stop in a small village near the Caribbean coast. I started speaking to one in Spanish and she replied in Spanish. It was immediately clear to both of us that neither of us were native Spanish speakers. It turned out she was German, and she spoke a bit of Spanish and quite a bit of English. So, English would have been the best language in which to communicate; however, her friend spoke only German. In order to allow the friend to join the conversation, I said, in Spanish, that I spoke some German. Then there was a big pause while I tried to think of some, but I couldn't even remember how to introduce myself and say my name. Basically, I told the first woman in Spanish that I really could speak some German, but right now, I couldn't really think of any as I was "in Spanish mode".

Literacy and Fluency

It is important to mention that it has never been my intention to be either literate or fluent in any language other than English. Yes, I can read various bits of other languages, and that is useful, but I really don't care to nor need to read much other than signs, notices, and menus. And I rarely need to write in another language.

Variations on a Theme

Of course, not all flavors of any given language are created equal. An American might travel to Australia and find she doesn't understand many local terms and has trouble with lazy word endings and run-on speech. A group of Germans, Austrians, and Swiss might all speak German, yet each brings to the conversation a whole other vocabulary and set of pronunciations. Likewise for French speakers from Canada, Belgium, France, and Côte d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast).

Basic Words and Phrases to Know in any language

So just how many words and phrases must one know to "get by" in another language? Of course, the more the better, but one should start with the obvious ones, as follows: hello, my name is …, yes, no, please, thank you, thanks very much, how much does this cost?, and the numbers zero to 20. Add to that the verbs to eat, to drink, to go, to be, and to pay, and a few adjectives like much and very, and one has a good start.

Faux Pas and Misunderstandings

I can hardly end without admitting to some of my mistakes. Here are a few.

I was in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where I had two weeks of private Spanish tutoring. Each night, I ate at the same restaurant where I was served by the same waitress. She tolerated my poor Spanish and I tipped her well. Ordinarily, I don't eat big meals, but one night, I had room for dessert, so I asked her if she had any cake. She looked blankly at me, but didn't try to figure out what I was saying. After a number of attempts, I got annoyed. I was thinking to myself, "Darn it woman, don't you understand Spanish?" Several days later, I was clear across the country riding a bus when it occurred to me what I'd been asking for. I had the right word but the wrong language. Cake in French is gateaux, which is what I had asked for, but it came across as gato, which in Spanish means cat. So, it was no surprise I didn't get my dessert!

It was Todo Santo (All Saints Day), a big event on the Catholic calendar, and there I was as a lunch guest at a family in rural Mexico. From time to time, different people tried to get me involved in their conversation by asking me questions. I started talking about what I thought was His Holiness the Pope, but it soon became obvious that no one was following. As it turned out, I was using the feminine la papa, which means potato, when I should have been using the masculine el papa, the Pope. Potato, Pope; hey what's the big deal, right? [It occurred to me later that perhaps The Devil made me do it!]

When traveling with a 2-year-old, one tends to choose restaurants where one can get seated and served quickly. As such, on our swing through Belgium, my family and I ate at a number of Pizza Huts. Not only was their menu standard and much like their restaurants back home, but it had pictures. After I'd struggled to order from the menu in French, I handed the menu to the waiter only to notice that on the back page there was an abbreviated version in English. C'est la vie!


Back in the 1800's, the American writer, Mark Twain, went to Heidelberg, Germany, to study German. Afterwards, he wrote an essay called, "Die Schreckliche Deutsche Sprache" ("The Awful German Language"), in which he put the worst possible spin on that language, but in an entertaining way. Some years ago, I bought a copy of that book with alternate pages in English and German. I highly recommend it to anyone who has worked at learning a European language.

By far my most fascinating language moment occurred many years ago, during my first trip to Japan. There I was standing in Tokyo Central Station having just arrived from Narita Airport. I was looking at the black-line subway map (which, like most such maps was neither to scale nor with correct direction) thinking to myself, "How the heck am I going to figure out which line to get on, how to buy a ticket, and to know when to get off?" [This was in the days before multi-lingual computer information screens that are (fortunately) now prevalent around the world.] As I was pondering my predicament, a voice from behind me asked in German, "Kann ich Sie helfen? (Can I help you?)" I turned, smiled, and answered, "Ja (Yes)". As I looked to be a Western European, he used the only mainstream language he knew from that region, and it worked. So, there was an Albanian talking German to an Australian in Japan!

When you are in your own normal world, don't forget how intimidating it was when you were trying to communicate in someone else's language. Specifically, when you meet beginning speakers of your language, speak more slowly and use a simpler vocabulary without being condescending. And when you are in their normal world, be polite, by trying to use their words, pronunciations, and customs.

And watch out, those darn foreigners appear to have words for everything!

Teaching English as a Second Language

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

For some years now, countries in the Western world have seen a huge increase in legal (and illegal) immigration. And the US is no exception. Many of these immigrants have little formal education, yet to be integrated in any reasonable form, they need to grasp the fundamentals of the host country's language. Here in the US English-language classes are offered cheaply or free of charge by many church and community organizations. In general, such classes have been labeled as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). However, given that many immigrants never formally learned their first language, or speak more than one language, in recent years such training has become known as English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

One national organization whose mission it is to teach English in the US is ProLiteracy. I learned of this group through its local affiliate the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which advertises its student and teacher-training classes in local newspapers. Having time on my hands, I decided to get more information about being a tutor for individual students. Two training courses were on offer: teaching English to someone who was illiterate in his or her own language; and teaching reading and writing to someone who already spoke and understood English. I was most interested in the second group. However, training sessions for trainers of that group were less frequent and the next one scheduled was months away. So, I decided to take the plunge with the first group before I found excuses to do nothing.

Training the Trainers

The training involved three half-day sessions on consecutive Saturdays, and about 40 people took part. There were five instructors. Until we were trained, we wouldn't be assigned a student, so we had no idea what language they spoke or if they were illiterate in their native language (that is, whether they could read, write, and do basic arithmetic). The challenge then was the following: Imagine teaching an adult to read and write English when their native language is written right-to-left, does not use the Latin alphabet used by English, they have no English at all, and you have no language in common. In order to make it realistic (not to mention to put the Fear of God in all of us would-be tutors) part of our training was conducted in Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

We spent quite some time learning the names of six objects, which included tomato, eggplant, and padlock. We also learned the words for the concepts of here, there, and over there. As we could not fall back on English to ask questions and nor could the instructor use that language, it really was like a game of charades. And progress was slow. Come the second week, most of us couldn't remember many of the words we'd learned the previous week, yet if we were to tutor, we'd expect our students to learn lots of new words each week. It was a humbling experience to say the least.

Getting a Student

I was assigned a man about 30 years old; let's call him Juan. Juan had a wife and baby and worked long hours at two jobs to make payments on a house mortgage. He came from a formerly war-torn Central American country, he was orphaned at a young age, he had no more than two years of formal schooling, and he was functionally illiterate in his native language, Spanish.

As I had some basic Spanish, we would at least have some common ground; however, I fell into the trap of using that too much, as is common with tutors. During training, numerous tutors had expressed concern that they didn't speak any language other than English. They were told, repeatedly, that not only was this not an obstacle, it could even be an asset. The sooner the student could get "up and running" in English the better, and letting them fall back to a language they already knew really wasn't helping them. [This is also the main argument of opponents to bi-lingual education in some US states.]

Each student accepted for tutoring was evaluated by a professional who determined which of three different programs (and associated books and materials) that student and his/her tutor would use. In my student's case, the plan suggested four weeks of conversation and concept building before embarking on reading and writing. Students and tutors each bought the recommended set of materials with financial assistance being available for those students who could not afford to pay.

Location and Frequency of Tutoring

In my case, a neighboring town had a large Hispanic immigrant community, and the town had a non-profit support organization to help them integrate. This group nominated my student for the program and it provided rooms for class and one-on-one teaching. We used that for some weeks. The public libraries also made available meeting rooms.

It was recommended that we not tutor in our homes, although I never did get a satisfactory explanation why that was the case. In any event, after Juan and I got to know each other, I invited him to my house an afternoon each weekend, and his wife and baby came too and sat in another room during our lessons. Then they joined us when we had afternoon tea. But how to have him find my house? "Easy", you say; "Just give him the address and some directions." Remember, he reads almost no English and he has no background in reading a map in any language. Everything is visual and learned by experience. So we solved the problem by having him meet me at the initial tutoring site and then follow me home noting all the turns we had to make, yet not being able to write anything down either in English or in Spanish! We did this a couple of times, after which he had it mastered. Note that Juan had a cell phone, but he had great difficulty understanding messages I might leave; it was hard enough communicating by phone when we spoke live!

We started out meeting twice a week, mid-week and on the weekend; however, with Juan working two jobs, very quickly it was clear that he was way too tired to concentrate after a very long work day, so we cut back to once a week, on weekends.

Starting to Read

After a few weeks of conversation, it was time to break out the introductory reader.

The sentences were relatively simple and were accompanied by pictures of the subject nouns; for example:

This is a man.
This is a girl.
This is a cup.
This is a dog.

The idea is to introduce a pattern and to substitute different nouns thereby building vocabulary using pretty much the same sentence. However, progress was painfully slow. Each lesson, we had to start back at the beginning, which meant that after some weeks we had made no real progress. And then I had my "Aha!" moment. Juan had no concept of a pattern. In essence, he didn't have any idea of how to learn! In retrospect, this should have been obvious given his major lack of formal education. No one read to him as a kid and he didn't have the luxury of watching Sesame Street on TV every afternoon.

As I was going through this exercise, I noticed a few things. We really couldn't talk about grammar, parts of speech, punctuation, or even capital letters, yet each letter had an upper- and a lowercase version, and when it started a sentence, you had to use the uppercase version. But then why did other words in the middle of a sentence sometimes start with an uppercase letter? It didn't help that Juan didn't ask questions. [As a seminar leader in my professional life, I've always take silence as indicating, "Everything is okay", and I tell that to my students at the start of the course. I also tell them that, "There is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers!"]

I was very frustrated as I'm sure was Juan. We'd been at it for quite some weeks with very little to show for it.

Starting to Write

Fortunately, Juan had a pretty good handle on numbers and counting, although he constantly had trouble differentiating the words (but not the values) thirteen and thirty, fourteen and forty, fifteen and fifty, and so on. So while we started on letters, we also practiced writing numbers.

What do you think would be the easiest number-writing task one could do? From my humble perspective, I figured it would be writing a line full of the digit 1. We used ruled-paper intended for learning writing, and I wrote three digit 1's at the start of a line, and asked Juan to fill in the line with more of the same. The first two he wrote were fine; they were almost identical to mine and they stood straight and tall. However, as he went on, each one leaned further and further to the right until those near the end of the line was practically falling over; I kid you not! Instead of copying the first few each time, he was copying the one he'd written previously, so they got progressively more slant on them. When I pointed this out to Juan, we both laughed.

Unfortunately, it was no laughing matter when things hadn't improved after several weeks. When it came to writing other digits and the letters, there is a recommended way one is supposed to teach, by starting the pencil at a specific point and continuing from there. However, that proved way too difficult for Juan who for the digit 8 preferred to draw one circle on top of the other. And that was just fine with me; at least he could read, write, and understand the result, as would other people. It was right then I realized we'd be having a modified version of the course, adjusted from time to time to cater for the individual student. [I don't know if that was a good decision or not, but both Juan and I needed to see some progress.]

Support Materials I developed

In order to provide reinforcement on the numbers and letters we covered, I used Microsoft Word to make lots of tables, which in the case of numbers, showed both the value and the spelling. I used a colored printer to teach about colors. I also used Word to help with check writing (see below).

[If you'd like to have a copy of the materials I developed, send me email.]

My Student's Main Goal

While being able to read and write in general would be wonderful, Juan had one specific goal, to be able to write checks to pay his monthly bills. That sounds simple enough, right. Wrong! Let's look at the elements on a blank check, at least as used in the US:

  • Date: Does one write July 3, 2011; 3 July 2011; or 7/3/2011? As all are valid for the US and all would be understood, it really was a matter of picking one format and sticking with that. And as Juan was only just learning to write, the all-numeric form was easiest and most reliable. [Note that in some parts of the US postdating checks is illegal!]
  • Payee: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" name from the statement. But if you can't read, how do you locate the "pay to" name? And even when you can tell from the familiar Visa credit card logo on the letterhead, for example, that you need to pay Visa, that doesn't help you figure out you need to make the check payable to Chase Bank's "Chase Card Services", for example.
  • Amount in numerical form: This seems simple enough, copy the "pay to" amount from the statement. Again, you have to be able to read the statement to find this among the many numbers in various columns.
  • Amount in text: Let's use a check for $123.45 as an example. In the US, the corresponding text needs to be, "one hundred [and] twenty three [and] 45/100 [dollars]", where […] indicate optional words. In the case of [dollars] that word is usually preprinted on the check. When one knows about fractions, 45/100 makes perfect sense, but fractions were a topic way beyond my student. After trying several times on different occasions to explain this, I decided to say that was just the way it needed to be with the number to the right of the slash—calling it the denominator would be even more confusing—must always be 100. [Note to Microsoft Word users: Word supports fields, dozens of special control sequences that can be used for all sorts of things from adding cross-references, index entries, and, yes, check amounts in text. For example, if you insert a field (you'll need to figure out the right menu to do this depending on your version of Word), a pair of curly braces ({…}) will appear. If you enter "=123.45 \* DOLLARTEXT" in between those braces and right-click on the field to toggle it to text, you get the text version of 123.45 as accepted by banks in the US. For those of you using versions of Word sold in other countries, I'd be most interested to hear from you if this works for European amounts written as 123,45, for example.]
  • Signature: Fortunately, Juan could sign his name using something that was not quite so easy to forge as printed letters.
  • Memo: This is intended for the check writer to make a note of the purpose of the check. For example, over time, one might write a number of checks to a school's Parent-Teacher Association, using the memo field to say that one was for the fee for a field trip while another was for the next month's lunches at the cafeteria. However, in other cases, this field is mandatory. For example, many bills require one to put here the number of the account being paid. But if you can't read, how do you figure out if such information is required?

Student Evaluation

Every few months, the Literacy Council sent me a blank form on which I was to report our activities for that quarter. And each time, I reported that we had made little progress and that my student's main goal remained the same, to be able to write checks to pay his bills.

The Handoff

After about eight months, my business situation changed; I took on a new contract that would occupy me fulltime and then some for an extended period. [Contrary to my longtime work rule of having at least three months off each year, this opportunity was too good to miss.] It would also involve travel out of town once a month. As such, I saw no way I could continue to invest the effort needed. And, frankly, what I had learned most was what not to do, and I figured it was better for Juan to have a different tutor. My frustration level was also extremely high; I too needed a change.


I very quickly reminded myself why I had avoided previously teaching real beginners in just about any topic. I simply didn't have the patience, or indeed sufficient training. In hindsight, I should have waited for the other training course. And now that I've written this essay, that idea is back on my radar.

One amusing byproduct of the whole exercise was getting to hear Juan speaking certain words with a distinctly Australian accent, although he never did master "G'day mate!"

What is Normal? – Part 2: Writing Systems

© 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


In the first installment, I introduced the general topic and posed some questions to get you in the "What is Normal" mindset. In this part, I'll deal with writing systems. These days, as most of my travel is international the most obvious deviation from my normal routine is being surrounded by written communication in a foreign language, and sometimes with a writing system quite different from my own. [Should that be "different to my own"? British and American English vary.]

I started writing this article in a hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. [And I proofread it in a hotel in Helsinki, Finland, three months later.] Prior to that time, I had been to Sweden once, for three hours one winter's afternoon in Helsingborg after a short ferry ride from Elsinore, Denmark. I know absolutely no Swedish, and have had very little exposure to Swedish people or culture. [I do have some CDs by ABBA and I'm familiar with the Swedish Chef from The Muppets TV show. So that probably qualifies me to be an armchair expert on Sweden on the talk-show circuit.]

From the moment I stepped off the plane at the airport, I saw Swedish writing all around me. Fortunately, some important signs were in English, but as Swedish is a Germanic language—and I have some basic competency in that—I could also understand or figure out some basics. And the fact that quite a few signs used international symbols for things like toilets, money changing, train station, luggage lockers, and such made it all straight forward (unlike when I arrived in Israel [Hebrew] and Jordan [Arabic] last November).

I've been interested in natural languages for many years, and have made a stab at Spanish, German, and Japanese. And I've picked up some basic vocabulary in a few other languages as well. Then I got into formal computer languages, and that led me to formal grammars. Along the way, I worked on specifications for computing environments to support different linguistic and cultural customs. And some years after I started writing for publication, I even managed to get a decent grasp on my first language, English. So let's just say that I'm an occasionally enthusiastic self-taught amateur linguist.


To be literate one must be able to read, write, and comprehend what one has read or written. And in the general understanding, this is extended to include numeracy, the ability to understand numbers and basic arithmetic. So when you hear that a person is illiterate that typically means they lack these capabilities. However, they may well be able to speak and comprehend, and even have an extended vocabulary. In short, they aren't stupid! [Unfortunately, here in the US, we've had more than a few instances of professional athletes graduating from a 4-year university and still being illiterate. "How can that happen", you may well ask.]

Fluency has to do with one's command of a language. I've seen references to the idea that being fluent in a language means knowing the basic grammar and having a vocabulary of 2,000 root words. Over the years, I've done my share of learning word lists in several languages, and each time after having learned 10 new ones, I've felt pretty good, until I realized that that was just the tip of the iceberg. While I may know the words for bird and flower, for example, I'm quickly reminded that doesn't help me distinguish a crow from a sparrow, or a rose from a tulip. As a wag once said, "Those foreigners have different words for everything!"

When I started high school in 1965, only the students in the "A" stream (of which I was one) could take a foreign language, and we had to choose from Latin, Latin, or Latin. Yes my friends, Latin was the only choice, apparently because some Education Department bureaucrats had decided South Australia was most vulnerable to attack from the Romans! And boys like me who didn't care for Latin had to take Agricultural Science instead, while the girls' alternative was Drawing. Speaking of Latin, you may have heard of the famous quote attributed to Julius Caesar, Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered); well, the modern-day version is Veni, vidi, Visa (I came, I saw, I shopped).

Here in Fairfax County, Virginia, to graduate high school in the public school system students are required to take one foreign language for three years, or two languages each for two years. Most schools offer Spanish, French, and German. The high school my son attended also offered Japanese, Russian, and Latin. And most American Liberal Arts 4-year colleges require students to take two semesters of a foreign language or to show proof of fluency to get an exemption.

In 1986, an excellent TV series called The Story of English was aired here in the US. It showed the evolution and distribution of the language as the British Empire expanded around the world. One aspect that I found most amusing was that in more than a few interviews subtitles were added so viewers had a chance of actually understanding what was being said. They may have been speaking in their normal form of English, but it certainly wasn't mine.

Let's move on now to how the written word is actually written.

Alphabet Soup

Simply stated, an alphabet is a set of letters each of which is represented by a distinct symbol. [For the purpose of sorting words alphabetically, the set of letters can have one or more orders; that is, collating sequences.] As I'm writing this in English, I'll use that language to start my discussion. English has 26 letters, which come in two flavors, lower- and uppercase. [Follow the lowercase link to see why they have these names. In Australia, I learned them as small and capital letters, respectively.] Not all alphabets have more than one case. And not all letters in one case have a corresponding letter in the other case (the lowercase ß in German being one such example). And to make it a bit more interesting there is an artificial third case, title case (or letter case). This comes into play when typesetting headings and titles in publications.

For most people using an alphabet, they think of it as the alphabet, not as an alphabet. However, numerous alphabets are in use. For example, the Greek alphabet has 24 letters and two cases. The Classical Latin alphabet had 23 letters (that from modern English without J, V, and W, and with U written as V) and two cases. [Nowadays, Latin alphabet is used for any alphabet derived directly from Latin, so the English, Swedish, and Spanish alphabets, for example, are Latin alphabets.] The modern Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters and two cases. [Initially, the EU had two official alphabets, Latin and Greek, and if you look at any Euro paper money, you will see the words "EURO" (Latin) and "ΕΥΡΩ" (Greek) printed on them. However, now that Bulgaria has been admitted, Cyrillic has been added as the third official alphabet.]

In English, each vowel and consonant has a different symbol; however, the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets have letters for consonants only. They use other devices to indicate vowel sounds.

Uppercase letters in English are used sparingly, such as at the start of the first word in a sentence, to start proper names, and to write acronyms. However, in German, every noun is written with a leading uppercase letter.

Some alphabets use what look like multiple letters to make a single letter. For example, Spanish has the letters ch and ll. And yes, they do occur in both cases, and if these letters start the first word of a sentence, only the first in each pair is capitalized. Spanish also has rr, but that is really two r's, not a single letter. In Dutch, ij is sometimes considered a single letter; I've certainly seen it as a separate key on a typewriter keyboard.

In the good old days, once we had mastered printing, we moved on to cursive writing. And we were told of the importance of penmanship. However, for many of us, as we grew older, our cursive needed no encryption to keep its meaning secret. Our handwriting bordered on the illegible. The interesting thing now is that with the proliferation of keyboards and keyboard-like interfaces, all electronic communication uses printed letters. As such, does the teaching of cursive still have a place in modern education?

Western European languages have mostly evolved from the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian) or the Germanic languages. As I have a basic grasp of Spanish and German, and a smattering of words in French, I manage to read quite a few signs as I travel through Europe and its former colonies. And having also studied Japanese for a while, I tend not to get bothered by seemingly strange or arbitrary rules. After all, perhaps English is the strange language!

Now what about all those dots, bars, and squiggles that we see written above or below various letters in European alphabets? Take French (please!). It has the same 26 letters as English. However, it adds diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation. These are the acute (´), grave (`), circumflex (ˆ), dieresis (¨), and the cedilla (¸). The main combinations are: à, â, ç, é, è, ê, ë, î, ï, ô, û, ù, ü, and ÿ. The English word facade comes from the French façade; the cedilla clearly tells the reader to pronounce the letter c as an s, but as English has no such marks, that hint has been lost. You simply have to know that is how it's pronounced.

Spanish also uses the acute accent mark on its vowels, as in á, é, í, ó, and ú. Once again, these are not new letters, but marks to tell you where to put the emphasis when pronouncing them. In the absence of these marks, the stress goes on the penultimate syllable. These marks can also be used to give the same-spelled word different meanings. For example, sábana means bed sheet while sabana means savannah. Spanish also uses the dieresis, but only on ü. On the other hand, the word señor (meaning a formal version of mister) is widely known by speakers of other languages; however, ñ is a letter in its own right, not an n with a diacritic. Once again, when it was taken into English, the tilde atop it was lost. However, when English took on the word canyon from the Spanish cañon the letter y was added to retain the original pronunciation.

And what about them there umlauts in German, as in ä, ö, and ü? There is some dispute about whether they are separate letters or simply diacritical marks. In any event, they certainly indicate the pronunciation. My family name is Jaeschke, which when written in German is Jäschke, with the a-umlaut having the e sound in egg. [When I went to register the internet domain name www.Jaeschke.com, a German with the a-umlaut version of the name already owned it, so I went with www.RexJaeschke.com instead. Currently, domain names and email addresses have to be written using the English alphabet, so the German ä gets written as ae.]

Occasionally, in English-language typesetting you will see the dieresis (¨) used with English words. This mark is placed over the second of a pair of adjacent vowels to indicate that those vowels should be pronounced as separate sounds rather than as a diphthong. The most common word having this is naïve. Another one is the word Noël, which means Christmas.

The Norwegians and Danes have 29 letters in their alphabets, with the 26 English ones followed by Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å. [Two uses of these letters in English publications come to mind: Æsop's Fables and encyclopædia.] However, the Swedes like to be different, so their set of 29 letters ends in Å/å, Ä/ä, and Ö/ö. Finnish looks like Swedish with the W/w missing, but its roots are completely different, so the visual similarity is misleading.

Diacritical marks turn out to be very useful, and I can see why people have difficulty in pronouncing many words in English, which has no equivalent visual pronunciation guide. One letter pattern in English that has numerous sounds is ough. There is ow in bough, uu in through, oo in though, au in thought, u in enough, and o in cough (and probably others).

Regarding pronunciation in English, look at the front of a good dictionary to see the list of pronunciation symbols and their sounds. For example, man is pronounced măn and plane is pronounced plān. (The ˘ is a breve and the ˉ is a macron.) There is a whole phonetic alphabet used to describe how letters in other alphabets are pronounced.

Even the sounds of the same letter in the same language can vary from one country to the next. The classic example in English is the letter z, which in the US is pronounced zee while the rest of the world says zed. Of course, with the American version of Sesame Street being exported around the world, that is changing. [By the way, Big Bird is not always yellow. For example, in The Netherlands, he is blue.] Also, the way in which small children are taught their letter values varies between countries. For example, I first learned the short sounds a, b, c, etc. rather than the long names aye, bee, cee, and so on. That is, "the a and the t make at in bat"; not the "aye and the bee make at in bat", which would obviously be quite unhelpful.

Each time I travel to a country that uses an alphabet that is somewhat new to me, I look at a local computer keyboard. At a glance, everything is the same, but on closer inspection, quite a lot is different. As many European keyboards have more than 26 letters and/or keys for diacritical marks, the layout is different and some keys serve more than two purposes. The key sequence I have the most trouble finding and using is that to generate the @ symbol when sending email. And what's that ¤ key for?

At one time, I studied a world atlas in Greek for several hours trying to see what I could figure out about that language. Having taken math and physics classes for some years, I knew most of the Greek letters, but still it was a challenge. Legend has it that Saint Cyril—for whom the Cyrillic alphabet was named—and his brother developed that alphabet from Greek and took it into Bulgaria from where it spread through the eastern Slavic countries on up to Russia. So if you look at the history of those areas you can see where certain influences were made, by the alphabets used in those areas. One unusual example of this is the Serbo-Croatian language. The eastern practitioners wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet while the western ones wrote it using a Latin alphabet. As a result, you have two groups of people speaking the same language, but neither can read it in the other's written form.

I freely admit to having had almost no interest in history during my school years. [After all, as someone once said, "History is nothing but one damned thing after another."] However, having traveled to some of the places I learned about (the Tower of London, Runnymede, and the Waterloo Battlefield, for example) I started to relate to more and more of it. And now I actually like the subject, and I see its influence on language evolution and distribution.

One thing about other languages that can be confusing is their use of a letter that you have in your own language, but with the two having completely different sounds. One example is the Russian letter C, which is pronounced like the English S (except on Wednesdays between 10 and 11 am, and in leap years). And to make it interesting, the Russian P is like the English R. If you look in photos or films covering the Cold War, the Soviet missiles and space rockets always have the letters CCCP painted on the side. These stand for "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик", which—as I'm sure you all know—in English means, "Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik". Now "Soyuz" is Russian for "Union", so CCCP in Russian became "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR) in English. [Speaking of the Cold War, there is a story about how the US spent $1 million to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space. The Soviets simply took a pencil!]

Putting the Em·PHA·sis on the Correct Syl·LA·ble

In Part 1, I wrote, "… my Japanese friend Misato would say that not only doesn't she have any lowercase letters—poor Misa—she doesn't have any letters at all or even an alphabet!" So what does she have? As well as Kanji (which we'll discuss later) she has two syllabarieshiragana and katakana—which together, are referred to as kana.

Where an alphabet has symbols for letters, a syllabary has symbols for syllables. Typically, a syllabary symbol has a vowel sound proceeded by an optional consonant. Some examples in Japanese are ah, kah, sah, go, zo, do, kyu, shu, and ryu. [Note that Tokyo really has only two syllables, to·kyo, not the three that Westerners insist on using, to·ki·yo.] Hiragana and katakana each have 100+ symbols with almost complete overlap. And just about any word can be written in either. Having two systems seems redundant to me, and students of Japanese must learn them both. Loan words from foreign languages are always written in katakana. Hiragana is used to write particles, a curious language element that does not exist in English.

Speaking of loan words, Japanese words all end in a vowel sound or n. So loan words have to fit this model and the syllabic pattern. For example, hotel becomes ho·te·ru, taxi becomes ta·ku·shi, and cheese become chi·zu. [While bread is also an imported idea, it came via the Portuguese, so it finished up as pan, which not only fits the Japanese model, but also comes from the Latin panis.] Rather than invent new words whose meaning is equivalent to foreign words, Japanese takes them literally with slight tweaks to "make them fit". My favorite is a·i·su·ku·ri·mu, icecream. Although these extra vowels allow the words to fit the spelling model when written in Romaji, they are unvoiced, so when spoken, the words sound very much like their English counterparts.

More than 10 years ago, one of my textbooks was translated to Japanese. As my first and last names were of foreign origin, they had to be written in katakana. However, there is no direct way to do that without adding some extra vowels to fit the required syllabic pattern. Here is the cover of that book:

[The same book was also translated to Russian, in which case, my name was written as Рекс Жешке.]

When one starts learning a language, one is told to learn to read and write as well as to speak and listen. In general, that makes sense, but when I started looking at Japanese, the idea of learning 200 kana seemed way too much work. [And that's without learning any of the thousands of Kanji characters!]

Other languages use a syllabary, but the Japanese ones are the most widely used.

Early versions of telex and telegram services were limited to as few as 32 symbols, which for most westerners was sufficient for a single-case version of their alphabets. So, did the Japanese have access to these services?

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Or is it?)

It turns out that alphabets and syllabaries are latecomers in the written language stakes. At the beginning of the written word, we had pictograms, which used symbols that resembled the physical object for which they stood. [Even today, the Chinese and Japanese symbol for entrance is a mouth.] Of course, we have since invented many words that have no obvious physical representation, although pain might be symbolized by a picture of a dentist! Ideograms were also developed and they are symbols representing an idea or concept.

The best known of these kinds of writing systems are the hieroglyphics from Ancient Egypt and the characters used in Chinese, and which were adapted by Japanese (Kanji).

When I was dabbling in Japanese, I did try to learn the Kanji for basic numbers, and I had some success. So even though I could tell how much I was paying when buying from street food stalls, I still had no idea what I was buying. And to make it interesting, many vendors used a combination of Arabic and Japanese digits. For example, 100 would be written with a Kanji 1 followed by two Arabic zeros.

Although I've asked numerous native speakers how they know how to pronounce what I affectionately call "chicken scratchings", I am still none the wiser. In fact, I think they simply have to remember each character. As to how they look up words in a dictionary is a complete mystery to me. And to make it a wee bit challenging, ideogram-based languages seem to have no concept of inter-word spacing, little or no punctuation, and no upper- or lowercase.

To survive in present-day Japan, a student must master the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, have a good grasp of the Kanji ideograms (some with multiple meanings or readings), and then be able to at least read and understand a good deal of English. Many advertising billboards and TV commercials use all four writing systems together! And as for how one enters these kinds of characters on a keyboard simply is fascinating.

Writing Direction

If you are old enough to remember typewriters, you'll recall that large arm on the right that you had to push to the left to return the carriage to the left side and down to start a new line. Of course, with computers this has come to be known as—surprise—a carriage return.

Standards for computer programming languages support the concept of one or more characters that cause a display cursor or printer to advance to the first position of the next line. Of course, for Westerners, that means, "go back to the left side and down". That is, their writing systems are written left-to-right, top-to-bottom. I have no idea why those languages are written that way, but I know of no superior property it provides, so it is no surprise that some writing systems (such as Hebrew and Arabic) go right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and others (such as Chinese and Japanese) go top-to-bottom, right-to-left. I am not aware of any that go bottom-to-top, although that could be perfectly normal, right?

Most writers of Western languages are right-handed, which allows them to read easily what they have written as they write. Not so for lefties, like my son. In many cases, this forces left-handers to hold the pen at a very strange angle. [Speaking of lefties, back in the good old days (the Middle Ages) many people believed that those who wrote with their left hand were possessed by the Devil, and so they were considered evil. The word sinister comes from the Latin word of the same name, and means left-handed. Dextrous comes from the Latin dexteritas, from dexter, which means on the right.]

A few years ago, I made my first visit to the new British Library in London where I discovered its treasure room. [Among other things, it contains the first folio of Shakespeare's complete works, some very ornate Korans, and the lyrics of a well-known Beatle's song scribbled on an airline napkin. I highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity.] Off in one corner was a room with computer terminals that provided access to a digitized version of one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks. Now Leonardo (or "Yo Leo", as his close friends addressed him) was never accused of being normal. In this notebook, he wrote left-handed, from right to left, and back to front. That is, you need to look at a mirror image of the writing to see it in its "normal" perspective.


We've barely scratched the surface of this topic. For example, we haven't talked about sorting order in word lists, punctuation, grammar, or even the spoken word, which is a completely new topic of its own. But, of course, we have to leave something for future installments.

I'll leave you with the following anecdote from my travels in South East Asia in July 1979. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, and Superman: The Movie, starring Christopher Reeve, had just been released there. The Malaysians loved movies and the ticket price was cheap, so each showing was packed. However, Malaysia has four official languages: Bahasia Malay, Chinese, Indian, and English. Although the soundtrack was in English, that was not the first language of most patrons, so they read one of the three sets of subtitles that covered the bottom half of the screen. At the same time, they were talking loudly amongst themselves making it difficult for those few of us trying to listen. For them that was normal.