March 31, 2009

Are you a spy? Learning languages via the media.

Are you a spy?

Jokingly, people ask me this question when they hear me speaking in other languages. (I speak seven languages: Russian, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo Croatian.)

Shocked that I can copy accents so well and pass as a local, native speakers are dumbfounded to discover that I indeed am not one of them.

Did you live here a long time?

Are you parents from here?

Did you grow up speaking this language at home?

Did you go to a bilingual school?

Did you have a nanny that spoke our language?

I answer "no" to all the questions they ask.

They continue to look at me and can’t understand how I can speak their language so well.

How then can you sound so much like us?

Are you a spy?

This last question always gets a lot of laughs.

Spies are supposed to be smooth operators, weaving in and out of places unnoticed. Though I am told that I am good at hiding myself sometimes, I tend to fall too many times, sprain my ankle, hurt my sciatica, or have other foot or leg problems.

A Mata Hari, I am not. In addition to being a spy, she was a Polynesian dancer, right? With my feet problems, I am lucky if I can walk without falling, much less entertain a crowd with the movements of my hips and legs.

The CIA did try to recruit me after college to be a Russian language instructor. The NATO base in Naples was in need of my Italian language skills to work on a counter-mafia intelligence mission. Neither being a spy trainer or employing the luscious melodies of Italian to track the infamous Napolitano mafia attracted me. My father revolted when the CIA called me, telling me that we did not emigrate from the former USSR for me to be utilized by my government for espionage purposes.

It is not uncommon for people to seriously question who I am. Being able to be a linguistic polyglot is highly unusual. There are people who are multilingual, but they may still bear strong accents when speaking other languages or they speak using noticeably foreign sentence structures.

I realized a long time ago that I was a linguistic anomaly of sorts, able to pass as native until I made a grammatical mistake.

How so was it that I was able to pronounce a rolled Italian or Spanish “r”, Portuguese nasal vowels and French guttural “r”s?

I often responded that I just copied the sounds that I heard.

But that was not enough of a description to convince people of my abilities. There had to be something else.


Yes, music.

I learn languages just like I can copy a song. Let me say that I am no singer extraordinaire. I don’t copy sounds and songs like Pavarotti did, but somehow the cadence and musicality of languages seep into my mind.

Every language has its own music. We may not like the music, but each tongue does have its own rhythm. By listening to music, I learned to reproduce not just the verses of the songs, but also the sounds from the words.

Language learning is not just about learning grammar and vocabulary, it’s about feeling the language. Sounds resonate in our bodies and our spirit.

I encourage people to listen to music in the language they are studying to get a feel for the flow of the language. I wrote a book, Language is Music, to help people learn how to be multilingual and absorb foreign languages into their life. There are 65 tips on how to implement music, radio, TV, movies and other low-cost resources into your foreign language education.

Why haven’t teachers been using music and other media in the past to teach foreign languages?

I think that it’s because that until recently, it wasn’t so easy for people to have access to foreign music and entertainment so easily. Netflix, ITunes and You Tube enable anyone with an Internet connection to access media from other countries and languages. In the US, even someone living in rural Idaho can order a movie in Swahili to watch. I think that in the past, teachers didn’t incorporate media in the classroom or assign media related homework to students because their students simply didn’t have the access to music, radio and films from other countries.

Now there is no excuse not to put fun into language learning. As long as government censors don’t block sites like You Tube, most people with access to the Internet can watch parts of movies in other languages for free and listen to foreign music.

Check out Language is Music. You can read it online for free until April 5, 2009 at

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