Posted by & filed under Articles about me.


I surprised some people I know in the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday, when my voice and story came to them during their morning commutes on KQED radio, an NPR affiliate radio station in San Francisco. I was speaking about giving voice to my invisible visual disability, binocular vision therapy and learning as an adult, that I didn’t see in 3D. Doctors had left me uninformed about not seeing in depth.

Don’t assume doctors will tell you the whole truth about your medical condition. Find out from other people with the same malady or disability how they live. You’ll be surprised to learn what they have to say!

Listen to or read the audio essay at this link:

Seeing 2D in the 3D World

bay area focus

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

In this CBS television interview in San Francisco, I speak about “One-Eyed Princess,” my new book about vision therapy, being cross-eyed and what is like to see in 2D in a 3D world.

I was born with strabismus (crossed-eyes), and even after two operations to cosmetically straighten my eyes, they are not straight. As a result, my brain doesn’t fuse the images from both eyes to create a 3D image. I don’t see in 3D. I see flat. Over the last six and a half years, I have been doing vision therapy to rewire my brain to see in more depth.

Watch this video to learn more:

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

spasio ga jezik

Bosnian newspaper articles (left: Oslobodenje, right: Dnevni List) about the BHRT television broadcast of “Spasio ga jezik” (Saved by Language) on February 21, 2016.


Almost 30,000 Bosnian television viewers watched Saved by Language on BHRT television on Sunday, February 21, International Mother Language Day.

The producers of the documentary Saved by Language are organizing a Judeo-Spanish Language Week online festival. Four recent films and one new audio project about the endangered language of Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) will be available for free from February 21 to February 26 at:



One of the goals of International Mother Language Day is to highlight the importance of preserving endangered languages. UNESCO estimates that half of the world’s 6000 languages are at risk of extinction, at the rate of one language dying every few weeks.

The purpose of the Judeo-Spanish Language Week online festival is to give people an opportunity to learn more about the endangered Judeo-Spanish language that originates from the Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. The language has two main variants: Haketia, originating from North Africa — a mix of 15th century Spanish with Arabic, Hebrew and French— and the Judeo-Spanish dialects that developed in the Balkans and Turkey —a mix of 15th century Spanish with influences from Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic French and Slavic languages. The media in this series illustrate the rich tapestry of voices that make up the Judeo-Spanish language and Sephardic lifestyles from around the world.

Films in the Judeo-Spanish Language Week online film festival:

**Some of our films include subtitles in English and other languages.

Saved by Language (2014) by Susanna Zaraysky & Bryan Kirschen

Las Ultimas Palavras (2015) by Rita Ender

It Never Rained on Rhodes (2014) by Barry Salzman

Once Upon a Time at 55th and Hoover (2013) (to appear online as of Feb. 23) by Andrés Enrique-Arias

KHOYA: Jewish Morocco Sound Archive (2015) by Vanessa Paloma Elbaz

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

On Sunday 30 August 2015, I woke up and out of a bad habit, I checked my email. The first email message I received was from a friend, telling me that she had just read that the famous neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, had died of cancer. I was distraught and struggled to contain myself to get out of bed and get ready for the day. The entire day, I vacillated between tearing up about his life and completing the many tasks I had. I happened to be on the coast, enjoying the central Californian coastline. As much as I wanted to just go for a long walk and look at the beauty of the coast, I was constantly brought back to the importance that Dr. Sacks had in my life.

In 2006, Dr. Sacks completely revolutionized my life. I read an article called “Stereo Sue” in The New Yorker magazine, about Prof. Sue Barry who had developed three-dimensional vision in her forties by doing binocular vision therapy. Until reading that article, I didn’t know that I couldn’t see in 3D. It was Dr. Sacks’s article, which I had chanced upon, that informed much of what was going to come in my life. I started to understand why I was having so many problems driving and merging in traffic and playing different kinds of sports. Two years later, I listened to the audiobook version of his book, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, about how the brain reacts to music and how some of his patients who had had strokes, couldn’t speak, but they would react to music, sometimes singing, playing music or even dancing. Musicophilia set me on a path to write my own book, Language is Music, about how to learn foreign languages using music in the media. It wasn’t until I listened to his book, that I understood that the key element in my ability to mimic accents and remember words and phrases and grammatical patterns was because I listened to a lot of foreign language songs.

Book: Musicophilia



It was actually somebody who didn’t even know me, who recommended the book to me once in an email. She had no idea that that recommendation was going to set me on a path of doing presentations in various parts of the world and doing many media interviews to help people learn foreign languages.


I’ve read many of his other books and seen movies based on his work, including Awakenings and The Music Never Stopped. I often talk to people about his book during my presentations and my interviews. My gratitude towards him has never been silent. However, there was something that I wanted him to see before he died.


In February 2015, I read the New York Times article, My Own Life Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer written by Dr. Sacks about his cancer having come back. I knew that he had been diagnosed with cancer a few prior. Due to his cancer operation, he lost sight in one of his eyes, forcing him to lose his stereo vision, a topic he not only wrote about very much, but it one that he found to be incredibly fascinating. He was a member of the New York Stereoscopic Society. Since I didn’t have stereovision, I found his description of losing his stereovision in the book, The Mind’s Eye, to be fascinating because I had been working towards improving my vision and brain capacity to actually see in 3D.

Book: The Mind’s Eye


When I read that Dr. Sacks’ cancer had returned, I cancelled all my plans that weekend. I was planning on going to a music concert and doing other things with friends. I had been in the process, for the last year and a half, to write a book about my vision and about the binocular vision therapy that I had been doing to improve my vision so that I could see in stereo, just as Dr. Sacks had described about “Stereo Sue.” The book was to be dedicated both to Prof. Susan Barry and to Dr. Oliver Sacks. I was thinking of finishing it by the end of this year. But when I read the news that he had cancer and that it was spreading through his body and that he had a limited time to live, I knew that I needed to finish my book as soon as I could so that he would at least see the cover and the dedication page in his lifetime. I sent him a handwritten letter upon reading his news and a DVD of Saved by Language, the film that I had co-produced. I told him that I was working on another book to be dedicated to him. Balancing work responsibilities, the film, and other projects, I submitted the manuscript to my graphic designer at the beginning of August. The day that the graphic designer was due to send me back the first formatted version of my book, on August 30th, was the day I found out Dr. Sacks had left us.

I felt that I had done everything I could to complete the book in time for him to see it. I wanted him, in his lifetime, to see on paper again how much he had impacted my life. Doing vision therapy to improve my vision and rewire my brain has not only improved my visual acuity but has also changed the way I interact with the world. I value relationships in a new way. It has given me a new way to see life, feel and appreciate my world. This is a type of rebirth that very few people get to experience. Sometimes people have this through some spiritual awakening or because they’ve recovered from a major illness that has made them revamp the way they live their life. I got this gift of seeing and experiencing life anew because Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote about a Prof. Sue Barry in a magazine article in 2006. 

Let me give an example of how captivating his writing is. Well before his last book, On the Move, was published, I received an email newsletter from his office that his new autobiography would be coming out on Tuesday, April 23rd. There was only one other time in my life that I had preordered a book and that was Dr. Sacks’ book, The Mind’s Eye. I came to bookstore the day it came out and I got my copy. I went to a Turkish cafe in Mountain View, and I sat down with my türk caj black tea and sigari böregi (fried cheese) and I dived into his book.

On the Move

The next day, I had to take the train to go to San Francisco and then to Berkeley. I was immersed in On the Move when the train suddenly stopped without much explanation for 30 minutes. I saw police in bulletproof vests walking on the platform and I didn’t pay much attention to them. Fascinated by his stories of growing up in England, how he came to the United States and the many doubts he had as a writer, neurologist and in his life, the fact that my train had been delayed for 30 minutes and that police in bulletproof vests were going in and out of the train for an unexplainable reason didn’t bother me. I barely even noticed. When the police with huge weapons got onto the train and told us all to put our hands up, at that point I did put the book down and put my hands up. I found out later on that the police received a tip that a murder suspect was on the train. If I hadn’t been reading Dr. Sacks’s book, I probably would have been anxious and worried about why the police had stopped the train and why they were pointing a gun to my head. Once the police left, I just went right back to reading Dr. Sacks’s book.


His legacy

What is amazing in all of the interviews I’ve heard and read of Dr. Sacks is his absolute modesty. Most physicians treat the patients that they see in their offices, clinics or in the emergency room, but Dr. Sacks has probably “treated” millions of people around the world, whom he never met and with whom he did not share a common language. It is because of his beautiful prose and how he made medicine not only understandable but exciting to somebody who, like me, didn’t know the difference between her kidneys and her liver. It was through the power of the pen and his wonderful ability to communicate with his patients that he could spread his medicine and his knowledge to people all over the world.

It’s rare for an author to have such a power over the reader like Dr. Sacks did. It is my sincere hope that even though he’s no longer with us, that more people like me will have their lives positively changed for the better by reading his books and articles, listening to his radio interviews, watching TV interviews, or watching movie adaptations of his books.

Dr. Sacks, you will be missed by millions around the world, but never forgotten, because of how you changed our lives.

Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for being you.


P.S. I plan on publishing the book about my vision, One-Eyed Princess, at the beginning of 2016.

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

“I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. When can I see that Ladino film you co-produced?” 

October 20, 21, 29 and November 3. 
See times and links below.

“Huh? What? You made a documentary?” 

Saved by Language: About the boy who saved his life in WWII by speaking in Ladino to an Italian colonel and Hispanic US pilot. See demo here: 

 “I want to know more.” 
Read this article : From the J Weekly newspaper in San Francisco: 
** Article Corrections: I can speak Ladino and Bryan Kirschen is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton and not at New York University. 
If you can’t make it to one of the events, you can rent or buy the film here


Tuesday, October 20, 2015: 7 pm
        Presentation about Saved by Language (not a full film screening)
        Jewish Community Library     
        1835 Ellis Street, San Francisco, 94115
        Free garage parking; entrance on Pierce Street between Ellis and Eddy.
        DVDs of Saved by Language will be for sale at the event.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015: 12-1pm 
        Presentation about Saved by Language (not a full film screening)
        The Magnes Auditorium
        2121 Allston Way, 
        Berkeley, CA 94720


Thursday, October 29, 2015: 6:30pm-8pm
        Free Screening; Co-Producer, Susanna Zaraysky, will speak about Ladino and the making 
        of Saved by Language at the University of San Francisco. 
        University of San Francisco, 2130 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA 94117 
        The film will be shown in two rooms, one with Ladino subtitles and the other with English subtitles.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015: 7pm
        Free Screening
        The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life
        The Magnes Auditorium
        2121 Allston Way
        Berkeley, CA 94720
        Presented by The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life and the University of California
        at Berkeley Townsend Center for the Humanities 
        as part of the Depth of Field 2015-2016 Seminar Series: Sephardic Identities on Screen. 

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

SBL docThe film, Saved by Language about how Moris Albahari saved his life in World War II in Bosnia by using the Ladino language is now available to the public! Rent it for $5 to watch online as many times as you like in a three-day period or buy the DVD for $25 and watch it whenever you want. You can order the DVD in either the PAL or NTSC format.

Both the DVD and the online rental have subtitles in English, Ladino, Spanish, Portuguese and Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian.

Here is a demo of the film:

Here is our recent interview (in Spanish) on Spain’s COPE radio about the film:

Posted by & filed under Benefits of multilingualism, How to learn languages with songs and the media.

It’s no secret that I’m very passionate about learning languages through songs. I am especially keen on preserving dying languages through listening to songs and also by creating new songs in those languages. (I delivered a TEDx talk on the subject.)

What’s a dying/endangered language?


An endangered language is a language that is dying, meaning that fewer people are speaking it because they are moving to more dominant languages. For example, Native Americans in the United States primarily now speak English and don’t speak their native languages or the native languages of their ancestors.


Inspiring endangered language musicians

endangered languages with music

Yasmin Levy sings Ladino songs in a flamenco style

I have been working with the endangered language of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) for a couple of years and I am fond of the musicians who create new songs or arrangements in the language. For example, Yasmin Levy in Israel sings Judeo-Spanish songs to flamenco music. Sarah Aroeste sings Ladino music of her own composition and also pre-existing songs in rock formats.

Sarah Aroeste sings her own arrangements of Ladino songs.

There are videos and articles about indigenous groups in the Americas who are using hip hop and rap music to compose lyrics in their indigenous languages to keep these languages alive. You can read this article in the New York Times about some Central American musical pioneers: Guatemalan Rappers Promote Mayan Language, Stories to Youth. 


We need these singers to breathe life into these dying languages.


Critiquing the innovators


Those who critique these innovative musicians sometimes say they are corrupting their languages because they’re using new musical styles or not representing the cultural traditions of the language with modern musical genres. Usually it’s the people who remember how their grandmothers used to sing in the kitchen who are saying that these new musicians are not paying homage to the language because they’re using new musical styles. If the language is dying and somebody is actually trying to do something using modern technology and music, I don’t see any reason to critique them. If anything, I applaud them.

What I find interesting here is that these people who complain that these new musicians are composing in new musical styles are not riding a horse and a wagon to get to work. They aren’t carrying firewood to their house in order to cook on a fire. They’re using the Internet. They’re using cellphones. The people who are complaining about modern musical styles are using modern technology. It’s quite hypocritical to say that a language should only be preserved in the ways that it has been kept alive through centuries if the people speaking the language are using modern technology for other things in their life.

Lederhosen, not a modern German fashion

I heard a story of a man from the US who traveled to Germany, the country of his ancestors, and wore lederhosen and was astonished that modern Germans were not wearing these traditional knee-length leather breeches. His image of Germany was the one he saw at Oktoberfest events in the US where people dressed up in old German outfits. Expecting singers only to sing in the same ways their ancestors sang is like requiring everyone to wear lederhosen!



Language evolves; culture evolves.


This isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because somebody would want to listen to Ladino songs to a flamenco beat or to a tango rhythm doesn’t mean that they won’t also learn or listen to the music in the way it’s traditionally sung. For example, I love opera music. I can listen to the French opera, Carmen. I also adore the ballads of Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand.  But I also listen to French Arabic Rai music, which is a mixture of the Algerian Arabic dialect and French. Am I corrupting my French because I hear it sung to a traditional Algerian music style? Not at all!

North African Rai star, Khaled

North African Rai star, Khaled



Just because you listen to A, doesn’t mean you can’t listen to B. You can listen to A through Z and all sorts of variants of musical styles. What we need to think about is not saying that one musical style is better than the other and because it is better, it is the only valid way to sing in the language. People have different musical tastes. Somebody who wants to experience and explore their culture and learn their language through hip hop music should be able to do that and should also, if they want to, be able to listen to classical ways of singing in that language. Instead of criticizing people who are risk takers, we should be applauding their efforts because if we don’t innovate, these languages are going to die.

The Interpreter

Posted by & filed under Articles about me, Multilingual identity.

Just because somebody speaks two languages, he/she is not a natural, automatic interpreter and translator. A multilingual person can’t translate anything anybody wants, and can’t do simultaneous interpretation. I have received many requests and demands to translate and interpret on the spot from monolingual people and from multilinguals who aren’t used to being in situations where they have to interpret or translate.

The idea that just because somebody is bilingual that they should make a career as a translator and an interpreter or do it for friends and family as favors is absolutely faulty. That’s like saying, “Oh, I can pull the weeds out of my parents’ backyard so I should become a professional gardener.” Just because I can pull weeds doesn’t mean that I know anything about landscaping or gardening. I just happen to be able to use my hands to pull weeds out of the ground. Just because somebody can do something doesn’t mean that they should be doing it professionally or as a favor.

The Interpreter

The 2005 film, “The Interpreter” starring Nicole Kidman Sean Penn.

The difference between interpreting and translating is this: Translation is the written form of converting one language to another and interpreting is what is done orally. So I speak to you in French, the other person speaks in Spanish and somebody interprets between French and Spanish.

When I speak in a language, I’m thinking in that language. Sometimes there are words that people say in a language and I understand from the context what it is that they’re saying but I don’t have an automatic translation for exactly that word. What happens when you interpret or translate is that you have to go from Language A to Language B. But people who are used to being multilingual or have grown up with various languages, don’t interpret in their heads between Language A and Language B. If they’re fluent in both languages, they think and they speak in the language in which they are speaking without interpreting in their minds. Professor François Grosjean discusses how bilinguals think and process language in various of his blog posts on bilingualism in Psychology Today.

News flash: Multilingual people are not natural translators and interpreters.

Complexities in interpreting


Interpreting has various layers of difficulty and complexity for the interpreter. It takes the person away from completely being in the moment of listening to what that person is saying because they have to think in their heads what that person has said and how to say it in another language. The untrained interpreter can sometimes lose track of what’s being said because they can’t think of what a word is or they’re trying to understand what the person is saying or what the person said five seconds ago, but the speaker is already on another topic.


One of the complexities of interpreting has to do with the way multilingual people use different languages. Speaking two or more languages doesn’t mean I understand the vocabulary for all sorts of topics in all of the languages. Russian is my first language. If my car has mechanical problems I wouldn’t be able to describe them in Russian but I could in English. My functional automotive vocabulary only exists in English. Multilingual people may have functional fluency in one language but have a different range of topics about which they can speak fluently in another language. Prof. Grosjean describes this as the Complementarity Principle.

I was in Idaho for a symposium and a professor was speaking about the difficulty for people who are born bilingual. She specifically was talking about Hispanics in the United States, who are often forced to interpret for their parents in medical situations and in other situations where they lack the vocabulary. Just because they speak English and Spanish doesn’t mean that they can explain their father’s liver problem to a doctor. Oftentimes, children of immigrants, from all countries, are forced into situations where they have to interpret or translate when they don’t have the vocabulary needed for the specific topic. This has happened to me ever since I’ve been a child. When I lacked the vocabulary needed, it took me a long time to circumvent the topic and try to figure out, using other words, how to relay what the person was saying. Imagine a child interpreter mixing up the words for kidney and liver and the doctor and patient will be speaking about ailments concerning the wrong organ!
One of the difficulties that comes up with interpreting is that oftentimes the speaker, if they’re monolingual and not used to working with an interpreter, will talk very fast and not take enough breaks for the interpreter to translate. Sometimes the speaker will get anxious and will interrupt the interpreter when the interpreter is still speaking. The speaker won’t give enough time for the person who is listening to the interpretation to process the information and ask questions from the interpreter.

Why interpret for someone I don’t want to listen to?


Another key point is that I often am not interested in what the person has to say or I may deem their thoughts asinine. But when I’m forced into being an interpreter in professional and social situations, I have to listen to the person speaking and if the person is long-winded, talking about something boring, insulting or annoying or I don’t agree with them, I’m stuck listening to them. Not only do I have to listen to them, I then have to interpret everything they’ve said, even if I think they’re an idiot or a bigot. I have to then interpret it in another language and deal with the listener’s responses. Sometimes I have to censor the responses of the person to whom I am interpreting because I don’t want to have to deal with an argument between the two individuals. On several occasions, those who have forced me into interpreting have commented that i only gave them a two-sentence summary of the soliloquies I had to endure spoke for five or ten minutes. My response: the speaker kept repeating themselves or gave useless details and I just cut to the chase.One of Fidel Castro's speeches.

You want me to watch an old video of one of Fidel Castro’s long speeches and interpret for free? You’ll get the Readers Digest one-paragraph summary. If you want to hear his entire sermon, open your wallet, hire a professional and get some strong Cuban coffee because you’ll need it to listen to the interpreter speak for several hours.

No, take that back, I will not listen to Fidel speak for several hours to give a summary. Hire a pro!



It’s a burden, not a joy!


What is worse in the situation of interpreting and translating is that many times people like myself are forced into situations where we have to interpret or translate for free and the requesting parties are clueless about how arduous of a process it can be to interpret or translate. I’ve been in other countries where somebody will grab me and say, “Hey, can you tell me what this person is saying?”, “Hey, what’s this?”, “What’s that?”, “I want to know this lady’s life story. Please interpret.” I’m in that country as a tourist or I’m working, just like everybody else. Tasked with interpreting for various people at a dinner when I just want to enjoy my food and talk to a couple of people takes me away from the experience of enjoying life without linguistic mental gymnastics.

The burden of interpreting is so huge that I actually relish being in countries where I don’t speak the language so I don’t get cornered in situations where I am stuck being Ms. Interpreter. When I went to Japan, I was thrilled to be in a country where I couldn’t read the signs or understand anything being said besides a few pleasantries. I could finally hear my own voice!


Traveling while interpreting


What I recommend to people is that if you’re traveling somewhere and one of your friends happens to speak the language of the country where you’re traveling, you should discuss with your friend what their limits are in terms of how much they want to interpret. Maybe if they’ve never been in a situation where they’ve had to interpret before, they don’t realize how difficult it is and how frustrating it can be. Have a conversation with your travel partner, even if this person is your spouse, and be honest and say, “Listen, I know that interpreting sometimes can be difficult so you tell me when I’m asking too much.”


Heritage speakers vs. professionals


With translation, oftentimes people who grew up speaking different languages, like heritage speakers, don’t necessarily have the written skills in order to translate from one language to another. So while they may understand written Spanish, they’ve never studied written Spanish and might be able to translate written Spanish into English. But if they’re not used to high-level vocabulary or legal terms, they might not have the vocabulary to really understand what the text is about and translate it into English. When it comes to translating into their heritage language, which means the language that’s spoken at home by their parents, it’s very often that the person will not be able to translate many legal documents and complicated written forms because they may only be able to write at a simple, elementary school or middle school level because they’ve never been educated in that language. They have oral fluency but not written fluency.

UN interpreter

Nicole Kidman playing a simultaneous United Nations interpreter.

Sometimes people say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll help you translate something,” or, “I’ll help you translate a book,” and then once they start, they realize how difficult it is and that they actually don’t have the skills to translate. That’s why people go to universities and special programs to get licenses and learn how to translate and interpret. Translators and interpreters at the United Nations get paid very good money to do what they do, especially if they are doing simultaneous interpretation. They have to take breaks because it can be mentally exhausting to be interpreting simultaneously. While one person is speaking in Italian, the interpreter has to interpret into English while still listening to the Italian at the same time.

I have an immense amount of respect for people who translate and interpret for a living. I hate the job because I know how hard and exhausting it is.

There are multilingual people who love translating and interpreting and helping out with their language skills. More power to them! In the feature film, The Interpreter, Nicole Kidman plays an interpreter at the UN who became an interpreter after seeing so much violence in her (fictitious) African country. She thought that by using her language skills to interpret between countries at the UN, she would be helping create peace. Blessed are the peacemakers!

Just remember, not all multilingual people find their life’s mission to be to translate and interpret.

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

I digress from my usual topics on language learning to discuss my recent trip to Brazil that left me stunned at how the country is going downhill.

Brazil has been a country that I’ve adored ever since I went to Brazil the first time about 15 years ago, when I lived in Argentina. On my second visit to Brazil, I went to Rio de Janeiro and the city took my breath away in a way that only one other place had done in the past. I literally forgot about my life when I was there. I was so mesmerized by the beach, mountains, islands, fresh fruit juices and experimenting different creative sandwiches, like tuna with raisins, that I forgot about my life in Argentina. I forgot about my work, my responsibilities. It was an absolutely incredible experience. It was like the gods had made this beautiful place in Brazil to make people forget about life.

Brazil's economic crisis
Rio de Janeiro’s coastline

When I went to Brazil for the third time, I was enjoying myself, walking around the colonial city of Ouro Preto and I fell and sprained my ankle. A nice Samaritan on the street saw me having fallen, picked me up in his car and drove me to the nearest clinic. The clinic treated me for free. I came back home with this plaster cast, paid for by the Brazilian taxpayer. A Brazilian in the US, unless lucky enough to be near a free clinic, would have left the US with a medical bill and a cast. I have experienced so many wonderful things in Brazil but the people in Brazil don’t get so many wonderful things from their government.

Idioma e música
One of the great things on my last trip was finding my book, “Idioma e música” at Livraria Cultura in Brazil. However, the Shopping Iguatemi mall where I found it, was so expensive I could only afford a few things.

Of all the countries I’ve gone to, I think in Brazil I found the people to be the friendliest, the most helpful and very generous with helping a foreigner, whether it was by helping me with my suitcase to get through the turnstile on the bus or giving me directions. I’ve always found wonderful people to talk to in Brazil, and have very deep conversations. The language, this mellifluous tongue of Portuguese is gorgeous. I love to hear and speak it.

In total, I have been to Brazil five times in fifteen years and this last trip saddened me. I was sad for these people who have treated me so well on every trip I’ve had in Brazil in different cities. I was sad because of the reality that they live in.

On this last trip in January 2015, I gave myself the purpose of seeing if I could live in Brazil because I’d been harboring a dream of setting up a business in Brazil. It became super apparent very quickly that moving to the largest country in South America was not going to happen. Before even getting to Brazil, I had some trouble getting a visa at the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco. There’s almost a five-week wait to get into the consulate. Unless, of course, you want to pay the Brazilian visa mafia about an extra $500 to expedite your visa and send it to some consulate or to the embassy on the East Coast, you have to wait those five weeks. I didn’t want to pay the mafia. Luckily, at the last minute, an appointment opened up. I got my 10 year visa and wondered if I really wanted to live in a country that was like this where you have to wait so long just to get into the consulate for a visa or you have to pay a mafia to get you an appointment. Does the consulate think it is Helen of Troy?

This is what I discovered on my trip about why Brazil is turning into a failed state:

1) Water

When I got to Brazil, I saw a very good friend of mine and he told me about the water crisis in the country and that many places across the country are in a drought. I asked about the floods in Brazil a few years prior. He told me that during the floods the government hadn’t set up any aqueducts to move the water from the flooded areas to the reservoirs. Currently, the city of São Paulo, which is the biggest city in Brazil, the largest in the Americas and the 12th largest city worldwide, with a population of around 20 million people (including the areas around the city), doesn’t have enough water to make it through the year. Newspaper headlines when I was there said that water might be rationed to two days out of seven. National Public Radio reported in the article, A Historic Drought Grips Brazil’s Economic Capital that water is already cut off during the day.

It’s hot and it’s humid. People need to take showers. So much for the 3-4 showers a day Brazilians like to take in the heat. How can one of the largest economies in the world survive when the government hasn’t invested in infrastructure and in getting water from the aquifer on which Brazil is located? How they’re going to live on two days of water in a week I don’t know.

The Olympics are coming up in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. I really don’t understand how Rio de Janeiro, if it’s still going to have a drought in a year and a half, is going to provide water to athletes. Athletes need a lot of water. Maybe they’re going to have to truck in bottled water from the Andes, from Chile or Argentina. But that goes completely against the International Olympic Committee’s sustainability initiative of the Olympics.

Olympian baby wipes
Will 2016 Summer Olympians need to wash themselves with baby wipes because of the Brazilian drought?

It seems pretty ridiculous for a country to host a major sporting event with many, many tourists during a drought. Will the athletes have to clean themselves with baby wipes or other moist paper towels instead of with running water and lather their hair with the waterless shampoo used in hospitals? I can imagine cartoonists salivating at the prospect of drawing caricatures of the 2016 Summer Olympians running with their medals to a large box of Pampers Diaper Wipes. Maybe I am giving the Pampers company a new reason to be a co-sponsor of the Olympics.

2) Electricity outages

In addition to the drought, there’s an electricity problem because much of Brazil’s energy comes from hydro-electric dams. There have been electricity outages around the country and now the price for electricity is about to go up. Blackouts can have severe consequences for businesses. Some machinery might break unless all companies have good surge protectors to protect their equipment.

There was an interview in one of the major magazines, Veja, in the middle of January 2015 with the Brazilian Minister of Energy about the problem with the electricity outages and the increase in electricity prices. The electricity went out during the interview and there was a picture of the Minister in a darkened room! Even the Minister of Energy can’t arrange it so that during his interview, the lights don’t go out! Brazil is the seventh largest economy in the world and they’re going to have more electricity outages. The economy can’t grow with electricity outages. It’s going to have to go backwards and the country’s already in recession. olympic-torch
Are Olympians going to have carry torches for real, not just for the Opening Ceremony as traditions calls for, but because there is no electricity?

Let’s say Brazil is so lucky that the Water Gods descend many storms upon Brazil so that Brazil isn’t in a drought. Those storms could also knock out the electricity. When I was in a supermarket in Paraty, the electricity went in and out, because of the rain. I was just standing there at the cash register for a while until the cashier could finish the transaction because she, of course, needed electricity to have her cash register work. Then the Internet didn’t work because of the rains and the rains weren’t torrential rains.

3) Violence

Not only will electricity outages affect the economy, but they’re also going to affect violence. Violence in Brazil is something that if you don’t feel it, somebody else you know has felt it.

The electricity outages are going to affect violence because with electricity outages, criminals can go at night and rob stores, homes and buildings with just a flashlight and run away and people aren’t going to be able to identify the criminals because it’s dark. The police won’t be able to run after them because they won’t know who to catch. Violence is only going to get worse with the electricity outages.

I talked to a friend of mine whose father had been killed a few months prior, just in his house. Somebody came to rob him. He was a bus driver and didn’t have a lot of money. The violence can affect people who have money or don’t have money.

Some statistics say that more people in Brazil die from violence in the country than those killed in Iraq. It’s pretty sad to think that I have a better chance of staying alive in Baghdad than in Brazil. However, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to plan a trip to Mesopotamia and look at the Babylonian ruins anytime soon!

There are bullet-proof vested Military Police even on the beach in Rio! It’s 40 degrees Celsius (104 Farenheit) and humid and these police look like they’re guarding a military fort, not a tourist destination. The MPs are in many places, even the São Paulo metro. They are there for our safety but I didn’t like seeing bullet-proof vested MPs. It made me feel like I was in a war zone.

4) Prices

I was shocked when I went into the grocery store and I found that the prices were actually the same or more expensive than in the United States, even though the cost of labor is lower in Brazil. I couldn’t understand why the food was the same or more expensive in Brazil. (I was shopping for fruit, vegetables, peanuts and bottled water.) The only thing that I could find cheaper than in the U.S. were the bananas.

Of course, when people can’t afford things, that’s going to lead to more robberies. Stores are going to have to hire even more security guards than they already have. To pay for the security guards, the prices are going to go up again. This is going to become a vicious cycle.

The cost of making mobile phone calls in Brazil is plain robbery. There’s no free roaming from one state to another. So if you have a phone number from Belo Horizonte and you either make or receive a call in another city like Rio de Janeiro, you pay almost $1.50 or more a minute! The Vivo phone company told me if I didn’t like their service that they didn’t give a damn and that I could go to any other Brazilian cell phone company and get just as ripped off. Oh yeah, customer service in Brazil is terrible.

The prices have increased dramatically but the services have stayed the same as they were 15 years ago.

5) Transportation

The transportation was exorbitantly expensive for the same bad quality that I remember from 15 years ago. In São Paulo when I was on buses, I mostly had to stand, holding onto the strap while beads of sweat poured down my chest. One time, at the non-rush hour time of 10pm, the bus was so packed I couldn’t even get out through the turnstile at my stop. Since the city is so big and the metro doesn’t go everywhere, you sometimes have to take two buses and a metro to get from place to another. For each of those, you have to pay 3.5 Reais, which is a little over $1.50. Unless you have a discount card, you pay $1.50 per ride. If you have a discount card, the price goes down. But within a 24 hour period, I paid 30 Reais, which is $13.00 to stand most of the time on the buses and the subway using the discount card. It was appalling that I would have to pay that much for such bad quality of service. I’ve been in other countries where I’ve had to stand most of the time on the bus, but I haven’t been robbed to the point of paying $13.00 in 24 hours.

When I was in Tokyo, I paid $15.00 a day for the mass transit. When I went on the off-peak hours, I mostly was able to sit on the bus and on the metro and the buses came very quickly. If you work in Tokyo, you can afford $15/day for transportation. In New York City, a seven-day Metro Card is $30. You could spend $30 on public transportation in São Paulo in two and a half days.

Thirteen dollars in a 24 hour period to somebody in Brazil is a lot of money. The minimum wage is about $300 a month. So if you do the math, $13.00 for a 24 hour period, is an extremely high amount of money. Some people get transportation cards paid for by their employers so that means they don’t have to pay for transportation. But if you’re working as a freelancer or have several part-time jobs, you might not have one of those cards and you’re going to have to pay for all the buses and the metro yourself.

I don’t know how people withstand going on two or three crowded buses to get to work and still work a full day and then have to take all that transportation back home. The difficulty with transportation must also have an effect on efficiency and productivity in the workplace.

That’s why there have been these protests in Brazil since June of 2013 about the price hikes. During the protests in the summer of 2013, they were massive protests and the government decided not to raise the bus fare. Now the buses are even more expensive than before. When I spoke to some people about the protests, they wanted to participate but they said that the police were so violent that they were afraid to join the demonstrations and get hurt. I really wonder what’s going to happen because if people are afraid to protest but they’re feeling robbed at every turn in their life, whether it’s going to the grocery store or being on the bus, they’re going to have to let out their anger in some way. I don’t know what that’s going to turn into. It could be even more violent than some of these protests.

Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators inside Faria Lima subway station during a protest against fare hikes for city buses, subway and trains in Sao Paulo January 27, 2015.  REUTERS/Nacho Doce (BRAZIL - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TRANSPORT)
Riot police fire tear gas at demonstrators inside Faria Lima subway station during a protest against fare hikes for city buses, subway and trains in Sao Paulo January 27, 2015. REUTERS/Nacho Doce (BRAZIL – Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS TRANSPORT)

Don’t get stuck in the metro with there are protests going on! One night, I was on the blue line in the São Paulo metro while demonstrators made their way into the Faria Lima station and the police fired tear gas on them. My train was stuck several times, sometimes with part of the power turned off, probably because of the tear gas issue.

Brazil, of all the countries I’ve been to, is the only place where I’ve ever seen the passengers actually have to push the buses. This has happened to me twice in Brazil. Given the fact that the prices for transportation are so high, one, as a passenger, wouldn’t think that they should also have to push the bus.

Now, of course, if you have lots of money, you could just use a helicopter and forget the buses in general. São Paulo has more helicopters than anywhere else in the world. That’s great if you have a lot of money. But mostly people have to use public transportation.


6. Bad infrastructure for tourism

It happened to me several times that when I looked for the price and schedule of a long-distance bus online. When I got to the bus station, the price was higher and the schedule was different. The bus companies weren’t actually being honest to their consumers by having a different price online or they weren’t updating their websites.

As a foreigner, it’s extremely difficult to buy long-distance bus tickets in Brazil unless you go to the bus station. This is another thing that hasn’t improved in 15 years. If you want to buy a long-distance bus ticket and you’re Brazilian, you can go online, put in your CPF number (a national identification number) and you can buy with a credit card. If you’re a foreigner and you don’t have a local address and CPF number, you can’t buy a ticket. You can’t use your passport number. So that means that if you’re in a rush and you don’t have time to take two buses to the main bus station to buy your ticket for a bus which is going to be full, you may be stuck without a bus. Or you could illegally use a Brazilian’s CPF number and pay with your own credit card number. In Brazil, sometimes if you want to get something done, you have to take shortcuts and sometimes do things illegally, thus fueling even more corruption in the country.


7. Oil

The state is going to collapse. One of the main sources of currency for the government has been oil money but the price of oil per barrel has dropped significantly, leading to the economic decline in Russia and other countries. The same thing is going to happen in Brazil.

Brazil right now has major corruption scandals, one of which is with the oil company, Petrobras, which is currently in a legal dispute in the US because of a corruption scandal involving bribery to buy a refinery in Texas. There are thoughts that the President, Dilma Rousseff may be impeached because of her involvement in the corruption scandal. There is even an investors’ lawsuit in the US, where the Brazil president is cited in a lawsuit against Petrobras. How many G8 leaders can claim Rousseff’s fame of being cited in a lawsuit in the US? I think she is the only one with this honor.


8. Brain Drain 

I was shocked at how many people told me that they’re trying to leave Brazil legally. They asked me suggestions of the best countries to go to and how to find a job abroad.

One journalist I talked to said that English schools who sell packages for families who want to learn English intensively to leave the country have been selling more packages to families ever since the last elections in Brazil in October 2014. It may be good for the countries that receive these people who have either the money or the brains to leave, but it’s not good for the country that is seeing these people go.

If Brazil is going to be losing its best and brightest or just the people who happen to have money, connections or the courage to jump ship, then you wonder what’s going to happen for the future of the country.

At the end of my trip, I was talking to my hosts in São Paolo, who were considering various countries where to move, and I said to them, “I don’t want to induce the brain drain from Brazil. But I have to tell you, life does not have to be this hard.”

Brazil deserves to have a bright future. The people in the country deserve to not be robbed when they have to take the bus, whether it’s by the government or by criminals. Why such a warm, welcoming people have to suffer every day, I don’t know. I left the country feeling for the first time ever that I was witnessing a failing state, that Brazil was like the Titanic waiting to happen. Unless something dramatically changes, Brazil is going to become a failed state.

Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to failed states having been born in one, the Soviet Union (before the fall), having worked and lived in the aftermath of another, the former Yugoslavia, and having observed elections in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and USSR.

Will Brazilians wake up to the reality of their country’s demise after Mardi Gras?

I was in Brazil during the January vacation when many are out on the beach or otherwise vacationing. Maybe they don’t realize that the bus fares had gone up, that there’s going to be water and electricity rationing and that food prices will rise because of the drought. But after Carnaval (this week and weekend), when people return to work, they’re going to realize what’s going on and it’s going to be ugly. I can’t say the proverbial s&%t will hit the fan after Carnaval because there may not be enough electricity to power the fan!

You may read this and think that Brazil’s demise into a huge failed state is a far-fetched idea. Remember where Russia was exactly a year ago? It was strutting its stuff at the Winter Olympics at Sochi with Vladimir Putin regaling in the glory of showing the world how rich and powerful Russia was. (Interestingly, they also had a water problem there and foreign journalists showed brown water coming out of Sochi showers.)

Look at Russia now after oil prices tanked and US and EU sanctions have cut off some of its banking and commerce. Russia’s credit ranking has plummeted, as has its currency, the ruble, and it is involved in a war in Ukraine. Who saw that coming a year ago?

Oddly, Brazil just hosted the World Cup and is gearing towards the Olympics in 2016. Russia hosted the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and will be home to the 2018 World Cup. I would not be surprised if one or both of the countries has to pull out of hosting.

A robbed people, devoid of water, electricity, decent and affordable transportation led by a government mired in corruption armed with military police, will eventually run out of money to buy the expensive food in the stores. This is a recipe for disaster.

Rio de Janeiro took my breath away at first sight because of its beauty. Now the entire country may be choking because of government mismanagement, corruption and the drought.

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media.

While traveling in Brazil some years ago, I stayed in a hostel in João Pessoa where I met an Argentine lady and three Brazilian women. We spent time exploring the city together and hanging out escaping from the rain. The Argentine lady made no attempt to speak in Portuguese and the three Brazilians did their best to understand her, leaving me to interpret. I hate being an interpreter. The Brazilians, in private complained to me that the Argentine lady, as many other Spanish speakers in Brazil, was not making an effort to understand Portuguese or speak it, expecting everyone else to understand her or interpret.

When my patience wore out, I finally told the Argentine, “Take advantage of being in Brazil and learn some Portuguese! You’re missing out on a great opportunity. Look at the situation, you’re relying on someone whose primary language is English to interpret between two Romance languages. It should be easier for you to understand Portuguese than it is for me because both Spanish and Portuguese are acquired languages for me.”

She said nothing and changed the subject.

This story could have happened with others from Spanish-speaking countries. It’s not just an Argentine-Brazilian rivalry.

I’ve heard from various Spanish speakers that they find the sound of Portuguese to be infantile, a bastardization of Spanish and too nasal. Some have told me that it sounds like a badly spoken Spanish and therefore, they didn’t want to stoop so low as to speak their tongue incorrectly. One Spaniard complained that he didn’t like the way he sounded when he spoke it but he still wanted to speak Portuguese.

Let’s review these excuses and find how one’s feeling of linguistic superiority prevents language acquisition.

1. Portuguese is not Spanish. 

Susanna Zaraysky

You might think, “Well, duh! That’s obvious”. However, people who speak Spanish (natives and non-natives) don’t always remember that.

They are different languages. One is not a bastardization of the other. Yes, they are very similar, especially in written form. But they are not the same language. Nectarines and peaches are similar. One is furry and the other one has shiny skin. You don’t eat a peach expecting the shiny skin of the nectarine. Don’t expect a neighboring language to sound just like yours.

I attended Portuguese language meet-ups and even an Adult School Portuguese class where both native and non-native Spanish speakers showed up speaking in Spanish the entire time. If you are going to a Portuguese class or conversation group, please be courteous to others and at least attempt to speak Portuguese. It slows down the class and conversation flow when someone is speaking another language! If we wanted to speak in Spanish, we’d go to a Spanish conversation group or class.

2. To learn any language, you have to take it as it is.

If you don’t like the feeling of your nose vibrating when you speak, you should give up on Portuguese and many Slavic tongues as they have nasal sounds. If you are better friends with your throat than with your nose, explore those deep guttural thrusts in Arabic and see how those feel.  

You don’t have to like the sound of all languages. I don’t. I know other polyglots who have their filters for languages they want to learn.

Getting used to your body resonating in a different way is part of the process of developing good pronunciation in a new language. Or else, you’re speaking a new language with the sounds of your native tongue. That is about as effective as waltzing to  African drum beats.

3. Your language is NOT superior.

I’ve heard the “bastardization” argument made by Russian speakers in relation to the sound of Ukrainian. I’ve heard Ukrainians quip back that Ukrainian is more melodic than Russian, almost as melodic as Italian, and therefore, superior to Russian.

You are not your language. Just because you like the language of the country you happen to have been born into better than others, doesn’t mean that you, as a speaker of that language, are any better of a person than others who speak languages you find to be less appealing. Too many times, people identify with their native language, or even adopted language, in a way to exclude others and exert their feeling of superiority. You could have been born in your neighbor’s country and grown up speaking what you think of as the bastardization of your language.

Growing up in the US, I heard people in the Soviet immigrant community complain about the paucity of English vocabulary compared to the richness of Russian. Mind you, those who were lamenting the poverty of the English language did not speak the language super well and did not have a dexterous command of the English dictionary themselves. They claimed that Russian translators improved the work of the foreign literature they translated into Russian because of the superiority and wealth of the Russian language. “Claim” is the key word here. Those spreading this urban myth of the alchemism of Russian translators couldn’t read the original works of literature in French, English or German and truly judge the semantic differences between the original and translated texts. I posit they were just spreading rumors to stick their noses up at Americans and make excuses for their not having learned the inferior language of English that surrounded them in the US.

Native English speakers are known to be hostile and obstinate to learning language because of the omnipresence of English and the economic prowess of their countries. There have been many media pieces in the UK about how the British economy is losing millions of dollars a year because their aren’t enough foreign language speakers to help British companies export. Don’t take your economic superiority too seriously or you may be out of a job!

BBC interview about how and why the UK is losing money because of its lack of foreign language speakers.

If you fashion yourself Ernest Hemingway or Jorge Luis Borges’ incarnate and therefore exempt from learning an “inferior” tongue, let’s do a reality check.

Where’s your Nobel Prize for Literature?

Where are the bookshelves of tomes in your name worthy of mention?

Ernest Hemingway spoke French and Spanish. (He may have also spoken Italian.) Jorge Luis Borges spoke English and French. If it hadn’t been for Hemingway’s ability to communicate in Europe, he would not have been able to write in so much detail about the Spanish Civil War or the expat lifestyle in Paris in the 1920s. Borges was a consummate reader. He was also a librarian. His vocabulary and imagination were not just fueled by his native Spanish but also by the foreign literature he read. The authors whom we put up on a pedestal and show off as our national literary heroes are often bilingual, if not, multilingual. Haruki Marukami, probably the most popular Japanese author known in the US, used to translate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literature into Japanese.

If the literary greats of your language and country were multilingual, then why aren’t you?

I hear people make all sorts of excuses for why they don’t make the effort to learn a new tongue but the language superiority one is the excuse that probably bothers me the most because it is based in snobbery and ignorance.