Posted by & filed under Benefits of multilingualism.


The documentary I’ve been working hard to produce for almost three years is finally done!

Saved by Language tells the story of how Moris Albahari saved his life in the Holocaust by speaking the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language.

For a limited time, until December 31, 2014, Saved by Language is on pre-sale. You can buy it here. The DVD comes with English, Ladino, Spanish and Bosnian subtitles. Choose from PAL and NTSC formats.

Watch the demo of the film:

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

music and language

Dr. Nina Kraus, Northwestern University

I’ve been writing for years on the benefits of music for foreign language education.

“New research involving hundreds of students in Chicago and Los Angeles public schools finds disadvantaged children who learn to sing or to play a musical instrument show not only improved neural function but also enhanced learning abilities over time. ‘While more affluent students do better in school than children from lower income backgrounds, we are finding that musical training can alter the nervous system to create a better learner and help offset this academic gap,’ says Dr. Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University and presenter of the research at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.”

For more information, please read the full article here.

Read here for the American Psychological Association’s press release on this research: Musical Training Offsets Some Academic Achievement Gaps, Research Says

Save the music!

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Alas, my TEDx talk on why we need to learn foreign languages and save endangered languages via music has been posted online. Please share, Tweet, like and comment to spread the word. The more views the video has, the more chances of it being on the main TED page. Now getting this featured on the main TED page would do wonders for promoting foreign language learning.

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Idioma é músicaOver two years ago, I wrote about the idea of a language as a homeland as I was starting my journey into the endangered language of Ladino/Judeo-Spanish.

The Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, is quoted as having said, “Minha patria é a língua portuguesa” (My homeland is the Portuguese language).

The Portuguese language is the homeland to millions of people outside of Portugal.



Fernando Pessoa statue, A Brasileira restaurant, Lisbon, Portugal

Fernando Pessoa statue, A Brasileira restaurant, Lisbon, Portugal

On my recent trip to Portugal, I was constantly reminded of how far the Portuguese language went beyond Portugal and Brazil. As I was eating my chicken in a restaurant, I heard an African couple at the nearby table speaking in Portuguese and some other language. As they were leaving, I asked them which language they were speaking and they told me it was a Creole language from Guinea-Bissau. A Creole is a mix of the local language(s) and the colonizer’s language, which in this case is Portuguese. Haitian Creole is a mix of French with a native Haitian language.

Map of Portuguese-speaking countries

Map of Portuguese-speaking countries

In the US, the only native Portuguese speakers I had ever met were either from Portugal, Brazil or Cape Verde. So this was my first time meeting people from mainland Africa who spoke Portuguese. I have met people from Goa in India or parts of Sri Lanka who have Portuguese surnames because of some Portuguese relative. Portugal controlled parts of India and Sri Lanka. Read here for more information on Portuguese India.

As I walked around the delightful city of Lisbon, I kept hearing more and more people of African backgrounds speaking Portuguese, some in Creole but most of them in European Portuguese. Some of these people of African descent have lived in Portugal since the time of decolonization in 1974, or before or they are descendants of African immigrants and were born in Portugal.


I stopped at the famous Lisbon institution of A Brasileira, a restaurant often discussed in the book, Sostiene Perreira, by Antonio Tabucchi, a great fan of the work of Fernando Pessoa. A few minutes after I saw down outside, a Cabo Verdian music group started playing right in front of me and by the Baixa Chiado metro station. The lead singer, a Portuguese woman, learned Cape Verdian creole and sang in that language.


Cape Verdian Creole Music group, Baixa Chiado, Lisbon, Portugal


It was getting a little windy, so I walked down the hill. As I was standing in a bookstore down the street, the sounds of the music wafted in through the doors and I heard the familiar melody of “Sodade” by Cesária Évora sung in Cape Verdian Creole.

The next evening, I went for a walk in the Alfama area of Lisbon looking for traditional Portuguese fado music, not a style of music for one looking for a happy night of dancing! The music is melancholic and speaks of lost love. I happened upon an outside restaurant and sat down to listen to various fado singers. One song stood out to me, Que Deus me Perdoe, made famous by Amália Rodrigues. The young singer, Sara Coito, was wrapped in a shawl, keeping her warm in the night breeze, and sang this soulful song about how important fado music is to keep her feeling the depths of her emotions. If she runs away from fado, she is escaping herself. Here is the translation of the song, May God Forgive me, in English.

Here is a video Sara Coito has on You Tube of a live performance of the song with some audience participation:

We might often think of Portuguese as the linguistic homeland of Brazilians and Portuguese but it is a language that is shared all the way to East Timor, by Indonesia, to Angola, with a few others spots around the world. Each country has its own music and culture. Sad fados are the polar opposite of happy Brazilian sambas. But they all share the same language.

Mind you, the accents are extremely different from European Portuguese to Brazilian Portuguese. Oh my! As my accent is a mix of European and Brazilian Portuguese, I felt like I had a Multiple Accent Disorder when speaking in Portuguese and people often got confused as to where I was from because I’d pronounce words with two different accents in the same sentence! Obviously, Portuguese is not my homeland. My funny accent notwithstanding, I am still very much a fan of the language!

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

Minde, a Portuguese village of 3000 people, has its own language, Minderico.

DSCN1304Minderico developed as a secret language of the textile merchants in the town of Minde. When I heard it, I couldn’t understand anything even though the language has Latin roots.

Most of the residents of this village, which used to have a population of 7000 people, don’t speak the language.

Vera Ferreira, and her team at CIDLeS (the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social and Language Documentation), are working on documenting the language and teaching it in schools to ensure that at least some members of the younger generation know the language. One of the biggest threats to a language is when there are no young people who can speak it.

Peter Bouda, also from CIDLeS, created a game, called Spelling Loom, which combines music, weaving and spelling to teach Minderico words to Portuguese speakers. The weaving images are related to the traditional textile industry where Minderico speakers worked.

Vera’s team organized a conference and the first ever endangered language music fair  in Europe in October 2013.

Here’s an interview I did on the Portuguese morning TV show, Praça da Alegria, where I speak (in Portuguese) about Minderico and about my book, Idioma é música:

There are many factors involved in keeping a dying language from the graveyard of languages. I’ve written about using music to keep languages alive. What the town of Minde is doing is keeping the language in public view so at least people can see that it exists. There are many newcomers living outside of the main village who did not grow up hearing the language.

Various businesses throughout the town have signs in both Portuguese and Minderico.

DSCN1296 DSCN1306

The jazz bar of Stamine has its menu in Portuguese and Minderico. Sugar is called “Sal do Brasil”. Coffee is “João da garota”.


DSCN1312 DSCN1313 DSCN1314

What are you doing to conserve an endangered language in your area?

Language is Music

Posted by & filed under Free Language Learning Resources.

Next week will be a bonanza week for me in terms of presentations on learning languages via music and preserving endangered languages with songs and technology.

If you’re in California, I’ll be in both Northern and Southern California presenting.

Here they are in chronological order.

Monday March 3, 2014 Language is MusicLecture
“The survival of the Judeo-Spanish language through music”
(I will also screen the demo of the film “Saved by Language”.)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library

150 E San Fernando St, San Jose, CA 95112
Room: MLK225
12:30-1:20 pm


For more information about other events held during San Jose State University’s Foreign Language Week, click here.


Wednesday March 5, 2014, UCLA Symposium on the Preservation and Revitalization of Judeo-Spanish, Los Angeles. CA

2:15-2:45 pm, My talk: Revitalization of Ladino/Judeo-Spanish through music and technological innovation.

The conference is FREE (lunch and reception provided) and goes from Click here for the program.

Conference program:

Conference Date and time: March 5-6, 9am-4pm

Charles E. Young Research Library Building, UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1575


Pre-register here.

***Special treat! Ladino rock musician, Sarah Aroeste will give a free concert on Wednesday March 5 at 7:30pm.
SARAH AROESTE’s concert.
FOWLER Museum at UCLA, March 5. 7:30 PM


Saturday March 8, 2014

My presentation: Music + language (songs) activate our brains, hearts and souls. By using songs, we can learn foreign languages and save dying tongues.

TedX Susanna Zaraysky

TEDx Santa Cruz, California

9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Hotel Paradox, Santa Cruz

611 Ocean Street , Santa Cruz , California 95060

Buy tickets here.

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

How do an exercise bike and a Brazilian Portuguese language book go together?41FNVGV2MVL._SL500_AA300_2011-08-05-exercise-bike

Well, one keeps me from falling asleep because of the other.

Problem: I like languages but I fall asleep reading grammar books.

I speak fluent Portuguese but there are some gaps in my grammar because I never studied the language formally. When I started with Portuguese many years ago, I would read my grammar book, Com Licença: Brazilian Portuguese for Spanish Speakers but it made me fall asleep, leaving holes in my knowledge of the structure of the language. Most of my Portuguese I learned from listening to Portuguese immigrant radio, from speaking to Brazilians and from reading. I want to learn how to properly form the future subjunctive tense in Portuguese because I want to speak the language correctly. The tense doesn’t exist in Spanish or in any other language I know. I hear it in Brazilian songs, I read it and I hear it in everyday language but I barely use it. What helps me is that I recognize the use of this tense in songs and when I see it written and hear it spoken. This is where music helps people learn languages. If you listen to a song, memorize the lyrics, sing along and know what the lyrics are about, when you go on to learn grammar, the grammar isn’t as hard to learn because you already know the patterns of the language and how sentences are formed. As I explain in my book on learning languages via music, Language is Music, you still have to learn grammar when picking up a new tongue, it can’t be totally absorbed just through songs, movies, TV, radio and other media.

Solution: Since I have to exercise anyway, I figured that I’d take my Portuguese book to the exercise bike as it’s impossible to fall asleep while cycling. It worked! Although it was sometimes hard to move the pages while cycling, I was able to both do my exercise and review grammar. It would have been great to meet a friendly Brazilian at the gym to help me with some of my doubts but that wasn’t the case! If I had been reading a book on Chinese or Hindi grammar, I could have easily found someone at my gym to explain things to me as there are many Chinese and Indian people at my gym.

If you’re looking for a way to study grammar but reading at the stationary bike doesn’t appeal to you, try a podcast so that you can be in motion and listen at the same time.

I recall going for a walk two years ago and listening to this Tá Falado podcast episode about the future subjunctive. I revisited that episode again this week but I was in my car.

Future subjunctive

Tá Falado Podcast, Brazilian Portuguese for those who know Spanish. It’s free!

There are also other aspects of Portuguese grammar I am working on learning. Soon, I’ll go for a walk and listen to the Tá Falado podcast on the personalized infinitive.

Obviously, listening to samba is much more fun than going over conjugation charts at the gym, especially when there is something more interesting on the gym’s television, but the trick is not in avoiding studying grammar, it is in finding a way to make grammar work in your life. If you prefer to listen to a grammar explanation while cooking, do that. Find what works for you!



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

January not only brought in a new year, it brought in three new books!

First, I updated Language is Music with about 30 new tips on language learning using music, TV, radio, movies and other media and I added information from scientific studies about the relationship of music and language, bilingualism and language learning.Russian-edition-Language-is Music

Then my Russian publisher, published the Russian edition of Language is Music, Легкий способ быстро выучить иностранный язык с помощью музыки a week early!

In this video, you can hear a short Russian radio broadcast in Russian on 18 January 2014 about how the book teaches people how to listen when learning languages:

To make January not seem as cold as it is in the Northern Hemisphere, the Portuguese edition of Language is Music, Idioma é música, was published and brought some Brazilian sunshine to my life!

perf5.500x8.500.inddBrazil is getting ready for the World Cup and Olympic Games and I want to help Brazilians learn other languages.

If you read Portuguese, you can read these articles in the Brazilian-American press about Idioma é música:

Livro mostra como aprender um idioma estrangeiro usando músicas

Livro ensina como aprender idiomas através da música e mídia



aprender inglés cantando

Tu Desayuno Alegre, January 2014

Adding to the new books, I also did some more media interviews about why and how to learn foreign languages, with a special focus on Spanish-speaking immigrants in the US. I had an interview on Tu Desayuno Alegre (aired 11 February 2014) and I was interviewed by the Panamerica World online magazine in Spanish (Susanna Zaraysky: 8 idiomas, 8 formas de interpretar el mundo) and in English (Susanna Zaraysky: 8 languages, 8 ways to interpret the world).

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

Occasionally, people debate me about why they should bother speaking another language. Not being multilingual has both economic and deadly consequences.

The British news have been reporting for the past couple of years about the price the British economy pays in not having enough people who know foreign languages to export British products abroad. I participated in this BBC Radio interview about how the British economy is losing between $11 to 26 billion a year because of the shortage of qualified foreign language speakers.

Besides the economic price, there can also be a risk to personal safety.

I’m co-producing the documentary, Saved by Language, with Bryan Kirschen about how Moris Albahari saved his life in the Holocaust by speaking in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) to an Italian Colonel and a US pilot. Moris is from a Sephardic Jewish family in Bosnia-Herzegovina descended from Spanish Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. (The Ottoman Empire invited Spanish Jews into its territories, spanning from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) throughout the Balkans and Middle East.)

Here’s the moving demo of the film:

We want Moris’ story to inspire people to preserve their languages and be multilingual. If Moris could not have communicated in his 15th century Spanish to that Italian Colonel, he might not have survived. This is not just a Spanish or Jewish story; Moris was saved by language. We all need language to communicate.

Holiday Gogo1 2To fund the post-production of the film, we’re doing a fundraising campaign for $12,000 until December 26, 2013.  We have gifts including Ladino music sung by Grammy member Montserrat Franco, ebook versions in English, Spanish and Portuguese of my book, Language is Music, a copy of the documentary (when it’s ready), Ladino lessons, and more for your contributions.
Contribute here:

Please contribute and share this link on your social media pages and forward it on to friends and family via email.

Another example of how language knowledge saved a life.

Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, wrote in his memoirs of his life in Rutschuk, Bulgaria about how speaking language could save one’s life or that of other people:

“People often talked about languages: seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language…Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s life or the lives of other people.

In earlier years, when merchants went traveling, they carried all their cash in money belts slung around their abdomens. They wore them on the Danube steamers too, and that was dangerous. Once, when my mother’s grandfather got on deck and pretended to sleep, he overheard two men discuss a murder plan in Greek. As soon as the steamer approached the next town, they wanted to mug and kill a merchant in his stateroom, steal his heavy money belt, throw the body into the Danube through a porthole, and then, when the steamer docked, leave the ship immediately. My great-grandfather went to the captain and told him what he had heard in Greek. The merchant was warned, a member of the crew concealed himself into the stateroom, others were stationed outside, and when the two cutthroats went to carry out their plan, they were seized, clapped into chains, and handed over to the police in the very harbor where they had intended to make off with their booty. This happy end came from understanding Greek, and there were many other edifying language stories.”

Elias Canetti, Adders and Letters, The Tongue Set Free

Canetti was a native Ladino speaker but he published his books in German. He spoke Ladino, Bulgarian, German, English and French.

Fortunately, a scant few of us will ever be in a life or death situation requiring foreign language knowledge. However, Canetti’s example is not the only example of how a multilingual person in the Balkans used a language to save a life.

The price of monolingualism can be scary.


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

Guest post by Emily Liedel

Melody and rhythm are important to learning a tonal language like Mandarin, but learning a tonal language through music is not the same as learning a non-tonal language like French. Listening to the language’s melody is critically important if you want to learn correct pronunciation or understand natural speech, but real ‘music’ – as in songs – is somewhat less helpful (although not useless) in learning pronunciation than it is in other languages.

I think about melody and music much more in learning Mandarin than I ever have when learning any other language. Scientific research has also confirmed that tonal languages share space with musical memory in the brain. In this post, I would like to share the many ways that thinking musically will help you advance in Mandarin, as well as how to (and how not to) use songs as part of your language learning.

Screen shot 2013-11-13 at 4.02.57 PM

Taiwanese rapper MC Hotdog

Individual syllables/characters

Mandarin has five tones: four main tones and one neutral tones for unstressed syllables in compound words or at the end of sentences. The tones are numbered one through four. Each Chinese character represents one syllable, and each syllable has a tone. When you learn how to pronounce a character, it’s obviously important to learn the tone.  But trying to remember which number tone is quite difficult. Instead, it’s best to remember the way the syllable sounds, including the tone, the way you would remember a musical note.

I try to exaggerate the individual syllables’ tones as a way to remember them. Still, I find that remembering tones for individual syllables can be quite difficult. Luckily, that is not the only way to remember tones.

Compound words

Most characters can be words on their own or can be combined with other characters to make a two or three syllable words. This is immensely helpful in learning how to pronounce both the whole word and the individual characters, because you can remember a melody instead of an isolated note.

The easiest way for me to learn a new word is from a native speaker or an audio recording. I try to listen to the word’s melody and repeat the word several times, exaggerating the  melody. The key is to remember the word as if it were a line in a song.

This helps both pronounce the complete compound word correctly, as well as to remember how to pronounce each individual syllable. Later, if I have a doubt regarding how to pronounce an individual character, I can always refer back to the compound word and sing the ‘melody’ back to myself. I find it much easier to remember than just trying to memorize individual syllables.

Phrases and sentences

Every language has music on the sentence and phrase level. In non-tonal languages, intonation can reflect the speaker’s mood or indicate that the sentence is a question. In non-tonal languages, the sentence or phrase’s intonation or melody is the same, regardless of which individual words are used. In Mandarin, a sentence’s melody comes from the individual words in the sentence.

As I work on improving my pronunciation in Mandarin, I pay special attention to practicing correct pronunciation of complete sentences and phrases. I might never use a particular phrase again, but the phrase represents a complete melody that I can use to remember words and syllables.

In addition, the tone of an individual syllable can change based on the tones of the syllable that follows it. It is much easier to remember the melody of useful or common phrases than it is to try to sort through all the different pronunciation rules in your head while you are trying to speak.


As a Chinese learner, getting the rhythm down can also be somewhat vexing, especially when you are trying to read a text out loud. Because individual characters can be either stand-alone words or parts of compound words, it is easy to pause in the middle of a word if you read it incorrectly or don’t know the word.

Chinese, just like other languages, also has a specific rhythm. Stressed words are sometimes stretched out, while other words can be pronounced very quickly. Listening phrases and sentences as you would listen to a song, and repeating the pronunciation as you would practice a song, will help both capture the right tones and figure out which words are often rushed through and which ones are often drawn out, ultimately making your speech sound much more natural.

Real Music

Now that I’ve spent all this time talking about melody and rhythm, it’s time to talk about the limitations of real music for Chinese learners. Music is great for learning language, not least because it is fun to listen to. But if learning tones is your goal, listening to music will probably not help you much. That’s because like all other music, music in Mandarin follows a melody – a melody that is totally unrelated to the tones of individual words. When singing, Mandarin speakers ignore tones completely. Listeners have to rely on context to know which words the singer is actually saying. The one exception to this is rap music – because rap music is more spoken than sung, the tones are preserved. So if you want to listen to music and practice tones, rap is the way to go.

Listening to music in Chinese can be useful for other reasons. It can help you learn vocabulary and solidify your understanding of different grammar concepts. It will also help with pronunciation. When people discuss what is difficult for Westerners learning Mandarin, tones get the most attention. But there are other Chinese sounds that I find very difficult. For example, there are a number of consonant sounds in Mandarin that I find exceedingly difficult to differentiate, let alone reproduce myself. Listening to music – and singing along – certainly helps with those kinds of pronunciation problems.

The bottom line

Melody and music are really important to learning any tonal language, including Mandarin. Thinking about the words and sentences as you would think about a song will help your pronunciation tremendously. Just be careful about learning tones from actual songs!

Emily Liedel

Emily Liedel is a semi-nomad, polyglot and writer. She has lived in Switzerland, Russia, Spain and France, and speaks fluent German, Russian, Spanish and French. She has been learning Mandarin off-and-on for the past 8 years, and currently planning a five-month language-learning trip to Beijing. She writes about language learning at The Babel Times.




Pathé Record photo courtesy of kafka4prez.