Posted by & filed under Como aprender idiomas con música y los medios, Susanna's TV interviews.

Cada lunes en mi segmento titulado “El idioma es música” en el programa “Al Despertar” en San Francisco, doy mis consejos de como aprender inglés mediante la música y los medios. Canal 14 (Univision) desde las 6 a 7 am y en canal 20 (Telefutura) en el programa de las 7 a 8 am.

I have my own segment in Spanish on the Al Despertar morning show on Univision San Francisco called “El idioma es música” where I give tips on learning English with songs and the media. “Al Despertar” airs on Univision/Telefutura San Francisco every Monday on both the 6-7am (Channel 14) and 7-8am (Channel 20) shows.

Mis ultimos videos (My latest videos):

Como evitar errores comunes en inglés con la canción “People are strange”

Como pronunciar la “B” y la “V” en inglés mediante la canción “New York, New York”

Pronunciación de la TH en inglés en la canción “For the longest time”

Aprender inglés viendo televisión y películas

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

Last week, for International Women’s Day, I wrote a blog post, How we all benefit when women are multilingual about the scarcity of female language bloggers and You Tube polyglots on the Fluent in Three Months website along with a video of a Skype call I made with two other female polyglots, Fasulye and Jana Fadness, about encouraging female language learners.

Why are role models important for women learning languages?

I didn’t need a role model to learn the languages I did. When I started posting videos on my You Tube channel, I was oblivious to other people on the Internet who were showing their language skills online.

Just because I didn’t need a role model or someone motivating me doesn’t mean that others might not benefit from seeing more women posting videos, blogs or audio podcasts of their language abilities. When the majority of Internet polyglots are male, some of whom are competitive or who leave unprofessional or nasty comments about other polyglots or language learners on the Internet, women may be discouraged from posting their videos or displaying their languages in other ways.

Role models inspire people not to give up.

language learning role models

Since Jeremy Lin of the Knicks basketball team in the US rose to fame as he led his team to win many basketball games, there have been many articles about how Lin is a role model for Asian American athletes in sports where there are few Asians. (Ladies Figure Skating does not fall into this category as there are many Asian females.) I read about other Asian American basketball players who gave up basketball because they were never picked for teams because coaches only seriously looked at black and white players. Because of Lin’s stellar performance, other excellent Asian American athletes may not be overlooked anymore by coaches and scouts.

If an aspiring female polyglot sees mostly men posting videos and reads an article such as the one in the New York Times, A Teenage Master of Languages Finds Online Fellowship, or sees the description in Babel no More of several male polyglots being gay, left-handed, artistically/musically talented spectrum, she could possibly feel like an outsider and give up her studies for a lack of fellowship with other multilingual people.

Fellowship is important

The beauty of speaking different languages is not just being able to speak to various people all over the world, it’s also the pleasure of switching from language to language within one conversation. I cherish the times when I can freely flow from one language to another with someone without censoring myself because the person I am speaking to doesn’t know x language.  Unfortunately, those opportunities are very rare because I know very few people around me who share my same languages. We may have English and one or two other languages in common but that’s it. Having a community of people with whom to converse is key. 


I met a female Russian diplomat who told me that the Russian Foreign Ministry was not hiring women anymore because it didn’t want to bother training women who they thought would later leave the job for its low pay and become housewives. She also told me the Ministry barely trained diplomats in exotic languages and left them to their own devices to learn these languages. (I won’t give her name or where we met.) Although it may be true that women leave low-paying jobs to stay at home with kids, this is no reason to discriminate against all female applicants. Not all women will have kids and leave their careers. Men in low-paying jobs may also leave once they get better offers elsewhere. 

Let’s say I am a multilingual female university student in Russia and I know that I would have slim chances of working in the Foreign Ministry because of my gender. I like foreign languages and I want to have a job where I can use my languages and see the world. I would appreciate connecting with other female polyglots to see what careers they have and how they get to exercise their languages. This is one of the reasons it’s important for polyglot women to make themselves known so they can guide and inspire other women.

Posted by & filed under How to learn languages with songs and the media, Susanna's podcast/radio interviews.

I interviewed (Don Blanquito) and Idahosa Ness about how they, as native English speakers, create rap, funk and hip hop music in Spanish and Portuguese. They also discuss how music helps people get into the flow of their new language.

Don Blanquito lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he gives concerts in Portuguese. He also raps in Spanish. I found out about him in the article, Californian With an M.B.A. Follows His Heart to Brazilian Funk.

Idahosa Ness speaks Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese and has created the Mimic Method for language learners to acquire the flow of their new language and get the right pronunciation by using music in their target language. Idahosa posted a guest article in Fluent in Three Months last December titled, The “flow” of fluency: How to freestyle rap in a foreign language about his method to teach people to learn the rhythm and flow of their new language before learning the structure. Given that I also promote learning the musicality of one’s new tongue first, Ness’ method resonated with me.

I was very happy to interview both of these men because the exemplify the power of music to get us deep into our new languages.

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

I highly recommend the book, Babel No More. It’s a fun read as it’s written like a detective story and you can feel the passion for languages that the hyperglots demonstrate.

Why I read Babel No More

First there was Michael Erard’s opinion article in the New York Times about how monolingual Americans really are and then there was Nataly Kelly’s interview with Erard in The Huffington Post about Erard’s new book, Babel No More, about how hyperpolyglots can speak so many languages. I became curious what the book was about.


I had never heard the term before. But once I read the Huffington Post article, I realized that I am a hyperpolyglot because I speak seven languages. By definition, a hyperpolyglot knows more than six languages. (Knowing a language may not mean the person can speak the language on demand. He or she may be able to read and write in the language better than understand it spoken or be able to speak it.)

Once I read in the Huffington Post that a common strain amongst these super language learners was that they had visual-spatial disabilities, I knew I had to read the book. Then I saw my fellow language blogger, Randy Hunt, review the book on his blog, the Yearlyglot, where Randy wrote that another common characteristic of these hyperpolyglots was that they were introverts.

I wanted to read this book so that I could understand how I fit into the general patterns Erard found amongst this lot of hyperpolyglots.


Introverts are good language learners

The introvert idea made a lot of sense to me because in order to develop a feel for the language and pick up on its sounds, the language learner has to listen very carefully. Introverts tend to be better listeners than extroverts, even in their own languages. Think about it. Which of your friends and family members really listen to you and can empathize with you about your problems? The “life of the party” or the quieter ones? Good listening skills are not easy to come by. In order to be a good language learner and pick up on intonation, accent and word usage, you have to listen carefully. Contrary to what some of my friends think because I am very social, I’m an introvert. But I am not shy. I continue to fail miserably at the “don’t talk to strangers” rule I learned in Kindergarten! I can talk to just about anyone and I do television and public appearances. But I crave my solitude. And I am a good listener.

Hyperglots may not be able to speak all their languages at the same level

The assumption that the hyperglot can talk about the same subjects in all of their languages is false. Erard shows that several of his subjects don’t maintain all of their languages at the same time and at the same level. While I do speak Bosnian/Serbo-Croatian, I haven’t used it in almost three years. It’s in me but I don’t activate it often so it’s not as fresh as it was when I lived in Sarajevo over a decade ago. I can’t discuss kitchen appliance maintenance in French because I never had to buy kitchen stuff in France.

The link between a visual disability and language prowess

Erard cites two super hyperpolyglots, Graham and Alexander who can’t drive. He discusses the ideas that visual-spatial deficits could be overcompensated by heightened verbal abilities, leading one to be adept at learning many languages.

I’d suspected for the last several years that what has made my hearing so sensitive is my being partially blind. I was born cross-eyed with strabismus and only see with one eye at a time, rendering me with little depth perception. I only see in 2D. Yes, it’s possible to still drive and park a car, albeit with difficulty, with just one eye. And no, I can’t see 3D movies. About 5% of the population is estimated to have my condition.

I’ve asked other strabismics if they also have a facility at language learning and so far I haven’t encountered anyone like myself, but I have found that several people who only see in 2D do report that they have excellent hearing and can hear things that others with normal vision can’t. Paying attention to what one hears is key to learning languages and developing good pronunciation. But even if someone is not trained to be a good listener, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t foster those listening skills that I probably forged from an early age to compensate for my limited visual abilities. I also learned unconsciously to pay attention to monocular cues like shading to know where the end of the curb is so that I wouldn’t fall flat on the street. Yes, it takes me longer than a person who sees in 3D to judge distances and see if a staircase far away is a real staircase or just a picture, but I can still do it. It just takes me more effort and more thinking than for the normally sighted person. I look carefully at the shadows to make out shapes and depth. It’s the same for someone learning to differentiate sounds in a new tongue. You spend time deciphering sounds and matching sounds to written words. It takes time.

This leads me to one of  Erard’s conclusions: to be a great language learner, one has to be hard working and be committed.

Learning languages is about commitment

Erard shows how much time his highlighted hyperpolyglots spend on language learning and what they do to keep their languages maintained and to retain words. They work at it. It’s not like the languages come to them in their dreams and they wake up the next day speaking a myriad of tongues. Alexander was on a tight budget and had children but he stuck to a schedule in his daily language learning.

If you work at it, despite your hardships, you can succeed. I have a German friend who is deaf and can speak English and German and read lips in both languages. Her German accent in English is the same as that of a typical German with normal hearing speaking in English. Another friend who is deaf in one ear is in China improving his Chinese. Now Chinese is tough for someone who is partially deaf because it’s a tonal language and you have to pay extra attention to the sound of the language. But he’s doing it. My mom is partially deaf and speaks English with an accent that’s not stronger than that of a typical Russian. As a matter of fact, I know Russians who can hear with both ears, who have a stronger accent in English than she does. Maybe what gets people over their hurdles is their enjoyment of the process or the ability to speak a new language.

Dopamine, flow, enjoying languages

At the end of the book, Erard summarizes what makes hyperpolyglots tick and he says that they enjoy learning languages, they feel like they’re in the flow or zone when studying or speaking languages and have an increased level of dopamine in the brain when studying.

“Dopamine is the neurotransmitter than operates in the brain’s reward center… People who learn many languages do it because they are attached to the pleasure of it,” p. 262.

Yes! That’s it. If you find something you like in the language, be it the sounds, the musicality, the grammar, you will be more likely to keep going because you have more dopamine in your brain and you are happy.

My favorite parts of the book

I had so much fun reading this book. One day, I was reading it while doing the lower body weight machines at the gym and found something that I wanted to take note of but I had no pen. I got off the machine, without finishing my repetition, walked to the front counter and took a pen off of the keyboard of the computer. The only paper I had were the fax-paper library receipts in the book. I used those to write my notes with the page numbers I was referencing.

p. 23 People gravitate towards languages that resonate with them. This is absolutely true for me. If I don’t like how native speakers express themselves in their language and if it sounds too harsh, I won’t learn it or I won’t enjoy learning it.

pp. 48-49 Dreaming in a language. There’s a problem here because I’ve heard the theory that when you dream in a language that means you can speak it. I’ve dreamt in Arabic and I can’t speak more than some basic words of Arabic. (I studied the language for a short period a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of it.) Does anyone else dream in a language they can’t speak?

p.91 Polyglot Ken Hale hates it when people ask him in public how many languages he can speak and make a spectacle of him. Oh my! I abhor this as well. I hate it when people say, “Here’s my friend who can speak _ languages (they usually flatter me with a higher number than I can speak).” And then someone will ask me to say something in all my languages as though I’m some freak show at the circus.

p.128 He labels his Russian teacher “Mr. Bombastic” who has the enthusiasm of a jaded stripper making his students repeat boring grammar exercises and repeat phrases. I was laughing so hard when I read this. I think many language instructors are part of the jaded stripper language show as it’s so common to just teach grammar and vocabulary and lost the spirit and soul of the language in classrooms.

p. 136: Helen Abadzi ( ), one of the few female hyperpolyglots in the book, is originally from Greece and evaluates educational programs worldwide for the World Bank. She used 10 languages as an interpreter at the Athens Olympics and like me, memorizes songs in her target languages. Yes! Someone else who values music in language learning.

p. 138 Erard gives the theory that a polyglot “doesn’t switch languages on and off; rather, they have them all activated all the time, but put a lid on the unwanted ones.” This makes sense to me because if I am tired or have something else occupying my mind, I can speak in English with Spanish syntax. So that means that my brain is thinking in both languages.


The section on India is fascinating because it is such a multilingual place. I did a CNN interview where the journalist asked me if it’s too hard for kids to learn multiple languages at once. I cited the example of India, where people grow up with various languages and they are fine. Many parts of the world are bilingual but here in the US, we make such a big deal about teaching a kid a foreign language early-on because it’s not common here.

p. 198 “In the West, a person with multiple identities and affiliations seems obliged to struggle or feel confusion. Here [in India], the more the merrier.”

I smiled when I read this because it’s so true about how multiple languages or cultures in the West fosters confusion because we are so delineated here when it comes to cultural affiliations. I’ve been asked many times by Europeans if I feel more American or Russian, as though having traits of both cultures is impossible. I feel like my many languages enrich my world tremendously and I am happy that I don’t have to choose being one thing or another.

p. 204 India, “If you don’t speak [other languages], you don’t eat.”

Is what it’s going to take to wake up English speakers to learn languages? Maybe. I did a BBC interview in January about the UK losing $11-26 billion a year because of their dearth of multilinguals.

Babel No More is highly entertaining and educational.




Posted by & filed under Free Language Learning Resources, How to learn languages with songs and the media, Susanna's podcast/radio interviews.

The problem facing anyone going from Spanish to Portuguese is to mistake similar words or sentence structures to be the same. They are not. I am speaking from experience. I also have to catch myself from using Spanish in my Portuguese.

Luciana Lage from Street Smart Brazil and I are making a series of videos on how to learn Portuguese via songs. Our latest video on the song, Eu vou estar by Capital Inicial, focuses on common mistakes Spanish speakers make in Portuguese. The blog post accompanying the video with a link to the song lyrics is on the Street Smart Brazil site.

Here’s the video:

Posted by & filed under Como aprender idiomas con música y los medios, How to learn languages with songs and the media, Multilingual identity.

(My country is the Portuguese language. Fernando Pessoa)

The idea of feeling an affinity with a language is not foreign to me given that I speak seven languages and have studied ten. In fact, my likes and dislikes for the sounds of languages have repelled me from certain languages and attracted me to others. But as my daily life crosses between several languages, I don’t feel particularly at home in just one language. Actually, my homeland is the multi-dimensionality of my linguistic world. If I could speak one sentence in one language and then a sentence or word in another and switch back and forth all day from language to language, I’d be at my best. But then few would understand me.

Finding home in one particular language

Recently, I’ve become curious about how someone can find their home in just one language. The idea first came to my attention when I was reviewing the movie “The Last Sephardi” (El ultimo sefardí) for my CNN interviews in Miami in January about the Ladino language of the Sephardic Jews that has stayed alive for over 500 years outside of Spain. In the film, there’s a conversation with Ladino speakers in Istanbul about their community and the old Judeo-Spanish language. One of them said, “It doesn’t matter where the Sephardic person lives, in Sophia [Bulgaria], in the Adriatic or in Istanbul, his homeland is the Judeo-Spanish language”. Seeing a diaspora community finding a feeling of home speaking in their ancestral language makes sense to me because it’s their language than brings them together given that they are spread out in various countries.

Here’s the clip to which I am referring. They are speaking in Ladino with Spanish subtitles.

Besides a dispersed people, who else finds a home in a language?

A month after seeing this documentary, I re-read the book Sostiene Pereira by the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. The book is originally in Italian and he talks of many famous writers and thinkers, including Portugal’s cherished, Fernando Pessoa, who was born in Portugal, but grew up in England. This line from the book stood out to me:

“Fernando Pessoa, era di cultura inglese, ma avevo deciso di scrivere in portoghese perche sosteneva che la sua patria era la lingua portoghese.”

“Pessoa, was of British upbringing, but decided to write in Portuguese because the Portuguese language was his homeland.”

Pessoa had a choice between English and Portuguese and he chose his mother tongue. Antonio Tabucchi, enamored with Portugal, wrote his book about Lisbon during the rise of Salazar’s dictatorship, in Italian.

I wonder what Pessoa found in Portuguese that he didn’t experience in English. Was it the frequent “sh” sounds and nasal vowels he liked? Was it the subjunctive case denoting doubt that the English tongue barely has?

Why one language over the other?

Each language has its depth and its limitations. Nuances of meaning come through better in some languages than others. For example, in Russian, to say that you ate something, you have one verb form to say you completed the action of eating your item (я сиел/а) and another verb form to just say you ate (я сиел/а), while in English to specify that you finished off your meal, you would have to say “I ate the whole thing” or “I finished it” but the verb form doesn’t communicate the entire thought like in Russian. The ability to be so detailed in speech may attract someone to a certain language.

So what gives one the sense of home in a language besides an ancestral pull towards it?

I wonder if authors choose a language because of their ability to express themselves better in that specific language or if it’s for commercial reasons that they choose the language of the country in which they are living.

Joseph Conrad wrote in English although his native language was Polish. When I read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I could not believe that his dense English sentences were not penned by a native speaker. I often had to re-read the sentences to understand them, not because the English was poor, but because it was so rich and complex that it took me extra time to understand his thoughts. From what I’ve read about his spoken English, it appears that it was heavily accented.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera writes in French sometimes.

being multilingual

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The Russian author, Vladimir Nabokov, spoke Russian, English and French from an early age and learned to read and write in English before he did in Russian. (I learned Russian writing and reading before English.) His first literary works were in Russian and then he switched to English. He even translated his own books originally written in English, to Russian.

How about you? Do you find your sense of home or self when speaking in one specific tongue?

Photo credits:
Pessoa’s nameplate

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov by Laura González:

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

(Photo is of Lisbon, Portugal.)

Feeling like I am in Portugal without leaving the United States

I ventured into the Little Portugal area of San Jose, California, where the local immigrant population from the Azores islands convene around a church, a couple cafes and restaurants and a store. Oddly, I hadn’t been there for over 10 years. I say this is odd because I learned most of my Portuguese via KSQQ, the Portuguese immigrant radio station but I hadn’t been to a Portuguese community event since a fado music dinner in 2000.

From movie set in Lisbon to San Jose, California

learn PortugueseHaving recently re-read the book, Sostiene Pereira (Afirma Pereira in Portuguese and Pereira Declares in English), by Antonio Tabucchi in the original Italian, set in Lisbon in 1938 when the António de Oliveira Salazar dictatorship was setting nationalist policies and censuring the press, I had a strong desire to be in a Portuguese environment and experience a bit of the café culture described in the novel. (I’ve also seen the movie, starring Marcello Mastroanni, many years ago and am getting a group of my friends together to watch it in Italian.) A journalist/translator, Pereira, thinks he can live his life without being bothered by the censorship and politics of Salazar. By meeting some idealistic young Portuguese rebelling against the fascism of the Iberian peninsula, he realizes the power he has as a translator and journalist to show the Portuguese people another way of being and thinking outside of the nationalism of the dictatorship. It’s ironic that by reading in Italian, I longed to be in a Portuguese environment. But it wasn’t the language of the book that had the effect but the description of the cafes and bars of Lisbon and the food that drew me in.

study Portuguese

I went to Cafe DoCanto and I felt like I was back in Portugal. I had been to Lisbon in the late 1990s on a short family holiday. The café menu was on two framed sheets of paper on the wall. No chalk boards or big signs like in normal cafes in the US. Just paper. Little Portuguese doces portugueses (sweet Portuguese pastries) were on display. Eating my inexpensive cheese sandwich made with toasted Portuguese bread, butter and cheese, I I reminisced about my wonderful sandwiches in Portuguese cafés. The refrigerator had some Brazilian sodas as well as other non-American drinks. I could imagine local Portuguese people drinking their coffee in little cups at the counter. However, the cafe was getting ready for a private party and I seemed to be one of the few customers. Two flat screen TVs showed Brazilian soap operas and Portuguese news on RTP – Rádio e Televisão de Portugal but with no sound.

Being and not doing

Did I utter one word of Portuguese in the cafe?


I even thought to myself how strange it was that I, who motivates people to learn Portuguese and other languages, was not speaking in Portuguese.

I didn’t go there to rattle off words in Portuguese or even make conversation. I didn’t go there to learn Portuguese. I went to the cafe to feel Portuguese culture, to re-imagine what cafes in Portugal are like and to connect to the book I had just relished. I have plenty of opportunities to speak the language, but this time was not for me the language learner, it was for me, the lover of culture. I wanted to feel like I was in Portugal.

Sometimes I refrain from speaking when I am in a place that I simply want to experience because I know that when I speak in the language, I will have to answer questions about myself. I am in a Brazilian hiking group and whenever a new Brazilian joins the group and hears my Portuguese, I get the same questions about my mixed mid-Atlantic European-Brazilian Portuguese accent. I explain that I began learning the language with Portuguese immigrant radio and continued with Brazilian music, movies and friends and trips to Brazil so my accent has both European and Brazilian influences. I had no desire to explain my accent again and preferred to just absorb the environment around me.

It’s good to be at a point in one’s language learning to feel comfortable just being and not doing. If you feel like you just want to be in a language environment and soak in the language and culture without attracting attention to yourself, just do it. It’s like being a traveler in another country and admiring the language and culture for what it is without you as a foreigner interrupting the normal flow of life. Part of language acquisition and learning any language is listening. To be honest, I wasn’t listening with a keen ear to pick up on the inflections of voices and to learn new words. I was just being me.

Two days after my Portuguese culture evening, I spent five hours hiking and having lunch with my mostly Brazilian hiking group where I spoke in both English and Portuguese. Therefore you can’t accuse me of not using my language. It’s a choice of when you want to speak and when you want to just “be”.

Photo Credits:
Sostiene Pereira: Amazon

Doces portugueses: Winam

Lisbon: by Federico


Posted by & filed under Como aprender idiomas con música y los medios, How to learn languages with songs and the media, Susanna's TV interviews.

Learning languages with music, preserving the Ladino languages with songs, CALA CNN, February 10, 2012

On Friday February 10, 2012, the CALA show on CNN interviewed Montserrat Franco and I in Spanish about how to learn foreign languages using music, why it’s important to be multilingual, how the ancient Ladino language of the Spanish Jews saved a boy’s life in the Holocaust and how Sephardic Jews maintained their language, Ladino, outside of Spain for over 500 years. I introduced my book, El idioma es música, and Montserrat delighted us by singing a Ladino song and speaking a bit in Ladino. Both Montserrat and I speak seven languages each and we believe firmly in the power of music to teach us foreign languages.

Despite the tragedy of the Bosnian War, people in Sarajevo held music concerts during the way to keep their spirits up. The human spirit is indeed stronger than politics. Music feeds the soul and also keeps us in touch with our roots and learning foreign languages.

Posted by & filed under Como aprender idiomas con música y los medios, How to learn languages with songs and the media, Susanna's TV interviews.

Susanna Zaraysky, políglota y autora de “El idioma es música” explica cómo se puede estudiar lenguas con música y los medios de comunicación. Susanna cuenta su experiencia viviendo en Bosnia después de la guerra de Yugoslavia y como el idioma ladino salvó la vida de Moris Albahari, un joven bosnio judío en la segunda guerra mundial.

Montserrat Franco habla 7 idiomas y canta en ladino (idioma de los judíos sefardíes). Ellas muestran cómo la música ladina ayuda a conservar el idioma de los judíos de origen español.

Entrevista con Ismael Cala en el program CALA en CNN en Español, el 10 de febrero 2012.