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Happy New Year, World!

In preparation for the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 this weekend, I’m brushing up on new year’s customs from around the globe. I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In Spain one eats las doce uvas de la suerte (the twelve grapes of luck) at midnight. Each grape represents a month of the coming year. Feliz año nuevo!

In the Netherlands they serve doughnuts called olie bollen (oil balls). Ring-shaped treats symbolize coming full circle, and eating them brings good fortune. Gelukkig Nieuwjaar!

Wassail is Gaelic for “good health” and is served on New Year’s Eve. Athbhliain faoi mhaise dhuit!

Ancient Persians exchanged eggs for good luck. سال نو مبارک Sâle no mobârak!

On New Year’s Eve, you kiss the person you hope to keep kissing, but when celebrating at a Scottish Hogmanay party, it is customary to try to kiss everyone in the room after the midnight bells. Bliadhna mhath ur!

To hear “Happy New Year!” as it’s spoken in fifty other languages, check out this video at Simple English News.

And Happy New Year to you all!


One day some colleagues and I skipped out of the office early for happy hour and a game of Scopa. By the time I’d learned the rules, I was hooked. Scopa is Italian for “broom,” a fitting name for a card game in which the object is to sweep all the cards from the table. It’s traditionally played while keeping up a constant stream of light raillery. What a great way to practice your Italian insults on your friends! You can order a Scopa deck online for less than $7, and get the rules here. Cosa ne pensi?

Aprendre català amb mi!

Last year I visited Barcelona for the first time. We fell in love, the city and I. All that gorgeous Gaudí. And the tapas and cava. The astonishing El Mercat de la Boqueria (see pics in my blog post). And the tapas and cava. And those sensuous narrow cobblestone streets…all leading to tapas and cava.

Well! We planned to rendezvous again, Barcelona and I. And I want to speak her language, so I’ve been trying to motivate myself to brush up on my high-school Spanish–but I just haven’t been able to get myself to do it. Then it hit me. I don’t want to speak Spanish. I want to speak Catalan. That sensuous soft slur of Spanish and French.

Trouble is, Catalan lessons aren’t easy to come by. So I took the first step by going to to compose a challenge to a Facebook friend to learn Catalan with me. Now to find some good lessons… Any suggestions out there?

How to Learn

Last night I was chatting on the phone with Mr. Multilingual, and he mentioned a website he thought I’d enjoy: I like learning. And I like learning about learning. Just ask my friend the gnosiologist. So this afternoon, while I was supposed to be working, I took a little learning fieldtrip instead.

What did I find? What didn’t I find! is overflowing with learning resources–memory improvement tips, learning styles inventories, tutoring, and rivers of articles. And a list of “Top 101″ websites. Feeling learning-curious, I clicked on “Best Educational Websites.”

This led me to a delightfully sundry list of learning resources, of which I’ll give you a sampling: “Free online speed-reading software designed to improve your reading speed and comprehension.”

Nine Planets: “An overview of the history, mythology, and current scientific knowledge of the planets, moons, and other objects in our solar system.” “Use your computer to display a stack of “virtual cards” that contain information about a certain subject. Just like flashcards, you can review the information at your own pace, discarding the cards you’ve learned and keeping the ones you still need to review.” “An automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach. Check your writing for grammar, punctuation, style and enhance your texts.” “Study guides, exercises, and tips for students, grades middle school through adult, provided in 37 different languages.”

Wordsmith Writing Coaches: “A tutoring co-op dedicated to serving the needs of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students struggling with big writing tasks.” “ offers brain training exercises that work. Regardless of your age, Lumosity can make you smarter and more mentally fit.”

And , of course, our very own “Video, audio, and software courses for learning over 100 languages. Contains the world’s largest list of radio stations in many languages to help you learn your language faster.”


Cleopatra, Queen of Polyglots

This week I’ve been engrossed in a biography of Cleopatra, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff. Apparently, Cleopatra was credited with speaking nine languages: Egyptian, GreekLatin, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Troglodyte, an Ethiopian tongue. According to Plutarch, Troglodyte sounded “like the screeching of bats.” I’d like to learn that one…

Tell Me More, Part 1

I’ve just started a 7-day free trial of the Tell Me More online course in French. It’s unlike any other language course I’ve ever experienced. For starters, it tests you before you start so it can tailor the course to you. And, although the test is not easy, the grading is quite generous. My skimpy year of French study somehow catapulted me to the “Expert” level. Not so fast! I downgraded myself to “Advanced” so I’ll have a chance of understanding what’s thrown at me in my 15-hour course. Let the French begin!

Twitter Cocktail Haiku

I recently attended a seminar, “Twitter for Word Lovers,” with branding consultant Catherine Carr, where I learned the ins and outs of what Carr describes as a social media cocktail party. It was there that it dawned on me that Twittering can be a literary art form—and one that can be shaped to suit the multilinguist.

Remembering the “French Sentences” concocted by a poet friend of mine—a seventeen-word sentence about France with the quality of a haiku—this afternoon, in a spill of glorious October afternoon sun, I concocted my first Twitter cocktail haiku:

Quand il fait beau en octobre, il faut que j’arrête de travailler, m’allange, et me chauffe au soleil.

It took only ten minutes but the activity engaged my mind, tickled my imagination, and taught me something new. Bonus: My sudden poetry just might attract the attention of that exotic foreigner on the other side of the Twitter room and cause us to strike up a conversation.

Multilingual Music

One way of boosting your foreign language studies is to surround yourself with music in many languages. Listen to it as you do the dishes, fold the towels, or sweep the floor. You’ll find yourself getting curious about what they’re singing. And then dusting off your dictionary and translating.

Some of my favorites for this purpose are Gotan Project, Carla Bruni, Pink Martini, La rue Ketanou, and Jacques Brel. Share yours.

You can also take advantage of Multilingual Books‘ online foreign radio directory here.


On my evening walk just now I made friends with a little black tuxedo cat. When I bent down to introduce myself, she practically leapt into my lap. She wriggled, she gyred, she gimbled; she was ready for love.

As I couldn’t quite catch her name, I decided to make one up. My first thought, admiring her agile antics, was to name her after my favorite Russian gymnasts from childhood, Olga Korbut and Nadia Comăneci. But Olga isn’t a cute name, and Nadia sounds too much like Nandi (my cat’s name), so I decided to delve into foreign terms for “gymnast.”

In Russian the word is гимнаст. Not too exciting. Same goes for the Spanish gimnasta, French gymnaste, Portuguese ginasta, and Italian ginnasta. Yawn. In German it’s Turner. Yawn again. And in Chinese we have 体操 (which I can’t pronounce). Nada.

Next I turned to word cousins of gymnastics: “leap,” “bounce,”” spin.” Then I hit upon the German term for an agile animal: flink. Purrfect! I lured little Flink to my house and sealed our friendship with a kitty treat.

Cartas de Rayo

I know, I know. Cartas de rayo is not an idiomatic translation of “flash cards.” I’m having some fun here. It’s allowed. A few other things that are allowed (even if we sometimes believe they’re not) that I’m adding to my flash cards:

armar una bronca  to kick up a fuss

cambiar de idea  to change one’s mind

cortar el bacalao  to call the shots (“to cut the codfish”)

darse un gusto  to indulge oneself

dar un beso a la botella  to take a swig (“to give the bottle a kiss”)

dejar el trabajo  to quit one’s job

echarlo todo a rodar  to make a mess of everything

echar un sueño  to take a nap

hacer fiaca  to sleep in; to stay home for the peace and quiet

ir a pelo  to be naked

meter(se) la pata  to get involved (“to put one’s paw”)

nadar en la abundancia  to be rolling in dough (“to swim in abundance”)

pasar de la raya  to cross the line

soltar la risa  to burst out laughing

tener sangre de horchata  to be extremely calm (“to have the blood of horchata”)