>Happy New Year 2011!

>Happy New Year to my wonderful, intelligent readers! I wish you all the happiness and joy in the world, my dear friends! I hope we will spend a lot more time talking, arguing, and exchanging opinions in the coming year. I love you all.

As usual, here is picture of the New Year’s feast I prepared.
And it only took two days to make it.

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part II


When I was admitted to the university, I was 22 years old. I knew I didn’t have the time to go the usual route of taking Spanish 101, 102, and so on. So I lied to my advisor, told her that I’d studied Spanish before, and enrolled in Spanish Intermediate Intensive. On the first day of class, when our Salvadoran teacher came into the classroom and started prattling in his very difficult Central American Spanish, I realized that I was in trouble. When he announced that we were going to do an overview of the Preterite and the Imperfect, I realized that I was in even bigger trouble because these words meant nothing to me.
I knew that I had to learn to speak and fast if I wanted to get that PhD within a reasonable amount of time. I was an immigrant, I had no money. Any exchange program was out of the question because of the conditions of my visa and money constraints. Besides, my underage sister was living with me, and I couldn’t just abandon her and flee to yet another country. There was no money for a tutor or an immersion program. But there was something a lot better, though: the rich and vibrant Hispanic community of Montreal. I made friends with Spanish speakers from many different countries. That wasn’t easy for me. I have Asperger’s and meeting people is not something I enjoy (to put it very, very mildly). But I made the effort and started visiting all kinds of events where Spanish speakers were present.
I had a neighbor from Colombia who was going through a convoluted drama with her boyfriend. She would ask me over and narrate the story of her life for hours. (I am extremely thankful for the fact that so many Spanish-speakers love to talk.) At first, I understood about 5% of what she was saying. Obviously, I couldn’t say much in return, so I just looked compassionate and nodded. As a result, she started presenting me to her friends as a very kind person and the best listener she ever met. So more people started asking me over to share their stories. And I had even more opportunities to listen, look compassionate, and nod. Later, when I learned to speak and we became best friends I told my very first Colombian interlocutor, “Look, you have to retell me all your stories once again because the first time around I didn’t understand a word of them.” I was extremely lucky in meeting her because Colombian Spanish is considered the most correct in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
There was also a language exchange program affiliated with our university. These programs allow people who don’t have money for language lessons to swap their language skills. Say, you want to learn Russian and I want to learn German. We meet, talk for an hour in my language and then for another hour in yours. As a result, everybody gets to speak and listen, the environment is casual and relaxed, and the learning process is enjoyable.
To compliment these activities, I also read in Spanish all the time. I had already arived by that time at what would become the basis of my language teaching philosophy: when talking and reading compliment each other, you get great results. So I read. I don’t believe in adapted texts or easy solutions. So I decided to start with reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. For those who know this book it must be very clear why that was an insane choice of the first book ever to read in Spanish. The first time I read this beautiful but extremely complex work of literature that not every native speaker understands on the first reading I had no idea what it was about. But I felt it was beautiful. So I read it once more. And the third time. And then something kind of became a little clearer. So I decided to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla. Again, those who know this novel are now thinking that I am a very crazy person because it’s also a very complex book.
I also persecuted my Salvadoran Spanish teacher with questions. He would dread the sight of me appearing at his office yet again to announce: “I don’t understand Preterito and Imperfecto!” He would explain for hours, bring print-outs, activities, transparencies. “Do you understand it now?” he’d ask, desperate for some good news. “No!” I’d respond brightly. Then, he would start all over again. Today, whenever I go back to Canada to speak at a conference, my teacher (who in the meantime went from being a graduate student to a tenured professor) always comes to listen. He sits there looking very proud and then comes up to me after the talk to ask, “So now do you understand the differences between Preterito and Imperfecto?” “Yes,” I say. “But now I have to explain it to students who refuse to understand.”
In short, I lived and breathed Spanish for this entire period of time. Within 18 months, I was teaching Spanish at a private language school. In 2,5 years, I walked into my very frist college classroom as a teacher of Spanish. (I’ll blog about that experience one day because that course was something special.) And only 3,5 years since I started learning, I published by very first research article in Spanish. And not in some graduate journal, or anything like that. I published in Anales Galdosianos, a very prestigious, “real” scholarly journal. As I said, I’m very proud of my Spanish and I will boast all I want about it. ­čÖé
It’s been almost 12 years since I said my first words in Spanish. Of course, learning a language is a project of a lifetime, even if you are a native speaker. A language is a living entity, and we renegotiate our relationship with it on a daily basis. Learning a new language gives you access to an entire civilization, to a world of experiences, to a version of yourself that is completely different from what you are when you speak your own language.
For those who want to learn to speak a foreign language very fast and very well, I have the following suggestions:
  1. Speak. You don’t need a pricey immersion program, a trip, or an exchange visit to learn. Of course, if you can afford them, that’s fantastic. Have fun and enjoy this great opportunity. Many people, however, simply don’t have the resources to afford anything like this nowadays. My advice to you is to find  in your town a language exchange program like the one I described. If it doesn’t exist, start one. Find a Spanish store or a community newspaper and place an ad for a free exchange of language knowledge. There are many immigrants who would love to teach you their language in exchange for practicing English with you. What should you do, though, if there are no speakers of your target language who live in your area? Not to worry, today’s technological advances have solved that problem, too. How many people in the world would love to improve their knowledge of English in exchange for practicing their language with you? All you need to do is find them and talk to them through Skype or any other similar program. Even though you might have no money, you still have a very valuable commodity: your knowledge of English. Make use of it in your language learning.
  2. Read. Reading in the target language is crucial because it builds up vocabulary and gives you what the Germans call “Sprachgef├╝hl” (an intuitive understanding of how a language works.) When I was learning Spanish, I read for at least 6 hours a day every single day in my target language. As a result, I now have a vocabulary that is extremely rich. Not everybody has the time to read this much, of course, but reading at least a page a day will boost your language learning in a way that nothing else will.
  3. Tell yourself stories. Try to narrate to yourself in the target language things that you see around you. Funny comics, an encounter with friends, a list of things you need to do, a curious blog post you have read: try retelling all this to yourself in Spanish. It’s best to do it out loud, of course, but if that’s not convenient, tell it to yourself in your head. This will teach you to think in the target language, instead of trying to translate every sentence (a horrible practice to be avoided at all costs.)
Good luck!
P.S. I know that these last two posts sound extremely self-congratulatory, but come on, people, it’s New Year’s. A person should be able to celebrate her massive achievements on such a festive occasion. ­čÖé

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part I


The reader Angie Harms. asked me how I learned to speak Spanish. Thank you, Angie, because I love sharing this story. First of all, I have to tell you that my Spanish is really fantastic. Learning this language is my proudest achievement, and I don’t feel that I need to be modest about it. It always takes me a while to convince native speakers that I’m not one of them. And that I never lived in a Spansih-speaking country. And that my parents are not Spanish-speakers.
So it all started back in Ukraine when I was in my late teens. Suddenly, there were all those Latin American soap operas on television all the time. (Yes, it started with watching soap operas in Ukraine and culminated in a PhD in Hispanic Studies in the US.) When I watched them, I always thought, “Here is this entire civilization that I know absolutely nothing about. And nobody I know has any knowledge of it. How strange is that?” I was a university student majoring in English literature then but I decided that I didn’t want to continue with that program any more. I tried learning Spanish on my own, with a textbook, but that was useless. There was not a single Spanish-speaking person in my Ukrainian town. Spanish wasn’t taught at my university (even though it is the oldest university in the country.) There was no scholarship in Hispanic Studies in my country at all. And there still isn’t, unfortunately.
In Canada, however, there was. (The only place to do research of the kind I like in Hispanic literature is North America. That’s just how it is for now.) After we emigrated to Canada, I applied to the Department of Hispanic Studies of the country’s most famous university. As soon as I was accepted, I made a visit to the wonderful person who was then the Chair of the department.
“I want to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Eventually,” I said. “And it would be great to teach at this university. I really like these offices and would be glad to occupy one of them.”
“So you like Spanish literature?” the kind Chair asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I never read a word of it, not even in translation.”
“But you speak Spanish, right?” she said.
“No, not a word,” I responded brightly. “But I will do a PhD in Hispanic Studies and learn.” (Remember that video on the robotic prospective PhD student? As I said, that was me.)
The Chair is a very polite and proper British lady but at that point she laughed so hard, I was afraid she would hurt herself. And if you now want to tell me I made an idiot of myself during that conversation, I will let you know that exactly two and a half years after that conversation I started teaching Spanish at that very department. And one of the pretty offices I liked so much was mine (shared with some other people, of course.) And four and a half years later, I left the department to do a PhD in Spanish after receiving every single award that was ever offered by our program. (As I said, I’m very proud of this and don’t see why I shouldn’t be. I invested a truly Herculean amount of effort into this.)
(To be continued. . .)

>New Year’s Preparations


As I mentioned before, New Year’s is the most important festivity in my culture. It is the day when people exchange really magnificent gifts. It also requires several days of full-scale preparations. I’ve been cooking all day long, and this tiramisu with strawberries, raspberries and red currants is just one of the things I made.

P.S. Now I look at the picture, it seems like it looks a lot better in real life.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

>An Irresponsible Journalist at The Economist Spreads Lies About Graduate Studies

Dumping on academia has become one of the favorite pursuits of print journalists everywhere. As the higher education system in this country suffers one blow after another, journalists are happy to serve their corporate masters and promote the idea that education is bad, useless, and harmful. In their efforts to talk people out of pursuing higher education, such journalists stoop to half-truths and even outright lies.

Take, for example, a piece titled “The disposable academic: Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time”┬áthat appeared a few days ago in The Economist.┬áThe author of this article demonstrates how partial truth easily becomes a full-blown lie. In order to prove that graduate students are often overworked and exploited, this irresponsible journalist says the following about Yale: “A graduate assistant at Yale might earn $20,000 a year for nine months of teaching.” As somebody who graduated from the doctoral program at Yale, let me tell you how things really are.

A graduate student’s stipend at Yale is, indeed, in the vicinity of $20,000 per year. A graduate student at Yale also gets a tuition waiver and medical insurance, which put the value of the entire package somewhere around $50,000 per year. You are guaranteed to get this funding for 5 years. Out of these 5 years, the first two are spent taking courses (not teaching, mind you) and preparing for the comprehensive exams. The next two years a graduate student does teach, but never more than one course per semester. For people who have the hardest teaching workload (those who teach language courses) this means working for 50 minutes a day five days a week. For the rest, it’s less than that. The fifth year of the doctoral program is dedicated to writing the dissertation. You get the same funding as in the previous years but do not have to teach or, actually, be on campus at all. I, for one, moved back to Canada in my fifth year to spend time with my family and my Montreal friends. A simple calculation shows that a graduate student at Yale ends up receiving a total of $250,000, in exchange for which amount s/he is required to teach a total of 4 courses. Not too shabby at all, in my opinion.
The article’s barrage of lies gets completely out of hand when the author states that “In the humanities . . . most students pay for their own PhDs.” When I apllied (and was accepted) into several of the best graduate programs in the US, nobody asked me to pay for anything. Some universities had a worse package, some offered a better one, but there was never any talk of me paying tuition anywhere. The Economist‘s article goes out of its way to prove that “too many” people go to graduate school. Anybody with an ounce of grey matter would ask themselves where all these grad students are supposed to get the huge amounts of money to pay for this education. This quasi-journalist, though, is happy to spread unchecked falsehoods just to prove the point that more education is worse than less.
The article’s author uses the favorite trcik of irresponsible journalists as Fox News, which consists of introducing unsupported, ridiculous lies as something that “some people say”: “Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.” It would be nice to get a couple of quotes here from these “fiercest critics” and “business leaders”, or at least to be given their names,┬ábut The Economist‘s authors feel no need to burden themselves with looking for proof for their outlandish suggestions. Only a complete idiot would think that a PhD is about “teaching skills.” It’s not like the information is top-secret, so there is no justification for this quasi-journalist’s strange criticisms of academia.
Another egregious statement provided by the article’s author is “Research at one American university found that those who finish [with a PhD] are no cleverer than those who do not.” Of course, the university in question is never named and no link to this mysterious study is provided. I, for one, would be really interested in finding out how you measure “cleverness” and what kind of scientists conduct such idiotic studies. As a blogger, I can afford to write pretty much anything I want in my posts. Still, I challenge anybody to find a single instance when I talked about “a study at a university” and failed to link to the information I referenced.
The main argument this article provides about why graduate studies are useless is that not everybody with a PhD ends up becoming a Full Professor and making the average professorial salary of $109,000. Obviously, that’s true. It is just as true for any other profession where becoming one of the top earners in your field is never a guarantee, no matter what your area of specialization is. Still, graduate school provides grad students with one undeniable benefit: five or more years that can be dedicated to bettering oneself intellectually, hanging out with friends, travelling, reading, thinking, writing, partying, etc. Grad school is the best way to delay one’s entrance into the hamster race of the corporate world. Who else but the graduate students have the luxury of sleeping in until noon on a regular basis or staying in bed with books for a month well into their thirties? No matter how much one will end up making after graduation, having this experience is priceless.
By the end of the article, the author reveals the real reason behind her dislike of grad school: “Many of the drawbacks of doing a PhD are well known. Your correspondent was aware of them over a decade ago while she slogged through a largely pointless PhD in theoretical ecology.” It is no surprise to me that someone who writes so clumsily and puts out such an unconvincing, badly researched and dishonest┬ápiece of rubbish didn’t thrive either in or out of grad school. Sadly, there are ignoramuses and under-achievers everywhere. Even the best system in the world couldn’t guarantee a complete absence of unintelligent, uninspired plodders who are incapable of benefitting from it.
I have cancelled all of my subscriptions to print media (except one to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.) I’m so frustrated with this irresponsible journalism that charges good money to provide me with material based on what “some people say” or “a study has discovered” that I now get all of my information from bloggers I trust. They, at least, never forget to offer proof for their statements and do responsible research before writing.

What’s Communism?: My Grandfather’s Wisdom

>My maternal grandfather was a veteran of World War II. He went to fight in the war when he was barely 18 years old. He finished the war in Berlin and wrote his (and now mine) last name on the wall of Reichstag. Of course, my grandfather was a member of the Communist Party because what options were there?

Once, one of his daughters asked him: “Daddy, what’s communism?”

“Let’s go outside,” he said to his six daughters. “I’ll show you communism.”

They went outside and looked into the beautiful sunset. “Isn’t the horizon beautiful in the setting sun?” my grandfather asked his small daughters.

“Yes, Daddy, it looks perfect!” the girls responded.

“So why don’t you try to grab it?” he said. “Go ahead, grab it if you find it so beautiful!”

“But, Daddy, you can’t grab the horizon no matter how pretty it looks,” the eldest daughter said.

“Well, that’s communism for you,” my grandfather said.

>DailyKos Recognizes That Wikileaks Info Is "Nothing Special"


Finally, among all the voices that keep gushing about how much the super-duper-crucial revelations coming from Wikileaks changed the world, honest achnowledgements are starting to appear of the very obvious fact that these so-called earth-shattering revelations didn’t really reveal anything at all. On this blog, I have asked both the admirers and the detractors of Julian Assange to give me some information about what was so new in these leaks. As of now, nobody has been able to offer anything in response.
tell us nothing we didn’t already know about way the United States shoves around other players at the world table, [. . .] the documents themselves are nothing special.
The article then goes to argue that even though the information “revealed” by Wikileaks was old news, it was still important for it to come out of yet another source. You can follow that argument on the DailyKos website, if you are interested. What interests me, though, is that the this entire hullabaloo over Wikileaks is at last getting to the point where we stop gushing and start analzying. DailyKos has acnowledged the basic uselessness of the Wikileaks documents and is trying to salvage the whole project through some inventive verbal acrobatics. For now, the only argument in defense of Wikileaks’ abiding importance is that if the US government doesn’t like it, it must be good and helpful to the liberal cause (or bad and unhelpful to the conservative cause.)
I will let my readers ponder the fallacies of this kind of logic on their own.