The Art of Being Bilingual

Bilingualism is the ability to understand and communicate in two languages. To me, it is how I catch the pieces of my grandmother.

I think language is a different experience for everyone. Some people are masters of the craft—they easily capture the “gist,” or what I think is the nuanced, near­-native understanding of a language; they quickly turn their words into another language. To others, it’s a grueling process, plunging deep into grammar rules and pronunciation. “Gist” comes later because the foundation is so hard to build.

For me, language is neither extreme; I’m neither a master nor a slave to the process. My parents immigrated to the States before I was born. I spoke exclusively Korean in the house. I got my English from school. There wasn’t really a tangible process of language learning to me. Even so, my environment surrounded me with English, which became my native language—the language I am most comfortable speaking. Korean became my second language and inevitably, I lost much of my proficiency in it.

My grandmother’s garden is located in the backyard of her home. It is rare to see in Seoul because many of the older generation have left the homes they had built to move into apartments that reach higher and higher every year. In the face of this dynamic landscape, my grandmother’s house remains untouched—an artifact of the sixties when the house was built from fresh concrete and filled with my grandmother’s hopes. My grandmother’s garden remains the one dynamic patch of life within her unchanging home. Often, our discussions pivot around this patch of land—what new flowers have blossomed today.

flowers2          flowers1

The pieces of her flowers: Today.  Cactus.  Picture.  Fade.

Eloquence in translation, as I have read, comes with mastery of the target language—of the native tongue. I subscribe to this ideology because it makes sense. “Gist” is important here once again. Once you understand the intent of the first language, it becomes less complicated to string together the ideas into coherence. I find myself constantly piecing together a narrative with clues. I try to understand the intent of the original, and mirror the same eloquence. It is through this process that you realize that finding the translations to every word is not as important as carrying the same messages across in the most similar manner.

When pieced together, my grandmother’s message: This is a cactus flower. I took this picture before it withered. Cactus flowers wither quite quickly.

cactus1          cherries

There’s something very reassuring about knowing another language.

“Foreign” is not necessarily “unfamiliar.”

Korea stands 14 hours away on a direct flight from the Detroit Metro Airport to Seoul Incheon Airport, and does not share the same common language with the States. There are no two nations so different when it comes to customs, cultural standards, and landscape. But from learning—or perhaps speaking Korean, I feel that this disparity is lessened. I think that at the base of knowing another language is a basic understanding of the culture that surrounds that language.

From understanding we derive a relationship.

I think that’s irreplaceable and important, especially as the world becomes more and more interconnected.     I think that my elementary understanding of Korean, though highly lacking, ties me back to those who matter to me.

How we work with language and all the culture and nuances it carries—the weight of that language—that is what makes bilingualism worth it. That is the root of the familiar that connects us to each other.

My grandmother likes to send me pictures of her garden. Last week, she sent me a picture of cherries and cactus, accompanied by small words of wisdom. Unfortunately, idioms, when translated, tend to lose their meaning, however her words were wise because I understood beyond language.

— Stephanie Choi


Can I have the language of origin? Language Knowledge is Key to Spelling Bee Success

“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”

All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?


Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?

Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).


During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.

Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.

Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word,  you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.

Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.

–Emily D.

Online games to learn Russian (and other languages!)

Привет! In this post I thought I’d share a few games that I like to use to practice Russian – vocabulary, listening, the case system, and typing!

Ba Ba Dum is four games in one. Practice vocabulary (and listening and reading) with matching and spelling games that involve only pictures and the target language – no translation, so you can get used to thinking in the language! For extra fun, it’s available in 13 languages:

  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Greek
  • Swedish
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Italian
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Polish
  • American English
  • British English

Russian Case Roulette helps you learn the 6 Russian cases through a series of visually-appealing games. Grammar terms are presented in both English and Russian.

Finally, is a fun, multilingual, highly responsive online typing tutor. It keeps track of which letters you are struggling with and presents them more frequently, so you can get extra practice. I like to get a little typing practice in every evening – you can do a few minutes at a time, and your data will be saved. Under Settings -> Keyboard Layout, you can set the language to one of these six:

  • English
  • German
  • French
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian

I hope you have fun with some of these games, and learn a little Russian (or Portuguese, or Greek, or Spanish…) along the way!

– Amelia