Divided By Common Languages

I learned a lot of languages in my teens and 20s. I say “learned,” but don’t expect fluency. You shouldn’t try to have a very complicated conversation with me in any of them today. But there have been points in my life when I had dear friends with whom I only spoke Japanese or Norwegian. […]

In Their Own Words

Inspired by guest Veronique Greenwood‘s three-part series (part 1, part 2, part 3) about learning a foreign language, some of the contributors to LWON volunteered for a week’s worth of essays about their own encounters with the challenges of linguistics.   This week, we’ve been looking at what it’s like to learn a new language as an adult. Kids seem to pick up […]

All the Chinese You Need to Take a Shower

This is the third and final post in a series about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally (if you missed the earlier posts, you can find them here: part 1, part 2) .  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese. On Monday evenings, I ride my bike into the […]

Learning to Talk All Over Again

This is the first in a series of posts about learning a foreign language long past the age when it comes naturally.  Guest Veronique Greenwood begins at the pro level, with Chinese. I slide into a desk at the back of the dim classroom, and the Thai girl in front of me turns around. What’s your […]


A couple of weeks ago, my 20-year-old cousin put his father’s service revolver to his head and pulled the trigger. His parents and one of his brothers were home at the time. They heard the shot and ran to his room. His mother and brother tried to stop the bleeding while his father performed CPR. […]

Do you speak English?

“The problem with France is that there’s no French word for entrepreneur.” It’s tragic that George W. Bush didn’t actually say this, because it perfectly illuminates the stealth with which languages insinuate themselves into each other. If you speak English, you probably know that when you say sans and en vogue you’re using import words. […]

Guest Post: Lost in Congo

Ever get the feeling that the whole world’s privy to a joke you just don’t get? That sort of approximates my life in the sprawl of Kinshasa. For the next year or so, my wife Anne-Claire and I will call this notorious behemoth of a failed state home. I couldn’t be happier – to live […]

Afraid of the Shark

The other day, just as I was about to go out on the water on a nine-foot piece of epoxy-covered foam, a man stopped me on the beach. “Aren’t you scared to go out there by yourself?” he said. “Because of the sharks?” I had been trying to forget about them, even though the sun […]