foreign language

How to Get Along with Others

You may wonder, having just read the subject line, what the heck being a nicer person has to do with learning a foreign language! It turns out that in a 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health, bilingual children were generally found to get along more harmoniously with other children, whether in the school environment or at play.

The human brain is still a vast and mysterious frontier, but researchers believe there is a direct correlation between speaking a second language and expanding one's emotional perspective.

It's all about adaptability. As you stretch and expand your mind to embrace new ways of saying things, you are also developing new ways of seeing things. You learn that there is often more than one way to say the same thing, but perhaps more importantly, more than one way to do something or to understand a particular situation.

To quote the founder of an organization I used to work for, simply put:

Different is not wrong.

This simplistic statement actually packs a powerful punch! It can free us of dogmatic and narrow thinking and open our eyes to whole worlds and other perspectives.

So next time you sit down to study that foreign language, just remember that the more you're able to express yourself in another language, the greater chances of your becoming a more flexible, adaptable, and, hopefully, kind person!

As you stretch and expand your mind to embrace new ways of saying things, you are also developing new ways of seeing things.

Married to a WHAT?

Since my philosophy of language teaching is to equip people for LIFE, and not a merely academic exercise, that means you have to be willing to step out INTO real life at the risk of making mistakes. It helps not to take yourself too seriously and trust that other people are more understanding than you might think!

In fact, some of my favorite chuckles are language faux pas (which literally means "false steps" in French), both my own and those of others! Although it's tempting to tell about others' (!), I'll share one of my own with you to start off your week:

I was in Amsterdam, where my wife and I lived for five years. I was having a conversation in Dutch, and was doing pretty well overall. But there are fine points and nuances in every language, and I wasn't quite to that stage of learning yet. A lady and I were talking and discovered we had a mutual friend. The lady said, "He's married now, isn't he?" to which I replied, "Yes, with a baby!"

She died laughing, and I quickly realized what I had done. In English, we say someone is "married, with children". But in Dutch, the prepositions work a bit differently, and what I meant to mean "he is married and has a baby" came out meaning "he is married to a baby"!

Although I suppose faux pas can get a person in trouble every now and then, most of the time, in the long run, they only provide a humorous side to the adventure of learning another language, providing chuckles and great memories for years to come!

Happy learning!

Imagination and foreign language

My wife and I teach a class called Global Studies, and I have to say it's more fun than should be legal! In it we study not only the different cultures of the world, grouped in "clusters", but also contemporary global issues such as the current refugee crisis.

We always tell our students that these things will have MUCH more impact if they actually take the step of imagining themselves in the position of a refugee...or whatever else we happen to be studying. Otherwise, it remains only head knowledge.

Speaking of refugees, one of the biggest challenges they face when arriving in another country is, obviously, the language. Imagine yourself in that position: you have literally fled for your life from your home country, and you find yourself being expected to assimilate into a new culture...and language.

I've had the privilege of meeting a number of refugees who faced that very situation. One of my heroes is named Muhannad, a Syrian scholar of English literature who fled the horrors of the Syrian war as the only way to avoid fighting in Assad's army. Muhannad now lives in Germany, has learned German, and now has a job at one of the most prestigious concert halls in the country, welcoming and serving artists and musicians who come to perform there. And he does it with a smile and with grace.

I of course hope you never find yourself in the position of a refugee. But if you imagine yourself in a situation where your livelihood literally depends on your acquisition of a new language, you might be a little more motivated, right?

Remember, even if you're studying a language to fulfill a requirement, you're really learning for life.

You can do this!

Max's Story

The one thing I enjoy most about teaching is the transformation I often see in my students. So many of them start off with the deer-in-the-headlights look, only to find themselves falling in love with whatever it is they're learning, whether Spanish, French, or Global Studies. Especially with my quasi-immersion approach to foreign language, many of them probably have second thoughts at the beginning about signing up for my class.

But to their credit, they [almost] always stick with it. And time and time again they are rewarded with a surprise grasp of the language after a relatively short time.

Max is the perfect example. As he himself confesses in this short video, he had "little to no interest" in foreign language coming into my class. Now you can't shut the kid up! He's a Spanish machine, soaking up every bit of Spanish he can possibly learn.

What am I doing! I should let you hear Max tell about it himself!

Of course Max is exceptional -- he literally looks for every opportunity to increase his proficiency in Spanish. But I wish I had time to tell you all of the success stories I've seen. I WILL be back to tell you a couple more.

Announcing World to the Wise Academy!


You perhaps already know my blog, or my podcast, or maybe the cultural tours my wife Becky and I lead in the summers. In the same vein of promoting cultural intelligence, we are happy to announce World to the Wise Academy, where we will initially be offering courses on foreign language learning, and later various other aspects of cultural intelligence. Just click here to take a peek -- after you watch this video!

Facing That Foreign Language


Sometimes there are myths that take root and become really difficult to dispel. One of them is the notion that Americans -- and English speakers in general -- are simply not capable of learning a foreign language well. Oh, we all know someone who has done it with some degree of success, but most of us have bought into the idea that "that will never be me." Perhaps I'm not the best person to dispel the myth, as I happen to be one of those foreign language freaks who thrive on tackling a new language. Maybe my wife would make a better spokesperson for the cause. She doesn't consider herself particularly gifted in languages, but when she married me, she signed up for a lifetime of exposure to any number of languages. Over the years we lived in Europe, she became conversant in both French and Dutch, and to this day we use both of these in our house on a regular basis. (Especially when grandkids are not intended to understand.)

I'm in the process of finishing up a brand new online mini-course to help people who are wanting to, about to, or have to study a foreign language. And I have new fodder: I've just undertaken Arabic, using video tutorials and weekly Skype sessions with a Syrian friend in Germany whom Becky and I met last summer when we were there.

The truth is, learning a foreign language is not a super power.

Hard work, yes. But all my years of speaking and teaching languages have given me many insights into how people learn languages -- but also some fundamental elements that are missing in a lot of language methods.

Hence this mini-course. If you're considering starting a foreign language, or have already started but find yourself a wee bit discouraged, this is for you. Just leave your email address in the form below and you'll be on your way to a more successful adventure in learning to speak another language. And believe me, there is nothing more gratifying than another person understanding you when you get up the nerve to practice your new words!

Cultivating Curiosity


We are all born curious. Show me a baby who isn't drawn to shiny objects or who doesn't believe everything is intended to be put in the mouth. Then the baby becomes a toddler and all of a sudden the entire house has to be childproofed. Everything at eye level is fair game to be explored and often dismantled.

As a young child, I was a voracious reader. We were living in Australia, where, at least at the time, there was no kindergarten like we have in the US, and children started right into Grade 1 at the age of five. I was already reading when I started school in Perth, and I remember my teachers scrambling to keep me stocked with books. Seems I couldn't get enough.

As I've written and spoken about before, we moved back to the US halfway through my fourth grade year, and on the return trip my senses were assaulted by the sights and sounds of exotic lands and foreign tongues. Once again, I couldn't get enough.

Then something happened.

The thing is, I don't know what. Somewhere along the line -- perhaps it was puberty -- I lost my love of reading and the curiosity behind that love. Up to that point I remember loving to read about all kinds of things -- I was simply interested in the world and everything in it.

By my high school years my interests had narrowed to two main areas: music and foreign languages. I excelled in all my subjects, but some of them didn't require that much effort. I was indeed hungry to make progress in my two chosen areas, but I don't remember deriving much satisfaction from anything else.

I'm sorry to say my college years were not much different. Music and foreign languages still dominated my brain space (foreign language eventually gained the upper hand) -- along with an overactive social life.

I was well into my years living in Europe that I began to really notice things. To pay attention to a broader array of areas, such as world events and how they affect each other. Or how math and science cannot be entirely separated from, say, music or philosophy, or even theology. In fact, this growing sense that all things are somehow connected has become a driving force in (re)shaping my world view. And my fascination with how other cultures live and think plays right into this.

In this season of my life, I consider it not only an important aspect of my life, but a calling, to somehow create sparks that trigger curiosity in others -- especially curiosity about people from cultures or experiences unlike ours.

Regardless of your political persuasion or the outcome of the 2016 US elections, we all must admit that, now, more than ever, we are in great need of regaining and fostering cultural curiosity. Just as I allowed my mind to become dulled by who knows what -- teenage preoccupations, then too many college friends (yes, I think that's possible), we can as adults allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the familiar. Falling asleep in our own echo chamber.

Is it possible to make someone curious? Perhaps, perhaps not. But just as a parent provides toys, activities and games that appeal to the innate curiosity of a child, we can most certainly make things available to whet the imagination of those who are asleep...while continually feeding the imagination of those who are curious.

Season 2 of the World to the Wise podcast aims to do just that. Stay tuned! If you're already a subscriber, we would appreciate your taking a minute to write a brief review.

What adventures has your curiosity led you to?

A Family Ruined for the Ordinary

World to the Wise Podcast

Meet my friend Dwane Thomas. Dwane and I have known each other for a number of years, and both live and work in the greater Nashville area. But this interview comes to you from Athens, Greece, where Dwane and his family, along with Becky and myself, have been volunteering with and observing some of the work going on among the many refugees stranded or waiting here in Greece. (You can hear more about that in my interview with the amazing Eleni Melirrytou.) But there's more about this remarkable family of seven. Before coming to Athens, they spent two months on the Greek island of Paros. I'll let Dwane tell you how he and his wife Gretchen came to lead their kids on that adventure, as well as how their contact with the refugees here in Athens has changed them. Dwane is also a language freak like yours truly, and we compare notes a little during this interview. He has some advice that you'll want to take to heart, especially if you're student or parent of a student.

At the end of the podcast we talk about the idea of going out into the streets of Athens and having fun reading signs and guessing what they mean. Recommended especially for word nerds!

Next week I'll be coming to you for the last time from Europe, where Becky and I have had our eyes opened, not only on the refugee situation but how it and other factors are changing the face of Europe. All blog posts and podcast episodes for the past several weeks deal with this subject in one way or another.

Now here's the video shot on the Athens streets by Jackson Thomas:

Resources mentioned in this episode:

On Being a Polyglot

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polyglot [pol-ee-glot] (n). A person who speaks, writes, or reads a number of languages. If this podcast is about crossing cultural bridges, learning other languages has been a major vehicle that has helped me cross multiple bridges. Find out here why this is not something to boast about, but, like all gifts, is intended to serve and inspire others.


Be sure to comment! Either here or by email to

Coming next week: being a biracial couple in the American South.

Let the Countdown Begin!


In exactly one month from today, we launch the World to the Wise podcast! I'm looking forward to it for so many reasons. It will give me a chance to connect in a more personal way with friends, readers, and subscribers around the world. And that's the exciting part -- you can listen from practically anywhere on the planet! Sometimes it's easier to SAY what you have to say than to write it. I'll be more spontaneous. In a sense, you'll have a clearer picture of who this David Durham guy is.

The podcast will also give me the opportunity to introduce you to some fascinating people. I've already begun interviewing some of these, and on launch date, April 8, you'll have a chance to meet at least one or two of them. People like Chris Guillebeau, who made it a personal quest to visit every country on the planet. Like Dr. Ming Wang, who escaped the horrors of China's Cultural Revolution to become one of the top pioneering eye surgeons in the world. Or a pair of doctors who have given their lives to bring healing in the hungriest nation on earth.

What do all of my interviewees have in common? All of them have crossed some kind of cultural bridge. Usually voluntarily, sometimes not so much.

In between interviews, I'll be sharing some of my own musings, observations, and stories for the culturally curious. Stories about language, about navigating the changing times we live in, and about discovering cultural gems around the world as well as at home.

I would love for you to join the adventure. This includes writing to me about cultural topics you would like to see addressed. Please leave your comments! What would you like to talk about?

The Unfinished Bridge

Photo: Andrea Schaffer
Photo: Andrea Schaffer

I've seen it so many times.

As I'm sure you do, I know quite a few people who are second generation immigrants to the US. Many are Hispanic, but there are lots of other ethnic and linguistic groups represented. And one of the saddest things I see is when the children speak only English. For whatever reason, the parents stopped speaking their native tongue with the children at some point.

Few would question, of course, the necessity of learning English in order to succeed in the US or any other English-speaking country. But how many parents have unwittingly deprived their children of an entire dimension of their cultural heritage by not raising them bilingually. A bridge unfinished. This is poignantly depicted in this story from PRI's The World in Words. I encourage you to take a listen.

Of course, it's easy for me to judge these people from the outside looking in. I've never felt the extreme pressure to fit in that prevents so many from speaking their native tongue. Many immigrants my age and older came over with parents who were determined that their children would assimilate into mainstream American culture as quickly as possible, so they even stopped speaking their native tongue at home. (In more recent times, it seems the parents tend to maintain their mother tongue more than in previous generations, in such a way that a native Spanish speaker can live an entire lifetime in the US without learning English. That's for another post.) Or sometimes it happened more naturally over a longer period of time. English began to replace the original family language because that's what was happening just outside the front door.

Take my sister-in-law, for example. She is a fourth generation Mexican American. Her parents were both perfectly bilingual and spoke mostly Spanish to the older children. But by the time the younger children came along, including my sister-in-law, the family conversations had morphed into mostly English, with only occasional Spanish words thrown in.

As a result, my sister-in-law was not confident enough in her Spanish to speak it with her own children, who she and my brother would have liked to grow up bilingually. Her two children, my nephew and niece, both look Hispanic, with piercing dark eyes, so many Hispanics address them in Spanish, only to be told they don't speak it.

But the PRI story doesn't stop there, laying the blame squarely on the parents for the fact that their children are monolingual. The child also has choices, as the narrator recognizes at the end. So he goes from saying, "OK, Dad, why did you kill Spanish in our family?" to "OK, I'm the one who killed it." So began his own journey to learning the language of his ancestors.

Do you have a similar story? Or a variation? Tell us about it!

Bill Gates: "I feel pretty stupid that I don't know any foreign language"


Almost all of us have lived long enough to have regrets. Some of those regrets -- like a missed opportunity way back when, or a botched relationship -- we can't always do anything about; but others can be remedied. It's actually surprising what deficiencies in our lives are within our power to correct. Learning a language is one of those. It is never too late. A person like Bill Gates obviously has the challenge of making time for an endeavor such as studying a foreign language. But in reality, all of us face exactly the same challenge: how will we prioritize our time? In this interview Gates salutes Mark Zuckerberg for having learned Mandarin Chinese well enough to hold a Q&A session in China. Remarkable indeed. But even a more cursory knowledge of another language can gain you entry into people's trust -- a commodity not always readily available.

For some practical encouragement on how to go about learning a foreign language, check out my short e-book here.

The Reason for My Madness, Part 2

EPSON scanner image
EPSON scanner image

(For Part 1 to this story, go here.)

We are in the year 1965 and have been aboard the SS Canberra for about two weeks, having sailed from Perth, Western Australia.

Leaving the squalor of Colombo, Sri Lanka behind, we boarded the ship and headed for the tip of the Arabian peninsula, a voyage of several days. Upon docking in the city of Aden, a port city in Yemen, I remember remarking at the sameness of the landscape and cityscape -- all a desert sand color. We children were not allowed to go ashore, so we stayed behind and kept ourselves busy while our parents disembarked for, I suppose, a day of shopping in the suqs. (I don't particularly remember questioning why we had to stay on board the ship; I suspect I didn't question nearly as much then as I do now.)


What followed was a voyage up the Red Sea, from south to north. I remember someone pointing out Mt. Sinai in the distance to the east, and that is the closest I have come to Israel (so far). Our ship then made its way through the Suez Canal to the port city of Alexandria. (I wish I had known then what I do now about that city and the prominent place it once held in civilization.) We somehow ended up in Cairo, where I remember feeling nauseated as we made our way by bus through the hot, narrow streets. I remember only that about the city itself, but as sketchy as my memory is, no 9-year-old can ever forget a camel ride in the desert or climbing the stifling inner staircases of the Giza pyramids.

Our last leg on the SS Canberra took us from Alexandria across the Mediterranean to the Italian port of Naples. I'm sure it was with some regret that we said farewell to the vessel that had been our home for the last three weeks. Whatever stomach bug I had picked up in Egypt followed me to Italy, and I unfortunately had to stay in the hotel with my mother while the rest of the family visited Mt. Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii. (I still haven't made it back there.)

Wherever we went, whether in Asia, the Middle East, or Europe, I remember being enthralled as a nine-year-old with the chatter I heard coming out of people's mouths. This was my first exposure to foreign language, and my mother told me later that I would walk along the streets babbling as if I were speaking the language of the locals. This fascination has not only continued, but shaped my life more than that of any of my siblings.

After Rome, a whirlwind tour through Europe by train.

To be continued....