The Power of a Bilingual Brain

My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon (by now, my not-so-secret weapon), has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. And, as I believe in the literary adage “show, don’t tell,” here is one of our latest exchanges to help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap.

I sent Susan a new Op-Ed, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”

Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!

Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?

Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where on (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. 🙂

Me – You are such a great influence in me!

Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t catch a break.

In my defense, (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s on a continent but in a country; in Manhattan but on Long Island. Come on! (Or should I go with “Come in, take a seat. Experience life as a second language learner!”)

Over the years, I have repeatedly studied the many rules that regulate prepositions trying to discover the patterns that elude me to no avail. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally-perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, says that, according to her research, 5 and 6 year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work? Dr. Bialystok explains:

“There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

After reading this interview a few months ago, I felt a little bit better about my failures and began to plot a strategy. I was thinking of just mumbling something that sounds in-between on/in something like… “en” (which is the preposition we use in Spanish for both “in and on”) so nobody can tell which preposition I’m using. I was getting ready to start using my new solution when Susan called me out on doing something similar with two other pairs of words.

Susan – “Do you know the difference between ‘run’ and ‘ran’ and between ‘hang out’ and ‘hung out’? Because you always seem to mumble them and I always wonder which one you meant. I’m starting to think that you just don’t know which one is which.”

Me – “I just go with the same pronunciation for both because I can’t hear the difference between the present and the past tense and I can’t be bothered.”

Susan – “Well, that’s like me saying ‘ella fui a su casa’ instead of ‘ella fue a su casa’ and telling you I can’t be bothered,” she said using as an example the wrong conjugation of the verb “to go” in Spanish. Now that got my attention.

So, I’ve decided to practice my pronunciation of present and past tense for these two verbs because I believe the tense of the verb is often critical to understanding the meaning of what you’re saying.

But when it comes to on/in, I’ll let that slide in support of Dr. Bialystok’s research. It’s now obvious to me that my bilingual brain doesn’t identify those two as relevant information.

This article was first published in the Huffington Post.

The Office Party: Do’s and Don’ts

I’ve seen my fair share of people who forget where they are with and after a couple of drinks start making off-color jokes or inappropriate comments, not to mention those who end up in embarrassing situations with co-workers only to suffer from alcohol-induced amnesia the next day. So, here are a few tips to make the most out of this year’s holiday office party while still keeping your job!

• Dress appropriately. Yes, you want to wear something nice, but don’t go overly sexy. It’s good to flaunt your curves in a social environment but this is still a work related affair, even when it is a social event. Kill them with your moves on the dance floor instead!

• Try to limit your alcohol consumption to one drink. That way you get to relax, and you stay in control of your tongue. The wrong question, a snide comment, or a misplaced funny answer can cost you later. It’s much safer to keep your judgment intact regarding when to use your sense of humor and when to avoid it.

• Watch your manners. So, don’t stuff your face with that delicious shrimp, take your time. Don’t cut the line to order your drink, instead take advantage of the opportunity to chat with others who are standing right next to you.

• Enjoy the evening and work the room. These parties are ideal places to become reacquainted with people you haven’t seen all year long, and to get introduced to some contacts that may offer great opportunities in the future.

• Exchange business cards with your new friends. It’s okay to do that even at a holiday party.

I’ve made some of my best connections at end-of the year parties. Everyone’s relaxed, in a good mood and with a little bit more time to engage in meaningful conversations. Take advantage of that and get ready to start a new year in full gear.

This article first appeared in Mamiverse.

Secret Santa: 7 Golden Rules for Giving

See, Secret Santa is not only about saving the money and the hassle it would entail to shop for all your colleagues. It’s also about building camaraderie and showing that you care about our co-workers. So your attitude towards the whole game impacts your image. Are you thoughtful? Did you bother to buy something appropriate for the person whose name you drew out of the hat? Or are you re-gifting something you got stuck with last year?

Here are 7 golden rules that will help you be the best Secret Santa you can be:

1. Stick to the price limit.This rule applies regardless of who you’re shopping for. It’s tempting to go over the limit established by your group (usually $10-$20) when you’re shopping for your boss, but that can be construed as brown nosing. If you’re buying for someone who is a close friend outside of the office, you may want to get that person two gifts. One as their Secret Santa and another one as their friend.

2. Be a good observer. It’s easier to shop for people you work with closely than for the people you never see except at the Christmas party. Nevertheless, if you walk by their work space, or spend a few minutes talking to them or their colleagues, you might discover that they are sports fans, that they love dogs or that they are coffee drinkers. That should give you good clues for an appropriate gift that will be appreciated.

3. Avoid shopping at dollar stores. Items that look like they came from a dollar store spell “cheap and careless.” You don’t want those words to become your new brand. You may find some great gifts at discount stores such as Target or TJMaxx and make a much better impression.

4. Avoid items that can be perceived as sexual. Whether you’re trying to make a joke or not, stay away from off-color books, any intimate apparel, videos, or other gifts that the person can interpret as a come-on. Even when you happen to have that kind of relationship with the co-worker you’re gifting, it’s best to buy something less controversial.

5. Be aware of cultural differences. Not everyone in your office will appreciate a little porcelain collectible of a manger, a basket with meats and cheeses or one with perfumed soaps and bath salts. Keep these sensibilities in mind.

6. Wrap your gift nicely. A good presentation adds value to your gift and shows that you care about the person. Don’t skip this step.

7. Don’t fret over it. Once you have the name of the person, take a day or two to figure out what their interests are and write down a list of optional gifts. This is particularly important for people you don’t know or people you don’t like. The more you keep it in your head, the harder it seems to get the appropriate gift.

Above all, the holiday season is a time to show your caring side—both at home and at work. If Secret Santa is the way your office is going, try to make the best out of it instead of considering it a chore. You have the chance to make someone happy, so why not?

This article was originally published in Mamiverse.

Prepare Your Kids for Back to School After the Holidays

Wake Up Early: Start waking the kids up at their normal school time several days before they go back, even if they stayed up late the night before. They will likely have no trouble going to bed on time on days when they woke up early.

Talk About School: Keep school at the forefront of your kids’ minds by talking about it each day of the holiday break. Ask them which friends they are looking forward to seeing when they go back and which classes are their favorites. Read books off your kids’ reading lists then ask them questions about the books. If your kids bring their lunch to school, make a calendar with different food options for the first week when they go back.

Keep the Brain Working: There’s an awesome series of books called Summer Fit Learning which is intended to help kids maintain over the summer what they learned during the year. The website offers lots of games for a “fit brain,” along with reading lists, book reports and entertaining activities. Even though it’s not summer, you will still find lots of things to keep your kids engaged.

Set Goals: As part of New Year’s resolutions, encourage your children to set some school-related goals, such as raising a math grade by five points or making one new friend each month. Set your own goals as well—maybe getting up a few minutes earlier each morning to have lunches packed before waking the kids or to give yourself a half hour to exercise or meditate.

Start Off New: Earmark one of your child’s Christmas presents as a special one for the first day back to school. It may be a new shirt, new shoes, a new backpack, zipper pull or locker decoration. Your child will be eager to get back to school to show the new item to his or her friends.

Getting back to school after the extended holiday break doesn’t have to be as stressful as taking a test. Remember to stick as close as you can to the normal wake-up and bedtime routine during the break, but don’t worry about the times when the holiday keeps you out late—just get back on schedule the next day. Routinely engage them in positive conversations about the return to school while they’re still enjoying their break.

This article was originally published on Mamiverse.