Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Archive for the category “Spirituality”

Connecting meditation and language learning

I come to you almost two weeks after finishing my first meditation retreat.  This was for a technique called Vipassana, which is one of the most ancient forms of meditation from India.  Until about a year ago I had never heard of it, and until about two weeks ago I knew nothing about it.  I had tried several meditation techniques, never getting real direction and only getting frustrated in the process.  Maybe you relate.  Like everyone who starts, I was trying to stop my mind, but how can you do that really? And especially when you have a mind that will never seem to stop running? They say “mente a mil” in Spanish, literally the idea of your mind being at “speed one thousand.”

I am no expert and am pretty young in the meditation world honestly, but I now understand the point and have experienced some real results of my own.  Meditation can be practiced in many forms: in cleaning, drawing, focusing on breath, counting breath, scanning the body for sensations, the list goes on.  You are simply learning to observe your mind rather than stopping it, and each technique has a different approach on how to do it.  By observing, you become aware, and awareness is the first step to any kind of change.

Now I want to talk about language learning, and of course since this is a language blog!  A wise woman once taught me about this thing that happens when acquiring language.  First you become aware of a mistake you are making either on your own or with a teacher´s help. Then you get repeated correction from a teacher (and realize just how much you are making that mistake.) Thirdly, you start to correct yourself, and finally, the error is no longer an error and has been converted, corrected, transformed…however you want to call it.  There is something in linguistics called “fossilization” which is an error that has happened so much or was never learned correctly to begin with that it has “hardened” so to speak, leaving an imprint as a fossil does.  It´s a mistake that a student has made so many times that it has become part of their natural speech, for example.  In the world of meditation, you could call it taking root.

As I worked to find my bliss at the Vipassana retreat, I realized it wasn´t bliss at all really.  It was hard work sitting up for hours at a time and trying to focus.  I had some moments of bliss but there is nothing like the bliss of seeing some change in your life.   I “scanned my body” (and for anyone who has done it, you know what I mean) and throughout the week thoughts came to me, things I hadn´t thought about in years and others that came around and around again.  Some of these thought patterns we all have seem impossible to change, just like a fossilized mistake!

So I´m back to the real world, the hectic world that it is.  Those ten days in silence enjoying nature, finding inner peace, and searching for the right meditation position were blissful now that I compare it to the city noise.  Maybe it is  just that I´m back to the typical routine, and it feels intense because I had never calmed my mind like that before?  Why do we meditate really?  To find peace, tranquility…equanimity… equanimity… equanimity.  We do it to change our minds and to evolve, because you can evolve past the broken record that goes on and on in your head.  Awareness is the key to any kind of freedom, even freedom from language mistakes.  You too can correct and evolve past fossilized mistakes.  It just takes some work.

I had many days to sit and meditate and admittedly think about other things too.  One thing I thought about was this blog post in fact and the connection to fossilized mistakes and roots in our mind.  These things can change… it just takes some work.

meditation one

This is how you grow


A New World

“Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.”

New world with clouds


The new Pope loves God, football, and maybe potatoes

Yesterday was a big day for the Catholic Church and for Catholics around the world, especially those in Latin America as the new Pope was revealed for the world to see.  Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio made history as the first non-European pope of the modern era, the first from Latin America, the first Jesuit, and the first to use the name Francis.  The name Francis is in honor of St. Francis of Assisi who is known among Catholics for his work with the poor.

Pope Francis himself is 76 and has served as the archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998.  He represents a highly conservative perspective, examples being his clashing with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over opposition to gay marriage and free distribution of contraceptives.  Of the word’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Latin America is home to 480 million.  This new Pope brings together the first world and the developing worlds.  Also being of the Jesuit order, it represents a new chapter for the Catholic Church.

The news certainly represents a new chapter for Latin America and Argentina specifically.  Not long after the news was released I heard bells ringing from nearby churches, horns honking on the streets and of course the social networks were flooded with opinions.  Argentina is a predominantly Catholic country but like many countries, there are many people who are disenchanted with the ways of the church.  For this and other reasons, news from Porteños (the people of Buenos Aires) was mixed.  Many celebrated with other believers and others were embarrassed for the country.  One friend of mine said, “Yo hoy quisiera ser uruguaya!”  (Today I wanted to be Uruguayan.)

Regardless of religious beliefs, one cause for strong criticism is the now-Pope’s alleged role in Argentina’s last military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 where an estimated 30,000 people were killed and disappeared. The Argentine Church and Bergoglio, due to his position in the local Jesuit Order at the time, have been accused of ignoring the victims despite their relatives first-hand accounts of kidnappings, torture, and deaths.  Here are some comments regarding yesterday’s news, from Argentinians and other Latin Americans, with corresponding picture that are making their rounds in social network land.

  • “Ahora van a ser mas agrandados aún!” (Now they’re going to be even more full of themselves.) (Chilean)
  • Brace yourselves, now Argentines will feel more Godlike than ever!! (Ecuadorian)
  • Según recientes estadísticas ahora de cada 10 argentinos, 11 se sienten superiores a los otros 10. (According to recent stats, now of every 10 Argentines, 11 is going to feel superior to the other 10.) (Colombian)

Pope and Asado

  • Hay un viejo chiste que describe la fama de arrogantes que los argentinos tenemos entre latinoamericanos y españoles: “Dios es argentino”. Hoy ese chiste adquirió un nuevo significado… (There is an old joke that describes the infamous arrogance that Argentinians have with other Latin Americans and Spaniards. “God is Argentinian.”  Today this joke has new meaning.) (Argentinian)

Dios en Argentino

  • Dios es Argentino y ahora el Papa también!!!jaja (God is Argentinian and now the Pope too – haha.) (Argentinian)
  • “El Dios del fútbol es argentino y ahora, también el Papa es argentino”. (The God of football is Argentinian and now also the Pope is Argentinian.) (Maradona)

Maradona approves

  • Que el Papa sea Argentino confirma que Dios es Maradona. (Now that the Pope is Argentinian, it confirms that Maradona is God.)(Argentinian)

maradona number

  • La verdad me da mucha bronca que una persona que fue cómplice de la dictadura ahora sea Papa; de todas formas, no tiene nada de raro, esa institución nunca tuvo nada que ver ni con la religiosidad ni dios sino todo lo contrario. (The truth is it really pisses me off that a person that was an accomplice of the dictator now is Pope; anyway it’s not strange, this institution never had anything to do with religion nor with God, but only the opposite.) (Argentinian)
  • Bergoglio sigue siendo investigado por la participación de la Iglesia en delitos de lesa humanidad. Ni olvido, ni perdón. (Bergoglio continues being investigated for the (Catholic) church’s participation in crimes against humanity. Neither do I forget nor forgive.) (Argentinian)

Pope with Dictator

  • Que Dios bendiga e ilumine al nuevo Papa. Primer Papa latinoaméricano! (May God bless and enlighten the new Pope.  The first Latin American Pope!!) (Colombian)


With such big news and many jokes to be made relating this to Argentine culture, the photos and jokes won’t stop.  Here’s a few for you, and if they don’t make sense, google Argentina and you’ll find out why.

Pope Francis with San Lorenzo pennant

Messi and Maradona and Sisteen chapel

Pope and Messi

parilla built in

The new communion - fernet

And then there was a very unfortunate typo, or was it photoshopped?

PS – You don’t need to speak Spanish to see the typo.


And like Spanglish Exchange Buenos Aires picture, I can’t bare to not include the following picture for your reference.  The Spanish word for potato “Papa” is also the same word for Pope. The difference is in the article. (Potato = la papa, Pope = el Papa).

Potatoe and pope

From cigarettes to hurricanes, words from the Mayas

The Mayas are one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.  Spanning more than 3,000 years in Central America, archaeologists have now determined that the earliest Maya communities were established on the Pacific coast of Mexico around 1,800 BC.

Although the Mayas are known for many things, including a sophisticated agricultural systems that sustained crops, mathematics—including the concept of zero, extremely accurate astronomical observations, and the infamous calendar which ends this year, it is the Mayan writing system that some say is their greatest achievement.

The Mayan writing system resembles the Ancient Egyptian writing system with hieroglyphs, and it is the only known written language in the pre-Columbian Americas that corresponded directly with the spoken language of the people.  Between the five Central American countries where the Mayas predominantly lived and live (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize) there were close to 30 languages spoken; these languages were spoken up to the arrival of the Europeans.  Although many of the languages began to disappear with the decline of the civilization, neither did all the languages nor the people fully disappear, unlike some other ancient civilizations.

Today, there are approximately 6 million indigenous Mayas still speaking one of the Mayan languages. In Guatemala for example, there are 21 known Mayan languages, while there are eight others in Mexico.  Modern Mayan languages come from a 5000-year old language called Proto-Mayan, which the chart below shows as the starting point.  Here are some rough stats on the Mayan languages that still live:

  • Yucatec Maya: 740,000 people in Mexico and 5,000 in Belize
  • K’iche’: About 2.3 million people in Guatemala
  • Q’eqchi: 400,000 speakers in Guatemala, 12,000 speakers in El Salvador, and 9,000 speakers in Belize
  • Mocho’: Only spoken by about 170 people in Mexico while the
  • Lakantun: Only around 1,000 speakers in Mexico
  • The Chicomuceltec language is already extinct.


The Mayas impacted the world in great ways, and continue to, even today.  Remnants of the great civilization are still seen beyond the borders of Central America and beyond the calendar notification that the world awaits, because there are remnants of the Mayas in modern day languages… even English!

A “loan word” (préstamo in Spanish) is a word that is borrowed (taken really) from one language and incorporated into another language.  Sometimes loanwords carry the same meaning, like salsa or plaza in English, ‘borrowed’ from Spanish.  Other times their meaning changes slightly in the new language, such as macho or burrito—which literally mean male and little donkey in Spanish.  Other loanwords adopt new spellings but carry the same meaning, such as chocolate and coyote, which are both Aztec words from the language Nahuatl (originally spelled xocolatl and koyotl).

Some examples of loanwords from Mayan languages in modern Spanish include cigarro (from the Mayan word siyar) and the name of the country Belize from the Mayan word baliz for muddy waters.  Look here for Spanish words of Mayan origin listed in RAE’s dictionary.

Influence of the Mayas is also seen in English believe it or not, with words such as shark from the Yucatec word xoc/xook for “fish”; cigarette, which was already referenced above with the Spanish equivalent cigarro; cocoa for the Mayan word kakaw, and hurricane (which we hope doesn’t mysteriously appear tomorrow, on 12/21/2012.)  The word hurricane comes from the root of the Classic Maya deity Jun Raqan associated with storms and wind.  The word is said to have entered English indirectly, through Spanish and/or Carib.

So perhaps you reject any prophecy or opinion about December 21, 2012 and think that nothing will happen, or perhaps you hoarded food and water in preparation.  Whatever you believe about tomorrow, the Mayas are ever present; they left a permanent mark on the world for their great wisdom and knowledge.  Many of their descendants still live today and speak their words, like many of us–we just don’t know it.

One thing about tomorrow is most definitely true:

Mayan calendar - edited










Other sources used:

English/Mayan dictionary:

Love: A Universal Language

I write to you the morning after my brother’s wedding, my one and only brother Ian, who means the world to me.  A few years ago now when I left for Argentina, I told him, “You are going to meet someone, I just know it.”  Little did I know it would be such a beautiful and wonderful woman – Celia.  The two met, and right away they knew there was something special brewing.  In American culture, or better-yet the dating culture, we talk about the compulsory “3-days” after meeting to call back.  As the ‘preacher’ (aka good friend Derek) put it, Ian waited about “3 minutes.” 🙂

This is where everyone in the movie says, “Awwww.”

One of many attempts to define love was the book The Five Love Languages, which I have heard of but admittedly have not read.  According to Dr. Gary Chapman, the five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service and Physical Touch.  The book states that we all have a primary love language in which we best feel loved.  I imagine the author also talks about our individual language as well in how we express and give love.

Now call this post cheesy, but I’m in that mood.  People have different ways of showing their love based on culture, upbringing, personality, creativity or generosity, to name a few.  I think sometimes we don’t recognize love if it’s not the way we would express it, or perhaps Dr. Chapman has a point in the fact that we don’t recognize it because it’s not the way we need to be loved.

Whatever the answer is, one solution is to learn enough about the person and people you love to love them the way they best feel loved.  (Forgive the overuse of the word ‘love.’ in that sentence but I had my reasons.)  Loving the other in the way they need to be loved is selfless, which some call love in itself, and by doing this we also learn new ways of expressing love.  In a world filled with differences, this is what allows love to be a universal language, because we’d all agree that it’s easy to love those that are the same as us.

Destiny and Destination: A Case of Yin and Yang

I enjoy philosophizing and pondering the mysteries of life, so it was no surprise many years ago when I brought a book of questions on a camping trip, to think about around the fire.

  • Is happiness made or found?

To me it’s the same as asking what matters more, the destination or the journey?  English calls ‘destiny’ and ‘destination’ by two separate words, like them being two different things entirely, where in Spanish they are but one word, the same word-destino.  Of course you know by context which you are talking about, but it led me to think just how different are these two things?

A student described destiny as “something you can’t control,” and destination as “something you can control.”  So perhaps this is an example of the ying and yang, two opposite forces coexisting in the same word?  Then there’s the concept of fate and destiny already being determined for you, so why try to control anything?

One could ponder for hours on this topic and don’t tempt me!  But one thing I want to say is that I see this language reflection in culture.  In my experience thus far living in Latin America, I see people living more in the moment, many times because they have to.  Their resources, the government or the economy (all three interconnected) don’t allow them to plan their future destinations, or when they try to a crisis hits which keeps them where they are.  Many in Argentina tell you they’re use to living in crisis so they’ve become accustomed to problem solving in the moment.

There are people of all kinds both here in Buenos Aires and in the United States, so it’s unfair to generalize, but I don’t think many people would disagree that American culture requires you to think of and plan for the future.  It requires you to think about where you’re going to end up, because much of the lifestyle is built around this idea.  One good factor is that usually the country was stable enough to allow you to plan.  Key word: “usually” and not always.

Language is a critical part of any culture and I think we’d all be fooling ourselves if we didn’t believe there was a deep connection between language and culture.  The better question, one for the next camping trip: which influences which-language influencing culture or culture influencing language?

  • “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” ~ Henry Miller

Different Language, Different Perspective

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Austrian-British philosopher


Diff language diff perspective-use this

We Waited 30 Minutes

was a cheerleader and am a cheerleader at heart. I mean, it’s in my DNA to encourage those around me, and especially to encourage them never to lose hope.  I can do this only because I lean on my own experience where hope was at times all I had.

The Bible states that hope is the anchor of our souls, but what does that mean when the anchor doesn’t seem to hold and our boat is being tossed by the wind and waves?  What does it mean when we wait without getting any service? (This will make more sense seeing the picture below.)  It’s hard to have hope sometimes, and that’s a fact; and sometimes, or most of the time, it’s easier to have hope for others than for ourselves—another fact.  But I believe hope is real, and I know that sometimes hoping is all we can do.

Call it a cliché and give up, but what could you be missing?

  • The best meal of your life?
  • Or maybe a free dessert?

In English, there is but only one word to represent this curious thing we call hope, but in Spanish the verb “esperar” means not only to hope, but also to wait for, and to expect.  All three of these actions are not only related, but they are encompassed in the same word!  That’s a discovery indeed and a little nugget that I will carry with me next time life demands that I wait longer than I want.

The Snake Trail

They are not the most attractive animals, and certainly aren’t cuddly.   They technically played a part in introducing ‘sin’ to the world according to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Let’s face it, snakes have a negative connotation symbolically, especially in western cultures with Christian roots.  So naturally some people would look at this picture and automatically think it’s a sign of a bad ending.

I still tend to think this, but I also saw something else in this picture. Snakes shed their skin; they shed the old to make way for the new and are a symbol of rebirth and transformation.  Why couldn’t this picture depict transformation along the road, along the journey?  To many others it does depict just this.  Snakes are known for wisdom, which is even referenced in the Bible.  …Be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. ~Matthew 10:16

Naga is a Sanskrit word for a deity or being that comes in the shape of a very large snake in Hinduism and Buddhism.  The Naga represents primarily rebirth, death and mortality, due to the shedding of its skin and then being symbolically “reborn”.  The example of the Naga is a positive use of the snake symbolically.  The king of snakes, Mucalinda, was the one that protected the Buddha as he sat in meditation.

This explanation is just hitting the surface of the many symbols and therefore meanings that serpents carry throughout the world and in different myths.  The point is that the “Snake Trail” may not lead to an awful ending as many religions have conditioned people to think.  In turn, it could lead to a beautiful ending filled with growth and transformation along the way.  It’s up to you to decide; undoubtedly you hold some meaning for a snake, as we all do.

Conclusion: Language isn’t all verbal.

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