Never Again

I’m writing this post a little ahead of schedule; I don’t know what the situation will be when it goes live. Hopefully better.

The great privilege of being an EFL teacher is that my work brings me into contact with an international clientele. Just since beginning my little business here in Stockholm, I’ve worked with English students from:

  • Hungary
  • Sri Lanka
  • India
  • France
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Spain
  • Iran

That list tilts very heavily towards Iran, actually. I have more Persian* students than from any other country on that list.

As a private tutor, I’ve been invited into my students’ lives in a way that would not happen as a regular school teacher. I work in their homes, I’m invited to their dinners, I meet their friends and family. They’re not just students anymore, or clients. During the lesson, I’m their teacher, but off the clock, I’m their friend. And they are mine.

So I know that my Persian friends have family and friends who immigrated to the United States. A brother, a stepson, a half-brother, a childhood friend. I know that some of them were planning on traveling to the United States in the near future. I know that others were planning on receiving a guest—that brother or stepson or half-brother—who may not yet have full American citizenship. Who may not have renounced their original Iranian citizenship.

All of that makes the recent executive order very personal for me.

I’m now a firsthand witness to how political posturing to appeal to the worst elements of American society has very real, concrete effects on people who have nothing to do with violent religious extremism. The callousness towards Syrian refugees is also disgusting, of course, but it’s not something I encounter on a weekly basis; proximity makes things real in a way that nothing else can.

How will this play out? If I’m invited to join in on a family vacation and pick up some stamps in my passport from Tehran, will I be denied entry into the United States? Will green cards be revoked, and loved ones repatriated? Will their friends and family be forced to renounce their Iranian citizenship?

A line from the cult Easter egg song “Still Alive” packaged at the end of the video game Portal goes:

We do what we must because we can.

I’ve twisted it a little bit, and periodically quote it when JV and I discuss politics.

We do what we can because we must.

I have the great privilege of American citizenship, and it’s clear that it’s no longer enough to just vote. I can call, I can write, I can protest—and now it’s clear that I must. Not only for all kinds of good, vulnerable, voiceless people I can never meet or know, but for the Persian students and friends I sit down with week after week, month after month, year after year. How could I do anything less and still be able to look them in the eye?

*I opt for the word “Persian” in this post because that is the word they use to describe their language and their culture.

Greek and Latin Roots: T and U Base Words

Next up in this series on classical root words in English: root words beginning with the letter “T” and “U”! You can refer to previous lists below if you’d like a refresher. We’re almost finished! The next installment will be the last one (“V”, “X,” and “Z”).

These are all base words; classical affixes will come in a later series.

Base Meaning Example
tang, ting, tig, tact touch tangent, contingent, contiguous, intact
taph grave, tomb epitaph
taur bull Minotaur
techn art, skill, fine craft technique
tempor time temporary
ten, tin, tent, tain hold tenacious, continent, contents, retain
tend, tens, tenu stretch, thin extend, tensile, tenuous
ter(r) land, ground, earth inter (verb), territory
test witness testify
tetra four tetrahedron
thanas, thanat death euthanasia
theater, theatr theater, watch theatrical
the(o) god atheist, theology
therm heat thermal
thes, thet put, place thesis, synthetic
tom cut anatomy
ton tone monotonous
trac(t), treat pull, draw, drag trace, tractor, retreat
trop turn tropics
trud, trus push, thrust intrude, protrusion
turb shake, agitate turbulence
urs bear (animal) ursine

Thoughts on Clozemaster

One of my friends, perpetual Swedish student Henny, brought Clozemaster to my attention. I’ve been using it for a week now—time to share my thoughts on it!

Clozemaster takes the free library of natural language translations available on Tatoeba and turns them into cloze exercises (“fill-in-the-blank” exercises, if you’re not in the ed biz). You can then go through these exercises on the website or the free smartphone app.

The Clozemaster dashboard before logging in.
The Clozemaster website dashboard before logging in.

It also has a nice 8-bit/16-bit aesthetic going on in both looks and sound effects, for anyone nostalgic for old school video games.

You can see that the variety of languages is pretty astounding, though of course some languages have more content than others. Like Tatoeba, you can create an account for free on Clozemaster, and it has no limits on how many languages you can choose to study.

Note: Clozemaster is not for beginners. You need some familiarity with the target language to benefit from the program. Generally, the developer touts Clozemaster as “the next step after DuoLingo.”

Clozemaster dashboard
Clozemaster dashboard

The data is cool, but for me it’s secondary. The important bits are towards the bottom: the section labeled “Fluency Fast Track” and then “Grouped by: Most Common Words.” That’s where you actually do the studying.

The basic difference is that Fluency Fast Track mixes clozes from easy to difficult (and from most common to least common), while the “Most Common Words” group will focus specifically on the 100, 500, 1000, etc. most common words. I like to keep things focused, so I prefer the latter, but either should be fine.

All of the exercises, in the app as well as most browsers, also include text-to-speech audio. It’s not entirely natural, so I wouldn’t use it for phrasing or intonation, but it’s fine for individual words. Also, the web version links every word in the phrase to Forvo (in addition to Google Translate, Wiktionary, and Tatoeba), where you can hear actual humans pronounce the word in question.

The wrinkle that I really appreciate is that you can play a cloze exercise in two modes: multiple choice or text input. The text input option is really important because it forces you to move a word from your passive vocabulary to your active vocabulary. If you want to challenge yourself with the text input option, I’d recommend setting Clozemaster to show you the L1 translation along with the question (rather than after you answer), so you know if it’s “What’s his name?” or “What’s her name?”.

There is also a smartphone app that, like Anki, connects your browser-based account (and all of its progress) with your smartphone:

Clozemaster app dashboard
Clozemaster app dashboard

If you pay for a Clozemaster Pro account, you have the option of downloading the “Fast Track” lessons directly to your phone; otherwise everything is in the cloud, so the app is useless if you can’t connect to the Internet. There are other little bells and whistles you get in the pro account as well: listening comprehension practice, the ability to focus on specific parts of speech, more data, the ability to export into Anki, etc. At $60, it’s not a bad investment at all.

Do you use Clozemaster? Follow me!


I’m fairly sure that “inauguration” is only a spelling word for so many American schoolchildren because of its political associations. Likewise, I’m sure that most Americans hardly ever use it—usage probably spikes every four years, in January, and then probably fades out again.

The verb form is inaugurate:

1. to induct into an office with suitable ceremonies.

2a. to dedicate ceremoniously; observe formally the beginning of
2b. to bring about the beginning of

The word comes from the Roman practice of augury, which we more typically today call divination or (even more plainly, fortune-telling). This particular form was based on the flight of birds, and was one of variety different divination methods employed by the ancient Romans. The word augur itself is thought to have its roots in aug (“to increase; to prosper”). As in, it was a way to find out how to increase the nation’s good fortune and how they could prosper.

If an important action was to be undertaken in Rome, including ascensions to new political positions or some general public enterprise or project, an augures publicii was consulted in a ceremony of pomp and circumstance.

Today, in the United States, we keep the pomp and circumstance of inaugurate but not the superstition. Instead, the word has retained a sense of “first” and “beginning.” Curiously enough, without the in- prefix, augur still retains its divination-related meaning:

1. to foretell especially from omens
2. to give promise of; presage

So watch the birds today, during the Presidential inauguration, to see if they augur anything good.

Greek and Latin Roots: S Base Words

After a book break, I’m back with more linguistic roots from Greek and Latin. These are all of the base words that begin with S. (Suffixes and prefixes will come later.) For a review, you can browse old entries.

Base Meaning Example
sanct(u) holy, sacred sanctuary
scend, scens step, climb descend, ascension
scop look, watch microscope
scrib, script write scribe, scripture
sec(t) cut, slice secant, section
secut, sequ follow prosecute, sequel
sed, sid, sess sit, settle sediment, reside, session
semi one half semicircle
sent, sens think, feel sentence, sensation
seps, sept infection sepsis, antiseptic
serv, servat save, keep, serve servile, reservation
sex six sextet
sist stand persist
sit food, feed parasite
sol(i) alone, only, one solitaire
solv, solut free, loosen dissolve, solution
somn(i) sleep insomnia
son, sound sound resonate, resound
soph wisdom, wise philosophy
sorb soak absorb
spec, spic, spect watch, look at specimen, conspicuous, spectacle
(s)pir breathe perspire, expire
sta, stanc, stat stand stable, stance, static
stle, stol send epistle, apostle
strain, strict, string tie, bind, squeeze restrain, restrict, stringent
stru, struct build construe, destruction
sui (swi) pig, hog swine

Paraskevidekatriaphobia: Big Words in English

Big words are fun, aren’t they? Of course they make you sound smart, and they might be handy in a game of Scrabble or Words With Friends, but (at least in English) they often have a specificity that is in and of itself fascinating.

The hyper-linguistic polysyllabic speech association!

If you’re an English student, I admit that precisely because of this specificity many of this words don’t exactly have “high coverage.” In other words, they’re not very useful. But they’re fun, and they can still be useful as a learning tool. Most of the words in English that you would consider “big” aren’t just random collections of letters; rather, they’re collections of different smaller words or word pieces (bases and affixes). The strategy you use to learn about or understand a word like paraskevidekatriaphobia can be applied to shorter, less complex words you might actually encounter in your life or in your studies.

So, in honor of paraskevidekatriaphobia, I’m going to spend every Friday the 13th looking at bigwords! Starting, of course, with paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Now, let’s assume that you didn’t already know that it means “fear of Friday the 13th.” Could you figure it out?

The first and biggest clue is in the last little word piece (or morpheme, if you want to be technical): phobia. Fear. If you know that, then you know that a phobia is a fear of something. You might have seen arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or claustrophobia (fear of small spaces) before, as those seem to be fairly common fears. There’s a whole list of different phobias, in fact, if you feel like whiling away an afternoon.

If you know that “phobia” comes to English, via Latin, from the Greek word for fear (phobos), you might think to look at the rest of the word through a Greek lens: paraskevidekatria-. As it turns out, this would be the right way to go. Paraskevi is Greek for Friday, and dekatreis refers to the number 13. While “paraskevi” might be somewhat obscure, at least for those who don’t speak Greek*, in “dekatreis” one can see connections to other common roots: decem and decim for “ten,” and tri for “three.”

So, do you suffer from paraskevidekatriaphobia? Or how about somniphobia? Nyctophobia? When I was a child, I had a pretty bad case of agyrophobia: fear of streets. (Don’t worry. I got better!)

A final point on phobias: since the word has crystallized into the language both as “fear” and “aversion” (see, for example, homophobia and Islamophobia to refer to attitudes that aren’t the traditional irrational fear of a phobia, but rather a cultural and/or personal revulsion), English has taken a tendency to take words from other languages and stick them on the end. Not just with phobia, either; there is a tendency to mix different languages. But that’s what makes English so fascinating!

*While writing up this blog post, I wondered if the para- in “paraskevi” might have the same root as pent (five), as in the fifth day of the week (much like the Russian names for the weekdays), but this turned out not to be the case. The word is related to the Greek word “to prepare” and apparently is named after Friday preparations for the Sabbath.

Book Review: Both Flesh and Not

The posts here have been very book-heavy recently. While I don’t feel I should, exactly, apologize for that, I feel like I should at least explain it. I did a surprise burst of reading at the end of last year and have been trying to get on top of it now so that my posts for the rest of the year won’t just be catch-up or weirdly untimely (seems a bit pointless to have a GoodReads round-up post in March). The alternative is to not feature my reading here at all, but 1) I feel that my reading, both for fun and for professionalism, is relevant to what I do and 2) I like talking about books.

In that vein, here is the first book I finished in 2017.

Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company

Author: David Foster Wallace

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.85 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Recommended audience: Pop culture junkies, word aficionados, recovering pedants, English nerds

In-depth thoughts: I received this book as part of my book club’s end-of-year book swap, which made for a very pleasant surprise in the mail! Anyone who pokes around my GoodReads profile can see right away that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers—a friend recommended him to me as we both (that is: both Wallace and I) were English/philosophy double majors in college, which I guess is a flimsy reason to like an author; presumably this friend also recommended Wallace because of his brilliant writing, which is a much more solid reason to like an author. Somehow, despite my near-obsession, I never got around to buying this posthumous collection for myself (or even learning of its existence).

More Flesh Than Not is probably more appropriate for English lovers than it is for English students. One can be both, of course, but you really need a borderline unhealthy love for the language to enjoy Wallace’s dense, complex, and sometimes highly stylized writing. Professional language regulators (that is to say: editors, teachers, etc.) might find “Twenty-Four Word Notes” of interest, where Wallace lets his inner pedant have full rein. “The Nature of the Fun” offers solace and something like comfort (maybe) to fellow writers. And anyone who loves reading—like maybe chronically, dysfunctionally, really really loves—will surely appreciate Wallace’s ability to get to the heart of a book in his reviews and to give works the serious look they deserve, from short-form reviews (“Mr. Cogito” and “Overlooked: Five direly underappreciated U.S. Novels >1960”) to in-depth and quite frankly multidisciplinary framings (“The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama”), and anything in between (“Borges On the Couch” and “The Best of the Prose Poem.”)

Finally, this collection uses selections from Wallace’s own word list (assembled while he was working on the Oxford English dictionary) as something like illustrations? section breaks? between each essay. Whether you find that charming or a gimmick depends on taste, I suppose. I fall in the former camp. There’s something very intimate and personal about a glimpse into the words that someone found fascinating, confusing, or anything else necessitating a dictionary consultation. It’s an appropriate touch and I appreciate it.


My Favorite Books of 2016, According to GoodReads

A new year is now well underway, so time to look at the best books I read last year!

On GoodReads, I handed out a total of five 5-star ratings. (This out of 46 books total: I confess to being stingy with my stars.) Two of them went to travel memoirs, two of them went to science writing, and the last one went to a novel. In my GoodReads round-up of 2015, I ordered things chronologically. This round-up will be ordered thematically, as it includes more than just novels.

Travel Memoirs

1. America Day by Day, Simone de Beauvoir; English translation by Carol Cosman

Image courtesy University of California Press

Reading de Beauvoir’s perceptions of the US and its citizens as an American myself was a strange but thoroughly satisfying experience; all the more so during a contentious and (ultimately) disappointing election year. Cosman’s translation is elegant, though I say this without having read the original French. (I do say this, however, with having read Leonard M. Friedman’s translation of The Mandarins and attempting Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier’s translation of The Second Sex.) America Day by Day is treasure trove of insights into the American psyche and quotes and observations that feel as relevant today as they did in the late 40s, coupled with picturesque descriptions of the American landscape.


2. The Road to Mecca, Muhammad Asad

Image courtesy Fons Vitae

The Road to Mecca is half travel memoir and half religious conversion story. If it was bittersweet to read about de Beauvoir’s frustration with cynical and disaffected American youth (passages that might well have been written today), it was heartbreaking to read about Asad’s travels through cities like Damascus and Aleppo–passages that never could have been written today. As rhetoric in the US and Europe surrounding Muslim immigrants and refugees becomes more and more inflamed, books like Asad’s become more and more necessary.


Science Writing

3. Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, Jo Marchant*

Image courtesy Broadway Books

The subtitle there is unfortunate, as Marchant never promotes the kind of message you see in things like The Secret (i.e. “You just need to want to cure your cancer!”). Instead, she takes a look at all of the ways the placebo effect can mitigate illness and promote health, and how it can be incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Marchant thoroughly documents her journalism and seeks out patients, scientists, and health professionals alike.

4. What is Fat For? Re-Thinking Obesity Science, Ignatius Brady, MD*

Image courtesy Ignatius Brady

In my non-professional life, I practice and promote body positivity, which led me request this book from NetGalley. What is Fat For? ties together years of bariatric medicine research and experience. The book is remarkable not only for its level-headed insight, sympathy, and avoidance of hype, but for its outstanding quality as a self-published book. This is fodder for another post, probably, but I will say this here: my problem with the increase of self-publishing authors is that many of them, especially new authors, do not put in the effort or the expense to put out the highest quality of work possible. What is Fat For? is the first self-published book I’ve read that is just as polished and well-written as anything from one of the Big 5. More importantly, I think it could be a valuable part of the body positivity movement’s toolkit.


5. The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin

Image courtesy Orbit Books

Through what must have been countless hours of effort, Jemisin managed to produce an eminently readable, beautiful novel while hitting many of popular literature’s recent trends (post-apocalyptic dystopias). I’ve been a nerd for as long as I can remember; this includes all of the attendant stereotypes about taste in literature. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve become rather picky. Sturgeon’s Law aside, it does seem like there is a tendency for genre authors to allow the whiz-bang of their chosen genre to make up for pedestrian writing. Not so with Jemisin and The Fifth Season, which is maybe best described as a post-apocalyptic fantasy take on Beloved. I don’t know how I managed to forget to put up a review here; I’ll have to fix that posthaste. (Possibly I’ll wait until I finish reading the entire trilogy.)

There you have it! My best books of 2016. What were yours? Comment or tweet @KobaEnglish!

*indicates I received a free ebook copy from NetGalley in exchange for a review. Both of those reviews have already appeared elsewhere.

Book Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I have a tendency to avoid really popular books. This is something I suppose I should change if I ever become a full-time gymnasium English teacher, but for now I read for enjoyment and for professional development. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian definitely qualifies as “really popular.” But once in a while all of the hype and praise makes me curious, so when I saw it in the teen section of my local library, I knew that I had to see if it was any good.


Image courtesy Little, Brown and Company 

Author: Sherman Alexie

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.11 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Plot summary: Junior tells the story of his first year at an all-white high school outside the Spokane reservation, complete with cartoon illustrations.

Recommended audience: This is marketed as a young adult book, but I think adults can enjoy it as much as teenagers.

In-depth thoughts: My only previous experience with Sherman Alexie was “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and the movie Smoke Signals. It was homework for my freshman year creative writing workshop. Our assignment was to read the story, watch the movie, and then write about the differences between the two. I don’t remember much about either the story or the movie except that I wasn’t particularly blown away by either of them. That’s probably part of why I put off reading Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for so long.

Whatever was distant, disconnected, and impersonal for me in “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and Smoke Signals was immediate and personal for me in Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Maybe it has something to do with the universality of high school experience? Even if I’ve never been the only Native student in a white, wealthy high school, I’ve often felt like the only something in high school. Maybe it was Junior’s distinctive voice. Maybe it was just my mood. Whatever.

The illustrations are a nice touch. It has something of a Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel, though not nearly so heavy on the “attempting to look like an actual diary” aspect.

Word of the Year, 2017: Courage

There’s something about new beginnings, especially new years, that inspires people to make changes. Improve themselves.

Of course, people are notoriously bad at sticking with their new year’s resolutions. I have a better track record than most—because I’ve never been much for resolutions to begin with. I just do my thing, you know?

Towards the end of 2015 (or maybe the beginning of 2016?), I came across a lot of online discussion around the idea of, instead of resolutions, having a yearly word or mantra. The word focus jumped out at me before I even decided to commit myself to that idea; focus became my guiding word throughout 2016. It’s hard to do any kind of compare and contrast, of course, since I can’t exactly go back and relive 2016 without keeping the idea of focus in mind, but I like to think that I became marginally more productive and maybe even happier? Enough so that I decided to choose another word for 2017: courage.

It’s kind of scary to move to another country, to try to establish yourself as a freelance professional, to live in a world with Donald Trump and Jimmie Åkesson and UKIP, but you can’t really opt out of the scary bits. Too many times I’ve had an idea for something, or an urge to do something, only to ignore it because it might be difficult or I might make an ass of myself. Reminding myself of my own courage will get at least some of those things done; being inspired by the courage of others will maybe make it a little easier.

But the word itself, “courage.” Where does it come from?

English lifted it from Old French’s corage, meaning “heart; innermost feelings; temper.” And as you trace the word back through to proto Indo-European, this connection with both the physical organ of the heart and the more abstract notion of a person’s heart as their innermost strength and desire. Even as the English usage of “courage” refers to something like bravery, and being unafraid, it has a historic connection with the self in a way that “brave” does not—”brave” traces its roots through synonyms for bold, savage, wild, and other descriptions of behavior rather than character. (And behavior that is most likely reckless or even endangering.)

When facing uncertain times and an uncertain future, it’s important to remember you are, in your heart and in your core, so that you don’t compromise your most cherished principles.

Do you have a word of the year for 2017?