Multilingual music

playing alone and together

This post is inspired by a beautiful initiative presented by a philharmonic orchestra of Grand Canary, La Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria. Last Sunday, its 79 musicians played and recorded themselves from their homes, apartments, and gardens. Their technicians mixed and edited the audios and videos, to give a magical impression that the orchestra played together.

The performance is stunning musically, technically, and also humanly, and you can watch it here.

One additional aspect struck me as I was reading the final credits: how multilingual the whole endeavour was. The orchestra is Spanish, the conductor is British, the soloist is Latvian, the musicians, judging by their names, are from all over the world, and the music is Gustav Mahler’ Resurrection Symphony.

Classical music is one of the fields where multilingual is normal. A question is often asked whether having a musical ear (which is definitely not my case) helps one to learn foreign language. Singers have to learn texts in a variety of languages paying particular attention to pronunciation and enunciation, and these techniques can be used by simple mortals to improve their accents. Still, between being able to perform in a language differs from speaking it, thus researchers are not certain about the relation between musical and language learning abilities.

More significantly, I think, is that many musicians lead truly multilingual lives: they study abroad, perform all over the world, travel to competitions and festivals, and have international friends, colleagues, and often families. For example, the soloist in the video, Elīna Garanča, who is my favourite opera singer, probably masters at least five languages: Latvian, Russian, English, German, Spanish, and sings also in Italian and French.

On a completely different note, multilingualism in the music world is satirically reflected in a film Prova d’orchestra (‘Orchestra Rehearsal’) by Federico Fellini, where Italian musicians revolt against the conductor, who speaks with a heavy German accent.

Multilingual Spinoza

Castilian Spanish

A new post under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

This passage comes from a book Looking for Spinoza by Antonio Damasio. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, into the Portuguese-Jewish family that settled in the city fleeing the Inquisition. He received traditional Jewish schooling in Hebrew, but his interest in science and philosophy propelled him to learn Latin, in which he later wrote his major works.

Never mind how welcoming Amsterdam was, one cannot imagine Spinoza’s young life without the shadow of exile. The language was a daily reminder. Spinoza learned Dutch and Hebrew, and later Latin, but he spoke Portuguese at home, and either Portuguese or Castilian Spanish at school. His father always spoke Portuguese at work and home. All transactions were recorded in Portuguese, Dutch was used only to deal with Dutch customers. Spinoza’s mother never learned Dutch. Spinoza would lament that his mastery of Dutch and Latin never equalled that of Portuguese and Castilian. “I really wish I could write to you in the language in which I was brought up,” he wrote to one of his correspondents.

Operating in multiple languages, using different languages for different purposes, and working in a language that one knows well enough to appreciate its beauty and power but not well enough to achieve them — I can certainly relate to this.

Multilingual is normal

Oh Lithuania, my fatherland

Today is the International Day of Multilingualism.

The date has not been chosen at random: 27 March, 196 BC, is the date mentioned on the famous multilingual Rosetta Stone. The stone is engraved with a decree in three scripts: hieroglyphic, Demotic, and Ancient Greek, and was instrumental in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs.

To celebrate the International Day of Multilingualism, I am starting a series under the hashtag #multilingualisnormal, in which I will talk about multilinguals, polyglots, and language learners, mentioned in books I am reading or encountered otherwise.

The first example comes from Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004), which I read in a wonderful English translation by Nicholas de Lange.

That’s how Oz describes his family, which came to Israel from Eastern Europe.

Books filled our home. My father could read sixteen or seventeen languages and could speak eleven (all with a Russian accent). My mother spoke four or five languages and read seven or eight. They conversed in Russian or Polish when they did not want me to understand. (Which was most of the time. When my mother referred to a stallion in Hebrew in my hearing my father rebuked her furiously in Russian: Shto s toboi?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami! – What’s the matter with you? You can see the boy’s right here!) Out of cultural considerations they mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.

The picture above is taken in Vilnius, Lithuania, a place frequently mentioned in Oz’ novel, since his father’s family originated there. Speaking multiple languages was common in the region at the time. The monument to Adam Mickiewicz, a great Polish poet, who lived part of his life in Lithuania, reminds us of this linguistic diversity.

Books in the time of pandemic

Venezia, Venedig, Venice

The world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre.

Intellectually, to make sense of how the disease has been spreading, one needs to understand the mathematical principle of exponential growth.

Psychologically, to cope with this uncertainty, one can read about previous disease epidemics.

Diseases, such as plague and cholera, have been striking humanity since time immemorial, and  are used as background and inspiration of many great books.

Here are my favourites:

El amor en los tiempos del cólera (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1985

La Peste (“The Plague”) by Albert Camus, 1947

Пир во время чумы (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) by Alexander Pushkin, 1830

You can read it in Russian here.

The play was written during the first Russian cholera epidemic of 1830. The plot is based on a play “The City of Plague” by a Scottish poet John Wilson, which was inspired by the Great Plague of London (1665 – 1666).

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 5th century BCE

Chapters 2.47–2.54 describe the Plague of Athens, a severe epidemic that devastated the city in 430 BCE, reemerging twice. This text is one of the earliest accounts of a disease epidemic.

Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) by Thomas Mann, 1912

Here is an excerpt from chapter 5, describing the arrival of cholera in the city. The rumours, the denial by the authorities, then first visible signs, and suddenly it is everywhere.

Seit mehreren Jahren schon hatte die indische Cholera eine verstärkte Neigung zur Ausbreitung und Wanderung an den Tag gelegt. Erzeugt aus den warmen Morästen des Ganges-Deltas, aufgestiegen mit dem mephitischen Odem jener üppig-untauglichen, von Menschen gemiedenen Urwelt-und Inselwildnis, in deren Bambusdickichten der Tiger kauert, hatte die Seuche in ganz Hindustan andauernd und ungewöhnlich heftig gewütet, hatte östlich nach China, westlich nach Afghanistan und Persien übergegriffen und, den Hauptstraßen des Karawanenverkehrs folgend, ihre Schrecken bis Astrachan, ja selbst bis Moskau getragen.

Aber während Europa zitterte, das Gespenst möchte von dort aus und zu Lande seinen Einzug halten, war es, von syrischen Kauffahrern übers Meer verschleppt, fast gleichzeitig in mehreren Mittelmeerhäfen aufgetaucht, hatte in Toulon und Malaga sein Haupt erhoben, in Palermo und Neapel mehrfach seine Maske gezeigt und schien aus ganz Calabrien und Apulien nicht mehr weichen zu wollen.

Der Norden der Halbinsel war verschont geblieben. Jedoch Mitte Mai dieses Jahres fand man zu Venedig an ein und demselben Tage die furchtbaren Vibrionen in den ausgemergelten, schwärzlichen Leichnamen eines Schifferknechtes und einer Grünwarenhändlerin. Die Fälle wurden verheimlicht. Aber nach einer Woche waren es deren zehn, waren es zwanzig, dreißig und zwar in verschiedenen Quartieren.

Ein Mann aus der österreichischen Provinz, der sich zu seinem Vergnügen einige Tage in Venedig aufgehalten, starb, in sein Heimatstädtchen zurückgekehrt, unter unzweideutigen Anzeichen, und so kam es, daß die ersten Gerüchte von der Heimsuchung der Lagunenstadt in deutsche Tagesblätter gelangten.

Venedigs Obrigkeit ließ antworten, daß die Gesundheitsverhältnisse der Stadt nie besser gewesen seien und traf die notwendigsten Maßregeln zur Bekämpfung.

You can read the book in German on the Project Gutenberg website.

There is also a great film  Morte a Venezia by Luchino Visconti, made in 1971, which captures admirably well the atmosphere when everything still seems normal yet is no longer.

When in Rome

the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.

Fish memories

memorable fishes

Continuing the fish theme from the last post, in some languages – English, French, Italian, and Spanish, to my knowledge – fish is attributed with short memory.

So, today’s list contains memory-related expressions in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

It looks like some expressions, such as ‘memory of a goldfish’, ‘memory like a sieve’, ‘memory like an elephant’, ‘in one ear and out the other’, ‘refresh the memory’,  exist in multiple languages, whereas others, such as tener memoria de grillo (have a memory like a cricket ) or девичья память (memory of a young girl), unique to one language.


have a perfect memory

have a memory like an elephant

an elephant never forgets

to have a short memory

memory like a sieve

memory (or attention span) of a goldfish

in one ear and out the other

refresh the memory

jog someone’s memory

trip down memory lane

if my memory serves me right

mind/ memory goes blank

memory gaps / lapses

More English expressions about memory are here.



avoir une mémoire d’éléphant

avoir une mémoire de poisson rouge

avoir la tête comme une passoire (head like a sieve)

avoir la mémoire courte

rafraîchir la mémoire à (de) quelqu’un

faire la sourde oreille

entrer par une oreille et sortir par l’autre (in one ear and out the other)

en souvenir de

trou de mémoire

si ma mémoire est bonne / sauf erreur



smemorato (forgetful)

avere una memoria da elefante

avere la memoria di un pesce rosso

rinfrescare la memoria

ti entra da un orecchio e ti esca dall’altro (in one ear and out the other)

ci entrino da un orecchio per uscire dall’altro

fare un viaggio indietro nella memoria / nel passato

se la memoria non m’inganna

vuoto di memoria

avere la memoria corta

avere la memoria lunga



tener memoria de elefante

tener memoria de gallo/grillo

tener memoria de pez

refrescar la memoria

entrar por un oído y salir por el otro (in one ear and out the other)

si no me falla la memoria

quedarse en blanco



ein Gedächtnis wie ein Elefant haben


ein Gedächtnis wie ein Sieb haben (memory like a sieve)

jemandes Gedächtnis ein wenig auf die Sprünge helfen (to jog someone’s memory)

den Faden verlieren (lose the thread)

sich etwas in Erinnerung rufen

etwas geht zum einen Ohr rein, zum anderen Ohr wieder raus (in one ear and out the other)

zum einen Ohr rein und zum anderen wieder raus



обладать огромной памятью

обладать феноменальной памятью

девичья память

короткая памать

дырявая память

освежить память

в одно ухо влетает, из другого вылетает (in one ear and out the other)

если память не изменяет

вызывать в своей памяти

перебирать в памяти

выпадать из памяти

More Russian expressions about memory are here.


Like a fish in water

happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.

Year in Languages 2019

languages remind me…

The name 19 languages reflects my desire to learn 19 languages, to various degrees of mastery.

These languages (4 of which I have not even begun to learn) fall into three groups, plus three special cases. Of the languages I have studied, group alpha includes English, French, German, Italian, Latvian, Spanish, and Russian; group beta includes Czech and Modern Greek; group gamma includes Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, and Japanese; the special cases are Ancient Greek, Latin, and the programming language python.

I did not do any formal planning for 2019. I had one clear priority — improving my Spanish, and followed three established traditions — listening to podcasts on commute, reading German during summer vacation, and reading Ancient Greek on weekends.

The biggest change that occurred this year was discovering excellent blogs about language learning, and reading extensively on language learning methodology — something that I had not done for years. I will write about my favourite resources this year.

So, how did I do in 2019?


Group alpha.

English. English is my de facto work and communication language. I read and write in English daily, and write out useful expressions periodically. I reached a plateau many years ago and know my weak spots (intonation, colloquial expressions, and verbal phrases). I thought extensively about my weaknesses, but did not find a suitable way to  address them, yet.

French. I live in France and work in a predominantly French environment, thus have plenty of contact with the language. I read (rather skimmed) only 1 book, and started the second, but found it boring and pretentious.

Spanish. Improving my active Spanish was my priority number one this year. I read 11 books and multiple articles, listened to podcasts on commute and while travelling, albeit not regularly, listened to TED talks, watched parts of a TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, have been following Real Academia Española and several Spanish writers on social media, wrote out vocabulary lists, and did grammar exercises. I also went to Spain five times in 2019.

My biggest issue is still not resolved, though. I do speak Spanish; when in Spain, I always speak Spanish in shops, hotels, restaurants, museums, and public transport. I have friends with whom I have always spoken exclusively in Spanish. Yet,  I find it hard to start speaking in Spanish in professional settings with people who speak excellent English.

German: I read 5 books, including one with 1275 pages. This book is called Das achte Leben (Für Brilka) (The Eighth Life, for Brilka) and is written by Nino Haratischwili, who lives in Germany and writes in German, but is originally from Georgia. It was this Georgian connection that attracted me to this epic tale in the first instance, and it took me 10 months to read it.

Russian: I read 2 books, and numerous magazines.

Italian: I spoke in Italian on numerous occasions with colleagues and acquaintances, and realised it was getting rusty, and was beginning to suffer from Spanish interference — an issue to address.

Latvian. I read many magazines and only one book, but what a book! It is a Latvian translation of a book by Kató Lomb, a 20th century Hungarian polyglot and my youth hero. The original Hungarian title is Nyelvekről jut eszembe, meaning “Languages remind me ..”; the Latvian translation is titled Par valodām man nāk prātā. The book is about language learning, what else.


Group beta.

The only two things I did with my Czech and Modern Greek (both of which I could read, speak, and understand in the past), is to look up several idiomatic expressions that I knew in all my group alpha languages, such as prince charming. Plenty of room for improvement for 2020.


Group gamma.

I did not do anything with my Japanese and Hungarian (both at beginners level, with lots of things entirely forgotten), but I started two new languages.

Estonian. I started learning Estonian in anticipation to my travel to Tallinn and Tartu, where I have not been since the 1990s, and really enjoyed the process. I did 7 lessons of an old manual from the 1980s, which I happen to have at home and which turned out to have excellent methodology, and followed several online lessons, to get the pronunciation right. I also found plenty of online resources.

Georgian. Partly motivated by 1275 my page-long German book, which recounts a story of a Georgian family, partly by my visit to Estonia, where I ate amazing Georgian food, I decided to learn Georgian.  I learned 1/3 of an alphabet and did 5 online lessons. I can now read and write some words, including lobio, Georgian black beans stew, which I also learned to cook.


Special cases.

Ancient Greek. I am pleased with my progress. This year, I read the first three books of Plato‘s Republic, thanks to three factors: Plato is easy to read; the content is topical; and I mostly stick to my reading schedule, as it is in my calendar.

Latin. Encouraged by my Ancient Greek readings, I decided to brush up my Latin. I chose Seneca, largely because his thinking had suddenly become influential, yet, I could not recall him as inspirational from the university. I managed to read some 17 letters before summer vacation, then stopped. Just like at university, I still find Seneca boring, repetitive, and moralistic. Since my Latin is rustier than my Ancient Greek, and I was putting a lot of efforts to this reading, the motivation to stay with Seneca was none. I have to find a text that I would enjoy, but which is easier to read than my beloved Tacitus.

Python. I tend to joke that compared to python, Plato is easy. I started an online course, stopped, resumed, finished it, took a break, started another course and am halfway through.

The main challenge with learning python is the same as with learning a new language versus maintaining a language you already know. Once you have reached a certain level, you can take breaks, do low key maintenance, and have zero contact with the language for long periods of time (my experience with Italian). But while you are learning a new language, regularity is key. You need to do something every day, lest you forget.

That’s it, my language year 2019 in review.

Blue prince

blue princes

Twenty years ago, my first Spanish teacher, to teach us the subjunctive, used to play this silly song:

Si una lámpara mágica tuviera  / y me diera un príncipe azul
no podría desear jamás / a un hombre mejor que tú.”

(If I had a magic lamp / and it would give me the prince charming
I would never want / a better man than you.)

The method worked. I still remember the lines and know the words for  ‘magic lamp’ and ‘prince charming’, although these are not the words I use daily!

The ideal man, whether you mean it seriously or ironically, is called in English ‘prince charming’;

in French prince charmant

in German Traumprinz (‘dream prince’) and Märchenprinz (‘fairytale prince’)

in Latvian sapņu princis (‘dream prince’)

in Modern Greek πρίγκιπας του παραμυθιού (‘fairytale prince’)

in Czech pohádkový princ (‘fairytale prince’) and princ na bílém koni (‘prince on a white horse’)

in Russian прекрасный принц (‘beautiful prince’) and also принц на белом коне (‘prince on a white horse’). (The appearance of a white horse in two Slavic languages needs to be investigated further.)

A popular Russian songs goes:

Так чего же ты ждёшь? Ты ждёшь чтоб я извинился.
Прямо здесь чтобы я, чтобы я вдруг стал прекрасным принцем.

(So what are you waiting for? Are you waiting for me to change?
For me to become a prince charming right here right now.)

But in Spanish the ideal man is  príncipe azul, that is, ‘blue prince’ (as in the song I remember from 20 years ago), and also in Italian, principe azzurro.

Although the colour blue is associated with aristocratic origin, as the expression ‘blue blood’, which exists in many languages, attests, today only in Italian and Spanish (of the languages I know), the prince is blue. Where does this expression come from?

I have searched various sources, but did not find a clearcut answer.

The most comprehensive explanation comes from the Accademia della Crusca, the research academy for Italian language.  An article entitled Da dove arriva il Principe Azzurro? (‘Where does the Blue Prince come from?’) traces the first appearance of the expression, in both Italian and Spanish, to the late 19th – early 20th century, and the existence of an equivalent French expression, prince azure or prince bleu (which is not used today) even earlier, to the mid 19th century.

There is also a German tale, Himmelblau und Lupine (‘Prince Skyblue and Fairy Lupine’), by  Christoph Martin Wieland, a German man of letters of the 18th century, published in his collection Dschinnistan (1786 – 1789).  Can it be that this Prinz Himmelblau, portrayed as the ideal man, is the ancestor of our Spanish and Italian blue princes?

Don’t slam the door

puerta cerrada

I was reading in Spanish novel where a protagonist left con un portazo, ‘slamming the door’. I was left wondering how do you slam the door in different languages.

In English, we close the door. We can also shut the doorbang the door, and slam the door. We can even slam the door in somebody’s face, although this is not recommended.

In French, on ferme la porte. If one wants to slam it, on claque la porte, and if one is annoyed, bothered, or impolite, on claque la porte au nez.  In his Chanson pour l’Auvergnat, Georges Brassens sings:

Tous les gens bien intentionnés
M’avaient fermé la porte au nez

In Spanish, to close the door is cerrar la puerta, but to slam it is dar un portazo. One can irse / marcharse con un portazo and one can also cerrar la puerta en la cara. A good rule of thumb was mentioned in a dictionary as an example: siempre es mejor irse cerrando puertas que dando portazos.

In Italian, you would normally chiudere la porta (close it), sometimes sbattere la porta (slam it), and rarely sbattere la porta in faccia. If you are really upset and it’s too much, you would sbattere la porta e dire: “Basta”, literally or figuratively.

In Russian, you can хлопнуть дверью or уйти, хлопнув дверью; on the other hand, they can закрыть дверь перед  носом. A popular song goes:

Уходя – уходи! Если кто-то тебе не поверит.
Уходя – уходи! Затвори за собой плотно двери.

In German, there is plenty of options: die Tür schließen, die Tür zuschlagen, die Türe vor der Nase zuschlagen / jemandem die Tür vor der Nase zuschlagen; jemandem die Tür ins Gesicht schlagen / werfen. Note that if the English, Italian, and Spanish slam the door in somebody’s face, whereas the French and Russian focus on the nose, the Germans can do both, face and nose.

In Latvian, one says aizcirst durvis, aizcērt kādam durvis, aizcirst kādam durvis deguna priekšā, aizvērt durvis kāda deguna priekšā. (Nose again.)

In Czech, one can mlátit, prásknout, bouchnout dveřmi . One can simply zavřít dveře (shut the door) or emphatically zavřít dveře před nosem. (Also nose.)

In Modern Greek, one says κλείνω την πόρτα, and κλείνω την πόρτα κατάμουτρα. The word κατάμουτρα is curious: κατα is a preposition with many meanings, including ‘down’ and ‘upon’, whereas μουτρα is slang for face. My Modern Greek is not yet sufficiently good, and I could not find any equivalents of slamming, but the Greeks surely are able to do it?