A Tour of the Lake Tahoe Institute of English

June 15th, 2010

Thanks for Asking

Before coming to the Lake Tahoe Institute of English many potential clients want to see photos of where they will be staying.  I know it is intimidating to think of coming to a place for several weeks, work one-to-one with an instructor, and stay in an unknown place.  We can describe it all we want on the website, but nothing says it like pictures.  So, Kim and I put together a little video of where you will be staying.  We hope you will consider enrolling in our program.  To see where you will be staying, click on the title,  A Tour of the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, Enjoy. (And I have to say, we are total amateurs at making videos, so please forgive much.  Kim, though, is far better at this than I am.)

Adults Can Learn Foreign Languages Better Than Children

May 22nd, 2010

Yes, You Can

A lot of people think that as adults they can’t learn a new language, or that they can’t learn it as well as a child can.  And a lot of adults would like to learn a language for reasons as varied as needing it for business or travel, for personal enrichment, and because research shows that learning another language is one of the best ways to keep your brain working well.  The good news is that adults can learn new languages, and they can do it as well as children, given the right learning conditions.  Watch the this video, Adults Learn Language Better Than Children, to learn more about this topic.

An Easy Way to Improve Your English Pronunciation

May 15th, 2010

Two Common Threads

In the last couple of months I’ve had the good fortune to speak with a huge variety of non-native English speakers, both clients of mine at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English and casual acquaintances.  I’ve spoken with native speakers of Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Vietnamese and Mandarin.  I have noticed two common threads in all of these conversations.

You Speak Better Than You Think

First, most of these people spoke English far better than they thought they did.  They nearly always apologized and seemed embarrassed by their perceived lack of ability.  Of course I know it is intimidating to speak confidently to someone you know teaches the language, but not all of them knew what my profession is.

You probably speak better than you think, too.  So relax a little bit.  Just talk and all will be well.

It is the most unusual English speaker who will be impatient with you.  Most are extremely patient and appreciative of your efforts.  After all, we know that as a rule, we don’t speak any other languages, and as a rule, we are embarrassed by that.  We just appreciate anyone who has succeeded at all in learning our language.

Finish Saying Each Word

Second, and as important, I’ve noticed that the one problem that these non-native English speakers from many different backgrounds have in common is that they don’t finish their English words.  They drop the final letter or two, which leaves the listener often unable to discern which word the speaker is using.  This is probably the single most important factor in making your speech understandable to others.

For example, someone might say “Why you ha so man bo to ree”, instead of “Why do you have so many books to read?” or “I lie to ee mee for dinner” instead of “I like to eat meat for dinner.”  As the listener, in the first sentence, we don’t know if you are saying “ha”, “have”, “has”, “hair”, “ham” or “man”, “many”, “men”, etc.. You get the idea.  It makes it so much more difficult for the listener.  Add in the fact that so many listeners are themselves non-native speakers of English who have an accent of their own, and then you have real trouble.

It seems to me that a very simple but elusive fix to this serious clarity problem is to remember how the word is spelled, and then make sure you say all of it (that is, unless the ending is silent, which it sometimes is in our crazy, irregular English language – you just have to memorize those).

I know, you think you are saying all of it, but I’m telling you, chances are, you are not.  Slow down and finish your words.  I promise, you won’t have to repeat yourself as often.

Apple Pie from the Lake Tahoe Institute of English

May 1st, 2010


Pie.  I love pie.  Americans love pie.  We love all kinds of pie.  Cream pies, fruit pies, you name it pies.  It is our favorite dessert, and our most famous American one.  And apple is our most famous pie.

You could say that chocolate chip cookies or brownies are more widely enjoyed, and that would be true, but that is only because they are easy to make, and they have been spread around the world by Nabisco.

But pie, there is an art to making pie, and few anymore who can do it well.  It’s almost a secret society amongst us pie makers.  Others look longingly at our beautiful pies and remark that they would never attempt to make crust.  They don’t own a rolling pin (!!), so could never try it.

Oh, but they want to eat a piece of our pie.  In fact, they will go to great lengths to get a piece of pie.  Once, way back when I was in college, a friend convinced me to drive all over San Francisco one night trying pies in different restaurants.  She was certain that she could find a perfect piece of pie.  Many hours and many bites later, we came to the conclusion that my pie was the very best.

Birthday Pie

Pie has been queen in my family forever.  When I was a little girl, we had birthday pies instead of birthday cakes.  My favorite was rhubarb and banana.  Pure heaven when served warm with some melting vanilla ice cream.

When I came of age, my mother inducted me into the secret society of pie makers.  She taught me her crust recipe, which she had learned from her own mother, and she from hers.  I’m sure our recipe goes back many generations more than that.  But, that takes us back to 1865, and that is far enough for me.  She taught me how to handle the dough (so very gently), how to know how much water to add (more than you think you need), and how to wield a rolling pin with skill.  It took me many tries to learn how much filling needs to be inside, and how to flute the edges beautifully.

When I married Kim, he of course was forced to become a pie convert and sing my praises.  No more chocolate birthday cake for him.  A summer boy, he needed a nectarine and berry pie for his special day.  Then came the kids.  Pie again.  It is tradition.  Now my oldest daughter is about to get married.  Guess what?  Wedding pie! I am in charge of making 25 fruit pies for the day.  And I wouldn’t have it otherwise.  After all, this is my baby’s wedding we’re talking about.  The pie is critical!

The Greatest Desert Ever

At the Lake Tahoe Institute of English I nearly always serve apple pie on the first night a client arrives.  I have to do it then, as it takes time to make a great pie.  Later in the week, I don’t have so much time.  So, the first night, I go all out.  Apple pie, sometimes apple-blueberry pie.  They just have to be exposed to the greatest American dessert ever.

My Super Secret, Never Before Divulged (except to my family) Recipe for the Best Apple Pie Ever

Here is my recipe, in the family for 150 years, for the very best apple pie:

You will need:

Crisco (although several pie making friends prefer butter, most great pie makers agree, Crisco is critical to the crust)

Baking powder


White flour

Ice water

Tart apples

White granulated sugar

Ground cinnamon

lemon juice

A rolling pin

A pastry cloth (or a dish towel or a large piece of waxed paper)

A pastry cutter or two table knives

A pie plate, preferably glass

Measuring cups and measuring spoons

Here’s how to do it
First, measure 2 cups flour into a mixing bowl.  Add about a quarter teaspoon of salt and about a half teaspoon of baking powder.  Mix them together with a fork.  Then add 13 to 14 tablespoons of Crisco to the flour.  Using the pastry cutter, mix the Crisco into the flour until it looks like small peas.  If you are using knives, hold one in each hand and cut through the flour and Crisco over and over again until it looks like small peas.

Then, add enough ice water, around a half cup, to blend it all together until it is mixed, and stickier than you think it should be.  Use your hands for this, and mix carefully and gently.  Don’t work the crust hard.  It will make it tough.

Lay out what you are going to use for a pastry cloth.  Sprinkle it generously with flour.  Take half of your mixed dough and roll it into a ball with your hands.  Pat some flour all over it.  Then, on your pastry cloth, pat it into a slightly flattened round.  Turn it over to make sure it has a light dusting of flour all over it (so it won’t stick when you roll it).

Using the rolling pin, and beginning in the middle of the dough, press gently and roll the dough outward.  Coming back to the middle, roll again in another direction.  Dust with flour and turn over as needed to keep the dough from sticking.  Be gentle.  Continue until you have a circle of dough that is an even thickness, and is large enough to fit in the pie plate and drape over the sides a little bit.  Put it in the pie plate so you can start on the top crust.

Make the top crust in the same way as the bottom.  It will need to be large enough to drape over a full pie plate, plus enough to turn the edges under to make a seal.

Then the filling

For the filling, peel, core and slice 7 or 8 medium size tart apples (I like to use green Granny Smith’s or Pippin).  As you slice, put them into a bowl of water with some lemon juice in it.  This will keep them from turning brown.

Next, mix 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar (depending on how sweet the apples are) with 2 tablespoons of flour (to help thicken the juice) and 2 teaspoons of cinnamon.

Drain the apple slices, and place half of them in the pie plate.  Pour half the sugar mixture over the top.  Add the rest of the apples, then the rest of the sugar mixture.  Sprinkle a little lemon juice over the top if you like.

Now, the hard part.  Center the top crust over the filled pie plate.  Cut away all the extra crust except for about 1/2 to 1 inch extending over the edge.  Using your fingers, roll the extended edges over and under to be flush with the plate edge.  Now you have to flute it to seal it and make it beautiful.  The movement you want is the same as if you were to take a piece of paper along an edge holding it between the thumb and forefinger of each hand.  You use the same motion you would then use to tear the paper edge.  So, very gently, using both thumbs and both forefingers, pinch and bend the crust just like you would tear the paper, only more gently (don’t tear, just seal and make look ruffled).

Finally, cut an X in the center top of the crust to let the steam escape.  You can fold back the edges of the X if you like.  Prick some holes in the crust with a fork, or carve a pretty design, to further let steam escape.  Ta da!  A beautiful pie!

Bake it at 350 degrees for about an hour – until the crust is golden brown, and the juices are bubbling.  Let sit before serving.  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Mom (me) says

There is NOTHING better!  It tastes like Mom and home and comfort and everything being right in the world.  It’s worth coming to the Lake Tahoe Institute of English just for the pie.  If I do say so myself.

Loving a Language

April 24th, 2010

There are days when I find myself spending hours and hours researching articles and blogs to find new ways of teaching English, communicating about teaching English, or just to find a better way of saying what I would like to say here.  The other day I came across such an article, by Steve Kaufman who writes The Linguist blog.  His article, Language Learning is Like Falling in Love, although a couple of years old, says just what I would have like to say, had I thought of it first.  Give it a read at:  http://thelinguist.blogs.com/how_to_learn_english_and/2007/05/language_learni.html.

What Skiing and Learning a Language Have in Common

April 17th, 2010


I recently celebrated a birthday, and as I look back, year by year, and decade after decade, I can see the inevitable march of time.  I am not the same person, either physically or mentally, as I was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.

The good news is that each decade adds experience and a body of knowledge that helps me think better, more deeply, and in many ways, more innovatively.

The bad news is that, by and large, each decade sees me less able physically.  I don’t run anymore (knees!), I can’t swim as fast, and I wouldn’t even think of playing softball or volleyball with a 30 year old.  Last summer I tried wake surfing, but couldn’t even get up on the damn board! (I will try again this summer!).


For me, however, skiing has been a notable exception.  I’ve skied all my life, a lot.  When I was young, and at my physical peak, I was not a very good skier.  I resisted instruction.  I just wanted to “do.”  I didn’t want to think about how to “do” it.  I can remember watching really beautiful skiers, and wishing I could ski like that, but I never noticed what they were doing that made them so good.  So, I just went along skiing at a mediocre level for years.

When I was 40 that changed.  In order to have a good excuse to ski more, I joined the Master’s Ski Program at our local resort, Diamond Peak.  I don’t recall actually thinking I was going to ski better.  I was just going to ski more and meet some nice people.

What I didn’t bargain for was my coach, Josee LaCasse.  Josee actually wanted me to be a great skier.  Even though I was old.  She taught me how to think about skiing.  She taught me the distinctions of skiing.

And, guess what?  I began to get better, for the first time in many years.  Now, in spite of age, I get physically better at skiing every single year.  I’m not great yet (sorry, Josee, and also my other great coach, Wayne Wong), but, damn, I’m pretty good for a 56 year old.  And I’m better than I was as a 55 year old.

How did I get there, since I no longer have Josee coaching me twice a week, and I’m 15 years older?  Well, I learned the distinctions of skiing, and I think about them every day that I am on the snow.  I think about my knees, my shoulders, where my center of gravity is.  I notice what happens when I do one thing versus another.  I watch other skiers constantly, and analyze what they are doing or not doing, and then try to do or not do myself.

I make distinctions.  When I was young and mediocre, I had no distinctions beyond fun and not fun.  Now, the more distinctions I make, the better I get.

So, how does this apply to the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, and to learning English, or any language?


What I have noticed is that some clients come just wanting to talk more.  OK.  And some come wanting to learn about how to talk.  They are active learners and listeners, wanting to use me and Kim as their coaches, wanting to learn the distinctions of English.

Learning a language is not a spectator sport.  It is not easy.  You can learn some, and get by, just by listening and talking a bit.  But to be good in another language, you have to become an active learner.  You have to learn to look for the distinctions of language.  You have to pay attention to how a language is spoken, to how you are speaking, to the music of the language, and how you can duplicate it.  You have to actively take charge of getting better.

If not, you’ll just be another traveler mangling the language.  Accomplishment takes work!

How to Understand Russian (or any other language)

April 10th, 2010

Russian?  You’re Kidding.

Do you understand Russian?  How about French?  Italian?  German?  I’ll bet you don’t think you understand all of them.  I’ll also bet that you can understand far more than you think you can.  And, with practice, and active listening, you’ll understand even more.

Not long ago I was idly listening to a National Public Radio broadcast while driving.  What caught my attention was a Russian man discussing how easy it is for English speakers to understand Russian (!) if we just focus on it.  As an example, he spoke a number of sentences in very slow Russian and then asked a non-Russian speaking member of the audience to translate.  Over and over again, the audience member was able to translate with incredible accuracy.  And, so was I as a listener.  Amazing!

So Many Similarities Between Languages

The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects.  They are most of the languages of Europe, the Iranian Plateau and southern Asia.  Although they have taken different paths, they spring from the same roots.  Thus, many words between many languages are similar.  The differences are often in where the sound is pronounced in the mouth, where the emphasis is placed in the word, and in the music or rhythm of the language.  Once you realize that the words are so similar, with active listening you can understand far more than you ever thought was possible.

I am a native English speaker.  When I was in school I studied French.  As an adult I have studied Spanish.  French was hard for me, as I was young and I didn’t understand the different grammatical structures, and I certainly didn’t understand how to speak with a French accent.  Nonetheless, I studied hard, and eventually became somewhat proficient in the language.

Then, when I began to study Spanish, I really paid attention to the sound and structure of the language for the first time.  I was astounded at how similar it is to French.  It immediately made sense to me.

Then I began traveling.  Although I haven’t studied or spoken French for 35 years, I recently found that I could still understand it quite well.  The same with Italian.  Except I have never, ever studied Italian.  Once I realized that it is just like French and Spanish, it was incredibly easy to understand (when spoken slowly, or written).  The words are all basically the same.  Portugese is the same.  I can’t speak it, but to me it basically seems like Spanish, with a Portugese rhythm to it.  Amazing.

But I thought I could never understand German.  For me it has always been extremely difficult to hear the sounds of German.  English is a Germanic language, so I could understand many written German words, but never spoken.  Then one day I was out hiking with some German clients.  We met an elderly German man on the path, a man who had been living in America for the past 40 years.  He was delighted to have the opportunity to speak German with my clients, but he spoke very slowly and deliberately, as it had been a long time since he had spoken his native language.  He must have had a very serious American accent to his German, because I understood every single word of his side of the conversation.

Listen for What is the Same

Once you realize how similar the languages are, and understand some very basic differences in sounds and pronunciation between the languages, it will make learning to speak and understand another language very much easier.  In order to listen to another language actively, to try to understand it, listen for the similarities, rather than the differences.

For example the word for When (English) is wann in German, quand in French, quanto in Italian, cuanto in Spanish.

One (in English) is ein in German, adin in Russian, un in French, uno in Italian and uno in Spanish.

Water (in English) is wasser in German, voda in Russian, eau in French, aqua in Italian, and agua in Spanish.  The more language you know, even if you think you don’t know it, the easier it is to learn even more.

Use all the resources you have, but your very best resource is your ability to listen, to distinguish, and to find similarities.

The Global Imperative

March 31st, 2010

New Opportunities

The current worldwide economic crisis has changed things in many, many ways, some of which will not be apparent for years.  Of course all kinds of businesses around the globe have been very hard hit by the crisis.  Many have closed their doors for good, but many have also discovered new opportunities for themselves where they didn’t know they existed before.

The very best of businesses will be thinking both outside and inside the box about what their capabilities are, and what new places they can take their skills and products. The global economic recovery is going to require a new kind of entrepreneurism, a new kind of thinking, and that new thinking is most likely going to be some kind of global venture.

In the United States, most start-ups, both large and small, including this one, now rely on the international market.  Start-ups around the world will also be most likely to be global in nature, either as the originator of a service or product, or as a supplier to an originator.

The International Language

Increasingly, English has become the language of international business.  It is imperative that people from all parts of the world can speak to each other, understand each other, and negotiate with each other in one common language.  English is now that language.

Here at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English we have many clients who come to us from international companies.  They regularly have to communicate with others within their own companies who speak many different languages natively and who are located in all parts of the world.  Most communication is done through email or by telephone, with occasional international conferences.  All of it is done in English.

These days, most young people from around the world who are fortunate enough to attend a good private school speak very good English.  In the future, when they have risen to the top levels of their companies, communication will be easy.  However, in these times, not everyone has been so fortunate.  Not everyone who needs to speak English has had the opportunity to learn when they were young.  And this is a big problem.  And an even bigger problem is that the majority of international communication is by either telephone or email, the two most terrifying aspects of communication in another language.

We Can’t Stand Still

With a new global economy, with most business start-ups being international in nature in one way or another, nearly every business person needs to become competent in English.  This won’t be easy for many people.  But it must be done.  None of us can afford to stand still.  If we want to thrive, we have to keep moving forward.

Speaking “Cash English”

March 24th, 2010

Come Ski With Me

Come Ski With Me


My children are all adventurers, who love to travel.  It seems like one or more of them is always off traveling, or even living somewhere besides near me.  I don’t think they’re trying to escape from me.  I think they’re just full of wanderlust, and want to see and experience everything there is to see in the world.

Sometimes this bothers me.  Like right now.  I have no children living within shouting range, or even driving range.  After having 4 children at home for so many years, it is often very strange to not have even a single one of them around.

Yet, I know this is pretty much all my fault (well, my husband’s fault as well).  When they were young we made every effort to take them to new places, new countries, to experience new and interesting things.  So, it’s no wonder now that they love to go, and have left me behind.

In fact, right now my oldest daughter is on vacation in Mexico, and my oldest son seems to have moved to Medellin, Colombia, at least for the time being.  Something my son said to me the other day (via SKYPE, a wonderful, wonderful invention), is actually the subject of this post.

“Street English”

My son, Cole, speaks quite a bit of Spanish.  We lived in Puerto Rico when he was 13, then he was an exchange student in Paraguay when he was 18, and then spent another year in Costa Rica when he was at the university.  He also has a degree in Spanish from the University of Nevada.  He’s always felt very confident in his ability to speak Spanish to anyone, anywhere.  He’s a very casual guy, though, and his Spanish is that of a young person, and is full of slang and street expressions.  He speaks in Spanish the same way he would speak to his friends in English.

Years ago, when I taught English to teenagers, I used to explain the difference between “street English“, or the English they would use with their friends, and what I call “cash English“, or the English they need to learn and speak to be successful in the world of work.  This is, of course, a more formal language, with a different vocabulary, and a different set of social rules for usage.

At the time, I recall that the students didn’t have any great understanding of why they had to use different types of English for different situations.  I hope that over the years they have remembered the lessons, and now know when to use which English.

“Cash English”

The point of this is that my son is now living in Medellin, Colombia.  He just purchased a house, and is looking for a job there.  He just told me that he didn’t realize how little Spanish he knows.

Trying to buy a house or actually doing work in another language requires a whole different kind of vocabulary than he has ever learned.  Remember, he has a university degree in Spanish, but he still doesn’t have the proper vocabulary for what he is doing now.

Cole didn’t learn the language he now needs in years of school, or even years of living in Spanish speaking countries, because what he was learning and using all that time was “street Spanish”.  Now he needs a crash course in “cash Spanish”.  Fortunately, he is mature enough to realize what he needs, and he is intent on learning it.

When Kim and I first started the Lake Tahoe Institute of English we were very surprised by the seemingly high level of English our clients already had when they came to study with us.  What we have found, though, is that we spend a great deal of our time working on “cash English” with our clients.

We have had clients from all over the world, and in all different businesses, but nearly all come to us to learn for a very specific purpose.  They can easily carry on a very general conversation with us from the very beginning, but most need help to learn the language of their particular business, or they need to know how to formulate questions, and how to answer specific questions related to their disciplines.  They need help learning the language of negotiation, of problem solving, of team building, of management.

Here at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English, we focus on “cash English“, the language professionals need to learn.  In order to earn the respect and cooperation of other professionals around the world, there needs to be not only a common language, but a common vocabulary and a common usage of the language. Wish our son luck in learning the nuances of “cash Spanish” really quickly.  He needs a program like ours!

More Than One Accent on One Tiny Island – Winter Vacation

March 17th, 2010

The Abacos, Our Favorite Bahamian Islands

After driving to Phoenix to visit our daughter for a brief winter vacation, Kim and I then flew East, to the tiny Bahamian island of Abaco.  We’ve been there many times, as it is one of our favorite places in the world.  Where Phoenix is desert dry and brown, with the only thing we love about it being Eve, our daughter, the Bahamas is a group of islands that is totally delightful.  We began going there because of the water, but have gone back over and over again because of the pure pleasure of being amongst what has to be the kindest, happiest group of people we’ve ever met.

Lush and Lovely

Lush and Lovely

The Bahamian Flag

The Bahamian Flag

Surf's Up at Treasure Cay Beach

Surf's Up at Treasure Cay Beach

Day After a Storm - Treasure Cay Beach and the Bahama Beach Club

Day After a Storm - Treasure Cay Beach and the Bahama Beach Club

This particular group of islands, the Abacos, was settled about 250 years ago by Loyalists from America.  They were on the British side of the Revolutionary War, and wanted to remain loyal to the crown. When it was no longer possible to remain in America and be a loyal British subject, this group relocated to the Abacos, bringing their African slaves, who were later emancipated, with them.  These descendants of these same people, white Abaconians and black Abaconians, have remained on these tiny islands ever since, forging a very distinctive society for themselves.

Abaconian Accents

One thing I find so interesting and charming about Abaconians is their accent.  They all speak English, however the English spoken by white Abaconians differs greatly from that spoken by black Abaconians.  As far as I can tell, the Island of Abaco is more integrated than most parts of the United States.  People live together, work together, and speak with each other every day.  And yet these two groups continue to speak English with completely different accents after 250 years of living in the same tiny place.

White Abaconians speak with a kind of flat, half Boston, half British accent.  It is very distinctive, yet easily understood by any English speaker.  No matter what the situation, or how rapid the speech, I can understand it as easily as I can understand any west coast American speech.  Although inflections differ, the music and rhythm of the speech is classic English.

Black Abaconians, however, sound completely different.  One of the most charming aspects of Bahamians is the lilting, musical sound of their speech.  There is laughter and kindness in the sound.  There is a song in every sentence.  It is a beautiful thing to hear.

The interesting thing, to me, is that it is a very easy speech to understand most of the time.  Clearly, though, it has a different beat from common American English or British English, and when Bahamians choose not to be understood, when they increase the pace of their conversations, when they clip their words a little more closely, when they don’t enunciate quite so clearly, it is impossible for me, a teacher of language, skilled in comprehension of heavily accented speech, to understand anything.

The Musicality of a Language

In previous posts I have discussed the musicality of a language, and how it impacts comprehension.  Here is an incredible example of it, within my own native language of English.  The very thing that makes Bahamian English so charming is what also can make it impossible for even an English speaker to understand.

Some of our clients at the Lake Tahoe Institute of English are too worried about improving their American accents so that no one will know they are not a native speaker of the language.  Not only is this nearly impossible for an adult, it is, in my opinion, not a good idea.  Accents in English are charming.  We Americans love a foreigner, especially one who speaks good English.  An accent is appealing, so long as it is understandable.

What speakers of English as a second language should strive for is pronouncing sounds in such a way that they can be understood by other speakers of English, whether it be their first or second language.  We just need you to be understandable to us, not to be American (or British, or whatever).  Master most of the sounds, and, most of all, master the rhythm of the language.  Then you will be understood.