Language Learning Tip: Read a Novel

Let’s see: you’ve taken a course or two, learned the basics, searched for speaking partners… now what? Here is a language learning tip for you:

When I was learning my first language, Spanish, I quickly became frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was making much progress. Especially when there are no natives around to practice with, it can be hard to feel the fruits of your efforts. It wasn’t until my teacher assigned us to read a novel in Spanish that I really realized how much I could understand!

But isn’t it hard to read a novel?

I initially thought reading a book would be WAAAY beyond me.
But I soon realized that by only looking up words when I really needed to, I could actually understand most of the book- and even enjoy it- even though I couldn’t yet have a decent conversation in Spanish.

Reading a novel is easier than you think

This is partly because many words in Latin languages (Spanish, French, etc.) look similar to English words. So even though you have never seen them before and couldn’t think to say them or recognize them when you hear them, they are easy enough to pick out in writing.

In fact, sometimes reading is a better way to pick up a language at first than by oral communication. That’s because there isn’t any pressure from others to perform and you can take all the time you want to stare at words and look them up. In the process, you can learn valuable vocabulary and sentence structures which can later be used orally.

Sure, watching television or reading the news in your target language is “better practice” for you… but if your level isn’t quite up to the task it may be too difficult or uninteresting.

The key is to choose a book that is interesting to you and that you’ve already read before or already know what it’s about. My go-to book? Harry Potter. It’s available in tons of different languages and it’s a story you likely already know. [Plus, after making your way through the book you may be able to watch a dubbed version of the movie and understand it better than you would otherwise since you’ll already have learned most of the relevant vocabulary.]

Avoid small children’s books

Despite what many people may think, these stories are actually not easier for non-native learners. Children’s books or picture books use short sentences without much detail, so there is little room for you to guess what is going on if you don’t know all the vocabulary. Novels, on the other hand, usually repeat things, describe things, and have lots of small details for you to catch – or leave behind – without jeopardizing your general understanding of the book.

  • Books whose stories you already know are easier and more interesting to try and read in a foreign language since, through context, you may be able to guess a lot of words without having to look them up (even if they don’t look similar to their English translations).
  • Reading gives you a great feeling of accomplishment because you can physically see  how many pages you can make it through.
  • You can learn plenty of vocabulary by reading a book.

The one important thing to note is that you shouldn’t use the dictionary for every new word. Just  the ones that are repeated a lot or seem integral to your understanding of the story. You can’t be a perfectionist on this or you’ll risk losing interest due to slow progress.

Tried this already? How’d it work? Leave a comment.

Culture and Soup

Culture and soup– the question of how to really get a taste of a different culture is one that basically every guidebook tries to address. Once you’ve finished seeing all the touristic landmarks (which probably most locals avoid), you start to wonder what life is actually like in the area. To answer this question, many services like couchsurfing are extremely helpful.

But as far as cuisine goes, there is no better suggestion than trying the local soup.

What’s good about soup?

The thing is: soup is cheap. Soup is what happens when all your leftovers get thrown together in a pot to make a meal. Thus, soup exists almost everywhere, and is always a good way to see what kinds of leftovers people have to work with, which in turn tells a good deal about available ingredients and other local dishes.

Soup in Senegal

Americans can’t deny the homey quality of mom’s Chicken Noodle soup, the marvelous cure-all for what ails you.

Nor can they deny the creamy goodness of Campbell’s Tomato soup, captured by no less than Andy Warhol, and only made better with floating goldfish crackers.

No Spaniard can deny the importance of Cocido Montañés, a traditional bean soup from northern Cantabria.

Perhaps once a thing of the country, this stew now sells for high prices in swanky restaurants for tourists.

In Bolivia, the thick pork stew called Fricasé is well known to cure local hangovers.

Often only available on weekend mornings, the purpose of this soup is clear.

During my time Senegal, a friend came to visit me and asked about soup.

My host family didn’t generally eat soup, because soup, they indicated, was for peasants. I asked around a bit more until I finally found a friend who was willing to help get us some soup.

We left the upper class neighborhood where I lived and ventured into the streets of a  poorer area. There, we found a makeshift shack in the middle of a street, bustling with people waiting in line for soup at just 10 cents a bowl.

We nudged our way through the crowd and soon found ourselves eating some of the thickest, grisliest stew I’d ever tasted. Despite the food quality, I was pleased to find myself surrounded by smiling, laughing locals who were overjoyed to share their food with us… and despite 5 months spent in Senegal, this remains one of my most treasured cultural experiences.

Whether it’s now been glorified for sale in fancy restaurants, like the Cocido Montañés, or commercialized and idealized like Campbell’s Tomato soup, or simply remains a food of poverty, as in Senegal, soup is certainly a gem for every traveler to watch out for.

Want to taste a culture? Try soup.

“Dealing with” your period abroad

What is the best way to deal with your period abroad?

Dealing with your period abroad can be a bit tricky. And as a student, I’ve found that most study abroad programs don’t properly prepare you for the challenges involved.

Not all countries have the same sanitary or birth control products. Plus, the stress of travel can cause your period to be extremely late or not occur whatsoever.

Feminine Sanitary Products – And Their Availability – During Travel


Do you use sanitary pads for your period? Then you’ll be pleased to know that they are the reigning international feminine product.

They can usually be found in either grocery stores or pharmacies.


If you use tampons, you will have to know where to look to find them.  In many countries, tampons are not very popular because using them is associated with a loss of virginity. Many women plan to remain virgins until marriage (or at least keep up such an appearance). Therefore, they never use tampons.

So far, I have never been to a country where I couldn’t find them in a pharmacy in a city. However, they are almost never found in grocery stores and they may be impossible to find in rural areas.

Keep in mind that you might not want to publicize the fact that you are using them. Even as a foreigner, you may be subject to social stigma if people assume you are not a virgin — especially if you aren’t married.

In many places, the only tampons available are those which are inserted with the finger. If you are not familiar with these tampons, you might consider experimenting with them before a long trip abroad. They’re easy to use, but take some getting used to. They may also be cause for concern if there is no way to wash your hands directly after using them – this is an even bigger sanitary concern when using a moon cup.

Moon Cup

The moon cup is a lesser-known menstruation solution.

It is a reusable cup that it inserted into the vagina in order to catch the blood. The likelihood of finding these in a store anywhere is slim (though they are becoming more popular), and most likely you will have to order one offline. That said, since it is reusable you can take it with you when you go abroad.

There are many travelers that swear by this method since it creates less waste and removes of the necessity of searching for sanitary products while in a foreign country. The problem, though, is that you are likely to come across restrooms where it will be impossible to effectively clean the cup. This is especially true if you are traveling to rural Africa or any area with pit toilets (that do not flush).

Also, sinks may be in a public area. So ask yourself if you’re comfortable washing out your menstrual blood where other women can watch.

Birth Control

In many countries birth control can be obtained cheaply and without a prescription.

However, you may not be able to find a specific brand. Ask yourself if you are comfortable changing the amounts and types of hormones in your body by switching to a readily-available brand in your host country. Depending on how long you are going to be abroad, you might just decide to bring a few extra packs from home for your trip.

In other countries, a doctor’s prescription is required for birth control.

This is, for example, generally the case in Europe. If you’re still adamant about using birth control to deal with your period abroad, your best option is probably to stock up on birth control before heading out. However, it you plan to be abroad for over a year, you might look into using the medical system in your host country.

In France, for example, medical insurance is required for all foreign students, even if you are only there for a year. Moreover, women’s health services are free and really good quality. Plus, heading to the doctor’s office can be a good test for your language skills… if you’re up for the challenge!

Should I use injectable contraceptives to stop my period while abroad? 

I was once appalled to read a study abroad preparation guide that suggested the use of injectable contraceptives, like Depo-Provera®, to stop periods during travel (for 3 months at a time) in order to avoid “dealing with them.”

This could be a great option if you are already using injectables. That said, if you’ve already got a great regimen going, don’t feel obligated to switch things up just because your period might be “annoying.”

After all, travel already puts your body through incredible stress. If you are thinking about changing birth control method, you should probably do it long before you start traveling so you can make sure the new method works well with your body.

What about using birth control to skip my period?

A lot of girls who already take birth control experiment with skipping the sugar pills (or placebos) in order to avoid having a period at what might be an “awkward moment.”

I understand that some birth control prescriptions are made so that this is possible. However, you should double-check with your doctor before trying it.

My period stopped, but I’m not pregnant? It could be stress-related!

It is true that the stress of being abroad may cause your period to be early, late, or more or less frequent.

In some cases you might stop having your period altogether.

I know women who simply did not have their periods during most of a full year while abroad! It’s not because they were pregnant, but because of the stress on their bodies. And it wasn’t necessarily stress that they felt mentally.

If you think about it, it’s actually a good thing. Your body is protecting itself by refusing to allow you to reproduce if you’re too stressed out!

Should I take start taking birth control before traveling to regulate my period abroad?

In order to prevent the scare of a late, early, or non-existant periods, it is sometimes suggested to start taking birth control. Plus, birth control can help with cramps and acne. After all, these are issues that nobody wants to deal with while hiking up mountains or crossing countries with only a backpack.

I have personally always used birth control during my travels. Because of this, I have always had easy to deal with, regular menstruations. That said, it bears repeating that you shouldn’t feel obligated to take birth control just because you are traveling. Plenty of women (ahem — most women) have periods every month, in every country of the world. There are options.

If you do decide to start taking birth control, you should probably start long before you leave to make sure it works well with your body.


[Cover photo: Orchid from the Orchid Festival in Concepción, Bolivia.]

Hair Removal and Travel

Am I Clean and Tidy?

What is the best way to shave your legs when you’re constantly traveling? There are several options for hair removal (be it armpits, legs, etc.), but when you’re caught in a flurry of flights, hostels, and public transport, some ways may be easier than others. The fact is: you can’t always expect to have a hot bathtub to leisurely shave your legs.

Waxing: This requires more money and an appointment. Unless you do it at home (I’ve never been so successful), in which case it requires the wax, strips, and often some way to heat the wax. For traveling, this is obviously not the ideal option since you may not know the language well enough to make an appointment along the way and you may not have your time (or money!) budgeted well enough to make an appointment. Additionally, you may not have room in your luggage for the waxing equipment and may not have an easy way to heat the wax.

Shaving: This doesn’t last as long as waxing and razors might cause a problem if you are flying without check luggage. Also, it can be a bit uncomfortable to do (razor burn!) if you don’t have hot water and shaving cream. That said, it is pretty easy to get razors almost anywhere and they are usually pretty cheap if you can live with the disposable ones. This is a good option, though still not an ideal one.

Epilation: About a year ago I bought an EpiLady epilator. It’s a small, battery-powered machine (about the size of two decks of cards) that contains lots of tiny tweezers in it. Essentially, it tweezes your hairs out at the root, providing a long-lasting shave. The best part about it though is that it can be taken anywhere, even on planes, and once you buy the machine you won’t need to buy anything else (no waxing strips or extra razor blades, etc.) However, it can take a long hour to get rid of all your unwanted hair and, the first few times at least, it hurts!

Permanent methods: Think– laser hair removal. I suspect that this is the best hair removal method of all. I have yet to try this, however, so I cannot say for sure. Admittedly, the price is extremely restrictive on this method especially since the process may need to be repeated more than once to get rid of all hair. However, the good news is that it is cheaper in some countries than others, which may make it more affordable depending on where you travel and for how long.

[Cover photo: Mirror at a museum in Cardiff, Wales.]

Thinking in a foreign language

The moment you will be able to really feel comfort in a foreign language is when you start to think in it. By that, I mean you start to use the language in automatic responses… you’re not translating in your head or searching a long time for words.

Once you can start thinking in the language, words will flow and you will start to feel like you understand the concept of ‘fluency’, even though you are not yet there. But there are a lot of misconceptions about this kind of ‘thought fluency.’

First of all, most people think you need a high level to be able to think in a language. This is wrong.

You do not need a high level to be able to think in a langauge.

In fact, think about what happens when you learn a new word in your native language. If I tell you that water is now called ‘su,’ you will have no problems integrating that word into your normal vocabularly. Immediately, you will be able to use the word — ‘Can I have some su?’ or ‘Are you thirsty? Do you want soda or su?’

The other big misconception is probably that you gain this fluency just by grammar and vocabulary study.

Grammar and vocabulary alone will never allow you to think in a foreign language.

You have to practice thinking in your target language if you ever want to be able to do it. I have met so many people who know tons of words and understand extremely well the grammar of a language, but unless you can think in the language, conversation is going to be difficult.


How to Start Thinking in a Foreign Language

1. Look around you

Whether you are in a room or walking outside or wherever you are, look around you.

2. Clear your head  of words

Actually, this is easy. When we look around we aren’t usually thinking ‘Hey, there’s a clock and there’s a chair…’ In fact, normally we aren’t saying anything to ourselves at all regarding our surroundings. If we are thinking something, we are either thinking about things that are not directly related to our surroundings or we are thinking in pictures or abstract concepts– but we are not saying words to ourselves. So try to look around without any words coming to your head at all.

3. Allow the target language to come out

Now, try to think (or better yet, say out loud!) whatever words you can in your target language about your surroundings.

It doesn’t matter if it’s not grammatically correct or if it’s not interesting. If all you can do is colors– that’s fine. Actually, I would suggest starting with colors. Just look around and let the color name come to you in the target language without thinking about the word in your native language.

If what comes to your mind isn’t related to your surroundings, say it anyways. Basically, you are verbalizing stream of concsiousness in a foreign language.
(‘Now I’m thinking in French, and I’m only going to think in French, and I see a thing but I’m not sure what it is in French but it’s blue, I like blue, but that thing isn’t blue, it’s black, I like black….’)

4. Don’t know it? Move on!

Face it– you don’t know what everything is in your native language either. Right now I’m sitting in a room with one of those things with beads on it used to count… an abacus? That’s not a word that comes easily to me!

The important thing is not to know any words but rather to use what you do know and to totally ignore and skip over what you don’t. Increasingly your vocabularly or grammar should be done in an actually study session. This activity is just about preparing your brain for fluid foreign thinking.



If you give this a try, let me know how it goes. If you have another trick that you use, please share that too!

[Cover photo: Paris, France.]

CEFR Language Levels – What do they mean?

I first came into contact with the CEFR language levels during a semester in Orléans, France. I was presented with a French placement exam to figure out my level.

The CEFR (Common European Framework for Languages) tests are produced in multiple countries. They are often referred to with different acronyms according to the language in question.

The levels are: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, with A1 being the most elementary level and C2 corresponding to a “native” speaker’s level.

What do these levels mean?

People who take language learning seriously use these levels are used to judge a person’s language skills. I can’t say how many times I’ve met someone who tells me they are “fluent” in Spanish, but the second I ask them a simple question (“¡Muy bien! ¿Como estas?), they either refuse to respond or use grammar that is heavily flawed.

The fact is, it’s not as though you are either fluent or not fluent.

There are many levels in between. In fact, many people believe that nobody is ever really “fluent” in any language, as you can never know 100% of grammar rules and vocabulary– languages are just too complex.

Nevertheless, CEFR provides a way for people to identify themselves with levels that attempt to define language competence.

What can be done at each level?

CEFR has it’s own definitions on what each level means which are very thorough and very diplomatic. In my experience, and in the fewest words possible, here’s what they mean:

A1 Level – This is when you only know a few words and phrases. You can deal with some necessities, but you can’t really have a conversation.
A2 Level – You can have a rather simple conversation, but without a dictionary it will be uninteresting.
B1 Level – You can have real (though perhaps slow) conversation. It may take time, but you can express most things.
B2 Level – You can talk about almost anything. This is the level where you could start to legitimately claim “fluency.”

At the B2 level, you might still speak a bit slowly and need a dictionary on occasion. Usually, though, you can start to take college classes and work a job in the language with this level.

C1 LevelNot only can you talk about everything, but you also have  a good grasp of grammar. You might still sound a bit foreign, but hey… nobody’s perfect! Or are they?
C2 Level – As far as I know, nobody takes this test unless they plan to do translation (or something similar) in the language. This is above and beyond what most people ever need. It shows that not only can you speak the language, but you’ve really studied it.



[Cover photo: Paris and the Eiffel Tower as seen from the Arc de Triomphe.]

Illicit Nail Polish

My little host sister Aicha loves to draw.
She doodles, she sketches, and, above all, she really love nail polish.

This is a problem because nail polish not approved of by the Koran. At least according to her Koran teacher.

The day after my 12-year-old sister Aicha asked to paint her nails with me, her Koran teacher informed her that nail polish is bad– especially on the toes. Apparently it is expressly forbidden on the toes and not as bad (though certainly not approved of either) on the hands. So that night, Aicha went in the shower and scrubbed the brand new polish off her toes with a rough sponge.

Later, I found two pictures she drew of decorated hands (with nail polish).
The top of the first one says (in French):

“Nails not well accepted by the Muslim religion” 

and the top of the second one says:

“Even if certain people don’t like it, I love it!”

The best solution to being able to decorate her body without getting into trouble is to use henna.

Henna is a natural plant, with color varying between yellow-orange-dark orange (practically black). There aren’t any other color choices, and the color is dependent on the quality of the henna, the best henna dying the darkest.

Aicha told me (though no other sources confirm this and my Professor for the History of Islam claimed it was outright incorrect) that if you die with henna on your hands then you will go straight to heaven.
“Which is why older women like my grandmother tend to do henna a lot…they know they might die soon.”

When I asked Aicha why she didn’t do henna more often, she told me that young people don’t really like it because it’s not a very pretty color. She would probably do it more often if the henna was pink! But the only way to get pink is to use nail polish, and, of course, she can’t do that.

Aicha also likes to design clothing – both on paper and with fabrics scraps that she sews together for Maymona, a once stuffed dog now converted into … well I guess she’s a BIT more humanlike?

Maymona, by the way, is in love with Mahmoud. Mahmoud is my miniature stuffed black cat, about the size of a beanie baby. So last time the two of them got together, they made traditional Senegalese outfits.

But something else was worrying me about Aicha: she always draws on lined paper.

As the daughter of two artists, I think it’s important for kids to draw and be encouraged to express themselves through art. To do so, it’s important to have the right materials. Lined paper and an everyday yellow pencil #2 doesn’t cut it. So I decided to fix the problem. I went to the bookstore, bought a pad of big, white drawing paper, and a couple of graded hardness pencils, gave them to her and, to make it less of a gift (we were told that our host families would frown upon gifts if we didn’t approve them with our host mothers first), I asked her to make an image for my blog. This is what she drew:
Conclusion: a great image for my blog, and a happy little sister!


My Grandpa was Polygamist: Polygamy in Senegal

The tradition of polygamy in Senegal is quite interesting.

Yes, polygamy actually does exist!

When I asked my host mom about it, she told me:

“Well, I come from a polygamist family, and it worked just fine for us!”

It turns out grandpa had 4 wives. The woman I know as grandma (or yaay in Wolof) is wife #2.

With a lot of openness and sharing, they made it work out. It was one big happy family, and she considered her half brothers and sisters as true siblings who all shared 4 mothers.

My mom conceded that for many families it seems to cause a lot of problems. But that could be because they get into it for the wrong reason.
Wrong reasons might include:

  1. Finding another “better” woman and not wanting to divorce the first
  2. Taking another wife as a show of wealth
  3. Umm, etc.

“One man I knew,”

she told me,

“decided to take a second wife because he told me that he just need to make love all the time. He still loved and had a great relationship with his first wife, he just needed another woman to be completely satisfied.”

Apparently it worked out for him, too.

[Cover photo: Women in part of a women’s group searching to better their community in rural Senegal.]

Bolivia’s Hidden Gem: An Enchanting Desert of Salt

The Salar de Uyuni in Uyuni, Bolivia, is the most beautiful place I have ever visited in my life.

It is the largest salt desert in the entire world, measuring 12,000 square kilometers and containing around 90% of the world’s salt– a resource that is still pretty much untouched. One of the best things about it is that it is difficult to get to, making it a rare gem for travelers.

salar de uyuni bolivia salt beautiful

I visited the Salar de Uyuni during January of my one year stay in Bolivia as a Rotary Youth Exchange student. The Rotary Youth Exchange is a program through Rotary International that provides summer or year-long stays in foreign countries for students up to the age of 18. Luckily, this meant that I was able to take this trip with a member of Rotary as a tour guide. For those who do not have this connection, tour guides can be found throughout the cities of La Paz and Santa Cruz. A few can be found online, but the best deals must be searched out upon arrival in the country.


There is no airport in Uyuni, so the only way to get there is by bus.

We took a plane from Santa Cruz to Sucre, and then took the bus from there to Potosí. We spent one night in Potosí­ at the Hotel Avenida and then continued on to Uyuni and the Salar with our guide.

For me, the gem of the Salar de Uyuni began even before we arrived at our destination. On the outskirts of the salar we saw llamas running around and stopped to see if we could get close to them. I had never seen a llama so close to me in my life! They were everywhere; they were even walking around at a gas station!

Salar de Uyuni bolivia salt flats llamas

As we came upon the salar, it seemed like we were driving through dirty snow.

However, the longer we drove, the whiter the “snow” became until, eventually, looking around the desert becomes absolutely blinding without sunglasses. Of course, the white blanket covering the ground is actually salt! After a short while I realized that the white brilliance surrounded me in every direction! The only other colors I could see were in the cloudy blue sky.

Since the ground is white and Uyuni is at a high altitude of almost 12,000 ft, the sun’s intense UV rays reflect easily off the ground. Thus, they can burn skin from both above and below. After the trip, I would sincerely regret having forgotten my sunscreen. On a positive note, however, since everything is white as far as the eye can see, it makes for great trick-photography. I tried to take several pictures with my friends, and even though we are amateur photographers, we at least enjoyed the challenge.

Salar de Uyuni bolivia salt flats putting salt in the bag

Throughout the salt flats there are tons of little mounds of salt. I soon learned that these are created so that the salt can dry before being refined. We visited a salt refinery on the edge of the salt flats and learned about how they collect, dry, iodize, and bag the salt.

Salar de Uyuni salt in a bag sal yodada

The entire process is very rudimentary and the salt is bagged by hand—one bag at a time. Each bag is even sealed by hand using a hot flame.

We drove across the salt desert for a few hours before stopping at the Hotel de Sal Playa Blanca– a hotel made out of bricks formed from the surrounding salt.

Salar de Uyuni salt hotel

Although we did not spend the night, we did have a chance to look at the beautiful building and the international flags flying outside of it before moving on to the Isla del Pescado.


The Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) is a fish-shaped island within the “lake” of the salt desert. Since the perfect white salt had a resemblance of snow, it was spectacular to see right next to the giant 1000-year-old cacti on the island. A naturally formed coral arc can also be found on the island, and we had a great time climbing around it.

Salar de Uyuni isla del pescado cactus cacti snow salt ice

We ate llama for lunch, and when we left the island, I sat on top of the 4-wheeler as we drove across the desert.

It was absolutely gorgeous! The wind and watery salt blew in my face as we drove, coating my hair and entire body with a layer of salt. Little did I know at the time, the salt would make my sunburn hurt much worse later on.

When we finally left Uyuni, we headed to a train cemetery where tons of rusted out old train parts lay in the middle of the desert. As of yet there is no museum or guide to explain why these trains stopped their trip into Bolivia. Certainly, though, they make for a beautiful sight.

Salar de Uyuni old trains

We headed back to Potosí­ for the night in what should have been a long (but bearable) bus ride. However, thanks to mechanical problems, the bus had to stop twice so the driver could do emergency repairs. It turned into an 11-hour long painful bus adventure, complete with sore sunburns, a lack of aloe vera, and a completely filled bus—topped off with hitchhikers who slept in the aisles between the seats using our feet as pillows. I finally drifted off to sleep around 2:00 am in the morning while we were stopped for the second time, and a few hours later we finally managed to reach Potosí for the night.

Although Salar de Uyuni is undoubtedly the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life, the fact that it is so remote makes it difficult for travelers to visit. It is difficult if not impossible to book hotels and buses online, and one must be willing and able to “go with the flow” in case the bus needs emergency repairs while on the road, as ours did.

While this does make Bolivia’s salt desert a particularly difficult trip to pre-plan, it also makes it an even rarer gem.

Those who are willing to take the risk of last minute plans and an 11-hour bus ride are in for a real treat! Hopefully, though, they will plan ahead and bring sunscreen!

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