Margie Hord

Expat by Default

Month: March 2018

What’s your Word of the Year? Mine is “Brave”

It seemed to happen all of a sudden, that on social media people were talking about choosing their word of the year, to guide them as they faced the near future. That clicked with me, simpler than going for resolutions or goals that ended up in the dust.

Then I came across a short online quiz to help you decide on “your word of truth” after asking you several questions. There were multiple-choice answers, which didn’t excite me, but in the end the word I chose was “Brave”.

Continue reading

Understanding Mexican Courtesy or “Buena Educación”


When I was in Spain a few years ago, it shocked me to find a server treating us somewhat rudely, until I remembered a friend once telling us “you almost have to use swear words to get a waiter’s attention in Spain!” What?  Then other contacts have confirmed that Spaniards tend to be very direct and in-your-face, often appearing offensive to courteous Latin Americans.

It has occurred to me that, as Mexican culture is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous influence, perhaps its emphasis on extreme politeness and “doing the right thing” is more related to its indigenous roots after all! It is commonly called “buena educación”, which is a bit more all-encompassing than “good manners”. It has to do with being a decent person, or as Paul Yeatman says, having “good upbringing”. Among other things, he says, “Personal hygiene and courtesy are of primary importance, from the look of the fingernails to table manners to the rituals of politeness”. Continue reading

Learning from the Grandkids

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Folding up the hide-a-bed, I find a Nerf bullet or two,. The other day there was one in my purse. No doubt about it, I’m visiting the grandkids! Evenings, there is likely to be a Nerf-gun battle, sometimes with special masks and all. It’s quite a turnabout from my normal, solitary life. Time to learn…

Living at a distance from both sets of grandkids (after once having them all in the same city as me), I’ve adapted to a “kidless” life It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in my activities, my reading, my writing and social media. A visit to one set of grands has meant exercising a degree of self-control to avoid being overly wrapped up in those habits. Time to set aside the phone, the laptop, the book… and interact with those entertaining little “teachers”.

Just as parenting is a constant learning curve as we adapt to children and seek to be sensitive to their needs and intuition, grandparenting is as well… perhaps relearning some lessons after years of dormancy.

Seize the Moment

I’m constantly needing to learn this one. Yesterday, the rains made me feel like hunkering down in our “cave” for the day. No, I was in charge, and the grandkids needed more stimulation that that. So, time to hit the library! The one nearby is quite small, just one big room, but it has a variety of reading items, even some in other languages. There’s even coloring materials for those who are so inclined. There are computers, some of them marked for kids only, but we needed to get away from screens for a while!

Today, the sky has cleared unexpectedly after a rainy day. California spring is around the corner. A few of the leafless trees are showing signs of new life, one even showing forth red leaves, a gay contrast against the oh-so-blue sky. Not to be wasted spending too much time inside. What’s there to do? Easy… hit the trail to enjoy nature and more!

Sometimes we hike down the trail that runs by our department complex in several directions; today the kids grabbed their scooters for a change. There are several parks within walking distance. It’s always a learning experience as we observe the flora and fauna that cross our path. It’s bonding time too, whether chatting or enjoying a playground together.

A child lying on the ground under a thick layer of autumn leaves

Break the Sameness

Middle-age adults find it especially easy to fall into the rut of habit. Grandchildren motivate us to try something new, or at least break out of “life as usual” for a while.

When I’m with the grandkids, one of them is bound to want to do some baking with me, and I’ve more inspiration to do so than when I’m on my own.

Not much time goes by without someone wanting to play a board game; we even started to learn a new one this week.

Today we “lost an hour” with Daylight Savings Time arriving, so it was harder to get to church on time. That’s okay! I suggested we “do church” at home and everyone participated a bit. My granddaughter even thought of a craft to end with, based on the day’s lesson… which was inspired by last night’s movie, The Prince of Egypt.

Above all, much as we complain about how young ‘uns are overly connected to cell phones, videos and such, I realize it’s often up to us adults to offer options. As long as we’re busy with our stuff, they are likely to get bored. If I suggest an activity, there may be someone who groans, but as a rule they are perfectly willing to break out of the sameness and join me for something different.

Learn Interesting Facts

Children are bombarded with information these days, but it’s not all entertainment. The six-year-old just informed me that wolves have 42 teeth. Asked where he learned that, he replied simply: “Researching!” He goes to a Montessori school where he finds information on his own and writes answers to questions. Another day I was astounded at how much he knew about the location of certain states, more than his older siblings.

Kids (and of course grandkids) are “sponges”, always learning. Their curiosity and discovery of new  facts can spark in us that freshness, too.

A young woman smiling while looking at a smartphone

Learn New Skills

Nowadays, there are so many gadgets that weren’t around when we were growing up. Many of them have to do with technology. I’m certainly not the only grandparent who gets the younger generation to teach her to use apps on the cellphone, or ask “Alexa” for information or even a favorite song. My grandkids have more time than adults to show me something, patiently.

A person holding two donuts outside.


Be Generous

Little kids are famous for being selfish, but even they can surprise us at times. As they grow up, some show more generosity than others. One of my grandsons is good at checking out bargains, and found donuts on sale for 79 cents a box. He bought two boxes and shared with the rest of us, no problem. This is no exception, but happens a lot. A young teen, he even invited me to have something at Starbucks when he got a gift card! I’m sure I’m not the only adult who sometimes hides goodies to keep them from the kids, so that’s one kid who has something to teach me.

Share Good Grief

Being with the grandkids has helped me to grieve in a healthy way, remembering those little details about their granddad, whoe passed away just months ago. One day we were crossing the street and one of them bunched up some of his brother’s sweatshirt to cross the street. “That’s the way Pa used to do it.” When we were in a park, I picked up an empty can of soda to discard later, and was reminded, “Pa used to pick up garbage, too.” Hardly a day goes by without some memory coming up,.

A proper life is one where we are constantly learning, and having grandchildren be among those who teach us is a blessing!

Adjusting to Life in the US (Again)

Green details on the Statue of Liberty's head and crown

Most of my life has been spent in Latin America, although I did attend boarding school in Massachusetts eons ago, which involved considerable adjustment. Much has changed since then. These impressions are based especially on a recent visit to Southern California, so my observations might not be the same in other areas. If you already live in the US or Canada, most of these “facts of life” may seem obvious, but this is a chance to see your country through the eyes of newcomers. Then again, perhaps some of my readers are adjusting, too!

Diverse group of friends smile and post in a line outside

Ethnic and Racial Diversity

Back in the 70’s, it wasn’t as common to see much ethnic or racial diversity in the US. Of course there were more Afro-Americans and Hispanics in some areas, and in larger cities or international airports one could see more variety.

Now, however, it is a major change for me to see a wide range of racial and ethnic groups represented wherever I go, some even easily differentiated by saris, turbans or burkas. In fact, only 26% of students in the public schools of California identify themselves as “white”.  Wikipedia says: “No single ethnic group forms a majority  of California’s population”.

Interracial families are much more common than in the past, as well. Continue reading

Why I Love Language and Languages

Why I Love Language and Languages

Basic to human communication, words and language captivate me. I grew up knowing English and Spanish, and took Latin in high school. After taking a linguistics course (both challenging and fascinating) in my B.A. classes for Anthropology, I decided it was worth learning more, and my later studies focused on descriptive and applied linguistics.

When I say I studied linguistics, some have asked me how many languages I know, as if they expect me to be a polyglot. Not so, by any means. At school we practiced pronouncing words from a wide range of languages. We analyzed the phonology (sound systems) and structure of dozens of them, as well, including a number of indigenous languages and others from all around the world. I have studied a little French, and spent a summer learning Koiné Greek.

In southern Mexico for a few months, I learned some basics of the Tzeltal language, of the Mayan family, and loved its glottalized sounds (such as those similar to p, t, and k), a bit difficult to learn. These consonants sound somewhat explosive, producing a sort of popping noise. I once even read a story in Tzeltal to a family, and they understood it! Decades later, I barely remember a few words and phrases, and a little song.

Language Sounds

The world’s languages have a considerable variety of sounds, and confusing similar sounds (especially when our own language doesn’t include them) can make a major difference in meaning. In descriptive phonetics, one learns how sounds are produced and how to write transcriptions with technical symbols. In Canada, I once met a Laotian refugee family that our church was helping to get established. It was fun for me to learn a few words from their language, and try to pronounce their names correctly. The woman’s name sounded, to many English speakers, like “phew!” and made them laugh. She seemed delighted when, with my phonetics training, I was able to pronounce it correctly.

Making an effort to learn people’s languages shows you care and value them; it crosses barriers.

Tonal languages add another dimension to their phonology (sound system), where the tone in which a word is pronounced being essential to the meaning. Perhaps most famous in this aspect is Chinese, but in Mexico there are a number of tonal languages, including Mixtec. My father-in-law, a native speaker, got a kick out of saying a list of similar words that had totally different meanings, depending on their tone, nasalization, and the presence of sounds known as glottal stops. (To understand what that means, listen to the sound at the beginning and in the middle of “uh-oh”).

Resultado de imagen para aztec

Words and Word Structure

Later on, the organization where I worked asked me to check out the progress made by another linguist on a dictionary in one of the variants of Náhuatl, sometimes known as Aztec. There was a great deal still to be done, but I spent some time adding words and definitions; however, a number of complications came up and the dictionary was never published. All the same, I grew to appreciate some of the complexities of the language; the way it adds on countless prefixes and suffixes is hard to master and creates some surprisingly long words.

By the way, Mexican Spanish has a great deal of loan words from Náhuatl, but even English has adopted several. For example, there’s tomato, avocado, chocolate, chile, taco, and coyote. Usually several changes have occurred, as in coyote coming from “coyotl”.


Especially intriguing was the variety of onomatopoeic words in Náhuatl. In English, this type of words would include those like “pop”, “crash”, and “cock-a-doodle-do”, which imitate an actual sound. When I’d try to write a definition for some of those terms, it would be hard to find an English or Spanish equivalent. One word, for example, meant approximately “a sound like a horse galloping across a wooden bridge”. The way each language has unique words with very specific meanings is another of the facets that delight me.

Grammar and Syntax

Another feature of each language is its unique structure and rules (both syntax and grammar), whether or not a linguist has analyzed them. In Mexico, however, one often hears people refer erroneously to the indigenous languages as “dialects”, considering them somehow inferior, merely oral languages “without a grammar”. A speaker of the complex Otomí tongue was once told his language “didn’t have a grammar”; he ran to get the recently-published, voluminous book on the grammar of his language, proudly showing it off.


Before I sign off, let me touch briefly on sociolinguistics, which deals with how language and society are intertwined. The way we speak depends on the context, from informal to formal, which is more important in some languages than in others. One Náhuatl group has a specific, ultra-formal way of speaking that is only used in ceremonies among godparents and godchildren! Then there are ways of expressing ourselves such as slang and jargon, spoken solely by those belonging to an in-group.


Bilinguals and multilinguals may use the languages they speak differently. Sociolinguists study this, as well. In Haiti, for instance, Creole is almost exclusively spoken at home and with friends, whereas French is reserved for formal contexts such as school, church, and government. (If you want the fancy word for that, it’s called diglossia.) In many countries, speakers of indigenous languages do not tend to use them for reading or writing, just orally, and schools tend to focus on the national language.

Although I’ve only flown over the surface of some aspects of language,  it’s a very complex subject, but one which offers much to learn.

Just as each human group can be identified by its particular culture, its language is an essential part of its identity. Each of the world’s tongues has value, as do those who speak them!

© 2020 Margie Hord

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