Larry Summers is Wrong: Why Learning Multiple Languages is So Valuable

Today’s New York Times features a Room for Debate section about the need to learn multiple languages. Six panelists, including author Stacie Berdan, agree that it is crucial to learn more than one language to operate in the new, globalized world.

They all refute an assertion by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury (and a man with a history of making blanket statements), who wrote What You (Really) Need to Know.

 The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. [emphasis mine, read more here]

This strikes me as arrogant and short-sighted. Even if more non-Americans are learning English and Google Translate is getting better, that does not negate the value of learning other languages.

Being able to speak more than one language has had an immeasurable impact on my own life.

I learned Spanish before the age of five, thanks to my wonderful Nana Petra. While my parents were working, she totally spoiled me with home-cooked Mexican meals, lacy white dresses, and games of Lotería. She drilled me on pronunciation (A, E, I, O, U) and taught me nursery rhymes.

This early exposure to Spanish paved the neural pathways in my brain to let me think in more than one language.

I continued to study Spanish all through school and all through college, including a year here in Chile.

When I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, I moved to China to teach English at a university near Shanghai. I’d never studied Chinese and never been obsessed with Asian culture, but I was able to quickly pick up the basics of child-like Chinese through conversations with vegetable vendors, security guards, and migrant workers on the train.

Over the next few years, I took many private lessons and small-group classes. Thank you Layla and Xiaofei for helping me elevate my Chinese skills from toddler level to that of a nine-year-old who likes to talk about wind turbine engineers and garbage incinerators. Learning Chinese gave me access to get beyond China’s single story, beyond the world of tour guides and textbooks, to take part in everyday life.

Now back in Chile, I use Chinese less. In the last month I’ve used it twice: at a restaurant and with a new Start-Up Chile entrepreneur from China. But linguistic crossover shapes the way I see the world.

Last week I led an entrepreneurship seminar at Casa de la Mujer, a community center in a poorer neighborhood of Santiago. The last day, fabulous Start-Up Chile video intern Javiera came with me to film the class and interview me and the ladies about our experiences. (The video will be ready soon!)

I talked about the course in English and it was SO HARD!  You might be thinking, but Leslie, you’re AMERICAN. English is your first language. How can it be hard?

Since I taught and thought about the class in Spanish, explaining it in English felt distant, foreign, and even patronizing. I stumbled over words; I felt like English made the distinctions between myself and the ladies too dramatic. In Spanish it felt more communal, more egalitarian, more personal. My testimonial, of how leading discussions with these woman has inspired me as an entrepreneur, flowed with enthusiasm in Spanish, but in English it felt forced, hesitant. Good thing Javiera took lots of footage: there should be at least a few clips in which my English is fluent and confident.

Linguistic crossover has had such a profound impact on my worldview. It has given me a broader understanding of words and grammar, but more importantly the tools to navigate the world with flexibility and empathy.

I truly can’t imagine life in only one tongue. I wish every preschooler could have a multilingual headstart!

Anatomy of a Much-Retweeted Tweet: audience, keywords, immediate benefit

Yesterday I tweeted:

So far this link has been shared, retweeted, and favorite’d 15 times, which is a lot more than most of the links, pictures, and observations I share on Twitter.

Why this tweet? I have some ideas.

1) Clear Audience. I addressed this tweet towards China-philes. This is a relatively broad, inclusive, and self-defined category, and there are a lot of China-philes on Twitter.

2) Specific Keywords. A grad student friend once referred to Harvard as the H-bomb. This name catches people’s attention!

3) Immediate Benefit. The course is available online. It’s free. A Harvard education for anyone with an internet connection and the attention span to sit through a lecture (or 37!)

What do you think? When do you find that your tweets get a lot of attention?

Madam Tusan: Chinese Cuisine with Peruvian & Chilean Characteristics

I wrote this a few months back, right when the restaurant opened. A delicious side of modern China-Chile relations! 

Madam Tusan, a Chinese-Peruvian restaurant, opened a few months ago at Parque Arauco, an upscale mall that looks like it could be in Southern California.

We visited the restaurant after reading this tempting review in the September 30, 2011 edition of Wikén, the Friday magazine of Chile’s most prominent newspaper, El Mercurio, I translated parts of it into English. 

Chifa Cuisine Arrives in Chile: Fusion of Chinese and Peruvian Gastronomy. by Bárbara Muñoz S. 

Cebiche con wantanes? Not only is it possible, it’s delicious. The tasty mix of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine – sweet-and-sour, intense, and with an important historical weight – has just landed in Chile, in the Boulevard of Parque Arauco, by the hand of Gastón Acurio and his ultimate whim: Madam Tusan.

When he was a child, Gastón Acurio – today a super-famous chef, mega-businessman, and face of the Peruvian gastronomic revolution – asked for “una chifa” for his birthday. His parents thought he wanted to celebrate by eating at one of the many Chinese restaurants that existed in Lima, known as “chifas.” But what he had in mind was something else: he wanted to HAVE a chifa.

When I visited the restaurant, I spoke with Liliana Com, who was visiting from the main location in Lima to manage the Santiago location’s opening. Liliana is “tusan,” or Peruvian-born Chinese.

I asked Liliana about the derivation of the word “tusan.” Does it come from the familiar Chinese words for “earth” and “three”? Not directly, she explained; there are specific words for different generations of Japanese descendents – issei, nissei, sansei for first, second, and third generation, respectively – but not similar words for Chinese descendants, at least not in the Peruvian vernacular.

The first Chinese arrived in Peru around 1854, when slavery was abolished and landowners needed a new labor source.

The El Mercurio piece describes how this migration shaped Peruvian cuisine.

“Many of those Chinese stayed to live forever and never stopped eating their food. In fact, part of their payment was in rice,” explains Liliana. The combination of Chinese techniques and Peruvian ingredients gave rise to chifa cuisine. As time passed, the immigrants and their families installed themselves on Capón Street, in the center of Lima, which developed into a Chinese neighborhood. “In this time the chifas in Lima were opium dens and a kind of red-light district where the ‘madams’ reigned over the places,” tells Liliana. From that comes the name Madam Tusan.

When I pulled this newspaper clipping from my bag, Liliana pointed out that El Mercurio misquoted her. She clarified that the Chinese neighborhood was “not a place for families,” but the Chinese restaurants were NOT opium dens and brothels. She became quite animated when she said this, as it clearly touched a nerve.

So, you might be wondering, how was the food? Delicious!

My companion and I started off with fresh juice (the restaurant had yet to receive its liquor license.)

Then one of the dozens of attentive waiters (unusual in Chile – this country is not known for customer service) presented three types of chili sauce. The spiciest one featured crushed peppers from Jilin, China. The second mixed Peruvian chilies and crushed ginger. The third was hoisin con rocoto: a blend of hoisin, the sweet sauce that traditionally accompanies Peking Duck, and rocoto, a Peruvian spice paste.

Next we enjoyed the butifarra china, a plate of three delicate sandwiches filled with pork, cilantro, julienned vegetables and hoisin con rocoto on steamed buns.

The Pollo Bruce Lee – which came with a warning of solo para valientes – reminded me of the gong bao ji ding (chicken with peanuts, chilies, and other vegetables) that I ate so often in China.

Our most elaborate dish was camarones rellenos a la naranja, enormous shrimp stuffed with almonds, battered, fried and topped with a sweet-and-sour orange sauce and green onions. It reminded me of a dish you might find at an upscale, fusion-inspired restaurant in San Francisco.

Our final dish was a simple chaufa con pollo, fried rice with chicken and eggs. It was tasty and simple, and closer to home cooking than the complex dishes that sat beside it.

My Chilean dining companion found the food spicier than what he normally eats. (Chilean food is relatively bland: lots of bread, sandwiches, and barbecue.) But he really enjoyed the mix of flavors and the overall experience.

He also loved the design of the red leather chairs.

Overall, our experience at Madam Tusan lived up to its tantalizing review, and showed a stylish, modern, and globalized face of China in Chile.

Madam Tusan. Boulevard del Parque Arauco. Avenida Presidente Kennedy 5413, Las Condes, Santiago.  Call for reservations: 02-2190152. Lunch for two, including non-alcoholic beverages and tip: 30.000 Chilean pesos (roughly $60.)

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook: A Tasty Embrace of China’s Contrasts

Thanks to a thoughtful recommendation from Elise Bauer, author Scott Seligman sent me a review copy of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which is available on

I loved the book’s artful explanation of how disastrous government policy brought forth creative self-reliance.

For most Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the very idea of a history of eating during that cheerless decade sounds like an oxymoron. It was an era in which the traditional food culture of China – which, according to an old Chinese saying, is on a par with heaven – went into near-total eclipse. Shortages were the order of the day, and one was lucky to consume as many calories as one burned on any given day. The art of cooking, in the sense of a body of collected wisdom about ingredients, seasonings and preparation methods, was summarily abandoned and was, in fact, criticized as a capitalist remnant. People ate whatever they could get their hands on, and there was almost never enough to go around.

Most would think of their time in the countryside as a disastrous waste of a decade, but that view told only part of the story. The experience had also been formative, and they came back more mature and self-reliant. They came back with lifelong friendships, with skills they had never dreamed they would acquire and with a hunger for learning and improving their lots in life that would lead many to great achievements. And many came back with the knowledge of Chinese countryside cooking with its flavorful and wholesome recipes that would be with them for the rest of their lives. (9, 12)

The time I spent in China was infinitely more prosperous and harmonious than the Cultural Revolution, but I definitely sensed this influence. My friends and students were the sons and daughters of the Cultural Revolution generation, filled with the “hunger for learning and improving their lots in life.” And of course I tasted many of the dishes in this book in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and friends’ kitchens.

Here in Chile, I decided on the most obvious (and delicious!) way to review this cookbook: testing the recipes!

The first time I opened the book, I breezed through it all in one sitting, right before dinnertime. It made me so hungry! I wanted to see what I could make from what was already in my kitchen.

Scrambled Eggs and Tomato. The photos in The Cultural Revolution Cookbook make even the most humble recipe look like a delicacy, and this was no exception.

I ate this dish so many times in China, especially at the restaurant across the street from the front gate of our university in Jiaxing. I think it was the first dish I learned how to say: “fan xie chau dan.”

But I’d never made it myself. I was surprised to see that the recipe included several tablespoons of sugar. The combination of sugar, salt, and oil transformed these simple ingredients into a tasty memory from China.

Each recipe page has a quaint Cultural Revolution anecdote like this one, which accompanies the Scrambled Eggs and Tomato recipe.

I served the eggs and tomatoes alongside a warm and chicken-less version of Cold Sesame Noodles with Chicken: spaghetti, garlic, cilantro, cooking oil, crushed chili pepper (I used merkén, a Chilean spice that seems quite similar to Chinese chilies… a local touch!), soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. All ingredients that I already had in my kitchen!

I positioned the plate on top of a book of essays on the future of China-Chile relations. I like how this picture communicates the dish’s trans-Pacific provenance.

A few days later, I made a Chinese “banquet” for four. This time I shopped for ingredients at the neighborhood fruit stand and butcher shop.

Inspired by the book’s recipe for Pork with Green and Red Pepper Shreds, I made a Xinjiang-style beef noodle soup with vegetables. I ended up adding tomatoes, beer, cumin, cilantro, and several other ingredients that were not in the recipe. It was quite tasty.

HINT: If you’re buying meat from a butcher, ask the butcher to cut it up for you. This saved me both time and the chore of scrubbing raw meat juice off my cutting boards. A win-win!

We also made cucumber salad, one of my all-time favorite Chinese restaurant dishes, and a second round of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, served with a really nice bottle of Carmenere that my parents left behind after a winery tour during their visit. A lovely finish to a lovely evening!

Overall, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook reminded me that Chinese cooking can be simple, inexpensive, unintimidating, and delicious. It does not require special trips to unfamiliar stores for ingredients you’ve never bought before. All you really need is fresh ingredients, simple kitchen supplies, and a healthy dose of China nostalgia.

All images from The Cultural Revolution Cookbook except for the shot of my plate of food with the Chilean and Chinese flags.

How to Give a Speech that Resonates

I’ve been meaning to write about Nancy Duarte for a long time. Now I have the ideal examples to write this in a California-China-Chile context! Yes!

Nancy Duarte

Nancy and my dad worked together many years ago at Apple. In 1990 she founded Duarte Design. The company has since grown into the world leader in presentation design and training. Clients include Al Gore and most of the world’s top tech companies.

She has written two fabulous, colorful, and useful books.

A few years ago, while preparing a presentation skills training for a group of Chinese lawyers, my dad suggested that I read the Duarte blog for inspiration. I became a loyal reader. Her ideas about storytelling inspired me to spice up a speech about patent invalidation procedures in China.

My client, a patent attorney with a pHd in chemistry, came to me with a draft of the slides for his speech at a conference in France. I read through the slides, and noticed on slide #26 a pharmaceutical compound more commonly known as Viagra has been invalidated a number of times in China. I saw this as a goldmine to transform a dense, technical presentation into a memorable story that would really resonate with a roomful of patent attorneys.

The final version of his speech started with a riddle. “It’s blue. Six letters. Men like it. Can you guess it? Yes, it’s Viagra! And Viagra is useful for more than one thing. It’s useful for understanding China’s patent invalidation process. Let me tell you about the first time Viagra’s patent was invalidated…”

The speech was a hit! Every attorney at this conference remembered his message!

I had the great fortune to meet Nancy Duarte in person a few months ago, when I was home in California. She had just booked a trip to China, and she had lots of questions about how the Chinese think. I recommended The Geography of Thought, which is a fabulous conversation starter.

This week, Nancy gave a speech in Beijing, and posted about the experience on her blog:

I spoke in Beijing on Saturday, and worked with an interpreter for the first time. Public speaking is hard enough, and working with an interpreter complicates things… unless you’re prepared.

I had two interpreters. One was the primary and the other was a secondary interpreter, plus they had two on stand-by (paranoid event planning I guess). The primary interpreter, Sally, was a subject matter expert, and the secondary interpreter, Rebecca, was a professional interpreter. Sally kicked it off and was doing great (I thought) and then I got a note to have it switch to Rebecca. Then a note to switch back to Sally. Apparently, because Sally wasn’t a professional interpreter, she was looking at me and at her notes and not at the audience. Even though she is a compelling communicator when alone on stage, they felt she was bringing down the energy of the talk. They slipped in Rebecca, coached Sally and had Sally come back on and she kicked it up! She and I both learned from this experience.

Interestingly, it was when Rebecca was interpreting that she created a S.T.A.R. Moment. That’s an acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. In my talk, I was describing in what a S.T.A.R. moment is. But when Rebecca relayed in Chinese what a S.T.A.R. moment was the place roared with laughter (they didn’t laugh when I explained what it is.) Rebecca had inserted a traditional 4-character Chinese saying that means “something you’ll remember until you’re so old your teeth are falling out.” She did a great job mapping my information to the local culture.

Her suggestions apply for anyone communicating across cultures, not just VIP keynote speakers with four interpreters on hand! Here’s her full post:  Six Tips for Working With an Interpreter While Public Speaking.

I thought of Nancy yesterday while sitting through a full-day conference here in Chile. While some speakers gave clear, educational, and visual presentations, the majority brought to mind the phrase “Death by PowerPoint.” Too many slides! Tiny graphs! Bad typesetting! Ugly, mismatched colors! Impossible-to-read graphics “enhanced” by complex animation! A vertical, paragraph-filled PDF report with tiny type and tiny graphs, projected on screen! You get the picture.

The conference did have many redeeming values. I learned a lot and met many people that showed interest in my new business. But I wanted to use Nancy’s methodology to rework almost all of the presentations, as to inspire the audience, not put everyone to sleep!

It also gave me inspiration to continue packing my speeches with personal anecdotes and photos from my camera.

The following photo has made it into nearly every speech I’ve made in Chile. I use it to illustrate my Silicon Valley background, and truly connect with the audience.

If you have any interest at all in visual communication, public speaking, or the getting your point across in general, please read Nancy’s books, follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to her blog. Your audience will thank you!

Updated 1/2/2015

When Frida Kahlo came to my ESL class in China…

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday. This is no secret. I included this information in the first line of the bio I wrote for this site, and last year I posted so many Halloween posts that my dad made fun of me. Since it´s October, that means I can start celebrating, right??

While searching for something else, I came across an email I wrote back in 2006, when I was a bright-eyed English teacher in Jiaxing, China. It feels very appropriate in the context of my current obsession with China – Latin America relations. What follows is an edited version of that note.

Our textbook contains a Frida Kahlo painting called El Camion, which has 6 people waiting for a bus, including Frida herself, a young boy, a mother with a baby. The relationships between the people are ambiguous, and there is a lot to discuss in the painting.

I chose 6 students to act out the painting.

I had the rest of the class interview the people in the painting.  The funniest response was when one of the men (who in the picture wears a suit and holds a bag, presumably of money) explained that he was a professional murderer.  Frida (who, as I explained to the students, was a very ill woman with an unhappy marriage) tried to contract his services to kill her husband.  It was soooooooooooo funny!  To add to the drama, Frida was on her way home from the supermarket and was carrying only eggs.  So she wanted to know how many eggs it would cost for one quick murder.

And at that exact moment, “Frida”‘s cell phone rang from inside the bag that supposedly contained only eggs.  It was absolutely hilarious.

Over the weekend I went to a Halloween party five hours away that the American teachers who led our orientation were hosting. I went as Frida Kahlo, inspired by my fabulous lesson!

La nueva triple frontera: California, China y Chile

Last night I spoke at the Meetup in Viña del Mar. The event was excellent! Here is the blurb we used to advertise it:

Leslie Forman, a California native who spent four years working in China, will speak about the new frontier of connections between California, China, and Chile (EN ESPAÑOL.) She is the daughter of two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and technology has always been a part of her life. In China she worked in many different industries, including advertising, consulting, corporate social responsibility and teaching. However, she always found herself thinking about Chile, where she had studied back in 2005.

Leslie will share several entertaining stories about the unexpected connections between California, China and Chile and give some advice for companies and individuals looking to operate in this triangle.

Here are my slides. They are in Spanish, but they’re packed with photos and the stories might be familiar to loyal readers of this blog. (Hola Grandma Ginny!)

AMENDED 10/2/11: Here is the PDF — La nueva triple frontera: California, Chile, China — feel free to share or print it. Enjoy!!

Unexpected Perk of Start-Up Chile: Mining-Specific Chinese Vocab Lessons!

This week I learned a bunch of new vocabulary in Chinese!

挖土机 [wātǔjī] = bulldozer

港口[gǎngkǒu] = port

皮卡 [píkǎ] = pick-up truck

地形 [dìxíng] = landscape, topography

Why did I need these words? I’ve recently started doing some Chinese-Spanish translation work for mining companies. In China I worked in many different industries, but mining was not one of them. And I also did not babysit any 5-year-old boys. So I never learned the word “wātǔjī.”

Until now.

Meet Joe Yu.

Joe is entering his junior year at Middlebury College, where he is majoring in Math and Economics. He is from Shanghai, and interning for PingPigeon, a Start-Up Chile company. (Here is Joe’s post on the PingPigeon blog, with his impressions of Chile.) He has been here for a month, and today he goes back to Vermont for the beginning of the new school year.

I mentioned my new freelance projects to Joe, and asked him if he could talk to me about my photos from my mine visits, as if he were talking to a 5-year-old Chinese boy who loved big machines. Joe kindly agreed to tutor me.

Thank you Joe! Enjoy your next year of school! Glad to give you one more fun story about your time here in Chile :)

Rejected Names For My Future Company

Whoa, this has been a crazy week!

I’ve been busy helping Chinese and Chilean businessmen communicate more effectively, as a freelance Chinese-Spanish interpreter. Several well-intentioned people have suggested names for my hypothetical future China-Chile translation and consultancy business.

This photo illustrates one of the many meanings of China in Chile.

First option: ChichiSolar, as in China-Chile Solar Services, or something like that. This inspired way too many giggles, since in Spanish “chichi” is a childish word for breasts or urination. And in Chinese, the sound “chichi” brings to mind two things: sadness and Valentine’s Day. Therefore, ChichiSolar sounds like some sort of nude tanning salon or a Valentine’s Day pity party. Totally not OK for a serious business started by a young woman! (For more notes on the connotations of these sounds, check out this post by Fritinancy.)

Second option: TransLeslie. Now this one sounds like some sort of transgendered lesbian. Not that I have anything against transgender or lesbian, but the name seems to distract from the value proposition of connecting China and Chile.

Any other suggestions? :)

Also, my last post on the Top 10 Reasons Why Start-Up Chile Rocks was cross-posted on the Start-Up Chile blog and here on Oh Hey World. I mentioned that I connected my dad to Ken Seville, a Start-Up Chile entrepreneur focused on connecting military veterans with good jobs. I am happy to report that my dad responded immediately with three friends who are military veterans and MBA / tech entrepreneur types in Silicon Valley, which totally proves my point about how Start-Up Chile connects people to those inside and outside the room.

Have a wonderful weekend!!

Thermodynamics in Verse: The Poetry of Heat

Lately I have been talking a lot about heat, and thinking about the language we use to describe heat.

In a meeting with several senior professors of mechanical engineering, I learned that “heat exchanger” translates to intercambiador de calor, and stretched my brain to explain concentrated solar power technology in semi-intelligent Spanish.

Slightly more sophisticated than my explanation in Chinese: “mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror” [while gesturing a bunch of flat things on the table and finding a taller object like a beer bottle to place in the middle of the mirrors] “and then those mirrors point the heat into this machine thing and it makes electricity” [gesticulating the motion of a turbine; my hands are better at explaining mechanics than my childlike Chinese vocabulary.]

I took this picture of San Francisco's City Hall on July 5, 2011 - an unusually warm summer day in the city. Nope, City Hall is not a heat exchanger, but it could be a useful "manipulative" (I learned that word my new-age 4th grade math class) to explain how one works. Just imagine a field of mirrors covering the entire parking lot, concentrating all the heat into a turbine in the dome. Not that the City of San Francisco would retrofit such an iconic building in that way. Details...

Amended 8.22.11: If you’re interested in real pictures and more technical descriptions of this technology, check out this photoessay from the Gunther Portfolio: Chevron BrightSource Solar-to-Steam Demonstration Plant Trials Underway.

Anyways, today I found some much more beautiful expressions of how heat affects people, in a New York Times feature called

Hot Type: Poems for Summer

These two poems are my favorites from the section.



Heat exists as energy in transit,

something spontaneous, volatile, elementary,

“something which may be transferred from one body

to another” (James Clerk Maxwell, “Theory of Heat”).

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