Arabic, German, ASL … Klingon?! Oh my!

This popped up on my Facebook yesterday and I admit that my heart did a little dance:

The Official Klingon Course: Duolingo x Star Trek! I clicked on the link, downloaded Duolingo and soon after I happily messaged photo to a fellow Trekkie friend Bob Novella of Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I discovered the Klingon Dictionary at the book store in the late 80’s/early 90’s and used to spend as much time as I could perusing it and trying to absorb a few phrases because I couldn’t afford to purchase the book. So I’m delighted that my childhood dream will be much more accessible! As of just now, there are 18.1k users who have started learning Klingon!

Since childhood I’ve studied – to various levels of proficiency – the following languages: French, Spanish, German, ASL (American Sign Language), Scottish Gaelic, Egyptian, Modern Standard Arabic and now Lebanese. (Egyptian and Lebanese are spoken “dialects” of colloquial Arabic) and now I’d love to add a smattering of Klingon to the mix!

You are probably asking “Why?!” My language learning history is long and a little convoluted.

I’ve loved to learn languages for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure why, but when there was an exchange student at school, I was usually the first to introduce myself –even though I was extremely shy as a child. I wanted to know about another places! When I was about 7 or 8 years old I discovered that there were French language learning records & pictures books at the library. I wanted to learn and I took them home with me. I can picture the setup in my room right now.


I wasn’t able to learn a language at school until 7th grade but I signed up for French and loved it. I continued into high school and I excelled (until we got into the language immersion style classes – anyone else remember Mireille?) I realized that reading & writing in French was not the same as understanding spoken French – there is a slew of silent letters! I also discovered stage fright.)

Anyhow, as soon as I started high school as a Freshman I signed up to take Spanish concurrently with my French classes. The teachers gave me a bit of slack when I accidentally took quizzes in the wrong language and I was really happy. I stopped taking French when I moved from Pennsylvania to New York, but I continued with Spanish until I graduated, in Connecticut.

When I started at RPI the only language offered was German, so I took that and liked it even more! (Spanish had an advantage over French for me – the letters all had fixed sounds & were pronounced! German just seemed more fun. Three genders? Yes please!) I ended up taking a couple more Spanish classes at a local women’s college down the hill in Troy, NY – Russell Sage – just for fun, but I intended to get a minor in German and go into technical translation after graduation. To that end, I applied for a new foreign exchange program and was accepted at a technical university in Chemitz to study engineering there for a year, in German. I never got to find out how succesful I would have been because the exchange very sadly fell through.

During my undergraduate years at RPI I was part of the Langley Aerospace Research Summer Scholars (LARSS) at NASA Langley for three summers in a row. The first summer I made some friends (whole I am still in touch with on Facebook) who began to teach me American Sign Language (ASL). Of all the languages I’ve studied, ASL is the only one that I learned in a natural, conversational setting, and it is still the only one I can use easily, even if not fluently. I spent three summers with the opportunity to hang out with students from the NTID (National Technical Institute of the Deaf) at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was an amazing experience and I might have gotten a fairly close up look of a B-52 bomber on the nearby Air Force base by going for a drive with Deaf friends who were able to use communication problems to slide out of a reprimand when caught going where we weren’t supposed to be. I learned to carry ear plugs with me at all times because some of those friends really liked loud music with deep base so they could feel what they couldn’t hear. (Also, Deaf people vary greatly in how much they use their voices. A Deaf party can be a raucous affair with loud music and a lot of voices – it could be a little overwhelming on the ears for a hearing person learning to sign!)

After I graduated with a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering, I went to the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland to study materials engineering as a non-graduating postgraduate student. (I received a scholarship from the Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York. It wouldn’t cover an entire program so I took a few classes and enjoyed my time!) I spent 10 months there, and in addition to developing a very fine generic British accent and learning a lot of Glaswegian expressions, I also studied Scottish Gaelic while I was there, though I never got to use it outside the classroom.

When we (my husband Tom – then boyfriend) moved to California, I began studying to be a sign language interpreter at El Camino College while I was working as a materials and processes engineer at TRW Space and Electronics in Redondo Beach, CA. I made it more than halfway through the program before injuring my forearms at work (remind me to mention another time how I came to own an ergonomics consulting biz) and never completed the course. But I learned a lot about translation and got good enough at signing in ASL that when I met up with one of my NASA LARSS summer friends about 13 years later, we were able to converse fully in ASL – something we’d never been able to do as friends previously. I still hope to get certified in ASL at some point. In any case, it’s a language that still pops up regularly whenever I try to recall vocabulary in my current studies… I used it in my Arabic class the other day!

A number of years later when I had gone back to work as a Materials and Processes Engineer at Northrop Grumman Corp (formerly TRW) I took an Egyptian Arabic class at UCLA one summer, on a whim. I had visited Egypt years earlier, in 1998, and had thought Arabic was a beautiful and interesting language. When I completed the summer, I realized that UCLA Extension had a Certificate Program in Arabic Language and Culture. For a several years I took Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) classes every weekend and some nights after work and earned my certificate in 2006. I spent a month in Cairo (more pics here) at the International Language Institute after I earned my certificate, in order to get some colloquial Egyptian practice. (Tom joined me for two weeks and we visited Alexandria and Luxor while he was there. I made him take a beginners class in Egyptian.)

After that trip, a few years passed, then we moved and I was able to take a couple of Arabic classes at Saddleback Community College and eventually found my way to California University of Pennsylvania’s Global Online B.A. in Arabic Language and Culture. I spent a few years working on that degree and received my B.A. in 2015, though I’m still not fluent in MSA or any dialect, but I can read and write and understand a lot (particularly when I’m not rusty.) During my internships for the B.A. program I had the pleasure of working at Access California Services for Director Nahla Kayali, and my then-supervisor Rida Hamida and many other wonderful men and women providing social services in the Anaheim area. (Rida Hamida was a driving force between establishing the designated Little Arabia section of Anaheim’s business district a few years ago.) I worked with elderly Iraqi (and other) refugees and learned so much about the resilience, heart and stamina of those who have to flee their countries and settle in a new place and often start from scratch, with nothing, to build a new life.

My Arabic studies have spanned more than a decade and it’s been a bumpy road, but I’m still determined to become fluent in at least one dialect and eventually be able to use the language with sufficient facility to do humanitarian work, or help with interpretation and translation. It’s a long road, but I’m sticking too it. I’m back in class again right now, at Saddleback College, studying colloquial Lebanese conversational skills and I’m loving it! I’ve just downloaded this app to check it out: Keefak.


My all-time (so far) favorite method of acquiring conversational speech in another language other than getting to be immersed in the language environment is the Pimsleur Method. Hands down my favorite. Check it out here: Pimsleur Language Courses (Ebates gives a discount for purchases, btw. I do NOT get anything for mentioning these – they are just my personal favorites!) For Egyptian Arabic, I’ve found Rocket Arabic to be the best for me as some of the style is similar to Pimsleur, but there are a lot of online parts as well. I do not recommend Rosetta Stone for Arabic – I had to use it in my degree program, and it teaches an extremely formal version of Modern Standard that is hardly useful for conversation and very difficult to use even for advanced leaners.

Anyhow, my love affair with languages is really just beginning – so much farther to go and so many more to learn!


The Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Operation: Annihilate” was filmed at TRW in the Cafeteria building. I’m convinced that recognizing the location of my interview did much to give me nerd street cred during my interview there years ago, when the managers took me on a tour of the campus.

I’ve been told quite a few times that my Arabic handwriting is lovely and I hope that is true! I write in the Egyptian style because that’s how I first learned to write.

I had the pleasure of assisting Jörg Elbe with a bit of this German translation of Kenan Malik‘s excellent article: Rethinking the Challenge of Anti-Muslim Bigotry

My small contribution was in helping to find ways to express the concept of “bigotry” in general and also specifically the case of bigotry toward Muslims. The term in English is used to cover a wide range of meaning! It was an enjoyable and satisfying task. Here is the full article auf Deutsch: Die Herausforderung der Muslimfeindlichkeit ueberdenken