Essayists Reflect on Studies of Language and Life Tom Miller, editor of How I Learned English, discusses the collection of essays from prominent Latino Americans about how they mastered the quirks of the English language. Congressman Jose Serrano reveals his method of choice: singing along with Frank Sinatra.
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Essayists Reflect on Studies of Language and Life

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ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

It turns out Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, baseball and Desi Arnaz are all English teachers in a way. A new book, "How I Learned English," is a collection of essays from over 50 Latinos about how they mastered the English language. Some of them learned English from popular music, some from the movies, while others learned it the old-fashioned way - in a classroom.

For some, acquiring English came easily. Others, mastering the irregular verbs, the strange American idioms, and rigid grammar was a challenge. But learning English was a key to success. It opened up access to education, to work, to a place and their adopted homeland even if it sometimes meant a painful tear away from their native culture and language.

Today, we're going to be joined by two of those contributors, a New York congressman who learned English by listening to Frank Sinatra do it his way, and an author who began perfecting his English with the words, call me Ishmael. The editor of the book, Tom Miller, also joins us.

And we want to hear from you. If English is your second language, how did you learn it? What was difficult about it? How did it change you? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You can send us an e-mail at talk@npr.org, and you can comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the program: new rules about courtship, love and text messaging.

But first, how did you learn English? We're joined by Tom Miller, who edited the book. And, Tom Miller, welcome. He's the editor of "How I Learned English," and he joins us from a studio at member station KPBS in San Diego. Welcome to the program.

Mr. TOM MILLER (Editor, "How I Learned English"): Thank you. Good afternoon.

BROOKS: Let's just start at the beginning. Where did the idea of this book come from?

Mr. MILLER: It was actually deceptively simple. I moved from the East Coast to the Southwest in the late '60s as a journalist, and I found that many, perhaps most of the people I was writing about were people from whom English was their second or perhaps third or fourth language. And they carried it different from how they carried Spanish. They acted different. They had different body language. The pacing was different. The cadence was different. Their facial expressions were sometimes different. English is not just a language. It's a whole presence.

BROOKS: Hmm.

Mr. MILLER: And more and more, these people I was writing about became colleagues, they became friends. And eventually, I married into a Spanish-speaking family and watched, with wonder and pride, and my wife and my two stepsons as they acquired English.

BROOKS: It's interesting. I just want to tell our listeners to give us a call at 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK to join the conversation.

In a moment, we're going to be hearing from Congressman Serrano. He's casting a vote on Capitol Hill. But he's someone who learned English as a young boy. We're going to be hearing from him, as well as from Ilan Stavans, Tom, who's featured in your collection.

Just a moment ago, talking about watching people acquire a new language, you talked about it almost acquiring a new personality, it sounds like you're saying. And I've heard this before - how people can sort of be different people in different languages.

Mr. MILLER: They are. And the danger of that, of course, is that the more that they absorb their new language and their new situation, they're actually losing a little of their old situation and becomes - it's almost sad for many of them. If they really want to be truly bilingual and binational, they have to go back to their first language or maybe revisit their country of origin and refuel. That way, they can be more bilingual and more binational.

BROOKS: Mm. And what did you observe in your wife's situation? In the introduction to the book, you tell the story of her experience learning English as a second language.

Mr. MILLER: Yes. She went through regular ESL classes at a community center and then at a university, and finally at a community college. The first four words she was taught were: Oh, really? That's interesting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: That comes in handy on this program, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: And so, did she come home actually saying that and not necessarily understanding what she was…

Mr. MILLER: No. She understood what it meant.

BROOKS: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: But it ended up becoming a running gag. No matter what we were talking about, she'd break off and say, oh, really? That's interesting.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. You also write that the killer in English, as in all languages, is the preposition.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, boy, is it. I don't know anyone - no matter how stone fluent they are in their second or third or fourth language - who always gets it right. There's just problems with the preposition. My wife and I rented an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan a couple of years ago, in an area between Morningside Heights and Washington Heights, an area I called Bustello Heights(ph). It's a Dominican neighborhood. And the apartment house was almost entirely Dominican. On the door of the custodian of the building, there was a sign with an American flag at the top and it said: Thank you, America, for all that you have done to us.

BROOKS: To us.

Mr. MILLER: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: Oh, yes, the challenge of the preposition. I love this anecdote. What does it say about the broader challenge of learning this language?

Mr. MILLER: English is more than just learning a language, especially in the United States. There are those who learned English, of course, in the book who come from - who learned it in England. And that actually has a slightly different flavor to it because of the different accents they have, especially if they end up in the States. But what English says about learning the language is that you really have to keep at it. You have to put yourself in a situation where you're using it constantly. Otherwise, you have a tendency to revert back to your first language.

BROOKS: The number to call is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. We're asking, how did you learn English?

And we're talking with Tom Miller who's editor of the book, "How I Learned English."

And let's take a call. Let's go to Renata(ph), who's calling from Stockton, California. Hi, Renata. You're on the air.

RENATA (Caller): Hi. Am I on the air?

BROOKS: Yes, you are.

RENATA: Yes. All right. My radio is a little behind. So, I wanted to tell you a little bit of my story. I am a linguist coming from Czechoslovakia.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

RENATA: I have Masters in Russian language and literature, and also I learned other languages because they were sort of introduced to us when we were very young. I learned English when - for just briefly a year, when I was about to come to the United States as a, well, sort of a transplant, an immigrant. But I thought I maybe mastered it little bit so I could talk to the immigration officers. They couldn't understand me, and I couldn't understand them at all, so they put me in Chicago with disabled, so I was with all these people in disabled room, and older people, and people with wheelchairs, which was kind a bit of a problem with me of, you know, for my ego. And then, when I came to Oregon, where I started to live after I came here, I learned it from "Sesame Street" the most.

BROOKS: Aha. From the children's program, "Sesame Street."

RENATA: The program that was really based with grammar - on grammar a little bit, and it helped me to structure the sentence better. And, of course, I was watching different programs, and slowly I learned - the spoken language, I learned from the street and from my work, and so on. And I carried a book of grammar with me in my pocket all the time, and whenever I encounter some structured sentence that I couldn't figure out, I always pulled it out, and I studied it. So I learned it in a year or so, pretty well.

BROOKS: All right, Renata. Well, thank you so much for your call.

RENATA: You're welcome.

BROOKS: Tom Miller, there's Renata talking about getting a big help from a very popular children's show. Was that kind of tool, that kind of help a common feature among the 55 people that submitted pieces to your book?

Mr. MILLER: Yes, very much so because no matter how much formal training they had in English prior to coming here, they have found that on arrival, they had to start over practically. And just as Renata did, a lot of people learned it from television.

I had a contributor saying that John Travolta and Cindy Lauper were her teachers. She would be watching movies. One of the nice things about movies is that at least in Latin America, the movies are subtitled so they can see - you can see how somebody shapes their mouth and you hear the word at the same time and see the translation, so you get an idea of the cadence and the pacing and the diction, whereas in Europe, a lot of movies are dubbed and they don't have that advantage.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Let's take a call from Maria(ph) who's calling from El Cerrito, California. Hi, Maria.

MARIA (Caller): Hi.

BROOKS: You're on the air.

MARIA: Hi. Well, my father grew up in the Philippines and he grew up speaking Tagalog and Spanish. But since, I think, kindergarten, they've learned English in school. But he learned his accent and speaking in English by listening to Elvis, and it's very apparent when he goes any public speaking as he did when I got married in 2001. It's embarrassing and funny at the same time because…

BROOKS: Well, can you give us an idea of what he sounds like? What do you mean when he does - so, he imitates - he sounds like Elvis.

MARIA: Yes. The whole nasal thing that Elvis does or how he sounds. It just - he completely start sounding like Elvis when he talks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKS: All right.

MARIA: Everybody can tell.

BROOKS: All right, Maria. Well, thanks for the call. I appreciate it.

MARIA: Thank you.

BROOKS: Tom Miller, you know, you've got examples in your book of people listening to Frank Sinatra, for example, and learning English that way. In fact, we're going to be hearing from one of them shortly. I guess that's - is that a common occurrence in this case for people learning English?

Mr. MILLER: Well, certainly. Listening to American music - there's one fellow from Honduras who swears that he learned English by listening to Pink Floyd.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: I don't know what his vocabulary is like, but I think it's - that's as valid as learning it from Frank Sinatra or Clint Eastwood, as some people claim. There's…

BROOKS: You're going to move in…

Mr. MILLER: …just a wide variety.

BROOKS: You're going to move in different circles, clearly. But, sure, it's just as valid.

Mr. MILLER: Well said.

BROOKS: "How I Learned English" is a book that could really only be written in this day and age. I mean, I actually am posing this more as a question. Do you agree with that? In other words, I don't think there would an equivalent for Italian Americans in the 1940's or for German Americans in the 1870's. Why is that? What's going on today that makes this book so relevant?

Mr. MILLER: I think it has to do with the whole immigration problem that this country is facing, and I'm not so sure it is a problem. I see immigration and multilingualism as very patriotic, frankly. What's distinguishing about the book, what's distinguishing about this particular era is that it has - language has become part of the national conversation on immigration. And there seems to be a lot of legislation dealing with this - dealing with language, dealing with immigration, who speaks it, who gets the right to come into the county, things of that nature.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. We're talking with Tom Miller, editor of the new collection "How I learned English." For some people, the pages of classic literature was the best teacher - more on that in a moment. And your calls - how did you learn English? 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

I'm Anthony Brooks. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BROOKS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Anthony Brooks in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Learning English, as we've heard, can be tough especially for adults. And tied up in language are issues of identity and culture and power. Today, we're talking with the editor of a new collection of essays called "How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life." And in a moment, we'll be talking to at least one or two contributors to the collection as well.

Tom Miller is editor of the book. And we want to hear your stories of learning English as a second language - and not just from Latinos. If your native language is Japanese, French or Swahili, how did you learn English? Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Tom Miller, this collection of essays, it's really a collection of essays about success in America. But a theme that runs through it is the acquisition of English comes with a good deal of ambivalence for some. It's the language of access, of privilege. It provides jobs, schools, access to society. But for many, it's also culturally and historically loathed in a way, isn't it?

Mr. MILLER: It is. There's a - one of the contributors and author from Southern California, Ruben Martinez, writes I am - he grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Los Angeles. He was born in California. I am telling you that growing up in a town that hated Mexicans and the Spanish language turned me into a writer of English. There are all these motivations and that's one of them.

BROOKS: Interesting. Let's take call. Let's go to Helena(ph) who's calling from Medina, Ohio. Hi, Elena. You're on the air.

HELENA (Caller): Hello.

BROOKS: Yes, you're on the air, Elena.

HELENA: Okay. I just called in to say that I was born originally in Kurilsk, Russia. And I guess when I came to America, I was lucky in a sense that I was already able to speak and read and understand English. But when I first started learning English, it was back in my fourth grade, and I'm 32 years old now. And I must say that, you know, aside from regular classes and exercises, it was -mostly, as I got older, I begin to master my English by reading books. And I remember the first book I read was actually "Alice In Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll. And I thought it was the most difficult book to read ever.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

HELENA: And, of course, now it's very easy.

BROOKS: Okay. Well, that's interesting. Thanks, Helena(ph).

HELENA: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thanks for the call. Tom, a pretty typical story there. I mean, children's books, I guess, make a lot of sense when you're acquiring a language.

Mr. MILLER: It does. It…

BROOKS: Although Lewis Carroll isn't necessarily the sort of easiest of children books to pick up, but…

Mr. MILLER: No, I think of that more as an adult, frankly.

BROOKS: Yeah, me too.

Mr. MILLER: But the idea of using literature was always in the forefront of almost every essay. A lot of people surprisingly mentioned Faulkner. I have difficulty with Faulkner in my native language, but here are people for whom English is their second or, as I said, their third or fourth language. And I can't say they're sailing through Faulkner, but a number of them make reference to having read Faulkner. He's well translated obviously and well distributed.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm. Well, speaking of using literature to help learn English, I want to bring in a guest, one of the contributors to the collection. We're joined now by Ilan Stavans. He's the author of "On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language" and contributed an excerpt to this collection of "How I Learned English."

And Mr. Stavans, welcome.

Mr. ILAN STAVANS (Author, "On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language"): Welcome. Thank you for having me.

BROOKS: Well, it's great having you. I enjoyed your piece in the book. You write about how you used "Moby Dick" to learn English and talk about, you know, some pretty dense American prose. That must have been quite a challenge.

Mr. STAVANS: Well, when I first came to this country in - I was in my mid-20s. I had been born and raised in Mexico and spoke other languages - Yiddish and Hebrew and Spanish, but not English. I had read "Moby Dick" in Spanish and one of the challenges that I posed to myself when I arrived in New York City in 1985 was that I would read the original, which I think is one of the great Latin American novels ever written, and have a Spanish-English dictionary took at my side.

And every word that I would not know its meaning - I would look it up in the dictionary, back and forth, to make a list and try to remember that night or the next day what that word meant, how it was defined by the dictionary.

To this day, I don't know what book I enjoyed the most, if "Moby Dick" itself or the dictionary, but I do know that thanks to Melville, I was able to get into a form of English that wasn't quite the one that I was hearing on the streets in New York City.

BROOKS: Hmm.

Mr. STAVANS: This is in the mid-80s. It was an archaic, somewhat remote one that gave me a taste for it that still lives and lingers in me.

BROOKS: Hmm. Interesting. But did that help you with your comprehension of what was being spoken on the street?

Mr. STAVANS: There was - no doubt, it helped me and there was this sense of urgency and having the book with me and having enjoyed it in Spanish, allowed me to delve into it in a way that a reader does when it's passionate about literature.

But what I would find fascinating was the fact that the English that I would hear on the street in New York was freely not English. It was a mixed - it was a mishmash of languages. It was a bit of Spanish and a bit of English and a bit of any and all other languages that were spoken at that time.

And what that prompted me to think about - and to this day, that is one of the elements that keeps on returning to me - is the immigrant's journey not only to the adopted language, in this case English, but into what English.

When we come as immigrants to the United States, we are supposed to enter this country through the English language. But there are a variety of English spoken in different cities by different generations, by different disciplines and professions.

And what I would hear on the street would be the adolescent English, the one -the Spanglish used by Latinos, and that was, in my case, a stepping stone to understand other types of English and to make some language more flexible and elastic, which is what I - an aspect that I adore in the English language.

The fact that it doesn't sound stupid, limited that people can improvise it and do things with it all the time.

BROOKS: Well, I want to talk to you more about that. But standby, Ilan Stavans, we want to get a couple of callers in on this conversation. Let's go to Ahmed(ph) who's calling from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed, hello.

AHMED (Caller): Hi. A great show, thank you.

BROOKS: Well, you're welcome. Thanks for calling in.

AHMED: Actually, I love that last comment by Mr. Stavans about the language that's in the streets because in the morning when I went to school in the States, I didn't know any English and it was mostly Sherlock Holmes on tape and Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But in the afternoons, there was "Gilligan's Island" and "Bewitched" and those types of shows that really got me to grasp really what is the English that's spoken in the streets minus the background laughs.

BROOKS: So how old were you when you were acquiring English?

AHMED: I was 11. I was young and I think that helped in really getting my language to be - I think English to me isn't really a second language. To me, it's on par with my native Arabic.

BROOKS: I see, I see. Interesting. Well, thanks for the call, Ahmed. I appreciate it.

AHMED: Thanks a lot. Bye.

BROOKS: Tom Miller, interesting call there from Saudi Arabia. I mean, he made the point about being young and obviously it's being a lot easier to acquire the language when you're younger. How did that breakdown on this collection of 55 folks that you had who submitted these pieces? Did most of them acquired the language as young people and find it relatively easy or were some of them older?

Mr. MILLER: Without a doubt, the younger the easier. And most of these learned it at a fairly young age. You would learn - even in their country of origin, they will learn rules like I before E except after C. But these are rules that quickly fall apart when you look at the language in a broader context.

When they arrived in the United States, all those rules just completely fell apart and they would start to build up again their new vocabulary, their new way of speaking and a new way of emphasizing ideas.

BROOKS: I want to bring in Congressman Jose Serrano, who joins us now from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Congressman, are you there?

Representative JOSE SERRANO (Democrat, New York): Yes, I'm here.

BROOKS: Well, it's great to have you on the show, and thanks for taking time out of a busy day to join us.

Rep. SERRANO: Thank you.

BROOKS: Congressman, you're one of the folks who contributed a piece to "How I Learned English." You spent the first seven years of your life growing up in Puerto Rico. In your essay in this collection, you described how Frank Sinatra helped you learned English.

Rep. SERRANO: Well, absolutely. My father came back from the war and he brought with him, as many people did, a stack of 78-rpm records, those ones they had in those days. And he wanted the whole family to listen to this man called Frank Sinatra, and I immediately began to listen.

Then, when we moved to the States, they were still playing a mixture of early rock 'n' roll and pop music. And I could hear on the radio all the time, started collecting the records and I noticed that he sang the English language in a way that was perfect.

It sounded to me he took every T, every S. He didn't swallow any letters, and I began to imitate it as I practice my English. And I think that's the reason why I'm the only New Yorker who says Tuesday instead of Tuesday…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Rep. SERRANO: …because Mr. Sinatra would have never have sung Tuesday.

BROOKS: So Frank Sinatra made a good teacher.

Rep. SERRANO: Yes. And along with that, I became - you know, it's redundant for Puerto Rican to say this - I became a big baseball fan. And I started listening to Vin Scully and Mel Allen. And they also started teaching me how the language could be used. Sinatra, though, was the enunciation the pronunciation - I think that he didn't do a perfect job. I still have an issue with some things, but that's how I learned it.

And my father said something beautiful to it - just related to the language, not necessarily how I learned it. He told me the English language takes a knock for not being a romantic language. But if you listen to this man sing it, it sounds very romantic.

BROOKS: Well, Ilan Stavans, I want to come over to you on that. You write in your piece that English is almost mathematical without ironed rules, whereas your native Spanish is free flowing, imprecise as a language. It is undeserving of the literature it has created. I'd love you to expand on that theme just a little bit.

Mr. STAVANS: That comment has got me into a lot of trouble. But I…

BROOKS: I imagined, yeah.

Mr. STAVANS: In - I - each language has its own worldview, its own personality. It allows its speakers to dream, to think, to make love, to engage with one another in different ways. Probably, there is no better language than Spanish to say I love you. Probably, together with French, they are the two best ones in that area. The best language to say offensive words might be Yiddish.

The best language to put together thoughts, to develop argument, to make a speech, probably, in my mind, is English. The way the language - the sentences are shaped, the way one knows where to put a period and a comma and a semicolon, it gives me a sense of a very precise, very methodical, very clear cut civilization that knows where it's going, what it's after, what its mission is.

And I think that one of the beauties of speaking more than one language is precisely the fact that one can live in different universes, as in different mentalities, in different levels of existence by using each of them at different points.

BROOKS: I think that's true. That's Ilan Stavans, who contributed a piece to "How I Learned English," which is a collection of 55 Latino pieces about how they learned English. We're also joined by Congressman Jose Serrano and Tom Miller, who edited the book.

And we're asking you for your calls at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's take a call. Let's go to Antonio(ph), who's calling from Auburn, California. Antonio, you're on the air.

ANTONIO (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking the call, first of all, and I love the program.

BROOKS: Well, thanks for calling.

ANTONIO: Well, my experience is this that I was born and grew up in the island of Sardinia off of Italy where I learned natural - our own language there from my parents; then, Italian in schools - Sardinia is part of Italy politically; then, a bit of French in school also. Then, I learned Spanish from my own, and I'm 100 percent fluent in that language. Thanks for being in California, too. Then, I moved in to the States of the age of 28.

And after taking some classes, you know, ESL and then some writing, college classes in grammar, and other issues, other things, I learned English fairly well. I can do the crossword puzzle of the New York Times at least, until Wednesdays…

BROOKS: Wow.

ANTONIO: …for one thing. And, but I also wanted to recognize the great help I had it for NPR. I've been listening to NPR since the first day I came here. And I learned probably…

BROOKS: So we'll have to add NPR to Frank Sinatra and Mel Allen, I guess, as English teachers.

ANTONIO: No, no. No singers involved. I'm a lover of traditional, more traditional styles like operas. So it's mostly Italian and some French and some German in there. But I've nothing to do with music.

BROOKS: But, Antonio, you took on learning English at the age of 28, you're telling us.

ANTONIO: Well, yes.

BROOKS: Yeah.

ANTONIO: And it was quite hard. I mean, I came to country with a visa, an open visa to, you know, whatever contact(ph) they had, and I managed to shrink the visa at the airport of JFK to three weeks. Because I was trying to say, you know, I want to stay three months at least, and they understood three weeks. I had to go back and, you know, and straighten that out.

But anyhow, so that's my experience. And as the gentleman was saying just a little earlier, it is true that speaking different languages gives you more ability to see the world in different ways because several languages, phrases, not just the words, but also the feelings attached to them.

BROOKS: Well said. Antonio, thanks so much for the call. We appreciate it.

ANTONIO: You're very welcome. Thank you. Bless you, guys.

BROOKS: Okay. Okay. Bye-bye.

ANTONIO: Bye.

BROOKS: Jose Serrano, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about some of what you've been trying to do in Congress. You spent considerable effort there trying to beat back efforts to make English the official language of the U.S. Why is that important to you?

Rep. SERRANO: Well, I think that the people who support English only - English as the official language - may not have the same motivation that everybody else has for protecting a language. They actually have problems with immigrants and they fear for that the language is going to disappear. It's not going to disappear. Everybody who comes here wants to learn to speak English. It's the only way to survive. But what I have done is I have said, listen, I have a resolution that says English is the language of the United States. We encourage everyone to learn it. And we encourage government to provide the resources to teach it.

But if you speak another language, keep it and teach it to your friends, teach it to your relatives, teach it to the grandchildren. In other words, try to promote more languages because we're the only country in the world, unfortunately, that seems to get angry about speaking more than one language. We're so advanced in everything that we do, greatest nation on Earth. When it comes to the languages, we seem to fear that somehow if we learn to speak another language or other people around us speak other languages, it is going to defeat us or somehow bring us down. Not true.

You take any young person coming to this country speaking Spanish, for instance, in our case. The first thing they're doing six months later is picking up some English. A year later, they're speaking English. A few years later, the grandparents are sitting around the table, wondering why the kids no longer speak Spanish.

BROOKS: Hmm. Well, Jose Serrano, I want to thank you for coming in today and talking to us.

Rep. SERRANO: Thank you so much.

BROOKS: We appreciate it. That's Congressman Jose Serrano from New York. He contributed a piece to the book "How I Learned English." And Ilan Stavans, thank you for coming in as well.

Mr. STAVANS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BROOKS: Ilan Stavans wrote "Amerika, America." His the author of "On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language." He, too, contributed to "How I Learned English." And Tom Miller is the editor of "How I Learned English." And today, he joined us from the studios of KPBS in San Diego. Tom Miller, many thanks to you.

Mr. MILLER: A pleasure.

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