Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year

Hello, and welcome to "Word Wednesday"! Today we'll talk about vocabulary related to a special event that literally happens only once every four years. It's called "leap year." 

As you have probably noticed, today is February 29th. You probably also noticed that February normally has 28 days, but that every four years we add an extra day to the month. When that happens, we say that it's a leap year, as in "2012 is a leap year" or "I was born in a leap year (1980).Leap rhymes with jeep, sheep, and cheap. Sometimes today is referred to as "leap day."

When I was a kid I always wondered what happened to people who were born on February 29th, especially regarding their birthdays --did they only turn a year older every four years? When I was 12 years old, were a few unlucky classmates technically only 3? Apparently, most people born on leap day simply celebrate their birthdays on February 28th or March 1st, but that's not quite as mysterious or interesting!

So why does a year normally have 365 days, but every four years it has 366 days? You can read here for a detailed explanation, but basically it's because the Earth's revolution around the sun lasts a little bit more than 365 days, so if we didn't have leap years, eventually all the seasons would gradually shift to different times of the year.

It's also a good time to note that in English we generally use ordinal numbers for dates, not cardinal numbers. So, instead of saying "Today is February twenty-nine," we say "Today is February twenty-ninth." In a future post I'll write more about when we use ordinal and cardinal numbers.

Here are some useful vocabulary words for talking about leap year and calendars in general:

leap year - a year that has 366 days instead of 365, by adding February 29th

leap day - February 29th

solar calendar - a calendar based on the sun, like the Gregorian calendar (the one we most often use in the USA and most of the western world)

lunar calendar - a calendar based on the moon, like the one used in much of the Islamic world

cardinal numbers - "normal" numbers; one, two, three, etc.

ordinal numbers - numbers used to "order" or rank things; first, second, third, etc.

(to) turn + (age) - a phrase used to talk about your birthday and your age. For example, "Jane's birthday is tomorrow; she's turning 13." or "He turned 22 on January 18th."

seasons - the different times of year, characterized by changes in weather and day length; the four seasons are winter, spring, summer, and fall/autumn

"thirty days hath September..." - the beginning of a rhyme that children learn to remember the number of days in each month; most children only remember the beginning: "thirty days hath September, April, June, and November" 

So, that's it for the moment. Thanks for reading, and have a great leap day and and even better leap year!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Common Error: Confusing "use," "used to," and "(to be) used to"

Hello, and welcome to Mistake Monday! As I mentioned in my previous post about Sitzman ABC's new publishing schedule, on Mondays I'll be focusing on errors and difficult parts of English. Today we'll look at an error that causes problems for many of my advanced students. The problem is that people often confuse the words "use," "used to," and "(to be) used to." Still, with a bit of practice, it's not so hard. Let's look:

Common Error: Confusing "use," "used to" and "(to be) used to"
DON’T say this:Every year my family gets together for Christmas. We always used to eat tamales and cake.
When I was younger I am used to exercising every day.
WHY?-First of all, "use" can be a verb or a noun. When it's a verb, the "s" is pronounced like a "z," and when it's a noun the "s" is pronounced like an "s." (Click here to hear the pronunciation of both forms.)

-The verb use is normally a synonym of "utilize," but "utilize" isn't very common. Both words are usually combined with an object that does a specific job:
"Jenny used a hammer and a nail to hang the picture frame on the wall." 

-The phrase used to normally indicates common actions completely in the past (they are not happening now). This phrase is followed by an infinitive verb:
"Jenny used to be a good artist before she broke her hand. She used to paint wonderful portraits, but now she can't do that anymore."

-If you add the verb "to be" in any form before used to, it indicates common actions in the present. These phrases are followed by a gerund (-ing) verb:
"Jenny is used to working according to a strict schedule. Every day she wakes up at 5 am, exercises, makes breakfast, and works three hours... all before Ryan gets out of bed! Ryan is used to waking up around 9 am!"

-The phrase "(to be) used to" can normally be substituted with the word "usually."
INSTEAD, SAY THIS:-"My family gets together every year for Christmas. We are used to eating tamales and cake."
-"My family usually gets together every year for Christmas. We usually eat tamales and cake."
-"When I was younger I used to exercise every day."
(finished common action in the past)
-"Nowadays I am used to exercising every day."
(common action in the present)

What are some things you are used to doing?
What are some things you used to do?

If you have questions or comments related to this common error or the blog in general, please leave a comment or contact me. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

New Sitzblog Publishing Schedule

Relax, Sitzman ABC's publishing schedule will not be this complicated. (Image Credit)

OK, so this is how it's (hopefully!) going to be. I noticed that I have a lot of ideas for this blog, but I never seem to have enough time to write all the posts I want to write. It seemed that I had two options:

1. Forget about the blog; do other things like play video games and run around outside in the grass with the cats.

2. Systematically dedicate more time to making this blog better, so that it gets more readers and eventually maybe even makes a bit of income through Google ads and/or donations.

I've decided on #2 for now, at least (the cats can come inside and find me if they want to play). I said "dedicate more time" to this blog, but that's an abstract concept. So, I decided I needed a fixed blogging schedule in order to push and motivate me. I decided on three posts a week:

Monday: Let's call this "Mistake Monday," which I occasionally did in the past. On Mondays, I'll write about a Common Error or some other "difficult" language area. 

Wednesday: I'll call this "Word Wednesday." I'll write a False Friend post, or something else related to vocabulary (like loanwords, for example).

Friday: This will be "Fun Friday." I'll write about entertaining and/or interesting websites, apps, blogs, games, or other things that will hopefully appeal to many readers. Yes, I realize that even if I try to make something "fun," it will be difficult to get people to read on Fridays, but they'll have the whole weekend to read it!

Most posts will be related to English, but I may occasionally talk about other languages. I'll also occasionally write extra posts on other days if something interesting comes up.

So, now I'd like to ask you to do three things:

1. Try to help by reading and even contributing to this blog, if possible. You can always leave a comment or send me an email if you have a question you'd like me to address, or if you have any suggestions for False Friends or Common Errors.

2. Help by mentioning the blog to people you know who might be learning foreign languages --especially English learners, but everyone is welcome!

3. Consider contributing a "guest" blog post of your own (email me if you have an idea, and I'd be happy to feature your language-related blog post and give you the credit). If you aren't able to contribute that way but still want to help, consider donating to Sitzman ABC (there's a yellow button in the right column that says "Donate"). You can easily donate any amount through PayPal, and your contribution can help keep the machines running at the Sitzman ABC factory!

Hopefully this will be a big step in the right direction for this blog, but of course I won't be able to do it without my readers. So as usual, I want to say a big THANKS to all of you for reading the blog. You are literally the reason I do this! Have a great week!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Great Website and Podcast: ESL Pod

I use iTunes to organize my podcasts,
then I put them on my iPod.
Good afternoon! Today I wanted to mention a great podcast that I recently discovered. It's called ESL Pod and even though I recently discovered it, it's been around for a long time. 

There are different types of listening programs on the site, but all of them are designed for people learning English. There are dialogues that are very good, clear, and slow, for example. In these dialogues, the speakers talk very slowly, then identify important vocabulary, and then repeat the vocabulary at "natural" speed. 

They also have what they call "English Café," which are longer programs featuring special topics. For example, English Café recently talked about Star Wars, my favorite movie, so you know it must be good! 

You can go to the site ( to see what kinds of things they offer, or you can also download the podcast through iTunes or any other program you use to download and listen to podcasts. I personally use iTunes to organize podcasts, since it downloads them automatically for me when there are new episodes.

So, that's it for now. I hope you have a great weekend, full of relaxation and enjoyable podcasts!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

False Friend: Costumbre vs. Custom and Costume

This is one of my favorite costumes: I just put on glasses and a wig, and Ryan Sitzman instantly becomes "Bryan Fitzman," Ryan Sitzman's Bizarro-style arch-enemy and nemesis!

Hello! It's been a long time since we looked at a False Friend, so I wanted to talk about one that I noticed in two of my classes recently. But first, if you're not sure what a False Friend is, check out this introductory post. Today we'll look at the difference between costumbre in Spanish and the words "custom" and "costume" in English. Let's take a look:

False Friend: costumbre vs. custom and costume 
This SPANISH word...
Looks like this ENGLISH word...
...but they are DIFFERENT because...
In Spanish, a costumbre is a habit or a custom. It is something that you are used to doing, or something that you do frequently.

In English, if you do something frequently, you can say it is a habit or a custom, or that you are accustomed to doing something. For example, you could say:

"When she's nervous, she has a habit of spinning her hair and biting her fingernails."
"I am accustomed to studying English at least one hour per day."

The word "costume" in English has a completely different meaning. It's like a disguise, or some clothing you put on so that you look like someone or something else. For example, many people wear costumes on Halloween. The equivalent Spanish word would be "disfraz."

"Costume" can also refer to traditional clothing in a region, but this meaning is less common.

One more note: the pronunciation of "custom" and "costume" is a bit tricky for some students. If you click on each word, it'll take you to, where you can hear their pronunciation.

So, I hope you make it a habit to read my blog. If you want, try reading Sitzman ABC in a Superman costume --I heard it's 50% more interesting that way! Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Yiddish Loanwords in English

A bus stop sign in English and Yiddish, in the U.S.A. (Image Credit)

Hello, and Happy Friday! Today I wanted to talk a little bit about loanwords. You might remember that a few months ago we talked about loanwords in English. Basically, a loanword is a word that starts in one language, and eventually is adopted into another language. Examples include words like:

*cotton, hashish, and sheikh (from Arabic)

*gung-ho, feng shui, and kung fu (from Chinese

*gulag, samovar, and babushka (from Russian

And there are many, many more examples of loanwords from many other languages. In this blog we looked at some examples of English loanwords from French, Spanish, and German, and today I want to talk about another interesting language that provided quite a few loanwords for English: Yiddish. 

Yiddish is a language that is closely related to German in many aspects, and it was originally spoken by Jewish people in central and eastern Europe. Immigration to the United States in the last 100 or more years also increased the number of people there who spoke Yiddish, and there are now a few hundred thousand people who speak Yiddish in the U.S.A. 

Yiddish loanwords are often found in entertainment like movies and TV shows, but there are also some words that many people use commonly, without knowing they're from Yiddish. When you say something is "schmaltzy," you mean that it's overly sentimental. If you call someone a "klutz," you mean that he or she is uncoordinated and clumsy. And if you eat a "bagel" with "lox," you're eating a type of round bread with some salmon inside. All the words in quotes came from Yiddish. Also, since Yiddish is closely related to German, it's possible to see similarities between the two languages (for example, "schmaltz" in Yiddish is "Schmalz" in German, and "lox" in Yiddish is "Lachs" in German).

A Yiddish sign in the U.S.A. from World War I. It tells people to not waste food. (Image Credit)

There are many Yiddish loanwords in English, but not all of them are very common. You can see lists here and here. Here are

Ryan's Top Five Favorite Yiddish Loanwords in English:

5. schmaltzy: As mentioned above, this means something is overly sentimental or "cheesy." "Schmaltz" actually refers to chicken fat used for cooking, so the word just seems gross in general. Example sentence: "I got my girlfriend a big bouquet of roses and a really schmaltzy card for Valentine's Day."

4. chutzpah: Apparently it's not very positive in Yiddish, but in English it generally means super-confidence or arrogance, but it's not always negative. Example sentence: "Jenny told her boss to her face that she didn't feel like working because it was Friday. She's really got a lot of chutzpah!"

3. klutz: As mentioned before, it's an uncoordinated or clumsy person. Example sentence: "I was a waiter but I got fired because I dropped four plates in a single week. I guess I'm just a big klutz."

2. schlock: Usually used to refer to something that is cheap or of bad quality. Example sentence: "My parents went to Paris and all they brought back was this schlocky plastic statue of the Eiffel Tower." 

1. schlep: This means to carry something heavy, annoying, big, or difficult over a long distance. Example sentence: "I thought I would need my laptop while I was on my trip, so I had to schlep that heavy piece of schlock all over the place with me."

Do you know of any other Yiddish loanwords in English, or in other languages? If so, feel free to leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The "Real" Berlin

Berlin, Germany, with its famous TV tower in the background.

Around 13 years ago I went to Germany for a year as an exchange student. I lived in a town near Hannover, in the northern part of the country. I had many fantastic experiences, so if anyone ever asks me my opinion on exchange programs, I always enthusiastically support them! Anyhow, during that exchange year I went with a bunch of other exchange students on a group trip to Berlin, the capital of Germany. I really liked the city, and I said to myself that I'd love to live in Berlin sometime in the future, even if only for a few months or a year.

As you may know, I now live in a small town named Berlín, which is hidden in the mountains of Costa Rica. This fact makes me think that God and/or destiny may be laughing at me. 

Berlín, Costa Rica, with its famous TV towers!

Seriously, though, the town's full name is "Berlín de San Ramón." It's in the province of Alajuela, just south of San Ramón and Palmares. Here's an approximate map, but there seems to be very little information about the town on the internet, aside from blogs that I have written! The town apparently is named after the German capital because it was originally founded by some Germans. But other than the town's name, I've never seen any other evidence to support that theory. In other words, no one here speaks German (except me), no one looks "German" --tall, with blond hair and blue eyes, I guess?-- here in town (except me), and no one here likes sauerkraut (except me... and Angela!).

I took this picture of Berlín, Costa Rica a few years ago. When I look at it, it makes me think that the Germans who supposedly named this place must have never actually seen Berlin, Germany, since the two places seem to have absolutely nothing in common!

In any case, I came across this recent article about Berlin, Germany on Deutsche Welle. "Deutsche Welle" means "German Wave"; it's a German media outlet, and it's a great resource if you're learning German (or already speak the language). You can check out the Berlin link here, and you can also go to Deutsche Welle's German, English, and Spanish sites by clicking on each language.

You've probably gotten the hang of this game by now, but can you guess which Berlin I took this picture in?

In case you don't speak German, here's more information on Wikipedia about Berlin in English and Spanish. Finally, here's a link about Berlin, the 1980s New-Wave band!

Thanks for reading, and have a wonderful week!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Few Internet Resources For... Chinese??

Yes, Chinese! As you may know, I recently started a Mandarin Chinese course. It's enjoyable but also pretty difficult! My teacher is nice and patient, and the materials she's given us are good, but I've also been searching around for some additional resources to help me learn. I found a few sites on the internet and I thought I'd mention them here, in case any of you are interested. Best of all, they're all FREE! Additionally, if you know Chinese or someone who speaks it, and you have any tips or resource suggestions for me, I'd love to hear them!

Here are a few sites I've found so far:

This is a series of videos done by a Chinese teacher named Mike. The style is a bit goofy at times (it's shot in his garage and he tends to wear strange shirts, hats, and/or sunglasses), but he seems to genuinely know what he's talking about when he teaches. He's able to make the 10-minute video lessons interesting and entertaining, and he does a good job explaining details about the language. The best part is each video also has a transcript you can download, and together the transcripts form chapters of a book. Especially considering that it's a free site, Chinese With Mike is a pretty great resource for people wanting to start learning Chinese on their own.

I'm a big promoter of the BBC's offerings for English learning, but they also have good sites for other languages. The Chinese learning site isn't very extensive but it does have a good variety of activities and articles, including games for tones and characters, sample dialogues, cultural information, and language guides. It would be interesting even for people who are just curious about the language, but don't necessarily want or need to learn it.

Angela recommended this site after using it to practice some of her new German vocabulary. I think it's good, but it may a bit difficult for Mandarin language beginners to use. All the language courses on the site start off the same way, introducing basic phrases like "Good Morning" or "I don't feel well." That's OK for a non-tonal language that uses the Roman alphabet (like English, German, French, etc.), but for Chinese it's a bit difficult to just jump into it, without even mentioning tones or the writing system at the beginning. It can be good to listen to and identify vocabulary, but it's a bit lacking in terms of additional information.

I also downloaded a few programs and Chinese learning games to my iPod touch. If any of them turn out to be useful, I'll be sure to mention them here. 

Thanks for reading, and if you have any comments, suggestions, or language tips, please leave a comment below. Have a great day!

Friday, February 3, 2012

British and American English Differences Part 2: Vocabulary

Before Image Credit.

Hello, and welcome to the second post in our two-part series introducing some differences between American and British English! A few days ago we looked at (and listened to) some differences in pronunciation and accent, and today we'll look at another difference: vocabulary. I decided to focus on pronunciation and vocabulary because they are what I notice most when talking with British English speakers. There are in fact a few grammatical differences between the two languages (you can read a little more here), but the biggest differences seem to be in these two areas.

But first, I have a question for you, reader: What type(s) of English do/did you learn or speak? If you learned one style of English, did your teacher or textbook ever comment on other types of English? I'm just curious about your experiences. As you may know, I grew up in Colorado, in the USA, so when I was a child, I was exposed almost exclusively to American English. I did watch some British and Australian movies, but I never really thought much about the differences until I was 18, when I went to Germany as an exchange student. 

Yes, Germany. Even though I learned a lot of German, I still went to some English classes at the German school I attended, and there the teachers and most of the students spoke British English. At least in class; if I talked in English to German friends outside of class, many of them then tended to use more American expressions and accents, especially if they had watched a lot of American TV or movies, or listened to a lot of American pop music.

So, what's the point? Are British and American English words really that different? I'd say yes and no. I can think of only a few instances where a vocabulary difference can cause a major problem or a complete breakdown in communication. Usually, if you speak British English to an American English speaker, he or she will understand almost all of what you say; if there are any vocabulary differences, either the speaker or listener can ask for clarification, until there is mutual understanding.

Let me give you an example. I have a Danish cousin who went to school in England and who, as a result, generally speaks English with a British accent. I mentioned once that I was going to try to buy a new pair of pants, and he laughed at me. That's when I learned that in British English, "pants" is used to describe underwear, and most men wear "trousers." There are many examples of vocabulary differences like that, but they're more likely to make people laugh than to cause a communication problem. The two aspects in which vocabulary is noticeably different is word choice and spelling.

Would you call these Pants? Trousers? Slacks? All of the above?
A few "common" differences that I've noticed in British English are words like lorries ("trucks" in AmE, or American English), mad (meaning "crazy" in AmE), mobile phone ("cell phone"), petrol ("gas"), rubbish ("garbage, trash"), flat ("apartment"), lift ("elevator"), and nappy ("diaper"). Like I said, these are just ones that I've noticed on various occasions, but there are hundreds of differences. Still, in most situations, if speakers know you don't always speak the same version of English as they do, they'll make efforts to communicate clearly, without using as many difficult words or as much slang.

You can find many words listed here, here, and here (the final link also briefly mentions differences between British and Australian and New Zealand English). Generally speaking, it seems like the categories with the most differences are clothing and food. But if you hear a word you don't understand, you can say something like, "I'm not sure I've heard that word before," or simply ask, "What's that?" and people will usually be happy to explain it to you.

A color wheel. Or is it a colour wheel?
Spelling is another occasionally noticeable difference between American and British English forms. You can find more information in the sites I mentioned above (or here), but there a few "famous" differences:

1. -or/-our: There are various words that are spelled with "-or" at the end in American English, and "-our" at the end in British English. These include humor/humour, color/colour, and flavor/flavour.

2. -ize/-ise: In American English, we'd say "recognize" and "prioritize," etc.; British English would say "recognise" and "prioritise."

3. -er/re: A few words have different endings, like "center" or "meter" (AmE); and "centre" or "metre" (in British and even Canadian English).

4. Other differences: There are various other differences, but common ones are "check," "tire," and "program" in American English; British equivalents are often "cheque," "tyre," and "programme."

In the end, these two types of English have much more in common than they have differences. If you go to New York and speak British English, you'll probably have no problems communicating; the same is true if you speak American English in London or Scotland. Even though there are differences, the differences can often be fascinating, and they give English extra "flavor"--or is it "flavour"??

Thanks for reading, and if you have comments or you'd like to contribute to the discussion, please leave a comment below. Have a great weekend!