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Turn of phrase

John Livingstone's book shares secret to fluency in Spanish and English
by: Jaime Valdez John Livingstone and his wife Nancy hold up a flash card with the Spanish equal to the English idiom "my better half."

John Livingstone has a way with words - in both English and Spanish.

The 85-year-old Sexton Mountain resident is sharing his gift for clever turns of phrase in his third book, 'Modismos: Your Fast Track to Fluency in Spanish and English.'

The $7.95 eBook is available to download from amazon.com or on Kindle. It features a glossary of more than 5,000 idiomatic expressions and their Spanish equivalents.

This collection of phrases brings both languages to life and includes expressions that are used in everyday Spanish and English, such as 'let's call it a day' or 'ya basta por hoy.'

'Writing this book began as a hobby to keep my fluency,' Livingstone said as he sat next to Nancy, his wife of 46 years.

For two years, he kept a running tally of phrases in his computer.

'I would wake up in the middle of the night and tell him that I just thought of one,' Nancy said of her help in the project. 'It was a little ridiculous, but it was fun. Our kids thought we were nuts.'

'Especially our nightly forays into Spanish idioms,' Livingstone finished.

'We would speak in them all the time,' Nancy said with a warm laugh.

Much to the delight of their daughters, Livingstone decided enough was enough (basta y sobra) and whittled his list to 5,000 of his favorites to include in a book.

'After learning the basics, it's time to learn idiomatic expressions,' Livingstone said. 'This book is for people who are motivated to improve their chosen language or to resume their language studies and polish it up.

'As a student of a foreign language you have a choice to make: Learn basic vocabulary and grammar to understand and express yourself at an elementary level in order to just get by, or travel the road to fluency by systematically learning, day-by-day, idiomatic expressions.'

Livingstone is multilingual, earning a bachelor's degree in Spanish from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a master's degree in Spanish literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He began his study of the language in 1937, when he was 12 years old. 'My parents sponsored a refugee couple from the Spanish Civil War, and when Ramón got a job teaching Spanish at a local college, he invited me to attend the course,' Livingstone recalled. 'I was the only child there, and it went on for two years.'

He learned as a young man that he was a quick study.

'I have an aptitude for language that makes up for my shortcomings in other areas like math,' he said.

That aptitude opened many doors to Livingstone later in life, including keeping him from joining his Army unit in the Korean War.

Instead, after serving in World War II in France, Belgium and Germany, he spent 13 months learning Polish in the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif.

'When I was at language school, I would memorize whole phrases rather than try to figure out each word to string together in a sentence,' Livingstone said. 'I found it very effective.'

'Children learn that way,' Nancy added. 'They are so uninhibited, and they pick language up fast.'

He put those language skills to work for the Central Intelligence Agency in Central Europe in the early 1950s.

Though he also picked up some French, Italian and German phrases in his service to the country, today he focuses on tutoring in Spanish and English as a second language.

He and Nancy can also be found every Saturday morning at the Beaverton City Library, where they participate in the Intercambio Spanish/English Conversation Group. The first hour is held in Spanish and the second hour is in English. All ages are welcome.

Livingstone often brings his special set of modismo flash cards along to share. And, if by chance he and Nancy are stumped in finding the Spanish equivalent to an English idiom, Livingstone will confer with a native Spanish speaker to determine the proper modismo.

'You can't translate the modismos literally,' Livingstone said, pointing out that with a pairing like 'it's a piece of cake/ es pan comido,' the modismo literally translates to 'it is eaten bread.'