Former LA resident pens well-reviewed book about Spanish

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By Sarah von Sternberg

Author Judy Hochberg lived in Los Alamos from 1989 to 2000 and recently published a book about Spanish with Bloomsbury Academic Press. Hochberg has a Ph.D. in linguistics from Stanford University and teaches Spanish at Fordham University, New York.
Although she has not been back to Los Alamos since she moved, the delicious breakfast burritos from Chili Works have not been forgotten.
Hochberg worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a research staff member with CCS-3 Information Sciences, working mostly on projects having to do with computers and language.
The project she was hired for involved training a neural net, which is a computer model loosely based on the workings of the brain, to make an association between the acoustics of speech and the movement of the lips and tongue.
Hochberg explained, “The idea was that this would sort of make speech visible and people who had hearing problems would be able to use this as a way to teach them how to articulate.”
Another project at LANL that utilized her linguistic skills was developing a program that would automatically identify the writing system used in a document, whether it was printed or hand written. “Of all the papers I published at the lab, those are the ones that get most cited,” she recalled.
Hochberg was happiest at the lab when she could apply her linguistic background.
“I was trying as much as possible to work on language related projects. When I left the lab and came to New York, that continued,” Hochberg said.
She then worked at International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) doing research on computers and languages.
Before coming to Los Alamos, Spanish was the language Hochberg spent time on; her dissertation was about Spanish, as was her undergraduate honors thesis. Once she got to Los Alamos though, her Spanish research “went on the backburner,” according to Hochberg.
She struggled to make progress with the language in New Mexico because she felt like an outsider when she tried to communicate with other Spanish speakers.
“I’m like this person from New York, I’m not supposed to be speaking Spanish,” she said. Although her Spanish was on hold, Hochberg gained some experience teaching in Los Alamos as she was active with the Los Alamos Jewish Center and also taught Sunday school.
After moving to New York and working at IBM for a while, she realized she needed a change from working with computers. “I basically had a mid-life career crisis,” Hochberg explains, relating the situation to shaking a snow globe and the pieces landing in a new pattern. “I stayed with the same pieces but arranged differently.” Her husband also had a major career change. “He was a physicist in Los Alamos and now he is an art investor. He sort of inspired me.”
So Hochberg shook up the snow globe and became a Spanish teacher. This was the final step toward her decision to start writing a book. She had the knowledge of linguistics, teaching experience and the Spanish language in her background; it was the perfect recipe to write a book.
Hochberg’s book, “¿Por qué? 101 Questions About Spanish” not only tells the facts but also answers the question “why?” The book has over 100 questions many people encounter when learning Spanish, including Hochberg herself.
“It was really satisfying to really figure them out,” she said.
The idea of the book is not to teach the reader Spanish, but explain the peculiarities of the language. The Q-and-A format of her book provides a relaxed tone that invites Spanish and non-Spanish speakers alike.
“The book is light, but at the same time it’s pretty meaty,” she said.
It is written in the first person, which is unusual for an academic book.
“Not that I’m telling all sorts of anecdotes, but it really is my personal views of what’s interesting,” she said. So it’s served up in a friendly way but covers serious topics.
“I’m really hoping that it’ll catch onto a larger audience that are interesting in Spanish,” she said.
Her dream would be for “¿Por qué?” to be used in schools or sold in airports.
When asked about the process of writing a book for the first time, she called it a very absorbing, but enjoyable experience overall since she loves to write.
“I learned a lot. Out of the 101 questions, there probably wasn’t a single question that I could have written right off the bat,” Hochberg said.
Many questions she had to research from scratch. “And some of them I wasn’t even sure I would find an answer.”
There are two things that inspired Hochberg to write the book. The first occurred while she was reading a Spanish history book and learned how the language came to the Americas. The travel routes from Spain to other parts of the world had a long lasting linguistic affect, which struck her as fascinating. “When I read this, I thought, ‘Wow, that is so interesting. I think everybody should know that,’” she said.
The second reason came from a class she took at the University of Madrid when she was a Spanish teacher. The class learned that in modern Spanish, it is very common to say “en absoluto” which means “absolutely,” but to use it to mean “absolutely not.”
A positive had become a negative. This is called the Jespersen’s cycle, a series of processes that describe the development of negation in language throughout history. “This is something that happens in languages, something I learned when I was a graduate student in linguistics. I was the only person in the room that knew that,” she said.
Hochberg again realized that this was a part of Spanish that people should know about. She had made a connection between her education in linguistics and her Spanish background. “I realized I had this special knowledge as a linguist that would be interesting to people who care about Spanish,” she said.
“¿Por qué?” has been selling well and also received stunning reviews, including a full-page review in El diario, a Spanish publication as well as a write up in Times Higher Publication with their “best new books of the week” list.
The book is for sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. More information about Hochberg and her book can be found on her blog at spanishlinguist.us/my-book.