Tower of Scrabble

By Tom Miller
Sunday, September 16, 2007

One of the vexing questions in the immigration debate is about language. Should everyone speak English? What's wrong with Spanish? Why can't we rise up to be a bilingual nation?

The debate can get nasty at times. A few months ago, former House speaker Newt Gingrich equated Spanish with "the language of living in a ghetto." California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested that Latinos simply turn off Spanish-language television.

Well, I have a solution to the tortured linguistic dilemma for Newt, the governor, ghetto-dwellers and the rest of us, one that could simultaneously unify, educate and amuse us all: bilingual Scrabble.

Here's how it's done: Get a Spanish-language Scrabble set -- they're available at lots of game stores and online. Then play the usual way, with a twist: Any word can be either English or Spanish.

For example, if you have the Spanish word for rum-- R-O-N on the board -- sandwich it between an F and a T and you get "front." Add E-R-A at the end, and there's the Spanish word for border, frontera .

Or this: You start with "ant," someone else stretches it slightly to "rant." The next player earns more points with M-I-G at the beginning -- migrant. Then it's back to you. You use two E's, one at the beginning and one at the end, and presto! You have emigrante, Spanish for emigrant.

Okay, here's a little trick with . . . your A-B-Cs. Your Spanish set has a double L, a double R, and an ? -- that's the "n" with a squiggly line, called a tilde, on top.

When my family plays bilingual Scrabble -- we're a mix of native English and Spanish speakers -- we're allowed to use the Spanish letters for English words, so the word "hello" might only use four tiles, H-E-LL-O. But you could use the same double L to begin the Spanish word llorona, a weeping woman.

Or, one player uses the double R in the middle of "terror," for example, and the next player uses the same double R for "arrestar," the verb "to arrest."

There are slightly more letters in the Spanish Scrabble set, and more possible points because of that.

In case you have a sabelotodo playing -- that's a know-it-all -- always keep a bilingual dictionary handy.

The best word we've come up with so far is jarroncillos -- little vases -- which has a J, a double R and a double L for 30 points in all. And that's before any double or triple squares.

Bilingual Scrabble is great home entertainment. It increases your ability and agility in both tongues, and it allows you to learn and have fun with a language without making fun of those who speak it.

We're thinking of inviting Lou Dobbs over for our next game night.

Tom Miller is the author of "How I Learned English -- 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life."

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