Yoga Behind Bars

When Rosa Vissers MFA’07 came to America from the Netherlands for the University of Utah’s dance program, she intended to stay three years, then go back to Europe to continue her creative career. “But life had other plans,” Vissers says with a twinkle in her eye.

After earning her degree in Utah and taking a brief teaching stint in Idaho, Vissers moved to Seattle to dance. She took a postcard from somewhere—a coffee shop, a bookstore, she doesn’t remember— and put it up on her bare wall for a little color. The card promoted an organization called Yoga Behind Bars (YBB), a program that teaches trauma-informed yoga and meditation to incarcerated individuals in the state of Washington. For an entire year, the postcard was in her eye line. But it took her that long to actually reach out to YBB and get involved.

Vissers began volunteering in 2010, and she now serves as YBB’s executive director. Under her leadership, YBB has more than doubled its programs to include 18 prisons, jails, and detention centers in Washington. In 2015, she spearheaded YBB’s launch of its Yoga Teacher Trainings behind bars, one of the country’s first, and she has presented a TEDx talk on yoga in prisons.

Over the years, Vissers has taught yoga to hundreds of inmates and trained more than 400 people to teach yoga and meditation behind bars. She says her classes are much more diverse in prison than a mainstream yoga studio—with a wide range of ages, races, and students from all walks of life. “We give people tools that they can utilize for the rest of their lives,” Vissers says of YBB and the inner strength it helps its participants develop. “It’s there, inside of them, and they change their self-image as well as gain new skills to cope.”

Vissers cites one of her inspirations, Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative, and his advice to get close to the issues you are trying to solve. She explains that the inmates she teaches often come from poverty, have less access to education, and aren’t treated for mental health issues. But yoga and meditation help provide some tools and benefits that are at least a place to start. And, the inmates say they appreciate a time to reflect and to enjoy the uplifting and positive environment. In a letter to the program, one noted that his small cell made it impossible to extend his arms. “It may seem insignificant, but being able to take up space and to stretch is something I look forward to all week,” wrote the inmate.

Vissers’s time at the U gave her some of the essential tools for her current role. “The bridges of creative thinking and human connection are what I learned in my MFA program. I’m still working with movement and how we can use the body as a vehicle for transformation.” And her peer-to-peer relationships with the U faculty gave her a lot of confidence, as well as a model for her own work. “My interactions with my professors at the U made me feel like they really cared for me as a person,” Vissers says.

“First and foremost, my students are people,” Vissers says firmly. “That’s one of the most important messages of the program—to give people a sense of their humanity. It’s a big step to having a more balanced nervous system and being less reactive. They’re more at home in their bodies. No matter what they’ve done, nobody is just their sentence or the choices they’ve made or the circumstances that led them there.”

Vissers hopes that giving her students a greater connection to themselves will help them build resilience and a deepened belief in their value. The mission of Yoga Behind Bars, to change the prison system “from the inside out,” continues in her capable hands.


Sydney Duncan: A Physics-Loving Dancer

Photo by Nicki Bosch

When Sydney Duncan was a little girl growing up in Texas, she couldn’t sit still. So her mother, who had danced in college, enrolled her in a dance class, which Duncan says sparked her interest. Then, when she was about 8, her mom took her to see The Nutcracker. Duncan watched the dancers intensely and said, “I want to do that.” And she meant it. Soon after, she started rigorous classical ballet training. “I loved every second of it,” she recalls. “There was never a day when I didn’t want to go to class.”

By 14, Duncan had decided to become a professional dancer. But she had also started to discover another passion—science. “I was falling in love with science during the day at school, and falling in love with dance at night,” Duncan says.

Her father, who is an electrical engineer, encouraged her to pursue her interest in science. And she found an intersection between her two passions as she learned about space and movement in both fields. By the time she was approaching the end of high school, she concluded she wasn’t ready to be a professional ballerina quite yet. But she wasn’t fully committed to science, either.

In researching universities, Duncan discovered that the University of Utah has outstanding programs in both ballet and the sciences—and so she enrolled and chose to study both astrophysics and dance. “I searched for a school where I didn't have to choose,” says Duncan BFA’16 BS’16.

Although she was technically “allowed” her taxing double major, she says some of her professors thought she was crazy. Neither one is a major you can do halfway. Duncan says that while some people tried to get her to think “realistically,” others supported her in her split pursuits. “There were ballet professors writing letters of recommendation that got me into astrophysics internships, and physics professors who took the time to come see my performances,” Duncan says fondly.

After graduation, she was plotting a move to New York City, but she knew she wouldn’t be leaving Utah behind for long. While finishing up her final semester, she was asked to join the cast of The Will Rogers Follies at the U’s Pioneer Memorial Theatre. She graduated, moved to the Big Apple for a stint, then came back to Salt Lake for the six-week run. 

Back in New York, the auditions continue. She says that sometimes, as a black woman, her tryouts don’t go the way she hopes merely because she doesn’t fit a “type.” But she stays positive and feels encouraged by the example she’s setting for her younger peers by having graduated from two rigorous university programs. “Sometimes I get messages from other young black dancers saying they want to pursue higher education and their artistic passion as well,” Duncan says. “It always reminds me that I am doing something that is bigger than me.”

Duncan remembers being a child in Texas, seeing black bodies on stage with the Dallas Black Dance Theater, and how formative that was to her ambition and desire to become a professional dancer. “You have to stay on your toes (literally) and keep pushing yourself,” Duncan says. “There is no slowing down when you feel you haven’t reached goals.” She is excited about a recent invitation to join Avant Chamber Ballet as a professional ballerina, and to experience her first professional season in Dallas this fall.

But she hasn’t forgotten her passion for astrophysics, either. She says maybe in the future she’ll go work for NASA. “I want to learn more about outer space,” Duncan says. “I’m not done with physics, just focusing on dance right now.”

Making America Laugh Again

Ana Breton BA’09 is not one to simply accept her circumstances. Instead, she is a creative and innovative individual who looks at her surroundings and says, “How can I make this work for me?”

As a student at the University of Utah, she realized there wasn’t an existing major that would help her accomplish her goal—to become a comedian and TV writer—so she tailored her education to prepare herself for her dream career. “Sometimes life is like a Plinko board,” she explains. “You just have to find your way there—it’s not a direct line.”

Initially pursuing a career in journalism, she realized she couldn’t ignore her passion for film, so she decided to double major. Splitting her college years between The Daily Utah Chronicle and the film lab, Breton kept busy. She also participated in the comedy troupe Friday Night Live at the U, which performed regular shows mixing improv and sketch. “I always wanted to do a little bit of everything,” Breton laughs. “I think my only regret is: I wish I would’ve gone to more football games. I was always working!”

That work-work-work mentality has never quite slowed down for Breton, especially when she met her husband Nick Pappas BS’09 BS’13 (via his column in the Chrony, where he also worked). “One Valentine’s Day, he wrote a column saying he didn’t have a date,” she recalls. “So I just decided to ask him out—because I liked his writing.” Soon, they were seeing each other regularly, and their dates often involved simply getting together and putting pen to paper. “And we have absolutely continued doing that,” Breton says with fondness.

After graduating, Pappas’ bright future in finance took them to The Big Apple. The two were married in 2014 and now share an apartment with their dog, Binks. “We moved here and I thought, ‘This is the time to be pursuing comedy and film,’ ” Breton says. “New York has such a healthy environment for film—all the production companies are here. All the late night shows are here. It was kind of a now-or-never thing.”

She began taking classes at famous comedy club Upright Citizens Brigade, and joined their digital team shortly after that, making comedy videos for the web. Her growing network in the comedy scene led to a job interview for a new show. “When I went to the interview, I kind of freaked out,” she explains. “At the end, I said, ‘I just want you to know that even if I don’t get the job, I’m still going to be watching the show—I’m such a huge fan of Samantha Bee.’ ”

That tactic worked, and after two years “paying her dues” in New York’s comedy world, Breton became a producer of short, funny videos for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee—both on the show and for the show’s online presence. “Working on a political TV show is very involved,” Breton says. “You are hyper-aware of everything that is going on. Because we have to respond to it in a really funny way, and that’s a lot of what my job is.”

Her first lightbulb moment on the show came when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump posted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl. Born in Mexico City, Breton moved with her family to Orem, Utah, when she was 9. She felt her personal passion for immigration and others of Hispanic heritage spur her forward. “I took a picture of Samantha with her own taco bowl, and we tweeted it out and it went viral,” Breton says with a bit of a twinkle in her eye. (The tweet is pretty pointed.)

A snapshot of Ana Breton (center), colleague Tzvia Berrin-Reinsten (left), and Samantha Bee (right) at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

She says she tries not to become overwhelmed with all the details of the nonstop political conversation, but nonetheless it has become a bit of an obsession. However, that may just be her personality. As a creative, Breton is all too familiar with the side hustle—the after-hours endeavors people often have in addition to their “day jobs.” “I find that creative people have to create all the time,” Breton says. “A lot of my coworkers have podcasts and stand-up shows, and we all need to be making things or else we go crazy.”

Although her husband moved to New York for finance, he was inspired by Breton’s success in comedy. He has since left Wall Street behind, was chosen for an NBC internship, and is becoming what Breton calls “Twitter famous” for his wit.

The two have recently collaborated on several projects, such as the 36 Questions Podcast. Based on a study by a psychologist who claims two strangers can become intimate friends after answering a series of certain questions, Pappas and Breton bring two people together each week to test the claim. “Because the people we know here in New York tend to be in the comedy community, it ends up being funny,” Breton points out. Everything in her life has a humorous thread.

Along with the podcast, the couple has worked together on projects including a number of short videos. He writes, then she gives notes, shoots, and edits the final product. The two just wrapped a six-episode web series based on the service Taskrabbit, which allows anyone to hire a stranger to perform a chore for them.

On her own, Breton still works on the digital team at Upright Citizens Brigade, and she also creates videos for The Box, a feminist sketch/talk show. And in her “spare time,” she organized a march protesting the border wall on May 6, to tie into Cinco de Mayo. “I was never ‘into’ political activism; it just came out of frustration,” Breton asserts.

So, how does she manage to stay balanced? Taking walks with Binks, eating good Mexican food, and enjoying the comedy in New York. Laughter is, as they say, the best medicine. And she knows she is doing what she loves.

“People are always going to quit along the way, so that opens up a path for you,” Breton notes encouragingly. “It’s easy to get scared of how competitive it is, but if you stick with it, you can Plinko your way there.”

She laughs at her second Plinko reference, then shrugs. “I really love Plinko.”

Playing the Patient

The University of Utah’s nursing college has a basement full of robots. The Simulation Learning Center’s hospital set contains expensive, lifelike dummies that help nursing students learn how to treat patients. But despite the advanced technology of the mannequins, the college knows there’s nothing better than the real thing. “We hire actors not just to be a human body to give verbal responses but to actually play a part,” says Madeline Lassche BSN’99, the college’s executive director of simulation.

Lassche explains that in the past five years, feedback from the College of Nursing’s clinical partners started to reflect a lack of interpersonal skills from recent nursing grads. So, the sim center changed its tactics. “Mannequins are great,” says Lassche. “But they don’t help students practice communication skills, bedside manner, or how to deal with mental health issues and HIPAA standards.”

Lassche also points out that although the mannequins can “talk” through microphones and speakers, there are no nuances. Facial expressions and body language can only truly come through when a human performs them.

Jodee Steffensen practices her serious expression as she gets ready to perform with students.

Two such performers are Steve Fukushima BS’75 and his wife, Susan, who both work part time as standardized patients—the technical term for actors assisting medical students. Steve was hired about five years ago, and he absolutely loves the work. He spent 27 years as a writer, producer, and director for KSL News in Utah, and enjoys being on the acting side of things now. “We do what can so that when the students get into the real world, their education is truly of benefit to them,”

Fukushima says earnestly. Fukushima’s approach is decidedly service-oriented, due in large part to the fact that he’s seen firsthand how much the students learn. After a knee replacement surgery in 2016, Fukushima went to the Aspen Ridge rehab center and was treated by a nurse he had worked with in the simulation center. “She recognized me,” Fukushima says, clearly pleased. “I saw how these nurses utilize their training, and it was pretty gratifying. I found out, as a recipient of that care, that it does work.”

Among the pool of performers—which includes a range from children to retirees—are a few professional actors. After obtaining two theater degrees from the U and a varied acting career, Jodee Steffensen BFA’73 MFA’75 came full circle. “In retirement, I play around doing extra work and love my job at the U,” she says. “The people at the sim center are the nicest and best employers I’ve had the privilege to work for.”

With experience writing, acting, stage managing, and teaching, Steffensen is used to challenges. She says she loves the spontaneity of being a standardized patient. “We all try to make it as real as possible for the nurses, which means tweaking the scenes on the spot,” she explains. “No two sessions are the same. Once, I was in a scene where the students were supposed to practice communicating with a patient who couldn’t speak English. By the end of that session, I was speaking Russian!”

One of the scenarios teaches student nurses how to navigate HIPAA and state laws in accordance with revealing medical conditions to the proper people. In the simulation, a 15-year-old girl comes in who has been in a car accident and is discovered to be pregnant—but the nursing staff is not required to tell her parents.

Steffensen has played the mother in this scenario before. “The point is for students to experience handling an extremely hostile situation,” she says of the experience. “Most students find it unnerving. But one day there was a student nurse who was a master at de-escalation, and no matter what I tried, she seemed able to calm everyone down.”

The exercises can highlight natural skills—or areas that clearly need improvement—in student nurses. The actors play out a full range of scenarios from treating a type-2 diabetic suffering from depression to non-English-speaking patients to skiing accidents that require training in using crutches.

Lassche says that mental health scenarios can be especially draining, but that the discussions that follow are invaluable. “We can actually teach: ‘How are you going to isolate yourself and make sure you don’t make an error?’ ” Lassche says. “It’s really emotional for the students. They have no idea how hard it will be.”

She recognizes that it can be intense for the actors, as well. “The most challenging role I’ve had was that of a military veteran with PTSD,” says actor Rich Laniewski. “This role spanned several scenes involving changes in mood and mental attitude from one scene to the next. I always find myself emotionally drained afterwards.”

Although the students know on a cerebral level that what they’re doing isn’t real, most take it to heart and feel the emotions of a live performance. Lassche says there are always exceptions, though. “You have the student who can never do it. Never in a million years can they walk in and pretend it’s real. They just don’t have it.”

In those situations, it helps to have a standardized patient like Laniewski, who says he has to resist the urge to wisecrack. Laniewski recounts this exchange from a recent scenario, when a student seemed a little nervous:

Student: Are you sexually active?

Laniewski: Yes.

Student: How many partners?

Laniewski: One, just my wife.

Student: Do you wear seat belts or a helmet?

Laniewski says he couldn’t stop himself from joking. “I looked at him quizzically, and said: ‘During sex?’ I have a suspicion that he’ll never forget that for the rest of his career.”

—Learn more about the new Simulation Learning Center and College of Nursing facilities in the  previous Continuum feature here.

Meet the Chief


University of Utah Police Chief Dale Brophy MPA’03 has been a cop for 22 years. Standing at six feet four, he is a slightly intimidating presence—until you strike up a conversation. Brophy is warm, approachable, and dedicated to not only public service but the ultimate safety of everyone under his jurisdiction.

After serving as a patrol officer, detective, sergeant, and lieutenant with West Valley City starting in 1994, he made the transition to deputy chief at the U in 2013. And after the retirement of Chief Scott Folsom BS’87 MBA’99 in 2015, Brophy was named director of public safety, aka chief of police.

We sat down with the new chief to find out more about him, his force, and the biggest safety issues on campus.

CONTINUUM: How is policing different on a campus versus a city? What makes this force different from regular police in terms of training and issues they deal with?

CHIEF BROPHY: Campus policing is different in many ways, but the main difference is call volume. Working in a safe community such as the university allows my officers to be proactive in providing community service instead of running call to call. Campus police also face an ever-growing need to be the “ultimate” community service officer while maintaining a very high level of preparedness to respond to the real possibility of an active threat or large-scale mass casualty event.

What came as a surprise about this job?

A surprise about this job would be the dynamic nature of the campus community. There are many moving parts to this machine we call the “university,” and I am amazed on a regular basis at the collaboration and teamwork I witness and get to be a part of. The students, staff, and faculty do an amazing job of pulling together to get things done. There is really never a “down time” on campus, and that is evidenced by the more than 500 special events the department of public safety works on an annual basis.

What is your relationship with the Salt Lake City police? Are criminal cases tried in SLC courts?

We have an excellent relationship with the SLC Police Department. Our officers train together for events that will likely require a multi-agency response as well as work together during special events on campus. I take the opportunity whenever possible to network with the administration of the SLC Police Department. I also belong to several leadership groups throughout the state to build and maintain those type of relationships with all surrounding agencies.

All of our criminal cases on campus either end up in Salt Lake Justice Court or the Salt Lake [County] District Attorney’s Office. We are also unique in the fact that we can refer students for discipline to the Dean of Students’ office for generally minor, first-time offenses in lieu of criminal sanctions.

What keeps you up at night, or, what is your biggest challenge currently on campus?

The possibility of an active threat occurring on campus has caused me some sleepless nights. I also take providing a professional service to our community very seriously. As such, we spend a lot of time and money on training our officers and detectives to ensure we are providing the service our community expects.

What types of calls are you most commonly responding to as a force?

Our most common call for service on campus is theft, in particular, bike theft. If it is not watched, locked up properly, or bolted down, it can be stolen. Most of the thefts on campus are crimes of opportunity, which means the thief doesn’t really work that hard to take the item. Bikes locked with skinny cable-style locks are easily defeated with a pair of handheld bolt cutters; laptops left on the table while using the restroom are easily picked up and taken.

Have you changed your approach to sexual assault crimes in view of the current climate?

These cases are often very difficult and rarely black and white. Since I took office as the chief, our approach to sexual assaults has always been the same. We start by believing and then conduct a trauma-informed investigation. The investigator follows the facts of the case, completes a very thorough investigation into all sides of the complaint, and prepares the case for review by the District Attorney’s Office.

Do students take advantage of safety programs like RAD (Rape Aggression Defense, a self-defense class) and police escorts? Do you wish more would?

The students do take advantage of our safety escorts, and RAD is well attended. Having said that, we would love for there to be an overwhelming demand for both if the students, staff, and faculty feel the need for the service. That is the very reason we are here, to help our community to be and feel as safe as possible.

What is the most difficult offense you have dealt with?

Over the past 22 years, I have seen just about every type of offense possible. The offenses that are most difficult are those that involve the loss of life. Whether it’s a homicide, a traffic accident, or a suicide, it’s very difficult at times to process the information and not internalize the emotion. This is especially hard when dealing with the survivors of the tragedy such as parents, brothers/sisters, friends, etc. Their loss is very real, and there is nothing you can do to change the outcome.

How could students, faculty, and staff make your job easier?

Our community could make our job easier by educating themselves as to the common crimes that occur on campus and doing their part to help prevent them. This is easy to do by viewing our annual security report, which is published every year on or before October 1. report outlines crime statistics for campus, has an extensive list of on and off campus resources, and provides a great start to keeping oneself safe on campus.

What would you like to accomplish in the next year?

We are working hard on our community outreach and our emergency management functions. We have recently dedicated three officers to our community outreach program with the goal of reaching out to every business unit, building, and group on campus to offer our training presentations on a variety of topics that affect the campus. We have also added two full-time emergency management employees who are working to improve our capabilities and level of preparedness should we experience an emergency on campus.

Safety Resources

The U’s Department of Public Safety (UUDPS) has 34 trained law enforcement officers and 79 security guards, and campus is patrolled around the clock. As of November, there were 1,459 security cameras on campus and roughly 500 more at University Hospital—all with feeds monitored in real time—and the U planned to install another 450 cameras within the next six months.

UUDPS offers numerous programs to increase personal safety and awareness. New students and employees are taken through an orientation that educates about sexual assaults, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking, with an overview of prevention, consent, reporting procedures, and support resources. The trainings are also provided for the university’s athletics teams, sororities, fraternities, and other groups, such as students being placed in internships. The rest of the offerings are optional, including but not limited to:

U Heads Up!—This mobile app allows users to upload photos or comments about safety concerns around campus. Police, facilities, or other departments are then notified for a timely response. The app also provides a quick-reference campus emergency response guide and delivers notifications from the Campus Alert system.

After Dark Escort—At night, or in any uncomfortable situation, university security personnel or police officers will come to your main campus location and walk or drive you to your residence hall, car, shuttle, bus, or TRAX stop. For this service, call (801) 585-2677. The service is available 24/7.

Emergency Phones—Blue-light emergency phones are strategically placed for direct access to U dispatchers to report an emergency.

Start by Believing—A public awareness campaign to change the way people respond to personally shared reports of rape and sexual assault, beginning with responding in a supportive and caring manner. Learn more about the campaign here.

Coffee with Cops—The force holds two events (spring and fall) at the Marriott Library Plaza, where anyone can come and meet with officers, who discuss and hand out information about crimes on campus, including sexual assault resources.

Five Language Myths Busted

When Henry Higgins tells Eliza Doolittle that changing the way she speaks will infinitely elevate her social status, it makes perfect sense. Language is one of those things that sets us apart as intelligent or less so. Annoying or pleasant. Able to convince a crowd to see things our way, or not.

Many of the perceptions we have about language seem innate, like women talking more than men, or French truly being the langue de l’amour. But on closer examination, these “facts” don’t always hold true. Many of them are simply culturally accepted falsehoods.

In her book Women Talk More than Men… And Other Myths about Language Explained, University of Utah linguistics professor Abby Kaplan looks at some of the erroneous reports made by the media, accepted by the public, and touted as the way things really are. Kaplan measures these reports against scientific studies to determine the truth about language. Find five of the language myths she busts below.

Myth-icon-bilingualMYTH: Being bilingual makes you smarter (or dumber).

TRUTH: Bilingualism doesn’t make you any less intelligent. Conversely, it can be quite beneficial (at least sometimes). But to say it makes you smarter is an oversimplification.

The pendulum on this topic has swung both directions. Kaplan points out that popular wisdom used to hold that being bilingual made you less intelligent—and teaching your children two languages would put them at a disadvantage, creating confusion as their brain attempted to switch between languages. But those studies, she shows, were severely flawed.

Now the opinion has shifted, and many parents clamor to get their children in dual immersion programs to give them a leg up. And while learning a second language (be it as an adult or child) can have advantages, like allowing you to communicate with more people, explore new cultures, pursue new business opportunities, and so on, Kaplan still says it’s premature to declare that being bilingual actually makes you smarter.

“Bilingualism is extremely complex,” she explains. “It can look very different across individuals and across societies.” The fact is, there are few people who are truly balanced bilinguals. As Kaplan explains, a person might be more proficient in one language than the other. They might also use each language in totally different situations, like children who speak Vietnamese at home with their immigrant parents, but speak English at school.

Even in societies that are technically bilingual, a phenomenon called diglossia often occurs—where one language is associated with “high” functions and the other with “low.” For example, in Paraguay, where the majority of the population speaks two languages, Spanish is considered the high language, which means it’s used in formal contexts such as government and official business. Guaraní, the low language, is more intimate and informal, usually spoken in the home and between friends.

Being bilingual can, however, offer additional perks. Knowing more than one name for an object, according to a study analyzed by Kaplan, has the effect of increasing metalinguistic awareness— the ability to talk and think about language. Another study found that lifelong bilingualism has a significant benefit in old age.

Kaplan concludes that there are many positive reasons to learn a second language, even if it hasn’t been proven to increase or diminish intelligence. So, she often describes the “makes you smarter” assertion as “mostly true.”

Myth-icon-adultlanguageMYTH: Adults cannot learn a new language.

TRUTH: Many researchers claim there is a critical period for a human being to learn a language—when they are young. But studies in Kaplan’s book suggest this might be more of a fallacy than we think.

“If language can’t be learned after childhood, then it seems logical that language shouldn’t change later in life—in other words, the way you talk as a teenager is the way you will talk as a 90-year-old,” says Kaplan. But a person’s native language may evolve slightly over a lifetime, which means language may not be completely fixed during childhood after all. “It’s still malleable to at least some degree,” she adds.

Much of the research Kaplan shares on this topic is conducted with immigrant families and cites how easy it is for children to pick up the language of their new nation as proof of the critical period hypothesis. However, she refutes the idea that the adults are unable to learn the language based solely on their age, pointing out that many people do become competent and fluent speakers of a second language later in life. Age, it turns out, is only part of the equation. For example, the children of these immigrant families are often able to go to school for formal language training for many years while the adults are left with very little, if any, language education.

Researchers also argue that children’s behavior and environment makes them more willing to practice, experiment, learn—and fail—while adults tend to avoid embarrassment and stick with what they know well: their first language. Grownups have spent many years learning the proper way to speak and write their first language. It can be difficult for them to essentially unlearn everything from grammar to pronunciation in the process of learning a new one. Kaplan says that even forming certain letter sounds in other languages can be tricky for adults, since a first language trains the tongue so specifically.

Experts agree that it may be more difficult for adults to learn a new language— but that there is not a magic age where that ability drops off. So if you’ve been thinking about tackling another language, go ahead and order that Rosetta Stone!

Myth-icon-frenchMYTH: French is the most beautiful language.

TRUTH: In other cultures, different sounds are more or less appealing. French is not universally acknowledged as the most beautiful option for expressing yourself.

Language is far more than just communication. It represents heritage and history and cultural associations. As Kaplan asks in her book, “To what extent are our opinions on languages affected by our beliefs about the people who speak the language?”

When surveyed, Nevada natives and Tennessee dwellers gave their own states the “most pleasant” rating in terms of accents. Both groups, however, ranked Arkansas and Alabama as the most jarring accent in the U.S. When asked to describe accents in other parts of the country, participants in another study used words like “hillbilly,” “cowboy,” “surfer,” and “Ivy League”—none of which describe the actual sounds created by accents, but nicknames for the people making them.

Languages and accents that are harsh and guttural are sometimes thought to be “ugly.” Kaplan cites pop culture as a perfect example of how our opinions on language creep into the characterization of the people speaking. In Star Trek, Klingon has these “ugly” characteristics. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the savage Dothraki speak a version of this type of language. The Lord of the Rings villain Sauron uses a language so ugly, Gandalf tries to avoid it.

In the real world, German fits this bill for some. It not only has guttural sounds but is also still associated by many with Nazism, whereas French spent centuries as the language of science and art in Europe. Many still consider French highly prestigious, associating it with sophistication and romance. As Kaplan pointedly says, “People’s aesthetic judgments about particular languages are inextricably bound up with beliefs about the people who speak those languages.”

Myth-icon-textingMYTH: Text messaging makes you illiterate truth.

TRUTH: There is practically zero evidence that using abbreviations or texting in general harms literacy skills. Text away.

Abbreviations and codes associated with texting are not new forms of communication—they’ve been used in forms from hieroglyphics to telegrams. Though text-speak has caused significant alarm among some parents and English teachers, there is no reason to wring your hands over texting.

When the medium first came on the scene, texts were limited to 160 characters, and all cost money per message. To economize, users used acronyms and abbreviations to convey their thoughts and avoid those nasty overage charges. Now, though, several studies have indicated that things like TTYL and IDK are used so infrequently it is almost not worth noting.

Acronyms, Kaplan points out, are common even in formal writing. RSVP, MIT, UN. They don’t hinder the communication— as long as you know your audience. Texting a friend means you can get by with less-than-perfect grammar. Just don’t let it leak into your professional documents.

Myth-icon-womentalkMYTH: Women talk more than men.

TRUTH: Studies have measured rates of speech at home, in college classrooms, and in casual conversation. None of them conclude that females motormouth away while their male counterparts sit silent.

The media like to proclaim how studies show women are blabbermouths while men are stoically silent. But that claim simply doesn’t hold water, according to research. “The best studies show that men and women, on average, talk about the same,” says Kaplan.

She points to studies that refute the claim that women have a penchant for backchanneling—when you say things like “uh-huh” while someone is talking to indicate you’re listening. Men do that too. Oh, and tag questions? That thing that happens at the end of a sentence when you don’t want to be too forceful about your opinions—you know what I mean? To say nothing of vocal fry, upspeak, or “Valley Girl” talk—all of which have been explored in the media recently and almost always attributed to women.

If correctly interpreted (which Kaplan explains is often the problem in media reports—assumptions are made without careful reading of the actual results), studies have shown these speech habits are not exclusive to, nor are they primarily used by, any one gender.

Popular beliefs in Western culture suggest that women have more developed language skills and tend to speak more “correctly” than men, but still speak in a way that diminishes them. In other parts of the world, however, women are thought to be far more aggressive and impolite in their speech habits, Kaplan says.

The conclusion she reaches is that, in fact, men and women speak roughly the same way, definitely the same amount, and for similarly diversified purposes—gender notwithstanding.