Category Archives: Journalism

Bilingual Brains, Geriatric Gains: How learning a new language can help slow age-related cognitive decline by Donna Sherman



Learn a New Language!

senior momentA
sk people what their number one fear of getting old is, and many will say they’re most afraid of “losing their minds.” Losing our memory, our ability to reason, our very sense of self, is a horror that makes Alzheimer’s and other dementias some of the most frightening diseases out there. Everyone knows that incidence of dementia increases with age, but scientific researchers is only slowly managing to untangle the reasons why some people get it, and some people don’t.

The Mayo Clinic lists several well-known risk factors that you can control, such as not smoking, limiting heavy alcohol use, and controlling weight and blood pressure. But did you know research shows that simply learning a new language can act as a buffer for resisting cognitive decline?

So what, in short, are the benefits of being bilingual?

But seriously.


word map learn a language


The Benefits of Being Bilingual

At one point, people actually thought that teaching children two languages stunted intellectual growth! But while it’s true that there are some signs that bilingual children have temporary delays in some language skills, due to confusion between languages, or time spent switching between languages, they are usually able to catch up to their peers (Marian & Shook, 2012). In fact, it is precisely that exercise in mental switching that strengthens the brain in areas commonly affected by aging (Kroll, 2009; Ramscar et al., 2014).

brain workout

Like neural exercise!

Learning a second (or third, or fourth) language can help you improve your native tongue, and language skills in early life are associated with lower levels of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive declines in old age.


why learn a language infographic

Scholars and artists have lots to say on the wonders of language learning.

“One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.” – Frank Smith

“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

“There is one very important advantage of learning other languages that I think beats any gains in cognitive control or delays in the onset of dementia. When you learn other languages you can then actually speak those languages, read those literatures, talk to new people in their native language, eavesdrop on their conversations on the bus, order off the menu, pick up that gorgeous stranger in the piazza.  I think that’s cooler than having a few extra points on the Wisconsin card-sorting task.” – Lera Boroditsky, psychologist at Stanford

One website asked older people why they chose to learn a new language. Here are some common reasons people gave:

reasons pie

Learning a language opens your mind, takes you deep into the history and flavour of a culture, makes travel more meaningful, and, of course, is an impressive skill to show off.

Then there’s the increase in social interaction that comes with attending new classes and being able to talk to a wider variety of people. Studies have shown that bilingualism can increase your empathy and make you smarter – speaking more than one language increases the ability of the brain to reason, make decisions, and switch between different tasks (Marian & Shook, 2012).

But you’re worried about your health. Specifically, your brain’s health. And learning a language takes care of that too! People who speak more than one language are diagnosed with dementia an average of 4 years later than people who speak only one (Bialystok et al., 2007). It may increase your cognitive reserve, a popular theory in determining ways to decrease cognitive decline (Stern, 2009). And Birdsong (2006) reports that second language use is “less automatic and less efficient” than native language use, and therefore declines in performance as a result of aging are “likely to show up earlier and to be more pronounced” in the second language. So your new language can act kind of like the canary in the coal mine when trying to detect early signs of cognitive decline.




You. Now.


“That’s great,” you might say, “But so many of these studies talk about learning a language before adulthood. What if it’s too late for me? What if it’s too hard?”

I have some exciting news for you.

It’s never too late.

you're never too old

You’re never too old.

“Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain.” – Dr. Thomas Bak, University of Edinburgh

The Study

Bak et al.’s 2014 study was widely reported by the press (some of those news reports are listed in the links at the end of the article). The study used participants from a pool of subjects from the Lothian Birth Cohort, who were first measured in 1947. The Cohort, which consisted of 1091 Edinburgh natives born in 1936, were 11 years old when they initially completed the Scottish Mental Survey (Scottish Council for Research in Education, 1947). Between 2008 and 2010, Bak and his colleagues followed up with 866 of them to test their hypothesis that “bilinguilism improves later-life cognition and delays the onset of dementia.” Some 853 participants (about half of whom were female) completed a bilingualism questionnaire, as well as cognitive tests including measures of memory, fluid intelligence (the ability to access and use knowledge), speed of processing, and vocabulary.

This study was notable because unlike many others testing similar hypotheses, it controlled for childhood intelligence, which many people worried might lead to bilingualism, rather than the other way around.

They found that people who spoke more than one language had better cognitive abilities in older age than their monolingual peers. What’s more, age of acquisition was not a factor! The measured areas that showed the greatest impact were general intelligence and reading.

Bak et al. said that the effect of learning a second language was “comparable to those reported for […] physical fitness, and (not) smoking” (Bak et al., 2014).

“It’s not the good memory that bilinguals have that is delaying cognitive decline. It’s their attention mechanism. Their ability to focus in on the details of language.” – Dr. Thomas Bak, University of Edinburgh

Although it is quite well known that second language acquisition gets harder as we age (you know how hard it felt to learn French in middle school, even!), harder does not mean impossible. You may never speak like a native, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be fluent (Birdsong, 2006; Doidge, 2007, pg 86-87).

We learn differently as adults than we did as children. Children learn languages implicitly, from being immersed in them. Ask a native speaker to explain the rules of their language’s grammar, and that person might have difficulty putting it into words. They know what sounds right, but they don’t know why. Adults are better at learning explicitly, studying and making sense of rules (Dekeyser, 2013). Because implicit learning happens implicitly, it doesn’t feel like work. But it is.

Let’s look at it this way: a baby is learning a language from scratch. It still needs to learn how to distinguish different types of sounds and then make them itself. It needs to learn body language and tone and to understand context. It needs to develop fine motor skills and gross motor skills. It needs to practice making the thoughts in its head become words and motions with its body. You don’t have to worry about any of that.

creepy baby

Think of all the work you’ve already done!

Apart from the base work you’ve already completed, think of all the stuff you can do that a kid can’t. You can choose which language to learn. You can choose how. You can form groups with people to practice, and travel to a new place and immerse yourself in the language and culture. You have control!

“…[L]earning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds.” – Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author (The Brain That Changes Itself, pg 86-87)



Caveats and Cautions


So learning a second language is hard. You know your native tongue like the back of your hand, which can highlight the effort involved in learning a new one.

Since it’s hard, motivation may be a factor, so choose a language you’re interested in. Maybe you want to learn Russian to read the classics in the original, or Korean to understand those K-dramas you enjoy. Pick something you’ll stick with! Some research has indicated that bilinguals who do not actively use one of their languages do not experience the same benefits as those who use both, although Bak et al.’s 2014 paper found the opposite.

Bak and his colleagues also admit that their bilingualism questionnaire, as a self-report measure, has inherent risks of bias (people misremember events or misrepresent themselves), and measured people’s view of their own fluency, rather than any objective measure of their language proficiency.

We also need to keep in mind that there is no magic bullet. These studies show trends among large groups of people, and so can’t predict the outcome of an individual (Calvo et al, 2015; see this article for an exhaustive list of problems with many studies of language acquisition).

Bak et al.’s study specifically raised some questions. Although they started with a large sample size of 853 people, only 262 participants in the study reported learning a second language. That’s still a pretty decent size, but while 195 learned the language before age 18, only 65 learned the language after 18. From over 800 people, the sample size for the particular group that we’re interested in has been whittled down to under 70, not even a tenth of the original.

Most importantly, “late” language acquisition, in most studies, refers to people who learned a new language after the age of 18. Although the samples theoretically could involve people from age 18 to age 112, the average seems to be around the early or late twenties, depending on the study. Age tends to blunt effect sizes, not eliminate them, (Yang et al., 2015), but I would love a large, longitudinal study focusing on people learning a new language in late adulthood (for example, age 50 and older).

I would also be interested in further research examining ways to teach language that are particularly effective for older adults, and see if any of these methods lead to better improvement in cognitive function, or bigger effect sizes.

Finally, what kind of language is preferable? One with the same alphabet, or a different one? Similar grammar, or something entirely foreign? And precisely how well do you have to learn it for it to ‘count’?

(See Antoniou et al., 2013 for more suggestions for future research.)

world languages

There are lots of questions that still need to be answered, and lots of areas left to explore, but let’s end on a high note:

Evidence has shown that multi-modal methods for slowing age-related cognitive decline, and strategies targeting specific activities of day to day living, are usually more effective than single-modal methods, or strategies targeting tasks you would only ever find in the lab. Language is something you use every day, and it leaks over into other areas of life – working memory, fine motor skills (writing and speech), visual and auditory functions, attention switching, and more, as we’ve discussed above. These are far reaching effects; getting better at a new language improves so many aspects of your brain! What’s more, Bak et al. found absolutely no negative effects of bilingualism. So why not learn a language? What have you got to lose?



Next Steps

This is all good news! You feel so excited! So motivated! Now what?

There are thousands of websites out there offering strategies for language learners of different types; why wait? Here are some to get you started.

Online language learning resources:

Online guidance:

Further reading:

And, if you’re interested in some more technical info, this lecture on “Age effects in language learning: controversial, but crucial to understand,” by Robert Dekeyser.


Main Article:

Bak, T. H., Nissan, J. J., Allerhand, M. M., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?. Annals of neurology75(6), 959-963.



Doidge, N. (2007). The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Penguin: New York

Snowdon, D. (2008). Aging with grace: What the nun study teaches us about leading longer, healthier, and more meaningful lives. Bantam.


Journal Articles:

Antoniou, M., Gunasekera, G. M., & Wong, P. C. (2013). Foreign language training as cognitive therapy for age-related cognitive decline: a hypothesis for future research. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews37(10), 2689-2698.

Arkin, S. (2007). Language-enriched exercise plus socialization slows cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias22(1), 62-77.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia,45(2), 459-464.

Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: consequences for mind and brain. Trends in cognitive sciences16(4), 240-250.

Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language Learning56(s1), 9-49.

Calvo, N., García, A. M., Manoiloff, L., & Ibáñez, A. (2015). Bilingualism and Cognitive Reserve: A Critical Overview and a Plea for Methodological Innovations. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience7.

DeKeyser, R. M. (2013). Age effects in second language learning: Stepping stones toward better understanding. Language Learning63(s1), 52-67.

Keysar, B., Hayakawa, S. L., & An, S. G. (2012). The foreign-language effect thinking in a foreign tongue reduces decision biases. Psychological science23(6), 661-668.

Kroll, J. F. (2009). The consequences of bilingualism for the mind and the brain. Psychological Science in the Public Interest10(3), i-ii.

La Rue, A. (2010). Healthy brain aging: role of cognitive reserve, cognitive stimulation, and cognitive exercises. Clinics in geriatric medicine26(1), 99-111.

Li, P., Legault, J., & Litcofsky, K. A. (2014). Neuroplasticity as a function of second language learning: anatomical changes in the human brain. Cortex,58, 301-324.

Lustig, C., Shah, P., Seidler, R., & Reuter-Lorenz, P. A. (2009). Aging, training, and the brain: a review and future directions. Neuropsychology review19(4), 504-522.

Mahncke, H. W., Connor, B. B., Appelman, J., Ahsanuddin, O. N., Hardy, J. L., Wood, R. A., … & Merzenich, M. M. (2006). Memory enhancement in healthy older adults using a brain plasticity-based training program: a randomized, controlled study. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences103(33), 12523-12528.

Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.

Ramscar, M., Hendrix, P., Shaoul, C., Milin, P., & Baayen, H. (2014). The myth of cognitive decline: Non‐linear dynamics of lifelong learning. Topics in cognitive science6(1), 5-42.

Scottish Council for Research in Education. Mental Survey Committee. (1949). The Trend of Scottish Intelligence: A Comparison of the 1947 and 1932 Surveys of the Intelligence of Eleven-years-old Pupils (Vol. 30). University of London Press.

Stern, Y. (2009). Cognitive reserve. Neuropsychologia47(10), 2015-2028.

Yang, J., Gates, K. M., Molenaar, P., & Li, P. (2015). Neural changes underlying successful second language word learning: An fMRI study.Journal of Neurolinguistics33, 29-49.

100 things to do in 1000 days; #7: Sustaining Memories program at Ryerson University.

It took six months, but my part in the Sustaining Memories program, a joint project coordinated by Ryerson and the Azrieli Foundation where I used to work, is finally complete.

(The program pairs volunteers with Holocaust survivors who want to share their story in the form of a memoir, but, for whatever reason, require some help to actually get the story on paper. It involved several initiation/information sessions, interviews, hours of transcription and organisation, data gathering, chronological ordering, and finally, editing the mess into a readable story representing the life of the survivor as told by him or her.)

The experience was a wild array of adjectives and emotions. Meeting, interviewing, and getting to know my survivor was deeply moving and educational, but also disturbing and overwhelming. Where to start? How to do her story justice? How to react as she tells me about these dreadful experiences? How much and when do I probe? These problems were compounded by a slight language barrier (English is her fifth or sixth language) and the usual difficulties that come with age (hearing loss, sickness, memory lapses).

Writing the manuscript was another monumental task – I knew transcription was a long and monotonous process from my time in J-school, but I had never had to deal with such huge quantities of tape. I had over 11 hours of material from interviews and video documents, some of it repetitive, some of it contradictory, all of it important. There was also a huge amount of existing literature and data both online and in libraries in which to read, sort through, and find relevant information. And worst of all were the three competing authorial visions – left to my own devices, I would have written the memoir one way; my survivor also had a fairly clear picture in her mind of what she wanted; and the Sustaining Memories program itself had a clear and rigid set of rules and guidelines. Shaping the story into something that satisfied all three of us might have been the most difficult part of the whole endeavour…if it wasn’t for everything else.

It was stressful, time-consuming, and exhausting, but I also feel that it is one thing that is important and good that I helped bring into the world. I’ve never in my life felt like I was doing something more worthwhile. In some ways, it feels weird to write so much about my experience helping with the memoir, almost like I’m trying to appropriate her experiences. I hope it goes without saying, but I am under no illusions about how lucky I am, how minor these “difficulties” were in the larger scheme of things, and how much of a privilege it was to be involved.

Today, I received a package in the mail containing a bound copy of the manuscript, a certificate and letter of appreciation, and finally, a sense of closure, and with that, I count this item as complete.

IMG_0648 copy

Name hidden to protect privacy of the survivor until she is ready to release it and/or the manuscript is published in an anthology.

(There are currently talks about putting all the memoirs from this year and last year into an anthology, and having it published. So we’ll see where that goes…)


100 things to do in 1000 days; 24: Participate in a NaNoWriMo (BTW UPDATE)

Just a quick update, since I was a few (thousand) words short at the end of November.

The King and Notes: 4104

Transcript (Norma): 30,911

Transcript (Peretz): 18,693

Total: 53,708

Date of completion: January 19th. Sooo…not even close to November. Although also way before September. In my defense, December and January were gross and awful months, full of abscesses, painkillers, antibiotics, and strep throat, so. Bite me.

100 things to do in 1000 days; #24: Participate in a NaNoWriMo.

7,842 words short of the mark (I didn’t get to update my account until 12:05am, so it’s not recognising my last 329 words, but either way, I missed the 50,000 mark). But I did get  42,158 words written this month, which is probably more than I’ve written in any other month of my life, even when I was in school. Plus, I’m not going to bed yet, and I still have 3.5 hours of interview left to transcribe, so…

The King and Notes: 4104
Transcript (Norma): 19,361
Transcript (Peretz): 18,693

Total: 42,158

100 things to do in 1000 days; #1: Get my stupid degree.


This is my “I know, right?” face, in response to my “I never thought it would happen!” brain thought.

I have my very own B.J.

Just thought I’d share…

One of my photos from Flickr has been chosen to appear in the “Schmap” of Ottawa, which is pretty cool. This is old news, but still. I never bragged.

Sadly, this brings my total of, er, things published by people other than me to… (counts) I think 8? Not one of which I needed a journalism degree for.*

*Over Rivers and Hills (book) – poem entitled “Fluffy,” 1997
*Five Minute Voyager – Haven recap, 2003
*Pajiba – New Earth review, 2008
*Pajiba – Unaccustomed Earth review, 2008
*Pajiba – Breaking Dawn review, 2008
*Schmaps – photo, 2009
*The Rostrum – Satire Article, 2009 (website currently unavailable)
*Pajiba – Grammar rant, 2010
*something I’m forgetting?



I am, of course, not counting things published in the school newspaper or Carleton School of Journalism publications, as you would have to be a very special sort of student to get through 4 years of Carleton journalism without any of your stuff turning up there (seeing as how it’s required for courses and such).

And since this post is of no interest to anyone but me, I am going to use the rest of it to link to all my published stuff, because I’m bored and not tired, and would like it all in one place. Yay good judgement at 3:42 am!


You can use this in your online portfolio, and link to the portfolio from LinkedIn. Also, actually make an online portfolio (once you start Ryersoning it up).

Slideshow – The Aphasia Centre of Ottawa, 2007
Centretown News Online – Monarch Butterfly Project to be Unveiled at Nature Museum, 2008
Centretown News Online – CCCA Rejects Plan to Limit Membership to Area Residents, 2008
A whole lot of stuff currently not available on the Charlatan’s spectacular and useful and not at all frustrating new website, 2006-2008
Photo story – Retrotown Music and Guitar Maintenance, 2008
Photo story – A Tivoli Florist Christmas, 2008
Midweek – Owning the Podium, 2010
Midweek – Jazz for Haiti, 2010
Midweek – several other stories which were not featured on the website, but aired during the broadcast, 2010
Catalyst – Sleep Detectives Seek Clues for Clinical Depression, 2010
Carleton Weekly – 2008-2010
And, of course, the assignments I’ve posted here, 2008-present


I have also done copy editing, or other behind the scenes work, for the following:

The Rostrum
The Charlatan
Midweek (Audio Producer, Copy Editor,  Host, and Music Editor)


Scientific stuff:


CNN lab bio

The Arrogant Worms: A Canadian Treasure Gear Up To Celebrate Their 20th Year

The following is a piece I wrote last year, hoping it would be published in a magazine by now. Since it is not, I decided to share the experience on my blog, because, well, it was pretty cool. It also seems appropriate, as they just started their 20th Anniversary Tour four days ago.

Courtesy of Andrew MacNaughtan and The Arrogant Worms

It’s a cold October night in Canada, and most of Toronto’s CBC building is empty. There are no people or even chairs to be seen on the majority of the huge expanse of spick-and-span tiled floor. But out of a dimly lit room off to the left, the Glen Gould Studio, loud and enthusiastic cheering can be heard, and it’s surprising the amount of gleeful noise 250 politely seated people can make as they watch three men march onstage with huge smiles on their faces, guitars in their hands.

When people think of indie bands, the image that comes to mind is of twenty-something hipsters, black jackets, nerd glasses, jamming guitarists, a rented basement, and quirky, try-too-hard alterna-art. They don’t often picture a threesome of middle-aged Canadians singing folk tunes to an audience of septuagenarians, their grandbabies, and all the family in between.

The Arrogant Worms are a Canadian folk-rock comedy trio who will celebrate their 20th anniversary as a group next year (2010). Their current (and longest-lasting) line-up consists of Mike McCormick on guitar and vocals, Chris Patterson on bass and vocals, and Trevor Strong, human prop, on vocals.

The band started out playing on the campus and community radio station CFRC in Kingston, Ontario, and return to their roots to tour around Ontario almost every fall. Their songs are an always humorous collection of social satire spoofing different musical genres, often focussing on Canadian culture and identity. Their audience ranges from kids who enjoy their more childish songs (such as the highly audience participatory “Rocks and Trees,” or the inappropriate “Rippy the Gator,” about a child gobbling alligator) to young adults who appreciate their more satirical and thoughtful songs (especially the Canadian-focused ones, such as “The Mountie Song,” “Proud to Be Canadian,” and “Last Saskatchewan Pirate”), and older adults, some of whom have grown up with the Worms, who relate to the songs spoofing parenthood (like “Go to Sleep, Little Leech,” for example), and remember their original radio spots on CBC.

Their very first song to be broadcast, “The Canadian Crisis Song,” includes the very topical, but unfortunately somewhat dated lyrics:

Often on the weekend I’ll jump in my car
I’ll not fill up the tank although I’m going far
And if somebody asks me if I’m going to a bar
I’ll say I’m shopping ‘cross the border in the USA

(Yes it’s just like this, he’s a loyalist)
I’ll only shop at malls that fly our flag
(And he’ll tell Bob Ray that he just won’t pay)
Unless I need my unemployment benefits
(Get a job! Get a job! Get a job!)

The Arrogant Worms are in school textbooks[1], have been played on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and their song, “Canada’s Really Big,” was one chosen for 49 songs from North of the 49th Parallel, a compendium produced by the CBC as a gift for President Barak Obama. And yet they are still largely unknown to a many Canadians, comfortably low key people, and easily accessible to fans. So accessible, in fact, that they immediately allowed a young journalism student (and long-time fan) to shadow them for a day, to a photo shoot and, later, performance in the Glenn Gould Studio.

“When we started out, we weren’t even really sure we were a music act,” says McCormick at the photo shoot, stretched out leisurely on a seat, feet resting on a nearby couch. “We started out more as a comedy troupe, but when we were told by people ‘If you had a tape of these songs, I would buy it,’ and literally waving a 20 dollar bill…”

“A lot of money back then,” adds Strong, who is sitting, hands on knees, next to him.

“…That was a pretty good incentive.”

The Worms began at Queen’s University. Original members McCormick and Strong met John Whytock and Steve Wood through Queen’s Players, a sort of Canadian Footlights.

“It’s a bunch of students who get together and sing songs and get practice performing,” says Strong. “It’s a great training ground.”

Despite the fledgling bands’ touring schedule, Strong and McCormick both completed degrees at Queens, the former a Bachelor’s in Psychology, and the latter a Master’s in Engineering.

So how, I wonder, did they end up serenading audiences with such songs as “I.B.S.” (it stands for exactly what you think it stands for) and “Baby Poo”?

“You graduate during recessions,” McCormick quips. I guess I’m in luck.

By 1995, when Whytock and Wood left the band on friendly terms to pursue other endeavours, the remaining Worms brought in Patterson, a fellow Queen’s Players alum with a degree in drama, to play bass.

“We’re still breaking him in,” says McCormick.

“Yeah, haven’t taught him the secret handshake yet,” Strong adds.

Nevertheless, the Worms, in many ways, have grown up. All three are married with children, and in their early forties, except Patterson, the youngest at 38.

As the band enters its 20th year, there has been some branching out. Strong has released a book, Get Stupid!, and has several more in the works, while Patterson recently released a kids solo album, called Small Potatoes. McCormick, meanwhile, has made a mix tape for some people.

He’s more concerned with plans for their 20th anniversary. The Worms have a number of projects in the works to celebrate, including a grand tour, a possible TV special, and a “best of” album. They have released 12 albums so far, the most recent being Torpid in 2008.

“We’re not going to push anything new, so there’ll be a lot more space,” says Strong.

They’ve also updated their website, which had been left untouched except for tour dates for many years. The website, which used to be run by a third party, is now mostly headed by Strong, who, according to the others, spent most of 2009 “teaching himself the Internet.” They’ve joined twitter and keep a blog, and Strong releases a podcast every week.

“We realised that the people visiting our website were underserved, and it was totally our fault,” says Patterson.

At the photo shoot today, which is in a smallish, messy, and comfortable room with plenty of old couches and arm chairs of mismatched colours in a downtown Toronto studio, they’re also getting some brand new photos taken.

“Maybe we can just run them really fast for our TV show,” Patterson suggests. McCormick is pleased with this idea. “It’ll be like claymation!”

The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, with playing in the background, and McCormick constantly offering everyone coffee. Patterson, who has the most conventionally good, smooth singing voice of the group, often hums along with the radio.

Courtesy of Andrew MacNaughtan and The Arrogant Worms

Strong has a loud laugh, and a loud, clear voice, so even though he talks less than the other two, his presence is known. McCormick is the one the other guys play off, a sort of father figure (not surprising, as he’s also the oldest), but his onstage persona contrasts wildly with his offstage personableness. During performances, he can be manic, and his wild comedy singing voice gives his songs a riotous energy.

Patterson seems like the quiet one because he talks in such a laid back manner, but he’s actually a bit of a spokesperson for the band, “the media guy,” say the other two. He talks slowly, considers his answers, and checks himself in the mirror between every shot, but he doesn’t seem vain or overly self-conscious. After all, McCormick brought the biggest wardrobe to the shoot, and Strong’s long, wavy, possibly highlighted light-brown hair is clearly a point of honour.

McCormick tells me: “We actually have e-mails from kids that say ‘I like how Chris sings. I like Trevor’s hair. Mike scares me.’”

Strong laughs. “Mike’s the one in my nightmares. Chris and Trevor in my dreams.”

And then it’s Patterson’s turn. “Signed ‘Mike’s son.’”

McCormick completes the cycle, commenting: “Those are the moments I realise I’m doing something right.”

The trio are evenly matched, and work and play as a team. They seem to need an audience, a viewer, but it doesn’t really matter who. A very realistic doll would probably work just as well. At this point, they are so comfortable with each other that even their conversations seem loosely choreographed, a dance involving well-timed interrupting, and constant laughter. In my entire day, never more than a minute goes by without one of them cracking up. Later, on stage, the laughs will come fast and furious.

It appears that even after 20 years, they’re still not tired of each other.

“We’re pretending,” McCormick tells me kindly.

“When anyone ever asks us ‘what’s the secret to your longevity,’ most often we say ‘separate hotel rooms,’” Patterson says. I think he’s serious, but it’s hard to tell. McCormick tends to smile at his own jokes, and Strong telegraphs his with a kind of joke voice, but Patterson is very deadpan.

Andrew MacNaughtan, award-winning Canadian photographer, and premier photographer for RUSH, is heading the photo shoot and is enjoying himself immensely.

“They’re cracking jokes the whole time,” he complains teasingly. “Their mouths are only shut when the cameras click.”

The Worms are friendly, and even show interest in my little project. When I tell them it has to be 2000 words, Strong is quick to offer his services.

“Oh, I can do that for you right now. It will be as high quality as our blog. Lots of spelling errors, repetition. Grammatical mistakes.”

Patterson imitates a typical blog entry: “Oh, and also, then we … ate.”

“Pretty fascinating,” Strong brags.

The shoot involves single shots, group shots, prop shots, and a bit of small talk about the set for the show later that day. As each band member performs for the cameras on one side of the room, the remaining members sit leisurely on some old chairs on the other side, and chat.

When lunch time arrives, there is a short discussion on where to eat until McCormick, like a kid at Christmas, shouts “Chippy’s!” (a local Fish and Chip restaurant), and he and Strong burst into an impromptu song.

“Chippy’s, Chippy’s, bag of grease… bag of joy!”

Even while the interview is on pause for face stuffing, the wisecracking continues.

“This is fine dining,” Strong tells me.

McCormick is still excited. “We have plates!”

The next stage of the photo shoot involves trampolines. Strong, as the shortest member, is okay, but when it’s McCormick’s turn, the low ceiling becomes a worry.

“This could end very badly,” says Strong. “He’s going to get a kneecap in the face. He breaks really easily, too. He’s injured all the time.” He thinks for a moment.

“You’re here on a special day.”

They rag on each other equally, though. When Patterson goes to the bathroom, the others start on him.

“We forgot to tell you about Chris’s bulimia,” whispers Strong. “And yes, that’s on the record.”

This sort of comment is not out of the ordinary for Strong, who is constantly double checking himself and his answers, making jokes about on/off the record, and claiming that he loves everyone equally. I have to wonder if a journalist has wronged him terribly in the past.

How, I ask, did journalists get such a bad reputation? The exchange that follows is worthy of transcription.

Patterson: “I blame the media.”

Strong: “They misquote the journalists.”

McCormick: “We should write that one down.”

Strong (in headline voice): “Media Misquotes Journalists!”

Before the night’s performance, the band generally hangs around each other. Patterson, who says he suffers from nerves the most, mumbles lyrics to himself to make sure he doesn’t forget them on stage.

McCormick, who is less concerned, boasts: “I have yet to forget a lyric!” and the room bursts into laughter. “Today.”

The Worms, who have made it a goal for the last little while to release an album every two years, are writing constantly, or at least consistently, until an album release date is set. Then they write on a schedule.

“Strong always writes the most, and throws out the most,” says Patterson.

“Oh yeah, I’m a quantity not quality guy.”

They call their songs “tunes” a lot, denoting a sort of modesty that what they do isn’t serious music. While Strong’s are often elaborations inspired from real life, and Patterson’s are often parodies of other song styles, McCormick’s are pretty direct.

Patterson: “They’re docudramas.”

Strong: “Mike believes that comedy comes from pain.”

McCormick: “Every ailment has been honest.”

He’s referring to such songs as “I Pulled My Groin,” and “Hernia Belt.”

Like Moosebutter or Tout Fishing in America in the states, or Paul and Storm on the internet, the Worms are a bit of a niche band. But like any niche band, those who like them, like them a lot.

“It’s very random,” says Strong. “I think usually in Guelph we have an older crowd. In some places, we’re marketed directly to the universities, so the crowd is much younger.”

The audience tonight is composed of the usual mix. An older couple, who call themselves long-time fans, heard the Worms on the radio about seven years ago.

“I think they’re very clever,” says husband Stephen, during intermission. “They can relate very much to the Canadian sensibility. We don’t like other people to laugh at us, but we love laughing at ourselves.”

One half of a teenaged couple sitting next to them interjects:

“They’re awesome!”

His girlfriend is more comprehensive. “The thing I hate about Worms concerts is that about half way through my face starts to hurt.” That’s from smiling, in case it wasn’t clear.

The opening act, Christian guitar instrumentalist Jay Calder, is similarly adulatory.

“They’re funny guys,” he says simply. “They can’t put three or four sentences together without saying something funny, it’s just how they are. They don’t have to work at it.”

After the show, as usual, the Worms sit at a merchandise table to talk to the audience and sign autographs. They are comfortable with their high level of achievement and low level of fame, which affords them a privacy they consider invaluable, as well as a source of income they consider fulfilling.

“I never saw it lasting this long,” McCormick says. “Every few years, you kind of look back and say, ‘wow, it’s been a while.’ But the nice thing especially, being more in the folk scene and in the comedy scene, there’s people older than us who are still at it, and they’re still good.”

Patterson agrees. “It’s a fun job to have. We get to go around and make people laugh. We’ll do it for as long as we can physically take it, I guess. We’re getting older, obviously. I hope we don’t have to play until we drop, but I guess we’re prepared to. Hopefully we won’t drop while we’re playing.”

“Making people happy for a living is not a bad job to have, really.”


[1] “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” is in Sightlines 9, a language arts textbook in Ontario. Teachers have used their songs “Canada’s Really Big” and “Rocks and Trees” in geography classes, and “History is Made By Stupid People” in history classes.

As an aside, I would like to thank The Worms for their kindness, helpfulness, and friendliness towards a nervous, unaccomplished aspiring writer. The band were a pleasure to be around, and reading over this article has brought back some great memories, and at least two totally mortifying ones (people say it’s not good to meet your heroes because they might disappoint you, but the only disappointment that day was myself).

San Diego Day 4 – Saturday, February 20th, 2010 unfinished

Well, first I got up and had a piece of toast…

Music-Language Interactions in the Brain: From the Brainstem to Broca’s Area from 3:30 until 5:00

  • Nina Kraus, Northwestern University – Cognitive-Sensory Interaction in the Neural Encoding of Music and Speech
  • Gottfried Schlaug, Harvard Medical School – Singing to Speaking: Observations in Healthy Singers and Patients with Broca’s Aphasia
  • Aniruddh D. Patel, Neurosciences Institute – Music, Language, and Grammatical Processing


San Diego Day 3 – Friday, February 19th, 2010

This morning, I woke up at the unholy hour of 7am (this is why I’m going into freelance), got fancied up, and went to a symposium called “Watching the Watchmen and Cheering the Heroes: The Science of Superheroes,” where the lineup of speakers was as follows:

  • Jennifer Ouellette, National Academy of Sciences – The X-Change Files
  • Jim Kakalios, University of Minnesota – The Physics of “Watchmen,” or Why So Blue, Dr. Manhattan?
  • Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University – Hollywood Science
  • Tim Kring, Independent Writer and Producer – Science: The Real Hero of “Heroes”
  • Nicole King, University of California  – The Evolution of “Heroes”

Unfortunately, I also had a press conference on the effects of chemicals on breast cancer from 10 to 11, so I had to miss some of the talk. And I’ll get to the press conference in a minute.

First, though, I’d like to say that if all the presentations at the AAAS are this good, this is going to be one hell of a week. This talk was interesting, relevant, and entertaining, especially Jim Kakalios’s speach on his job as a science consultant for superhero movies (in particular, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen), incorporating an earlier, popular talk called “Everything I Know About Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books,” and parts of his books (The Physics of Superheroes, and the newly published The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World) and youtube videos.

In the gigantic book of conference proceedings we picked up yesterday at registration, the summary for this presentation advertised Milo Ventimiglia, and Masi Oka as discussants on the panel, but they stood us up. Instead, Watchmen’s production designer Alex McDowell stepped in. He wasn’t bad, and he certainly new his limitations as an artist surrounded by scientists, but I did find his constant swearing incongruent, seeing as everyone else was speaking very scientifically about the whole thing, and as I’m sure anyone who’s ever taken a high school science class will doubtless know, the word “fuck” appears precisely zero times throughout the course, except in textbook graffiti, or if you have a particularly colourful teacher. My point is, although I have absolutely no problem with swearing (as anyone who’s spent 5 minutes with me can attest), it was REALLY jarring.

And now back to breast cancer.

I have to say, my first press conference was not the exhilerating, life-altering journalistic experience I was expecting it to be. Most of the information presented was later represented at the lecture (which has value if you need to get a story up the minute the lecture ends, I get it, but I didn’t need to, and this is my blog), and at 45 minutes, each press conference left 15 minutes for questions, which here became 10 after the requisite longer-than-expected presentation, and was entirely used up by one snotty British reporter who didn’t let anyone else, including the presenters, get a word in edgewise. So frankly, it felt like a bit of a waste of time. Even the information, about chemicals causing breast cancer (I know, the title of the conference was pretty misleading), was fairly boring to me – chemicals can cause cancer? I’ll alert the media. Oh, wait…

When all that was over, I still wanted to get to Sea World, which closes at 5pm, so I went to one of the shorter topical lectures, this one called “Infectious Diseases Have No Passport: Battling HIV, TB, and STDs on the Mexico-U.S. Border,” given by Steffanie Strathdee.

I’ll admit that my main attraction to this topic is my PERFECTLY REASONABLE fear of Ebola (seriously, if you’re a germaphobe, or a hypochondriac, or a person who lives in Africa, or a normal, sensible human being with a susceptability to deadly viruses, NEVER read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. Just don’t) – but to be honest, the talk didn’t really touch on that subject.

It was an interesting, if slightly dry talk, and the focus was more on HIV than the other things mentioned in the title. I am only slightly ashamed to note that I may have fallen a bit asleep.

And then I ran to Sea World, which, I’m proud to say, I managed to complete in 3 hours (including 2 shows – Shamu’s “Believe,” and a Sea Lion and Otter show), making an appearence at every. single. exhibit. My dad calls it “Sea World on steroids,” and it is only possible if you go by yourself (no one to hold you back), plan your route (which is an adorable thing to do if you have no sense of direction, but whatever, it passed the time while waiting for Believe to start), and RUN.

When SW closed, I took a bus back to the Old Town, thinking I’d go straight to the hostel, and noticed that even though it was 6, things were still open, and there seemed to be a concert going on. I thought Old Town would be closed at night, but apparently, today was their first day of a spring nighttime celebration, and they’d be open until “8 or 9.”

I walked around Old Town as the sun set, and I have to say, as touristy as it was, it was just a nice place to be. The buildings were the good kind of old fashioned, the shops were fantastic and original local places. I especially liked a certain soap and candle store, and a little square surrounded by restaurants and other smaller shops, including places for wine tasting, olive oil tasting, and hot sauce tasting, but everyone there was fairly old and I couldn’t figure out how to take part, or, more importantly, if it was free, so I just wandered around Old Town, listening to the musicians performing in the centre square – well, this is America, so ‘center’ – and enjoying the night.

The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science that Made Our World

San Diego Day 2 – Thursday, February 18th, 2010 unfinished

Today was not a very big day.

As 4th year journalism students in JOUR 4201D (science reporting), we are required to do a presentation in JOUR 4000A on our specialized reporting topic. Four of us from 4201 were able to make it to San Diego for the AAAS conference (American Association for the Advancement of Science, or, as it says on the bags they handed out, _____________, which, as I’m sure you have noticed, actually stands for ASSS, but I can see why they wouldn’t want to go with that). The theme this year is bridging science and society, an important and worthwhile goal that somehow seems to get harder and harder to achieve even as communication is refined and avenues for information sharing are built. As everything becomes more specialised, it’s hard enough to bridge the gap between different types science within the scientific community itself, to say nothing of between them and society, which can be uneducated, uninterested, or simply and understandably, distracted.

The conference involves symposia, plenary and topical lectures, specialized seminars, poster presentations, and an Exhibit Hall, and, to lucky students like us who had scored press credentials, access to the press room, and all the press briefings and free coffee that comes with.

Press Passes!

The conference begins tomorrow, and ends on Monday (the 22nd), the day we’re supposed to present. So while we were in Ottawa, prepping for the trip, the 4201 class planned how we would approach the presentation with four group members missing, and it was decided that those going to San Diego would film a short video. That video was to involve the conference and the world famous San Diego Zoo, and would be edited by Sunday in order for those back home to incorporate it into their presentation.

We meant to go to the zoo today, before the conference started, and get most of the filming done. I got all dressed up in my sunny San Diego shorts and tank top, my zoo-themed parrot earings, and a lab coat, and was ready to go (I promise there will be no more talk about my clothes after today, except for when I tell you about my sweater. This is not a fashion blog).

San Diego Convention Center

But instead, it turned out that we still had to register for the conference, so Serena and I met up with the boys and our professor, Kathryn O’Hara, at the enormous and impressive San Diego Conference Center, signed in, and collected our assorted swag. However, we waffled so long on the outside patio (and it was a gorgeous day outside, so no hard feelings there), that it was decided there was no point going to the zoo, it was too late, and we’d have to film something else.

Now, I’m sure everyone has their reasons for the way this turned out, and everything ended up fine, but boy was I bitter at the time. After all, this was my last day to do anything big before the conference started, and I had already missed a day due to what I can only assume were some long-expired pot pies, and I’d done nothing but register for a conference I thought I’d already registered for, and sit around and talk. Plus, the other 4201ers were counting on the zoo. I didn’t wear this ridiculous getup for nothing!

What do you want me to think about Canada?

But whatever, the time for the zoo came and went, and then, at 5pm, it was time for the Canada Reception, where I caused a revolution by inciting everyone in the vicinity to eat on the floor, as the reception hall had about 4 chairs total, the view was beautiful, and the carpet was clean. Very professional we looked, but at least we were comfortable.

At 6:30, we watched the opening ceremonies, and the AAAS president’s address. Chemistry Nobel Laureate Peter C. Agre spoke at the ceremony, and then it was AAAS President.

And that was day one of the conference. I went home, frustrated with the lack of sightseeing, but excited about the next few days (and I planned the events I would attend during those days, and how to fit some sightseeing around it before everything was closed), and in complete disbelief that as the AAAS begins, reading week is pretty much ending, and in less than a week I’ll be back at school, trying to keep my head above water until exams.