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542 Topics: Famous Americans – Benjamin Franklin; Lowriders; mentor versus role model versus hero; fake it ‘til you make it; dice roll

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 542.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 542. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California. (You know, “The Sound of Music” – remember that one?)

Anyway, visit our website at ESLPod.com. There, you can become a member of ESL Podcast. When you do, you can download a Learning Guide for this episode.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about one of the most famous Americans in our history, certainly one of the most well-loved Americans, Benjamin Franklin. We’re also going to talk about something far from the experience of Benjamin Franklin – lowriders. And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

For the average American, Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most well-loved of what we sometimes call our “Founding Fathers” – the men who started the United States by separating the colonies from Great Britain and creating the United States of America.

Benjamin Franklin was born in January of 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts. His family was very poor and he only went to school for a few years, until he was 10 years old. However, he learned to read on his own very early on as a child. By the time he was 12 years old, he was working as an apprentice to one of his older brothers who was a printer. An “apprentice” (apprentice) is someone who is learning a job, or what we sometimes call a “trade,” from an employer. Usually an apprentice works for someone for little or no money in order to learn how to do what the employer does.

In this case, his brother was a “printer” (printer) – a person who creates books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and other kinds of material. Franklin apprenticed with his brother for five years. During that time, he became a “voracious reader” – that is, someone who read everything he could find. And he in fact taught himself to write by reading. This is true, really, for all writers. You learn to write by reading, first and foremost. And Franklin would sit down and he would read the kind of writing that he wanted to imitate.

In particular, he used to read articles from one of the oldest magazines in the English speaking world, the Spectator of London, a political and cultural magazine that is still published today. In fact, I read the Spectator myself every week. Ben Franklin read the Spectator, and he would read the articles over and over again so that he could really understand how they were written, which taught him how to write himself. He was clearly a very intelligent young man.

When he was only in his teens, he was already writing columns – writing pieces for the newspaper – that were considered witty and intelligent. There were some problems with his brother’s newspaper in Boston, and so he left to go to the city of Philadelphia in the then colony of Pennsylvania. There he quickly found a job as a printer. He also became friends with many other young, smart, and better-educated Philadelphians – men who also had money.

He was encouraged to start his own printing business, and in 1724, just one year later, he travelled to London to try to meet people who could help him start his own business. Now, at the time, the colonies in the Americas were still part of Great Britain. So, most businesses began in London and then were brought over to the colonies. “Colony” (colony) refers to an area that is under control of another government, usually one that is not close – one that is “far away,” we might say.

Franklin stayed in London for two years and had a very good time. In fact, he was often seen at the local public houses, the local pubs, talking to other young men – becoming educated in the ways of the world, we might say. He returned to Philadelphia in 1726, and in 1728, he opened up his own printing shop with a friend of his.

In 1730, he bought the shop and became its only owner. He also married a woman by the name of Deborah Reed. Together they would have two children and would raise a son that Franklin had fathered with another woman before he and Deborah were married. Ben Franklin was known to like the ladies, we might say.

Franklin became extremely successful at his printing business. He was a very smart businessman. He not only began printing local newspapers, but he also got the contract, got the permission, to print the currency of some of the local colonies, including the colony of Pennsylvania. “Currency” (currency) refers to the kind of money that is used in a particular area or country – in this case, in the colonies.

He also started something called Poor Richard’s Almanac. An “almanac” (almanac) is either a book or a very thick magazine that is published each year with important information about dates and times of events during the year, as well as usually a discussion of the weather and what might happen with the weather this year. Franklin pretended to be a poor man by the name of Richard in Poor Richard’s Almanac. Franklin’s writing became famous not just in Philadelphia but throughout the colonies with the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Franklin also started a newspaper which was considered one of the best newspapers in the city. Franklin liked to include sayings that were later to become quite popular in popular culture in the United States in Poor Richard’s Almanac. The most famous one is “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” In other words, if you go to bed early and get up early, you will be healthy, you will be wealthy – that is, rich – and you will be wise, or smart.

In some ways, this little saying, which most Americans know, summarizes a very important part of America’s own image of itself as a land of opportunity – that if you work hard, if you really try to be successful, you can be and will be successful. Ben Franklin, a man who began in poverty who later became an extremely successful businessman, is in some ways the American dream, or represents that idea. And it all began in a way with Poor Richard’s Almanac and some of these little sayings, these common folk sayings that he would write.

By 1745, Franklin had become so successful and so rich that he no longer had to work, and he was only 42 years old. He decided to leave his company. He would still get money from the company, but he no longer worked every day at the company, and instead invested his money in this printing business so that he could go and do something else with his life. “To invest” (invest) means to give money to the business so that it will improve and you can get money back from it.

And that’s exactly what Franklin did. One of the first things that Franklin did in his retirement is to become more interested in science and in invention. “Invention” comes from the word “to invent” (invent), which means to create things or make things that didn’t exist before. Franklin is famous for inventing several different things. He invented, for example, the “bifocal.” “Bifocals,” you may know, are glasses that have two different lenses so that you can see far away as well as read a book close to you. I’m wearing bifocals right now, thanks to Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin invented several other interesting things. He helped create something called a “lightning rod” (rod), which you put on top of a building so that if there is lightning, if there’s a lightning storm, the lightning will hit the metal rod and go down into the ground rather than burn up your house. That was one of Benjamin Franklin’s inventions. He invented a glass harmonica.

He invented something called the “Franklin stove” (stove). A “stove” is something you cook in, and you can still go into houses today in the eastern part of the United States, older houses, and find Franklin stoves in the house. He invented the odometer, which keeps track of how far something has gone – the distance that something has gone. Franklin, then, was something of what we might now call a “Renaissance man” – a man who was interested in lots of different things.

Franklin was also a scientist, and his work in electricity made him well known not just in the colonies, but throughout the world. He discovered some very important principles of electricity, including the notions of charges and discharges. He was the first to discover the concepts of an insulator and a conductor, and the principles of what later became the “law of conservation of charge in electricity.”

These discoveries, which took place during this period of 1745 to, say, 1760 made him famous in intellectual circles throughout Europe. So much so that when he went to England and later to France, he was a celebrity. People knew who he was. He was famous and they wanted to get to know him. Although by 1750 he was already a famous inventor, a famous scientist, a well-known businessman, a publisher, someone who did a lot to contribute to his local community, Franklin wanted more.

Franklin wanted to get involved in politics. And he thought public service was the greatest thing he could do in his life. He became involved not just in his local city of Philadelphia, but eventually in international politics. After being elected to several different positions in the city of Philadelphia, in the colony of Pennsylvania, he eventually went to England where he would spend almost 18 years.

He arrived in London in 1757. He became friends with several famous scientists and politicians and philosophers in London during this time. He even received an honorary degree from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, as well as Oxford University, which led him to be called sometimes “Dr. Franklin,” although he had never even gone to college.

Franklin loved England. In fact, he loved it in some ways more than his own American colonies. He considered himself a true gentleman and did what gentlemen did – spent his time thinking, writing, talking, and getting involved in political matters. Although few Americans know this based on the history they learn in school, Franklin was not a radical revolutionary by any means. In fact, he was very much of what we might call a “royalist” – someone who loved the British monarchy, someone who loved England and wanted the colonies to stay connected to England.

But eventually he realized that things were not going to go well between England and the colonies, that he had to choose sides – and in some ways, he sort of discovered his American-ness when he realized that Great Britain was not going to treat the colonies in a fair way, or at least, what he thought was a fair way. So in 1775 he returned to the colonies. Now, many of the colonists didn’t trust Franklin. They knew that he was something of a royalist. In fact, some of them thought he was a spy. A “spy” (spy) is a person who secretly works for another government.

Nevertheless, when Franklin returned in 1775, he was immediately elected to the second Continental Congress. This was a meeting of the colonies that eventually decided that the colonies were going to split, or separate themselves, from Great Britain. It was in the following year, 1776, that Franklin helped write, along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, our Declaration of Independence, stating that the colonies were declaring themselves independent from Britain.

Because of his experience abroad, in other countries, Franklin was sent to Paris and became, many would say, the most successful diplomat in American history. He went to Paris, and was able to get the French government to help the colonies in their fight against Great Britain. France and Great Britain of course were enemies at this time, as they had been during many periods of their history. The French, for their part, loved Franklin. He was considered one of the most amusing and interesting characters in French society during this period.

The French loved the idea of this humble man – this poor man from what was, of course, the uncivilized colonies across the ocean – becoming a successful man, a brilliant and intelligent man, and Franklin knew that that’s what people wanted to see. So, when he would go to a party, he would dress not like a fancy French gentleman or an English gentleman, but rather as sort of a simple man, and this is something that made him even more popular, because he was so intelligent, he was so successful.

Franklin would have been very happy continuing his life in Paris after the Americans won the Revolutionary War, but he returned to America knowing that he was becoming too ill to stay in France. Interestingly, when he returned to the United States, he was not particularly welcome. Many people thought that he was more European than American. They suspected he wasn’t American enough because he had spent so much time in Europe. Nevertheless, he was elected to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and participated in that convention as its oldest member.

Throughout his lifetime, Franklin had worked on his own life story, his autobiography – the story of his own life. He died, sadly, in 1790, and even then most Americans didn’t think he deserved a lot of recognition. There wasn’t a lot of sadness about his passing, despite all he had done for his country. It wasn’t until his autobiography was published after his death in 1794 and people read it that opinions about Franklin changed.

And during the early nineteenth century in particular, Franklin became a national hero – a person who was seen in some ways as the best representative of the American spirit – a man who was poor who became rich and went on to serve his country. His activity as a self-made man became a popular theme in nineteenth-century American writing about Franklin. And he became the best-loved of our founding fathers.

To this day, people still have a positive image of Franklin as this intelligent, witty, sophisticated, self-made man who somehow embodied the American dream. Such was the amazing life of Benjamin Franklin.

We turn now briefly to our second topic, completely different from Benjamin Franklin, and that is “lowrider culture.” “Lowriders” (lowriders) are basically cars that have been changed to look a certain way. Typically these are cars from the 1950s that have been given very small wheels so that they sit very low to the ground. Hence the name “lowriders.” They usually have special paint on them, such as flames of fire going down the side or some sort of paint that makes it seem like they shine more in the sunlight.

The whole lowrider movement began here in Southern California in the 1950s among the Mexican American community in this area. Members of this community were mostly born in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Mexico. “To emigrate” (emigrate) means to leave your country to live permanently in another country. The other word related to “emigrate” is “immigrate” (immigrate). “To immigrate” means to come from another country and to live in this country.

Well, if those things sound the same, they’re really “two sides of the same coin,” we might say. The verb “emigrate,” with an “e,” emphasizes leaving one country to go to another. The word “immigrate,” with an “imm,” means to come into a country. But of course, if you emigrate, you are also immigrating to another country. This largely second-generation group, then, of Mexican Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from their parents – wanted to create their own culture that would be different from that of their parents.

Notice the use of the word “generation” (generation) here. “Generation” refers to a group of people who are born more or less at the same time and living at the same time. However, when we’re talking about immigrants, “first-generation” is the group of immigrants who are born in another country and then come to the United States to live. Their children born here in the U.S. would be called “second-generation Americans.”

So, these are second-generation Mexican Americans here in Southern California who are creating this lowrider culture. Basically, “lowrider” refers to the car itself, but there was also a lot of other behaviors and activities around the lowrider cars that distinguished and created this lowrider movement. One of the things that these young Mexican Americans did here in California would be to drive their cars on a Friday or Saturday evening, showing off their painted cars and their lowrider vehicles.

This is a very common tradition in American cities. Young people on a Friday and a Saturday night get in their cars and they drive down the main streets of the city, often at high speeds, often racing each other – which of course they’re not supposed to do, but they do it anyway. The lowrider community grew up around Whittier Boulevard, which is a major street that goes to the eastern part of Los Angeles, in particular the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles where there is a large Mexican American community even today.

Many people have referred to Southern California, to the Los Angeles area, as being primarily a car culture. You can’t get very far in Los Angeles unless you do have a car because (A) we don’t have very good public transportation, as you do in cities such as New York or Boston and (B) there is a large distance between communities here in Southern California, so it takes a long time to get from one place to another. The lowrider movement was in some ways a subculture of the general car culture here in Southern California, one that was specific to the Mexican American community.

By the 1970s, however, this idea of modifying your car and putting small wheels on it and painting it bright colors became popular outside of the Mexican American community, and in fact, by 1975 there was a music group called War that wrote a song called “Lowrider” that became one of the 10 most popular songs in the United States. This song popularized the lowrider movement to other cities in the U.S.

There was also a television show in the 1970s that helped make the lowrider style of car popular, a show that I remember called Chico and the Man, a comedy show that took place in East Los Angeles, which is where the largest part of the Mexican American community lives, or at least traditionally, here in Los Angeles.

Today there are still enthusiasts of lowrider cars here in L.A. and in other cities. An “enthusiast” (enthusiast) is a person who’s very interested in a specific activity. Nowadays people spend a lot of money building these lowrider cars. There are lowrider magazines that you can buy – all sorts of interesting things associated with the lowrider movement.

I haven’t seen a lowrider car here in L.A. in many years. I used to see them in the early ’90s. I haven’t driven down Whittier Boulevard in a long time. I’m not sure if you’ll still see lowriders going down Whittier on a Saturday night, but that’s certainly the image people have of the lowrider car, even though it’s no longer as popular as it once was back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Emeka (Emeka) from Nigeria wants to know the difference between “mentor,” “role model,” and “hero.” A “mentor” (mentor) is a person who gives you advice or teaches you something. Usually a mentor is someone who has more experience about whatever it is you want to learn about. Mentors are usually older and work with people who are younger.

You could have a mentor who works with you to teach you some new skill or perhaps even helps you in a new job. Some companies, for example, give new employees mentors – people who have worked at the company for a long time. Those people are mentors to those who are new employees. Some organizations also create programs that get mentors, older adults, to help younger teenagers or young adults, who give them advice about all sorts of things.

A “role (role) model (model)” is someone whom you admire and try to be like. The term “role model” can be applied to anyone even if you don’t know a person personally. Your role model might be a famous actor or a famous politician or a famous podcaster. Yeah. It could happen. A role model is someone whom you admire and want to be like.

A “hero” (hero) is a person who is admired usually for doing great things or for being very brave or courageous. We may think of a hero as someone who saves someone’s life in a situation of danger. A firefighter or a police officer or someone from the military might be a hero, or just simply someone who acts in a brave or courageous way during a dangerous situation.

The word “hero” is also applied to the main character in a story, a play, a TV show, or a movie who is doing something brave or courageous – who is perhaps saving someone in the movie. “Heroes” are often male. For a female, we would use the word “heroine” (heroine). The “e” is very important here because there’s another word that is pronounced exactly the same – “heroin” (heroin), without the “e” – which is a dangerous drug, an illegal drug. But “heroine” with an “e” at the end is basically a female hero.

Our next question comes from Jaffaar (Jaffaar) in Iran. Jaffaar wants to know the meaning of the expression “Fake it till you make it.” “To fake” (fake) something is to act as though you know how to do it even if you don’t know how to do it. A “fake,” as a noun, is something that pretends to be something it is not. So, for example, if you buy some shoes and the label or sign on the shoes says “Gucci” but they’re not really Gucci, that would be a “fake.” It says it’s something that it isn’t. The verb “to fake” means to pretend like something is true even when it isn’t.

The expression “to make it” means to be successful, to achieve your goals, to be a success. So, the expression “Fake it till you make it” means that you pretend that you are able to do something until eventually you actually learn how to do it. Sometimes this expression is used when you don’t know how to do something but you act very confidently, as if you do.

If you are going for a job interview and they ask you a question about something that you’re not really too sure about or haven’t actually done before, but you say with great confidence, “Oh, yes. I can do that,” that would be an example of “faking it till you make it” – of pretending that you know how to do something and then learning how to do it as you do it so that eventually you are successful.

I’m not sure if that’s a good strategy, but that is an expression people use and even advice that people sometimes give to those who don’t have a lot of experience or training but who want to get a job that may require experience and training.

Finally, Wislei (Wislei) in Brazil wants to know the meaning of the expression “dice (dice) roll (roll).” “Dice” refers to a small cube that is made of plastic or wood. Each side of the cube has one or more dots. One side has one dot, one side has two dots, one side has three dots – all the way up to six dots for the six sides of the cube. We use dice in gambling, in certain games of chance. It used to be that “dice” was the plural of “die” (die) – one die, two dice. Nowadays, however, you’ll hear people use “dice” both in the singular and in the plural.

“To roll” is a verb that is used with the noun “dice” or “die,” meaning to shake up the dice or the die in your hand and then throw it down on a hard surface. So, a “dice roll” is literally picking up dice and throwing it down to see what number comes up on the dice. A “dice roll,” as an expression, means to take a chance in the hopes of gaining something. Just as you do when you are gambling with dice, you are betting and hoping to win money. If you go to Las Vegas, you can gamble with dice. And you can lose your money. In fact, you probably will.

If you have a question or comment, there is no reason to roll the dice and guess at the meaning. Just email us. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com. We’ll do our best to answer it in a future Café.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

apprentice – someone who learns a job or trade from an employer by agreeing to work for a period of time for little or no pay

* Thomas wanted to be a mechanic, so he worked as an apprentice at a car repair shop for a year before taking the test to become a certified mechanic.

printer – a person whose job is to create printed books, newspapers, magazines, and other printed material

* The company took their newsletter to the printer who made two thousand copies so the company could send them out to their customers.

colony – an area under the control of a faraway country’s government, but with settlers or people living there from that country

* Several countries in Africa used to be European colonies, but in the 1900s, they fought to become independent nations.

currency – the system of money used in a particular country

* U.S. currency includes both coins and paper money.

almanac – a thick book printed each year with important information about dates and times of natural events, such as the sunrise and sunset, high and low temperatures, and tides (movement of ocean water)

* The farmer reads the almanac each year to plan when he will plant his crops.

to invest – to give money to begin or improve a business with the expectation of earning money when the business is successful

* When Dmitri’s grandparents gave him $25,000, he chose to invest it in his friend’s new restaurant.

to invent – to create things that never existed before

* Indira is trying to invent a light bulb that never needs to be replaced.

electricity – a form of energy that is the result of charged particles, most often used to power a home or building

* Without electricity, our home would not have working lights or computers.

spy – a person who secretly collects information about another person, organization, or government for his or her employer or government

* The spy was sent to collect information about the country’s military operations and to take pictures of military bases.

to emigrate – to leave one’s own country to live permanently in another country

* Christoph emigrated from France to Portugal to marry his Portuguese girlfriend.

generation – the group of people born and living at about the same time

* The generation that is entering the workforce today has never lived without personal computers in their homes.

enthusiast – a person who is very interested in a specific activity or subject

* Marco is a wine enthusiast who loves trying new wines, taking trips to vineyards, and learning about the process of making wine.

mentor – someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person

* When we hire an employee, we assign him or her a mentor, a senior employee who can help the new hire learn how things are done in our office.

role model – someone whom another person admires and tries to be like

* Jimmy’s role model is President Lincoln, because Lincoln helped free slaves.

hero – a person who is admired for great or brave actions or for good qualities; the main male character in a story, play, or movie

* Paulo is a hero in his town for standing up to the lawmakers who wanted to remove the largest park to build office buildings.

fake it ‘til you make it – try to appear capable until one succeeds; to pretend that one is able and knowledgeable until one has achieved what one wants

* When I got my first job, it didn’t pay well and I had to work long hours, but my mother reminded me to take it ‘til you make it.

dice roll – taking a chance with the hope of gaining something

* Kaila has tried to open two other businesses before, so I hope this dice roll will finally work out.

What Insiders Know
The Royal Chicano Air Force

“Founded” (created; established) in 1970, the Royal Chicano Air Force is one of the most important “collective” (involving many people) artist groups in the United States. The organization played an important role in the “Chicano” (Hispanic; Latino; Mexican American) art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

The organization was founded by José Montoya and Esteban Villa, artists who were born in California. The “original” (first; initial) name of the organization was The Rebel Chicano Art “Front” (movement; group fighting for a cause), but when someone asked if the “acronym” (a word formed from the first letters of each word), RCAF, meant the Royal Canadian Air Force, one of the artists made a joke and said it was the Royal Chicano Air Force—and “the name stuck” (the name became popular and used from that time on).

Montoya and Villa created the organization as a “focal point” (a way to give attention to something) for artists and activities involved in cultural work and politics. They wanted to “foster” (encourage the development and advancement of) Chicano art and educate students about art, history, and culture. They also wanted to be involved in politics and specifically encourage others to support Cesar Chavez, a farm worker and civil rights “activist” (a person working for social change) who “sought” (tried) to “tackle” (fight against) the “plight” (difficult situation) of Latino farm workers.

The organization has become well known for its educational activities. It “runs” (operates) programs that bring together young people and “senior citizens” (older people, usually over the age of 65) to learn about the arts. The organization also educates “inmates” (people who are serving time in prison) about the arts, especially “youth” (young; under age 18) inmates. The group’s focuses not only on the “visual arts” (types of art that can be seen, such as painting, sculptures, etc.), but also books, poetry, and music.