I’m more German than the scheiß-AFD

The above statement might seem odd in the light of the following facts: I wasn’t born in Germany, I’ve never lived there and one of my parents can’t speak a word of the language. Nonetheless, I do have a German surname and look slightly teutonic, to the extent I can get away with being a local whenever I visit. After all, Germany is literally mein Vaterland. My dad was born in Verden an der Aller in the auspicious year of 1933. His father was a local politician, but unlike the newly-ausgeschissen Alternative für Deutschland MPs, he was by no means a Nazi.

Sadly my dad didn’t make much effort to pass on his language to me, so every few years I go through a phase of gamely trying to verbessern mein Deutsch. This has usually taken the form of drilling myself on hilarious but grammatically perfect utterances which I could trot out when speaking to German speakers in order to buy myself credit to subsequently make shitloads of mistakes. For various reasons I’m starting, as we/they say in German, to have a goat to start making an effort again, maybe because trying to teach 28 iGCSE students at a time reminds me of the time I myself spent in a GCSE German class in eine Industriestadt in dem Nordengland bored out of my Kopf. It wasn’t because of that particular class that one teacher in our school took their own life (such was the level of resistance to learning); our class was disciplined by being forced to copy out verb tables and doggedly repeat stolid conversational dialogues. Dafür ist mein Gramamtik viel besser al meiner Vokabeln. I have no idea ob I passed the GCSE or not, but I did learn enough to acquire my first ever proper foreign girlfriend an der Universität with the outright haplessness of my attempts to communicate in her language.

Then, in 2000, having survived the Millennium-Bug, sort-of mastered Portuguese and got to grips with Spanish, and having realised in the process that learning languages was ENORMOUS! FUN! I decided to get my German up to speed. This was purely a matter of choice rather than necessity, of course; I very rarely met any German-speakers whose English didn’t far outmatch my German. I certainly didn’t need to laern foreign languages to find a job – after all, es ist geil, ein Inselaffe zu sein. I made friends with the German teachers in my school (in Lisbon), who firmed up my command of the grammar by helping me remember syntactically and morphologically instructive phrases like Ich habe gerade den Pimmel meines Lehrers im Spiegel gesehen (the toilet door was awkwardly placed in relation to the men’s bathroom). That, along with an steady stream of German-speaking friends and an occasional succession of deutschsprachige girlfriends, gave me confidence to embark on a solo trip to northern Germany to connect with my German relatives, who’d I’d only fleetingly met as a child. My sort-of stepgrandmother, bewailing the unfortunate series of personal and historical circumstances that had led the family to separate, sighed and repeatedly exclaimed ‘Mensch!’. (Thankfully she was long dead before that ridiculous bloody woman started abusing social media. If only she was just called Louise Troll.) I spent a week or so only speaking German, as ever relying on my tried-und-trusted method of just using English words in a German accent when I was short of vocab; people either got the point or were too polite to point out that they didn’t have a verdammte Idee what I was on about. As on subsequent visits, people rarely switched into English and just let me witter on. I rarely had anything other than a positive reception and good impressions on my travels, and felt an affinity with the sometimes morbid humour of the locals. I also felt quite at home around New Germans and appreciated the absolutely positive impact they have had on the national culture, especially in terms of cuisine and music (such as this classic early 2000s Berlin tune). I picked up useful new chunks of language: es ist gefuckt, das flascht. That last bit of street argo came from a video I saw one starry night amongst other shorts in a courtyard in Berlin. It consisted of a monologue from a local guy out of his head outside a metro station enthusing about various aspects of his fettes Leben, breaking off suddenly in full flow only to exclaim with consternation the immortal phrase Ach scheiße, ich habe den Baby im U-Bahn verlassen!. Being able to get to grip with the jokes meant that I started to identify and, to slip briefly into German English, feel myself quite a deutschophile. In a curious inversion, I attempted to read a book in German about what a bunch of weirdos the British are. The proudest moment of my German-speaking life was when, in response to a question from my flatmate about how difficult the book was to get through, I replied that it was Ein Kampf. Or maybe my proudest moment was that time in Costa Rica I was able to impress my then-girlfriend-now-wife, who had previously been sceptical of my claim to speak better German than, erm, Goethe, by giving some monolingual Austrians detailed instructions as to where they might be able to see eben mehr monkeys.  

Stolz kommt befor einen Fall. Or, in this case, afterwards. In a bar in Munich in 2010 or so, struggling through that day’s Bild newspaper (I would like to try TAZ or FZW but…) I came across a report of a survey into alcohol consumption in Europe. Litauen (Lithuania) was number 3, Rumänien (Romania) number 2, but in first place was…Iren. Some mistake, I thought, and took a sip of Löwenbräu*. Iran is not even in Europe, and in any case they’re mostly Muslims, so they don’t…soon enough my friend turned up, having steeled herself for several days of really annoying question about her language, and thus it was that I learnt with an equal mix of relief and embarrassment how you say ‘Irish’ in German.

On the same trip, surrounded by southern Germany’s ubiquitous BMWs and other dazzling symbols of conspicuous consumption, I read up on Konsumterror: Ulrike Meinhof’s word to describe the perpetual existential crisis caused by the insane and insatiable desire to consume more. Thoughts of consumerism, ultraviolence and nazifascism playing on my mind, and with a spare afternoon in Nuremberg ahead, I happened to notice in the guidebook that Dachau is not all that far away. Ich war noch niemals in einem…Konzentrationslager, I mentioned to my companion. She wasn’t keen on the idea, I gathered, as she ranted spectacularly for a full ten minutes on the subject of bloody foreigners and their bloody obsession with the bloody Holocaust and all they ever bloody think about when they think of Germany is the bloody war, which was 65 bloody years ago fffs. Fair enough, I thought, and we talked instead about more innocuous subjects, such as…music, which was fine, but then it turned out that she liked the group Queen, so I embarked on a tortuous Zunge in der Wange explanation of how, for me, Queen were like the Japanese in the popular Chinese expression ‘worse than the Japanese’**, in that I simply can’t conceive of anything I disliked more. What, I asked her, was ‘worse than the Japanese’ for her? Well, she said, a lot of her friends (mostly in their early 20s) would say ‘schlimmer als die Juden’ – worse than the Jews. Would you say that?, I asked, horrified, recalling with confusion what she’d said about the bloody Holocaust a few minutes earlier. Of course not, she answered. But loads of people hate Jews. Wie furchtbar; vielleicht ändert sich etwas, I thought, several years later, with the help of Google Translate.

The thought that antisemitism could ever make a comeback amongst young Germans would have horrified the two previous generations. Just like white supremacists in the US and the lifelong fascist activist Farage in the UK, the heirs of the Nazi tradition are having some success appealing to young people’s sense of alienation and their need for a role and an identity in a society which, like Zygmunt Bauman wrote of the London rioters of 2011, pressures them to consume but denies them the means of doing so. Of course, nowadays it’s Muslims who, even more than the traditional scapegoats, are vilified and set up for (we really can’t afford to pretend we don’t know what the AFD, Pegida etc have in their diseased minds) explusion and extermination. Nonetheless, I have to be grateful to the neonazis of a German town . It’s thanks to their protests against a concert by a left-wing singer that I was able to track down via Google a song I’d heard and loved many years ago during one of my German-learning stints but subsequently forgotten the title of: ‘Vaterland’, by Konstantin Wecker. It’s a song about an awkard conversation between a son and his father, uncomfortable questions being addressed about history, compromise and commitment.

I barely knew my grandfather. My dad left Germany at the age of 17 or so when his mum ran off with a British serviceman. Except for a period stationed in the Rhine as part of his British military service, he rarely went back and they were never really reconciled. My opa was a stern and intimidating figure whose life history was hard for my father to live up to. He had been a soldier in the First World War and then ran, amongst other things, a chemist’s, a shop and a travel agency. Already in his 40s during the Second World War, he was drafted as a fireman. In the wake of the war, the fact that he had saved several Jewish families by facilitating their escape was a factor in his being appointed head of the town’s anti-nazification committee. He subsequently became Bürgermeister (mayor) and was elected member of the regional parliament. He thus became a minor figure in post-war German history. Although the family schism meant his relationship with his son more or less ended very early***, he did pass on a distinct set of values particular to post-war Europe. 

This is what I learnt from my own father and from my encounters with Germany and its people: to be German in the wake of the Third Reich was to be committed to a European project based on peace and mutual cooperation****. That encompassed a welcoming attitudes towards non-Germans, including immigrants. I’ve never lived in Germany nor held a German passport, but its my affinity with those values which makes me more German than the – to coin a phrase – falsche Deutschen who are currently taking up their seats in the Bundestag.

* Which, at the risk of sounding smug, I know how to pronounce very properly.

** This phrase recalls the treatment of the locals by the Japanese occupying army in the 1930s.

*** I wrote about my own father’s history here.

**** On reading this a German friend introduced me to this concept, apparently very influential in the development of the EU.

In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) all about Welsh

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There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, or the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusion, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very clear reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname they give to the local language: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue*. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs)**. Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results***. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial****. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for teaching me the English word ‘Walian’.

**According to my mum, an English speaker can learn French in half the time it takes to learn Welsh. (N.B. My mum doesn’t speak Welsh, and may well have gleaned that information from the Daily Mail, so it might be ceilliau.)

***More thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

**** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

O português dos outros

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In the documentary ‘Citizenfour‘ (2014) we see the campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald speak at a senate hearing in Brasília to draw attention to the British authorities’ treatment of his partner, David Miranda, who had been detained  for nine hours upon arrival in the UK on jumped-up counterterrorism charges. (The hearing starts at 1h26m.) Having made his home in Brazil, Greenwald made his statement and responded to questions in Portuguese. Although the theme of the hearing was deadly serious, I found it hard to hold back my laughter and difficult to imagine that the assembled journalists were not doing the same. Glenn Greenwald is an extremely brave and principled journalist and the way his partner was treated was outrageous, but his Portuguese was (at least at the time) a bit shit.

Mas quem sou eu para rir? – But who am I to laugh? Well, I lived in Portugal for several years and take an interest in other people’s (particularly English speakers’) command of the language. It’s not entirely a healthy interest, containing elements of snobbery and jealousy, but it is hard not to be competitive, and to try to resolve anxieties about one’s own abilities by means of judging others’ over-harshly. One of the first proper sentences I taught myself to say was ‘My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson’, the football manager whose struggles with the language were the source of much mirth and affection:

It became a running joke with friends to take the piss out of British people who spoke Portuguese with no attempt whatsoever to mimic the way local people spoke. Although (adopts very strong English accent) EU NÃO CONSIGO ENCONTRAR BONS EXEMPLOS DISSO ONLINE, anyone who is able to distinguish Portuguese from Spanish will find this clip of the Portuguese writer José Saramago (who exiled himself in Lanzarote and married a Spanish woman) speaking the latter similarly amusing. He simply never made the slightest effort to modify his voice to the sounds of the neighbouring language. I met countless compatriots whose attempts to speak with Portuguese grammar and words but with the sounds of Hemel Hempstead were probably endearing to someone but grated on my ear. 

Ridiculing others was one way of addressing my own anxieties about my pronunciation, and thus about my own legitimacy as a Portuguese speaker – of course, my own command of the language was never by any means perfect, despite my very best attempts to delude myself otherwise. When it came to visiting Brazil, I felt a large chip missing from my shoulder, given that it took a conscious and constant effort for me to speak the jollier version of the language rather than the more slavic-sounding European variety. I envied those foreigners who had learned the more gregarious Brazilian language first, accompanied by that physical volubility natural to Brazilians. As it happened, most other gringo tourists I met there spoke portuñol, but when I was hanging out with Brazilians for prolonged periods and my energy (not, like theirs, inexaustible) started to run down I eventually reverted to my most relaxed version, which is strongly luso-accented and, to Brazilian ears, sounds sometimes cute but mostly sort of backward.

The resulting resentment is probably an ingredient in my wanting to find fault with the esforços of someone like Greenwald, who, after all, succeeded where I failed. Of course, it’s only fair to acknowledge that in the hearing he was under immense pressure. Even Manu Chao, interviewed here before a live audience in Goiás, gets visibly and audibly nervous when obliged to address a roomfull of highly attentive native speakers. I’ve never had to do anything similar, and if I did the results would be atrocious. As the New York Times reported, in his interview with the then-Brazilian President, Greenwald performed extremely well, and he has given numerous interviews and reports which demonstrate that he was having a bad day. Perhaps the fact that his partner had been arrested for terrorism put him off his concordâncias nominais and made him keep forgetting to roll his erres appropriately.

Comedy aside, I’m opposed to language shaming per se. It’s particularly unpleasant and unfair (although very prevalent, particularly when it comes to public figures) in the case of foreigners speaking English, a language few truly choose to learn. There should be a camaraderie among foreign speakers of a language. It takes courage to put one’s aspirations and identity on the line in such a way, and being mocked for doing so is often traumatic.

My Portuguese is now officially enferrujado – rusty, at least when speaking. Fortunately Brazilian music is so rich and enjoyable that I am regularly exposed to new and old vocabulary. In the last couple of years in Mexico and Italy I’ve managed to overcome some of my preciousness about Getting It Right when speaking other languages. I’m not from either place, but I get by, in the sense that I can do what I need to do and I don’t get nervous when interacting with strangers. I think that a lot of my prior anxiety came from trying too hard to fit in, to step outside my own skin and discard my own identity. In such a situation it’s inevitable that you will feel like you’re in a No Man’s Land when trying to reach the other bank of the linguistic shore. As you can see from that poorly-assembled sentence, even my own command of my ‘own’ language isn’t always up to scratch. As for Glenn Greenwald, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist rather than an academic linguist or a language freak, and he uses his experience and skills in both English and Portuguese to expose injustice and hold power accountable at every turn*. If he were ever to see this website, he’d probably partir-se a rir: piss himself laughing. And if he heard me speaking Portuguese, he’d likely switch to English quicker than you could say “cê é gringo, né?!”.

*This was written before Greenwald started publicly and repeatedly declaring that he is The Only Person In The World Who Is Aware That There Are Bad People In The World Besides Donald Trump, going to the extent of joining forces with Fox Fucking News in order to make this point as widely and stupidly as possible. I actually used to feel a bit guilty about having taken the piss out of his Portuguese; I don’t now. The man’s an asshole.

Ljubljana: Enjoy your symptom!

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The Austrian-sounding man striding across the main square (actually a circle) of the Slovenian capital is bellowing into his Handy “BIN IN LAIBACH!”. I feel entertained that he’s used the German name of the city. I happen to know this because a) I’m sort-of German myself and b) it’s a name of a well-known Slovenian mock-totalitarian rock group/art collective which has produced a series of hilarious records and videos from the late ’80s onwards and also started their own nation state. Although I’m no defender of German totalitarian imperialism I do think it’s worth acknowledging that the name ‘Laibach’ is much easier to spell and pronounce than ‘Ljubljana’. #nursagen.

As I don’t have much money as of September 2009 I’m staying in a hostel. Whenever I stay in such places I start to feel like one of my English language students. The lingua franca of such places is International English, the lexicon of which doesn’t feature lower-frequency vocabulary such as ‘snoring’. The Turkish guy who’s spent all night making more noise than a large-scale military coup doesn’t understand the word but was at least polite enough to ask me how I’d slept (I hadn’t). Hold on, he says, when he wakes up and I try to teach him the English equivalent of horlama. I’ll put my glasses. Eight years later I’m still waiting for him to tell me where he’s going to put them. In the event I’m almost tempted to tell him to stuff them down his fucking throat in case it stops him from snoring, but luckily he tells me he go back to Turkey the same day, which come as a relief.

It’s hard to learn languages, especially from scratch. I blearily reflect upon this as I sit in the just-waking-up market square with an enormous coffee and a giant slab of breakfast burek. It’s difficult to start collecting vocab and building up a working grammar when you can barely remember how to say please, let alone water, tree, food or sunhat. Not that I’m trying: I’ve just arrived from London on the first step of a mini-grand tour of Northern Italy and environs. I could do with a sunhat, because every day (and very night, although my memory may have been warped by lack of sleep) it’s blisteringly warm and blindingly sunny.

I am not here to track down Slavoj Žižek. I’m not what is already becoming known in September 2009 as a fanboy. I try to avoid mentioning the subject altogether so as not to appear overeager and thus uncool. This is a bit silly, as no one knows me here. I might as well put on an ‘Enjoy your symptom!’ t-shirt, teach myself the Slovenian for “DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES? DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES?!” and run round the circle in circles until someone takes pity on me and tells me where this is.

As I look at the big metal map of the city in the main circle (Žižek’s house is thankfully unmarked), I get talking to a lovely couple, local kindergarten teachers who want to use their softly-spoken English. They’ve never heard of Slavoj Žižek. Later the same evening they take me on a brief walking tour, including a particularly significant spot where some people were shot, or raised a banner, or maybe it was where they themselves first had sex, or something. It was, as I’ve mentioned, several years ago now.

Ambling around on my own in the early evening amidst the refreshingly chilled old stone of the however-you-say-parte-vieja-in-Slovenian, I come across a (hooray!) critical theory bookshop. The guy who’s working there speaks better English than I do and is doing a PhD in the post-Deleuzian semiology of hair product advertising (I’m making that up. This was almost eight years ago.) He grew up near the border with Croatia, and the stories he tells me of petty rivalry and racism remind me of smalltown Britain, just with a few more military uniforms and some occasional ethnic cleansing. The (fascinating) conversation reminds me of a similar encounter eight or so years earlier in San Sebastian with a young guy who worked in the castle I clambered up to one sweaty donostian afternoon. On the back page of my Spanish-Portuguese dictionary (get me!!!) there’s a scribbled diagram of the relationships between the Spanish and Basque states, the different Basque political parties, and some assorted words in Basque. I don’t take notes on my Slovenian conversation. The bookshop guy is, like all Slovenians I mention him to, fond but critical of Žižek, and doesn’t know where his house is.

In my memory of events I give my new friend a hug and then skip down the cobbled streets. Thinking about it now it strikes me that this may have been one of the couple of times in my life when I was on antidepressants. There are some stalls on a bridge selling what I recall as half-litre plastic glasses of white wine for a single euro. I float around for a bit guzzling my massive drink and listening to the murmury language in which I imagine, possibly incorrectly, that everyone is discussing which ideologies are the most sublime and which absolutes the most fragile. Drifting round a corner I see that there’s a naked young naked woman in the middle of the street having her portrait painted naked by an eager not naked crowd. It’s a wonderful scene. To see all…the people…there’s just a really…nice…civic atmos…totally naked woman.

A hundred metres away there’s a stage with what appears to be a military brass band playing ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. I could repeat that sentence but I’ll leave it up to you, if you do want to read it again there it is. Now, several years later, it strikes me as strange that it didn’t occur to me to move there, grow a beard, start to learn the language and maybe even take up painting. I had no particular commitments in London, having just finished my Master’s, and I was living in one of the three crummiest parts of the city. I wonder what my Lacanian psychotherapist would have said. Probably just nodded and blinked. Who knows, maybe all those nods, blinks and occasional snores were a subtle form of direction to Slovenia, Venice, Mexico and beyond. Probably a good thing, on the whole, that he didn’t tell me where in Ljubljana Slavoj Žižek lives.

* Many thanks to Ben Rozman for Slovakian language translation guidance and consultation services.

Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan

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This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.

Procedure

  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.

French nudists and freak tornados on the Oaxaca Coast

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If you ever want to stay in a discreet nudist hotel, look out on Tripadvisor for codewords like ‘broadminded’, ‘especially for adults’ and ‘not child-friendly’. If you choose judiciously you may, upon walking through the door, be delighted – just like we weren’t – to see two French tourists splayed out in all their flaccid glory in the alfresco bar/reception area, umbrellas in their drinks and gallic pudenda making the most of the warm sea breeze*.

Conversely, if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to stay in such a place, do not choose places which are described as such. I.e: don’t make the same mistake that we did in Zipolite.

Like most tourist hotels and guesthouses we stay at in Mexico, the nudist colony happens to be foreign-owned. In Puerto Escondido itself we stay at a place owned by a Swiss couple, and when we move on to Mazunte the proprietors turn out to be French. The actually quite charming nudist place belongs to an Italian who got halfway to learning Spanish and then got stranded out of his depth. He flounders between the two languages in a way that’s distressing to witness. I would happily dive in and save him, but then he isn’t wearing a swimming costume. Italians love this bit of the Oaxacan coast, because it was the setting (and ‘Puerto Escondido’ was the title) of a 1989 film about a guy from Milan who looks like a young Silvio Berlusconi getting mixed up in drug smuggling, partly because of a series of misunderstandings. It’s therefore possible that the owner of the hotel didn’t know he was starting a naturist colony. It’s also possible I misunderstood the film as I was watching it in Italian and at this point, after three months in Mexico with my Italian wife, Itañol is rapidly becoming my best second language.

dsc_0694It’s certainly warm enough to strip off. We’re at the top of a cliff and the heat and wind are immense. I have to keep covered up, I tell everyone, because I’m scared of getting badly sunburnt. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you really want to know just how painful excessive exposure to the sun can be, go to Tioman Island in Malaysia at the hottest time of the year and spend five straight hours in the sun, dismissing every attempt by your sister to get you to put some suncream on. It hit me three or so days later on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: I was seized by an extremely insistent itching deep beneath my skin all over my chest, back and shoulders. Fearing that I might be having a heart attack brought on by excessive exposure to all the spiciest foods that Asia has to offer, I looked up the health bit of the Lonely Planet and learnt it was probably something called ‘prickly heat’, and that I should apply talcum powder asap. When I got to KL I ran like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, where to my relief I saw that they also sold something called ‘tiger balm’. The word ‘balm’ sounded soothing, like ‘calm’. Or ‘balsam’. Or ‘balsamico’. It doesn’t matter. It made it (at a generous estimate) about thirty times worse, and I spent my entire first, last and only evening in the Malaysian capital showering my torso with cold water. Which, in turned out, also made it worse. Over the next three days I became a gibbering monkey, incapable of more than ten seconds of conversation before I would have to go back to grimacing, scratching and at some points actually screeching. I never got to the point of stealing cameras and throwing my excrement at tourists, but I can tell you it was a pretty close shave.

It was such a traumatic experience that I’ve never made such mistake again, unless you count once in Spain, the first few days in Thailand and pretty much any time I’ve been anywhere really hot where the prospect of getting a fabulous suntan really quickly was just too good to pass up on. That’s why, on the second beachday in Zipolite, having magically overcome my aversion to exposing myself as soon as we left the hotel complex, upon feeling a familiar deeply-buried itch in my chest I run like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, desperately garbling some nonsense about cream-of-after-the-sunshine**. Luckily they do have some, so I down it in a single gulp, give a satisfying burp of relief and go back to working on that tan.

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It’s blisteringly hot but we can’t cool down in the sea. It’s just too wild. It was actually on this beach that the wife of the Mexican-American writer Francisco Goldman was killed by a wave about three years ago, an event he describes in the heartbreaking memoir ‘Say Her Name’. We move on to another village in search of calmer waves, less violent winds and the Perfect Beach Hut, and luckily soon come across a collection of round bungalows on stilts with bamboo walls. This is perfect, I murmur as we lay back on the bed. Sorry? mouths Chiara. I say it again, this time MUCH LOUDER, but it’s no good. It sounds like we’re at the top of Mount Popocatépetl in a Force 12 gale. Using sign language I manage to communicate that we should go downstairs and change our booking from three nights to one. The Parisean owner is thankfully very obliging once I’ve explained that we have to leave earlier than expected to look for my aunt’s favourite pen, which has got blown away PAR LE VENT.

The wind might be annoying to tourists, but it’s being put to good use a little further down the coast. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (quite a challenging name for a Spanish Spanish speaker to pronounce, I’d imagine) hosts most of the country’s wind farms. Although it obviously sounds laudable (and god knows Mexico desperately needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels) it’s more problematic than it might first appear. Objections have come from local indigenous people, who say that the resultant encroachment on their land and fishing resources has been accompanied by threats and attempts at bribery. Although in Europe campaigns against wind power are often fuelled and funded by fossil fuel companies or their self-appointed defenders (as this clip from the documentary ‘Age of Stupid’ demonstrates), in Mexico mitigating the effects of the changing climate will be, like so much else, riven by conflict between rapacious commercial interests and people whose land is their only livelihood.

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Not that this level of wind is normal, even for the Oaxacan coast. The following day we witness our, and apparently Mazunte’s, first ever tornado. It twirls inland a mere 200 metres down the beach and whips off a few roofs, but luckily no-one is hurt. For the second time in two months I narrowly avoid becoming a victim of climate change. Over the next few days no boats can go out to sea. On the last night of our holiday there’s a power cut, but the Italian restaurant next door is on hand with candles, lukewarm white wine and burnt pizza served up to a passionate soundtrack of Neapolitan swearwords. We move on to an open-air bar where they’re playing Electrocumbia (my new favourite kind of music). It takes a while to get going but then some French-Canadian crusties turn up with their dogs and take over the dancefloor. Maybe it’s the music, maybe the mezcal cocktails or maybe just the fact of being so far from home, but the dogs just can’t contain their romantic impulses. It adds another dimension to the phrase c’est une vie de chien, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only we humans who do slightly embarrassing things when we’re on holiday.

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* Apparently the French phrase for ‘wedding tackle’ is ‘bijoux de famille’ (lit: family jewels).

** Which I’ve learnt over the years is the product specifically designed for such situations.

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Wednesday After Work in the Park with Richard


An evidently confused woman walked up to me une fois in the centre of Dublin and asked me something in French with what sounded like ‘cherche’ and ‘GPO’ in it.

Now she might just have been asking ‘Vous cherchez le GPO, n’est pas?’, in which case the answer would have been ‘Sí (it’s true, it’s proper grammar and everything, look it up), je suis pas Joseph Connolly et nous ne sommes pas dans l’an 1916’. I evidemment presumed that she was asking me where the General Post Office (which was about 20 yards behind us) was, so I told her immediately. By pointing.

My French has become much better now, danke schön very much. As for other foreign languages: I can do every word in Chinese except for tree, politics and, er, word, and I will hopefully soon very much impress my girlfriend during our Mystery Holiday in Berlin next month (NB: THAT BIT MEANS I CAN SPEAK GERMAN – R. Willmsen 22/03/07); I can speak almost as much Spanish as every other smug fucker out there who just happens to speak fucking Spanish. Oh yes, and I am also learning Italian. Very, very slowly.

More significantly, I speak better Portuguese than José Saramago, and will one day have a job to prove it. Which is partly why, in Battersea Park on the Hottest Day Ever (does that mean it’s going to start getting colder now?!), sparsely surrounded by lots of people speaking the less passionate, more bored-sounding variety of the Portuguese language, on seeing a young black family walking towards me along the path, I, thinking that they may well be Angolan or maybe Portuguese or something, thought that I might say to them in a smiley fashion ‘Fala-se português por aqui!’ (they speak Portuguese round here).

I didn’t say anything, thereby soundly killing off any possibility that I might a) the same day become the subject of an entertaining ‘This sweaty guy we didn’t know said something to us in a language we didn’t understand!’ anecdote or b) become the firmest of friends with some people for about 2 minutes.

About sixteen seconds later another young black family walked past me, speaking Portuguese. In the treasured words of Alanis Morissette: You live, you learn.

Incidentally, has anyone else in the imperial capital noticed that every single cafe in the centre of London (with the honourable exception of ‘Brasil By Kilo’) is suddenly run by Portuguese people?! They’re everywhere all of a sudden, especially around here. Especially since I, you know, moved house. Quite a lot less Bangladeshi people too. That is not why I moved, by the way. I wonder if, one day, ‘the Portuguese cuisine’ will enjoy the same elevated position in our gastronomic hierachy as does that of our Polish communities. But as for competing with the Bengalis for a larger share of the cheaper end of the restaurant market…nem pensar!

Ni shuo zhongwen ma?


I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that people pay (often lots of) money to sit in a class and practise speaking foreign languages. Everyone on earth already has at least one language at their disposal and it’s not too hard to track down someone who wants to learn that language and in return will help you as your try your hardest to make yourself understood in their language. It’s just a case of tracking down that someone, which these days, what with the gumtree and whatnot, is not a very difficult task at all.

Of course occasionally you may, especially if you’re a woman, meet people with ulterior motives, or who are actually just really boring, or who laugh pitilessly every time you try and put a sentence together – or in the case of Mandarin Chinese, look at you with such puzzlement that you’d think you’d just told them there was something wrong with the Communist Party, whereas in fact you were simply trying to let them know that you come from Sheffield and you prefer broccoli to spinach. But on the whole it’s preferable to and a lot more effective than, say, paying €50 a month to some unscrupulous bastards who will continue fleecing your bank account long after the school has gone bankrupt and the teacher has fucked off back to London in poverty, or, if you’re Brazilian, will stick you in a tiny classroom on Oxford Street with eighteen of your compatriots so you end up speaking less English than you would back home.

Now I come to think of it, language teachers spend so much time trying to make their students pretend that they are not actually in a classroom at all that it really makes you question the point of being there in the first place.

Whateva. After I’d put an ad on the gumtree for people to practise my own rudimentary polygoticism with, I exchanged a couple of emails with someone who said they could help me with my Chinese, which would be nice, although somebody helping me with my Chinese is a bit like teaching my great-great German grandmother to speak Brazilian Portuguese, because my Chinese is hen bu hao. I was a bit busy at the time what with holidays, work and the problems on the Hammersmith & City Line to deal with, so I didn’t reply for ages, but when I did I realised that he must have been a very interesting guy to talk to, because he happened to mention that he had come to Britain to study in 1967.

Now obviously 1967 was the Summer of Love in the West, but in China, if anything I’ve ever read about that era is true, gangs of young people in uniforms roamed around the country kicking people to death simply because they had been known to wear glasses from time to time. Jung Chang, the writer of ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ was only allowed to leave in 1978 after extensive political preparation. Whoever this guy was, it was fairly clear that his eyesight, not to mention his devotion to the Party, must have impressed the Red Guards a hell of a lot in order to be allowed to escape the fate that befell millions of his contemporaries; sent away from the cities to harvest stones in the backwoods of absolutely nowhere for the greater glory of the Great Helmsman.

He must have had some experiences along the way which caused him to at least question Party rule. One of the guys I live with is I think quite typical of more recent generations of overseas Chinese in that he doesn’t particularly want to live in China but doesn’t think the Party is doing a bad job and sees Mao as generally one of the good guys. I haven’t met anyone who dissents from this point of view, or at least if I have they’ve had no good reason to tell me about it – although I did once have a short conversation with Harry Wu about teddy bears, and I mentioned my first shameful encounter with a Chinese political dissident here. I would really like to have the opportunity to meet some Chinese people who are explicitly not happy about how their country is run, and am wondering how to go about it.

I don’t want to just march up to the protestors outside the Chinese Embassy and offer my services to the Falun Gong, which seems to be the most prominent organised political opposition outside China. I have no great wish to set myself on fire in Tiananmen Square. But I guess if I can’t make contact with Chinese dissidents in London, then where can I? Does anyone have Wei Jingsheng’s email address?

Dych chi’n siarad Italian?


I take a certain amount of encouragement in life from the fact that I don’t speak Italian. Perche? Well, I have tried to learn, a little bit. I spent a few days in Rome years ago wondering why all those street signs with arrows on them all said ‘Unica Via’, and I can put together some simple phrases like ‘No me piacce il calcio’, ‘ Dove c’e musica’ and ‘Oggi ho fatto qualcosa nostra’, but I don’t I know if I’d be up to, say, having a short conversation about il tempo meterelogico. So how can my lack of basic Italian conversation skills be a source of encouragement, even pride?

Well, Signor Nessuno, what it is is that I like knowing that it will always be an opzione. If at any point I ever have cause to become really bored or despondent, like per exemplo if we ever get to the point where newspapers stop asking asinine rhetorical questions like ‘is it too late to prevent global warming’ and start accepting that we really are actually finito nella merda, then at that point I can always invest in a cheap grammar book and a copy of ‘La Republica’ or whatever the most left-wing daily newspaper is and comenzare (a?) aprendere.

See, it’s easy to learn Italian, and it’s fun and makes your brain grow. To the size of an Italian’s! If I ever get really interested in it I could always go and live there for a while, although one less radical option would be to find an intercambio. Recently I put an ad on the gumtree site ’cause of wanting to practice those few languages in which I can have a short conversation about the weather. Italian wasn’t one of them, obviously, which is why it was a bit of a sorpresa to recebere una risposta from una ragazza Italiana. Ma no voglio praticare mi inglese! I protested in reply. Alguni personi sono idioti.

I’d recommend this nozione of Learning Italian as Potential Life TherapyTM to anyone feeling down, bored or even suicida.

If you’re ever faced with someone – friend, family, or even someone you work with but don’t actually like – who is entertaining thoughts of topping theyselves, just ask ‘parle italiano?’ If by any chance they answer ‘Ma sono italiano!’, you could always try, I dunno, ‘Dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg?’, although that might actually not work in quite the same way. If you’re for any reason having this conversation with Berlesconi or Paulo di Canio, just tell them, in all seriousness ‘Penso, come amico, que la migliore cosa que le puoi fare è suicidaresi. Stronzo fascista‘.