Learning Languages in the UK

Bonjour!  Je m’appelle Mathieu.  J’apprends le francais, mais c’est difficule parce que j’habite dans Grande-Bretagne.

…And that’s about as much as I can eek out from my limited knowledge of French.  Some of that was even possibly wrong.  What I tried to say was: “Hello!  I am called Mathew.  I am learning French, but this is difficult because I live in Britain.”  That’s poorly expressed, but my point was that our education system in this country leaves us at a disadvantage for learning languages because we start so late.  I first began learning French in school at the age of 10, years later than children learn a second language in other countries, and continued until achieving a standard grade at the age of 15.  It stopped being compulsory when I was 13, giving me a mere four years of compulsory tuition.  Two of these years, in primary school, consisted of just one hour a week.

Is it any wonder that our country is so monolingual?  This was particularly driven home during various pen-pal projects set up – across Norway, Sweden, France and Italy, if memory serves – when they would boast of fluency in their native language, English, and also a third language.  We always conversed in English, of course, but how I envied them.

If I’m so desperate to learn another language why did I drop French at school, you might ask?  I could have continued it to Higher level and even Advanced Higher level, with the opportunity for a school trip to Nice.  In retrospect I regret not continuing with it but at the time it had become so much of a chore.  Because we’d started so late and so slowly, by the time we really began gaining momentum our natural ability to pick up languages had been compromised.  I read once that this ability declines rapidly after the age of 11 or so.

Also, I really didn’t enjoy the pressures placed upon us by the constant preparation for exams.  Learning languages should be a fun, fulfilling process, and while our exceptionally motivational teacher did make the class more bearable than it might otherwise have been, the system really made me tire of the subject.  Assignments consisted of learning pages of speeches or questions/answers I didn’t understand – something which would be dull even in English; of straining to catch words on old tapes then being marked 25% again and again; of racing the clock to get enough words translated to make sense of a document.  It’s a wonder I ever managed to scrape a ‘1’ (Standard Grade equivalent to an ‘A’).

Since dropping the subject I have discovered the website Duolingo, which has rekindled my desire to learn French.  In the last 6 months I’ve been hacking my way through it, kept interested by its fun, game-like nature while immersing myself in the language through repetition which never becomes dull.  Things are making sense now, connections forging, which I never realised while studying the language at school.  I can now conjugate verbs and ask questions with ease, for instance, and I’m sure once I progress onto complicated tenses I’ll have similar epiphanies.  It really is a wonderful website.  To compliment this new régimen, I’ve been reading articles on Le Monde‘s website – a remarkably good source of news in general, and available in print within the UK – and watching live streaming of France 24.  Every now and then I’ll absorb the meaning of a phrase without needing to translate it, which is a wonderful feeling.

In summary, I do think that learning languages earlier, perhaps from the age of 7 or 8 – and far more frequently than one lesson a week – should be included in the curriculum for primary schools.  As it is now, my own experiences have convinced me that unless you’re given this early advantage, school really isn’t the most conducive environment to learning languages.

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Thoughts on Romeo and Juliet

Contains spoilers.

Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, is arguably the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays.  It has definitely been the one I’ve been most aware of since childhood, though that might be due the fact our school got us to do a production of it when I was 8 – which was very fun indeed!  I played Paris and relished the death scene.  Probably the best role I’ve ever had in a play, actually.  But that’s digressing.  I remember thinking at the time I wanted to read the ‘original book’, but was put off the idea when I found out it originated from a 400 year old play.  Now, 9 years later, I decided to finally read it.  Because of its immense popularity and widely renowned nature, this is a hard play to discuss objectively.  I knew the story off by heart before reading it so that will also have affected my response.

I think my main reaction was shock towards the plot.  I’d heard beforehand that Juliet is far younger than Romeo and that their relationship only spanned 3 days, but I had no idea just how distastefully this would come across even in the writing itself.  There’s a whole spiel about Juliet being ‘not yet 14’ – it’s never said how old Romeo is but we can presume he is older than 13, and Paris is probably around the same age.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it quite creepy that all these men should be chasing after a girl so young.  I could perhaps just forgive this, except the timescale of the play is so ridiculously played out:  Romeo and Juliet meet at a party he’s crashed, and within a page they’re tasting one another’s saliva.  That’s not love, that’s a hook-up at a party.  I can only presume they’re both drunk (actually, that might explain the entire play).  The fact that their first conversation has the form of a sonnet is a nice touch, but alone is not enough.  The next day they are married because, you know, they’re in love.  Like the people who go to Las Vegas for a party and wake up the next day married.  I had a similar problem with Les Misérables.  Thing is, I highly doubt Romeo actually loves Juliet.  To begin with he’s sulking over this girl called Rosaline, partly because she doesn’t love him but the main focus seems to be on her insistence to ‘remain chaste’.  Suddenly Romeo’s intentions become a bit clearer.  Friar Lawrence gets is right on the mark when he says:

“Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken?  Young men’s love, then, lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.”

This might indicate that even Shakespeare disapproves of their relationship.  Is Romeo and Juliet supposed to purport the same idea as his Sonnet 130; to make fun of traditional relationships?  The play does begin as a comedy, after all, only then collapsing into a tragedy.  Was Shakespeare having a laugh?  If that is his intention, he has certainly failed!  Romeo and Juliet has somehow, perversely, become the archetypal love story of “star-cross’d lovers”.  Though I would prefer the alternative of it being a ‘Great Hormone Story’, personally.

I don’t mean to sound overly critical; there were other elements I enjoyed.  Most of all, of course, was Shakespeare’s masterful use of language.  This, again, was held back by the poor plotting of the romance – beautifully written dialogue about love makes the situation even worse, in fact – but the language can be appreciated in isolation as lyrical and deeply poetic.  No examples spring instantly to mind, though again I find myself impressed by just how many modern phrases Shakespeare coined.

Romeo and Juliet does beg a question, for me, on the relationship between language and plot.  Some ‘literary elites’ may argue that true value is found in the skillful and original use of language, but I’m very much on the side of having a detailed, convincing plot, even if this means sacrificing the language.  Which is why I prefer the perhaps sometimes blandly-written Hunger Games or Harry Potter to Shakespeare, simply because they develop characters and stories to a much greater degree.  Other than being ‘star-cross’d lovers’, what development did Romeo and Juliet really have?  When they fall in love, I’m unconvinced.  When they commit suicide, I’m bored.  When Juliet says she would rather her parents die than Romeo be banished from Verona, I’m repulsed by the character.  The reader/audience is supposed to be on Juliet’s side, not cheering when she dies.

Sorry, ranting again.  The use of a chorus interested me.  Is it a technique Shakespeare uses a lot?  This is only my fourth of his plays (after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello), but I’ve never seen it before.  I also felt the concept of feuding between the Montague and the Capulet families was initially well established, with the point becoming really well made of the futility of such a strife (even if I would argue Juliet’s death is more a reaction to her father’s patriarchal dominance, trying to force her into an arranged marriage, than the quarreling between families).  

Overall, Romeo and Juliet is a great story that’s let down by lazy* storytelling.  Most of my criticisms do, I admit, come from applying a 21st century worldview onto a story written in the 16th.  Is it wrong to look at old plays from the perspective of modern values?  Well, I am a reader in the 21st century and if the play no longer feels convincing then it simply hasn’t stood the test of time.  That’s not to say there’s no value for Shakespeare in the modern world; many aspects of his plays remain hugely relevant today, which is a testament to his skill as a writer, and I don’t think his mastery of the English language will ever stop provoking awe.  I’m just afraid that, in this case, it didn’t work for me.

Final rating (if forced): 6.5/10

*Oh no, it’s a mortal sin to call The Bard lazy, isn’t it?  Well, while his use of language may be unrivaled, the plot is lazy.  The amount of times I’ve bitten my tongue to stop myself arguing with a teacher who kept finding excuses to cover up Shakespeare’s plot holes…  The unquestioning reverence our society holds Shakespeare in is wrong.

[I should probably point out that there is a lot of Shakespeare’s work I like.  Sonnet 130 is a really interesting subversion of poetic conventions at the time and most of Macbeth is a complete joy to read].

Cloud Atlas [Novel] Analysis

Contains spoilers.

Having watched the film of Cloud Atlas, and loving it, I decided I had to read the book, originally published in 2004 and written by David Mitchell.  I don’t think I’ll write a ‘proper’ review, on the basis that the novel is very similar to the film, but there are still interesting points to discuss and this may well end up morphing into a review of sorts.

The most apparent aspect of the book is the sheer skill of Mitchell’s writing.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.  Each of the six stories within the novel are told in a different style and in a different genre.  You have:

  1. Narrative in the form of fictional journals.
  2. Narrative in the form of fictional letters.
  3. Narrative in the form of a fictional novel first draft – a novel within a novel.
  4. Narrative in the form of an autobiography.
  5. Narrative in the form of an interview transcript.
  6. Narrative in the form of spoken word.

I didn’t quite get this from the film, but I think each section is supposed to be real documents/records – very much harkening back to the 19th century style of writing fiction as fact.  It is complete genius.  Mitchell gets into the head of each character, creating wildly different personas: from the modest and likeable Adam Ewing to the narcissistic and delusional Robert Frobisher, gutsy Luisa Rey to pernickety Timothy Cavendish, and revolutionary Sonmi-451 to troubled Zachry.  The variety of vibrant personalities, literally dozens of them, which are stacked into the novel is astonishing.  The idea of each person being real beyond the confines of the novel, of their work really existing, is reinforced through their ripples into other stories; when Robert finds Adam’s journal, I almost believe it to be real.  Tiny details like The Prophetess casually maintained in the background in San Francisco, 100 years after Adam travelled on it; or Timothy receiving a draft of The First Luisa Rey Mystery – it’s just brilliantly done.

If I had to suggest a criticism for the novel, which would not be easily done, it’d be that some of these connections between characters are rather superficial.  The connections between characters are signified by the comet birthmark, and occasional déja vu, but otherwise the reincarnation aspect is a little flimsy (more on that later).  One of the ideas that most attracted me to the film was the idea of characters’ influences rippling through time to impact the lives of future people, to inspire revolutions, etc.  This is not the case with the novel.  Adam’s Pacific Voyage can only loosely really have a direct impact upon Luisa, or Sonmi’s revolution, and has no literal impact whatsoever upon Zachry on the ‘Ha-Why’.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  There are far subtler links, such as, going back to Adam, his rescue from Henry’s poisoning coming when they reach Hawaii; after The Fall, one of the final refuges of civilisation is on the same island.  Oh!  And, in the dystopia, Hawaii is where fabricants are told they’ll go for ‘exultation’.  Hawaii symbolises salvation.  I have only this moment realised that – another testament to the layers upon layers of depth this novel has.  Though, the fact that Hawaii falls to barbarianism at the end of chapter 6 suggests salvation does not truly exist.  Gosh, analysing this novel is fun.

Adding to that idea, the novel’s greatest links are thematic in nature.  The theme of conflict between the weak and strong, “the weak are meat, the strong do eat“, recurs again and again (The Maori invasion of the Moriori, Henry’s poisoning of Adam, Vivyan’s power over Robert, the power of corpocracy to subjugate a population first seen in 1973 and again in Neo-Seoul, Timothy’s incarceration in the Aurora House and then, back to savagery, the cannibal Kona terrorising Hawaii).  Belief also permeates through the pages: at the beginning, Christianity is being spread throughout the globe as ancient Polynesian religions in the Pacific are wiped out; by the far future Christianity is a long-lost myth nobody can remember, and has been replaced by a belief in Sonmi and other Gods.  This is chronologically foreshadowed when The Prophetess stops at the island of Raiatea, and the theory is given that all religions will eventually fail.  After doing some research, I was also alerted to the theme of ascent and descent: both Adam and Zachry begin their journeys after climbing a mountain; Autua earns a place on the The Prophetess after climbing the sails; Robert falls in love after climbing a tower with Eva, and his downfall occurs progressively after he returns to the ground; both Luisa and Sonmi experience a great fall whilst travelling in a Ford, which indicates the beginning of violence in their stories; Felix inch is killed by Dermot by being thrown off a building; the process of awakening within Frabricants is called ‘ascension’, and Sonmi must literally ascend an elevator to escape from Papa Song’s; and the collapse of civilisation is termed ‘The Fall’.  Humanity is a species on a rollercoaster, the book seems to scream.

The brilliant characters, backstories and historical settings Mitchell creates are aided by his mastery over language.  Each of the six stories are written differently: the Pacific Journal is written very archaically, as would be expected for the 19th century, with great circumlocutions and vast descriptions, making this a literary analyst’s goldmine.  Robert’s letters are much swifter, often using sentenced excluding pronouncs and beginning with verbs (so, stuff like: “Thought I’d go down to the shops.  Didn’t like them one bit.  Found Vivyan intolerable when I returned) which is a realistic way for someone to write informal letters.  Robert also writes using much musical imagery and with many exaggerations, creating a clear personality for the character.  Half Lives is written in the present tense and, as Timothy comments, is divided into small, serialised chapters, making this a very distinct genre and allowing the action to be swift.  Timothy’s autobiographical writing moves to and fro between the present and the past, making references to the reader here and there as he goes.  Sonmi’s story is told in interview format, which is a neat way of allowing small details to be explained and also of determining society’s attitudes through comments the interviewer makes.  Language begins to change here, with ‘ex’ always becoming ‘x’ – so, ‘xcitement’ and ‘xcercise’ – and finally, by Zachry’s time, it’s just gone mad.  I commented on the future dialect in the movie, which was bravely kept in, but the novel was staggeringly well-developed on this front, with a good 80 pages written in it.  To quote a random example:

   “Yay, but what’d we do?  My thinkin’ was stormin’n’fearing’. The Valleys is raided’n’burning’, prob’ly … an’ if Hilo ain’t fallen yet, it’ll fall soon…
My friend jus’ tended my wounds’n’hurtin’s with bandagin’s’n’stuff then raised a cup’n’med’sun stone to my lips.  This’ll help fix your busted body, Zachry.  Shut up your yibberin’ an’ sleep now.”

You can’t fail to be awed by the level of detail in this.  Typing that, it’s incredibly difficult even to transcribe, let alone create and write consistently for 80 pages.  I still maintain this is Cloud Atlas‘ finest feature.

The central idea of Cloud Atlas appears to be reincarnation, though this is only symbolic at most.  Mitchell explained:

“Literally all of the main characters, except one [Zachry], are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark…that’s just a symbol really of the universality of human nature.  The title itself “Cloud Atlas,” the cloud refers to the ever changing manifestations of the Atlas, which is the fixed human nature which is always thus and ever shall be. So the book’s theme is predacity, the way individuals prey on individuals, groups on groups, nations on nations, tribes on tribes. So I just take this theme and in a sense reincarnate that theme in another context…”
(shamelessly taken from Wikipedia)

I very much like this explanation, though it doesn’t immediately come across from watching the film.  I think it would be futile to examine the progression of the birthmarked character through the novel, because any connections would be purely accidental on Mitchell’s part.  As he explains, the reincarnation is simply a loose device to make his case for human nature’s consistency throughout the ages.  It is interesting to compare the film’s take to the novel, which had a very deliberately different interpretation.  Reincarnation was signified by the recurring actors, so it would go: Henry => hotel clerk => Isaac => Dermot => an actor for Timothy => Zachry; slave => Jocasta => Luisa => Meronym; Hugo Weaving always played the villain; etc.  And the transition of the soul would go along the lines of: Tom Hank’s characters begin misguided and villainous, but redemption begins with Isaac’s betrayal at Swannekke and he ends as a hero; Halle Berry’s characters begin powerless, first as a slave and then a Jew fleeing persecution, but through Luisa she challenges men’s sexist views on women and, by the time of Meronym, has the most power of any character.  I think this is quite a weak and flimsy interpretation of reincarnation, personally, as what the filmmakers chose to do was limited by the source material.  An ambitious effort, certainly.

Finally, despite the film being very loyal to the novel, there are some quite large differences.  Large sections on the Moriori backstory were cut and the themes of religion; Eva was cut and, in the novel, Robert never shoots Vivyan, quite largely changing the story; Sonmi’s story is highly changed, as she spends a covertly educating herself at a university and it is eventually revealed that Union was a conspiracy by the corpocracy to destroy any public support for abolitionism; and Catkin doesn’t escape Hawaii in the novel.  I can understand why each of these decisions were made in scripting the film, and wouldn’t criticise any of them.

Overall, Cloud Atlas has to be one of the best books I have ever read.  It tops my list of books read in 2013, currently numbering 9 (though, in fairness, the Twilight saga takes up 4 of them).  I feel compelled to read more of David Mitchell’s books, though few libraries seem to have them, annoyingly.  And I see he’s writing another novel now about the ‘stuff between life and death’, which sounds very promising indeed.

Final rating (if I had to give one): 10/10

World Languages

So I’ve decided to start learning French again.  From the ages of 10 – 15 I was taught the basics of the language in school, and actually somehow managed to get a Grade 1 in Standard Grade French (roughly the equivalent of an ‘A’ GCSE – I think).  I decided to drop the subject when choosing my Highers, because I always found it an uphill struggle and, frankly, wanted as good grades as possible to place me in better stead for university.  I think I regret that decision, now.

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Click for a larger picture.

My main reasons are, again, pragmatic.  If I desire to be a journalist, and if I desire to actually find stories about interesting things around the world (rather than: “Local Cake Festival attracts 200 People! 13% increase!!”), then at least being able to speak the basics of a second language will be absolutely essential.  I figured that, with English, French is the language I’d be most likely to encounter around the world.  For fun, I rushed together the map to the left of languages you’d be guaranteed to find around the world.  There’s a European bias, because, for me, these are more realistic to be learned.  I think the combination of English, French and Spanish would be the best choices, as they would open up virtually all of the Americas (I believe Portuguese and Spanish have some mutually intelligibility), Western Europe, Africa, India and Oceania.  Although, of course, armed with these languages you would be very likely to find a speaker of at least one wherever you go.

Because I have a basic understanding of French already, learning it now is easier than it would be from scratch.  My main methods for learning is the highly useful http://www.duolingo.com as well as the news websites, http://www.lemonde.fr and http://www.bbc.co.uk/afrique .  I’m aware that these methods won’t do much to help my speaking of French, which is something I could probably only improve my being in a French-speaking country.

Hopefully this will go well, and not end up abandoned after a few weeks!

Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year 2012

The Oxford Dictionary had declared that its word of the year for 2012 is ‘omnishambles’.  This is in reference to the increasing use of the word to describe the UK’s coalition government, particularly by the opposition.  It first came into popular use when Labour leader Ed Miliband in April used it to describe the government’s budget as being an all-encompassing shamble.  I’ve never heard of the ‘Word of the Year’ before, but it sounds like the kind of award I’d approve of!  I’m not sure what my word of the year would be.  ‘Lightning’, possibly.  Or ‘university’.  Hm…

Sorry for the lack of posts again – I’m still busy working on the house, as well as catching up on schoolwork over our Christmas holidays.  The post spamming shall hopefully return soon!

‘An historic’

Just.  No.  Never has a more hideous phrase been uttered so frequently and with such certainty.

‘An’ exists to allow a better flow to words beginning with a vowel, or a vowel sound.  So where you’d say ‘a banana’, ‘an banana’ wouldn’t be appropriate, and likewise you’d say ‘an orange’ rather than ‘a orange’.

I’m being patronising.  Everyone knows this rule, right?  So why the insistent, smug, intolerable use of the phrase ‘an historic’?!  I know the type who use it; the political journalist attempting to sound clever and in control of the British language (well, okay, the person I’m trying to be – but with worse knowledge of language!), and failing drastically.  Its use is everywhere.  I’ve even seen it on the BBC!  But it’s wrong, oh so wrong.

Do I really need to go into why?  I think I will have to.  Okay: many words beginning with ‘h’ are pronounced with a silent ‘h’, meaning the word is spoken as if the ‘h’ is not present.  Example: “an hour.”  This is appropriate because the ‘h’ is ignored, and the word is pronounced similarly to ‘our’.  In French most, if not all, words beginning with ‘h’ miss out the ‘h’, which has carried on in part to English but on the whole we pronounce our ‘h’s.  Words like ‘hospital’, ‘horrific’ and, of course, ‘historic’ have begun to be pronounced with the ‘h’.  So for this reason ‘historic’ is not pronounced beginning with a vowel sound and so ‘an’ is unecessary.  It would be like saying: “We’re going to find an hospital,” or: “There’s been an horrific crash!”  Sounds hideous.

I deeply apologise for the condescending nature of this post, but I see this grotesque mutilation of the English Language so often that there isn’t much left my wits can take.  I can imagine one day I’ll snap and begin a mass information campaign, dropping leaflets from planes across the English-speaking world and petitioning parliament to bring back the capital punishment for offenders.  So please, next time you need to say this phrase which is overused anyway, just think.  For my sanity.

Thank you.