University Beckons

Steven Hill [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, at approximately 5:30pm, I will begin the 20-hour journey which shall take me to university in Edinburgh.  This is both nerve-wracking and exciting beyond belief – and my time will probably be significantly taken up by concentrating on settling in, Fresher’s week, studies, and so on.  So this blog might be quiet for a while.  Hopefully I’ll find time to write a thing or two here and there, but I won’t even attempt to stick to any schedules until I’m fully into the flow of university life.  Once I am, I’ll probably aim to continue the rate of something like 3 posts a week.

There’s a few elections coming up and I was initially planning to cover each in depth in a similar vein to how I discussed Australian polling a month ago, but since I’ve simply run out of time I’ll just have to give a brief summary of each one:

7th September 2013 – Australian General Election
When I made that last update on Australian polling it looked as though there might be some hope for the Labor Party, which experienced a boost in ratings since Kevin Rudd usurped Julia Gillard as party leader, but this seems to have since subsided.  No poll has shown the Labor party ahead in the Two-Party Preferred Vote since the end of July, in in the last week the Liberal/National Coalition has regularly been ahead by 2-3%.  This would be enough to give them somewhere around 83 – 86 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives – a clear majority.  So while nothing can ever be certain in politics – the race is tight enough for this to not entirely be a foregone conclusion – it’s difficult to envisage a scenario in which Tony Abbot doesn’t become Australia’s next Prime Minister.

7th September 2013 – Maldivian Presidential Election
Because the issue of elections in the Maldives is so complex, and as I know so little about it, nothing I can write here will really do it justice.  The island-nation of 320,000 experienced its first free polls in 2008 and, despite hiccups, seemed on generally the right path towards democracy.  Unfortunately, like most first tries at democracy, this collapsed in 2012 with what is widely considered a coup which removed President Nasheed and replaced him with his vice President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan.  Mohamed Nasheed claimed to have been forced to resign at gunpoint, effectively making this a military-backed coup.  I haven’t particularly followed events since but I have noticed an upsurge in stories of human rights abuse which have concerned rights groups including Amnesty International.  So I can’t really say what I think will happen in this presidential election, but I really hope it can put the country back on the track towards democracy.

9th September 2013 – Norwegian Parliamentary Election
Things don’t look great for Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway since 2005.  Leader of the Labour Party, he has governed Norway as part of the ‘Red-Green’ coalition, also including the Socialist Left Party and the Centre Party.  He only just clung onto power in the 2009 elections, when his coalition won fewer votes than the opposition but through quirks of the system managed to win the most seats.  This resulted in calls for an overhall of the electoral system, which as far as I’m aware haven’t been implemented.

A look at opinion polls shows that recently, beginning in May 2012, the Conservative Party began to enjoy a lead.  Since I last checked the Labour Party had actually managed to get ahead by a few percentage points as the most popular party – I wonder if Stoltenberg’s side job as a taxi driver helped? – but the Red-Green Coalition as a whole is being overtaken by the opposition due to the poor results for the Socialist Left and Centre Parties.  In terms of seats, while it’s possible that the Labour Party might be the largest party, the Conservative-led opposition coalition looks set to pick up a lead of 20-30 seats as a whole in the parliament of 169 seats.  The latest estimate I can see it 96 seats for the opposition and 71 for the Red-Green Coalition, despite the Labour Party beating the Conservatives by 54 seats to 46.  In conclusion, I would imagine that this result would see Stoltenberg be replaced as Prime Minister by either Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party or Siv Jensen of the Progress Party.  Like Australia, red will probably fade to blue.

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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Statsraad Lehmkuhl

Last week, I had the pleasure to receive a tour of the Norwegian ship, the Statsraad Lehmkuhl, as part of a visit by Norwegian students to Shetland.  After a chaotic morning in which I helped give an oversized group a tour of our school, it was time for the favour to be returned.  We were taken from bow to stern, upper deck to sleeping quarters, all the time gifted with information about how it sails, the work it does, its history, etc.  It was also fascinating to meet the Norwegian students who had been sailing it.  I was far too shy to actually start a conversation with any of them, but it was fascinating to observe tiny differences in culture and language, etc.

The Statsraad Lehmkuhl has a really interesting history.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but the decks I was walking on were originally commissioned for action in the First World War for the German Empire’s merchant navy.  It was taken by the UK after the war and gifted to Norway in 1921 (the name translates to “cabinet minister Lehmkuhl”, after Norwegian minister Kristoffer Lehmkuhl).  During the Second World War it was captured again by the Germans, during the Nazi invasion of Norway, but has since been used largely as a training and merchant vessel.

Thoughts on ‘Shetland’

Contains spoilers.  Maybe.

These are strange times for Shetlanders.  Accustomed to obscurity, used to explaining with an illustrated map precisely where we live, it is not common for Shetland to be at the forefront of media attention.  We are typically left off weather maps and nobody really seems to care about us unless discussing North sea oil.  So it’s with some surprise that I’ve witnessed our islands become almost famous in recent weeks: first with a certain dancing pony advert and now with the BBC adaptation of Ann Cleaves’ book, Red Bones, creatively called ‘Shetland’.

I’m completely unable to look at this programme objectively – in fact, my sole reason of watching it was just because it’s set in Shetland.  I don’t tend to watch much TV, otherwise.  And, of course, I spent most of the first episode jeering at inaccuracies, like virtually every other of our 22,000 residents.  They’d get a ferry from Lerwick (wrongly pronounced ‘Lerrik’) to Bressay (wrongly pronounced ‘Bres-say’) and end up on a completely different island!  I had no idea there were so many Glaswegian accents here – a Shetland or an English accent was nowhere to be heard.  What I expected to be the worst offender, when watching the trailer, was the line, “on a good day you can see Norway from here” [Norway is 200 miles away], but this sort of turned out to be in jest.  I think.  Not quite sure.  And, of course, the fact that not just one but two murders would happen here is incredibly unlikely – as mentioned in the show, a lot of people don’t lock their doors here, and I can’t really remember any murders in my lifetime.  …They got the bit about the terrible phone signal right, however.

Poking at inaccuracies aside, I really wasn’t that impressed in general.  As I said I can’t take an objective view, but the ‘gritty’ style of direction just didn’t appeal to me.  The acting, the dialogue, it all felt so falsely forced.  People are just not that stand-offish with one another, they don’t speak so perfectly… Seeing a TV drama set where I live has exacerbated how forced the genre can be, out of place in the setting, though Shetland felt particularly bad.  And the tinting!  Gosh, is distorting the colours really supposed to make it more engaging?  There really are more colours than grey and green here!

But I did enjoy Part 2 more.  The plot actually began to move, rather than the characters aimlessly travelling around and chatting to faces I’d forget once they left the screen.  The plot gained some momentum and, while never really reaching an effective climax, did begin to engage me.  I enjoyed the Up Helly-Aa scenes.  But, again, I can’t distinguish between the show and the place its set.  How weird it was to see the street I regularly walk down filmed on polished, BBC cameras!  And even weirder to see friends as extras during the crowd scenes.

Overall, it was a very interesting experience watching Shetland, but I’m not convinced I ever actually enjoyed it.  It doesn’t help I have a very low interest in crime dramas at the best of times, I suppose.

Life Updates

I have just finished the first draft of my History dissertation.  This, along with drama rehearsals, is the reason I’ve been rather quiet over the last week.  I’ll hopefully upload it alongside my English dissertation in August, once I have the results (my fear is always that the examiner will do that magical process they have to search for plagiarism, and accuse me of plagiarising myself if they find anything online).

Next week might also be rather dull for this blog.  I’ll be performing in the Shetland Country Drama Festival (a play called Audience by playwright Michael Frayn), while joining the actual audience for two other nights.  I will also hopefully sign up to do some work with Norwegian students visiting our islands in coming weeks in a ‘tall ship’ – being a kind of ambassador would be incredible – and participating in a video conference with a school in South Africa, organised through our history class.  I generally take my excitement for occasions such as these as proof that I could probably cope with working as a journalist.

Oh, and I also recently received an offer from Edinburgh University to study ‘English Literature and History’, which is the course I’ve really been after – although I won’t know for sure until I’ve visited the universities later this month.