Bubble Popping

Remembering being a child blowing bubbles and then chasing them around popping them is not the subject of this missive. Rather I wish to consider the bubbles I live in. These days we live in social bubbles based on where we live, work and socialise. Increasingly it seems that we live more in bubbles of people who think like we do than generations past. A consequence of this bubble living is that we understand less people who are not like us and due to this we seem to be living in a society that doesn’t consider what life is like for people who are different from ourselves. We don’t consider enough people’s backgrounds or how we are different. There seems to be a tendency for this to be exposed when families who live apart gather for Christmas, suddenly we are living with people who live in different bubbles and these bubbles can burst creating arguments.

As children we make a start in life thinking that other people think broadly the same way as we do. We learn to empathise by putting ourselves in others shoes. For example when someoen says that they are hungry, we understand because we know what hunger feels like ourselves. Yet somehow as adults we do this less, perhaps because we think we know enough not to have to do this thinking as often.

So how am I different and what insights have I gained over the past year and what has happened to me this year and to the society I live in.

I am different because I have suffered from anxiety. Living with anxiety led me to analyse my social interactions very deeply, too deeply. Overcoming anxiety was partly a process of letting go, of stopping analysis, of allowing a first impression to be generally correct.

I am also a scientist, which means I have lots of experience dealing with data sets in the attempt to answer questions, to remove sources of bias as much as possible. To be exhaustive in testing data and being cautious about any conclusions reached.

Really it is perhaps safe to assume that most people do not analyse things in such great detail. Indeed, i am often surprised by how little other people seem to analyse issues to what i feel is a decently robust level. So, what has happened this year?

Work

I have not been working in science this year sadly. Instead I have been working in the supposed ‘real world’ in an office working with the largest, but least robust or reliable data sets I have ever had to. I am managed so that i am not given the time to do any rigorous analysis and have to resort to processing data in a a rough and ready way withing very short time-frames. In terms of efficiency of the business, this makes sense as the broad results will generally be improve the business situation and in any case where the results are wrong, a major reason can often be reasonably assumed and the suggestions modified; rather than spending a lot of time getting things robustly right in the first place. Often rigour or deeper analysis is seen as a luxury if there is ever tiem for it. I have found it a challenging way to work, yet it is one that I have found to be shared by sciencey friends who work on the real world; speed is more important than accuracy. Working this way does make me a little uncomfortable at times and I do crave a return to science and ‘doing things properly’. Perhaps this is how most of the world works and how decisions are made, we thus live in a world which makes avoidable mistakes.

Cymraeg /Welsh

I am still learning Welsh, but can speak Welsh now and have become a part of the culture of the Welsh language. I am now exposed a lot more to opinions about the Welsh language from people with no knowledge of Welsh at all. For example complaints about bi-lingual signs. Bi-lingual signs are provided in two languages because there are two main language communities in Wales. If you don’t know anything about the Welsh language, then what exactly is the basis for an opinion on Welsh signage? When I hear the near constant criticism of the Welsh language, which you really notice when you are a Welsh speaker, it does feel like an attack. Yet, i don’t believe it’s an attack it’s perhaps simply a disregard for people with different needs. such ‘attacks’ happen to every grouping who is different from any individual. What i don’t get is why any individual would regard communities they are members of as being ‘normal’ and only these ‘normal’ causes are worthy of attention.

Brexit

Which brings me to Brexit again. The debate about Brexit should be about analysing likely impacts of Brexit on democracy in the UK and likely changes to the economy. Yet during the Brexit vote debate and ever since, this exploration of the costs and benefits of the two options barely gets a mention. Instead Brexit has exacerbated the tensions between people of the right and people of the left and been about which side you are on.

Brexit seems to be a division between those who desire a British mono-culture, similar to that which existed in the post second world war period and those that don’t. So, being of a range of identities and perhaps as a liberal “intellectual” I have to be on the Remain side, despite all my criticisms of the EU. There is no wiggle room for people to ‘switch sides’ even when we never desired to be on one side or the other.

British is one of my identities, yet the Brexiteers position seems to be attacking my British identity, which sees Britain as a union of diverse identities. I am Welsh, it is impossible for me to envisage Britain as a mono-culture, it hasn’t ever been and never will be. The terms of the debate now have entrenched the UK population into this division and the opinion polls suggest that eighteen months on from Brexit are still 50:50 and will probably remain so.

I fear this focus on this irreconcilable division at the expense of working out what is the best way forward isn’t helpful at all. If only someone could find a solution that everyone can unify behind, but it seems the likelihood of that happening is infinitely small.

Popping Bubbles

What I really find difficult to deal with, especially with the Brexiteers, is this adopting a position that doesn’t hold up to any serious analysis even when data breaks those positions. There is merit in not analysing everything to death, to adopt a position that works okay for now, but there should always be a readiness to accept that it is inaccurate and develop a new position. This maxim applies in science and social life and especially politics where we live in an ever changing world. It allows us to be independently thinking individuals and not suffer in a herd mentality of one size fits all.

The whole Blue Passports issue came up over Christmas. If people want the UK passport to be blue, fair enough. I’m not bothered about its colour, really I’d like a Welsh passport. However, when it is pointed out that 1, The UK passport was never blue, my parents had the old style ones and I looked at them at Christmas, one is black, the other is a very dark blue and not navy blue at all and 2, The EU did not prevent the UK government changing passport colour if it really wanted to anyway. Yet despite these two facts, people still try and maintain that blue passports is an important issue, in spite of the facts.

As I see it, life is about deciding when to engage with deeper analysis and when to just move forward with a quickly framed rough and ready position that is good enough for now, enabling us to live in the moment. As an anxious person, I needed to learn how to do the latter. However for the new year, I really believe that we need to consider other people more and that means accepting that our first answer may need some testing and analysis of data from beyond our cozy bubbles. Next year lets keep running around popping bubbles, be open to new ideas and consider other people.

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Eisteddfod #2

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I picked up some Czech hitchhikers on their holidays on my way to the Eisteddfod this year and was asked where I was headed: ‘What is the National Eisteddfod?’ It isn’t an easy question to answer, because the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol is so much more than simply a cultural festival. This was my second proper Eisteddfod. So having having learnt about the Eisteddfod last year and done it a little more knowledgeably this year, it’s time I should teach someone else how to do it.

It is important to tell people about the Eisteddfod, as so many people in Wales, previously myself included, don’t go to the Eisteddfod or follow it in the media because of this strange phenomenon of being ‘intimidated by the language [Cymraeg/ Welsh]. I know, my very first Eisteddfod experience was when I was fifteen and got a job as a plate scrubber on the Maes when it came to my area and  I was like ‘I don’t speak Welsh, people will expect me to speak Welsh, arghhh!’ This is really just plain silly, so many people are missing out on quite a wonderful event, which can be enjoyed whether you speak Welsh or not. So, I hope the following guide will help people overcome any feelings of intimidation about going next year.

Cystadlaethau / Competitions

Eisteddfodau are essentially a collection of competitions in various art forms, predominantly cerddoriaeth [Music and poetry, which are essentially the same thing]. The grand poetry prize of the Eisteddfod is the Chair [Eistedd = to sit, on the cadair [chair]] The competitions are the very serious bit  at the National Eisteddfod. Personally I used to have a problem with competition in art, because it’s an oxymoron, you don’t do creative things to win things, that isn’t the point. However after two Eisteddfodau [Eisteddfods] I have been convinced. I have heard so many hugely talented young musicians at the Eisteddfod, who just completely push themselves to give their very best at the Eisteddfod and I have been blown away so many times by their performances. There are so many competitions to enjoy, particularly if you love the sound of the telyn [Harp] as much as I do. You do not need to understand Welsh to appreciate the music.

I’m sure there are many people who have a blissful week, just listening to the competitions, yet there are also people who spend the entire week not listening to a single competition, there is so much else going on.

Gwyl Cerddoriaeth/ Music Festival

Outside the competitions, the Eisteddfod is also a celebration of Welsh language culture. So, the Eisteddfod is also a regular music festival, with the best of Welsh language bands and singers on lots of different stages giving performances throughout the day and into the evening, so you can treat the Eisteddfod as just another music festival. So yes, expensive beer and food stands a plenty! Yet again, there is no need to speak Welsh to enjoy music is there? This is my favourite part of it because I love Welsh popular [?] music, yet, liking classical music as well sometimes a competitive performance will win me over! Yet there is still more.

Theatr / Theatre

There are a couple of theatres at the Eisteddfod giving performances of plays and other things by established Welsh theatre companies. The great thing about theatrical performances is that you can follow the story through actions and tone of voice and can really enjoy a show without understanding a single word, which I’ve often done whilst travelling, which is actually a really good primeval way to watch a drama unfold.

There are also actors who wander around in bizarre costumes looking for members of the public to interact and do silly things with. This year some ladies  with lampshade heads were dancing with me.

Y Babell Len a Pabell Cymdeithas/ The ‘Curtain Tent’? [ I am still learning Welsh I’m not sure of this translation!] and the Societies Tent

I know there are some people who don’t like music. I don’t understand these strange folk, but they do exist, maybe you are one of them? So in these tents there are a host of lectures and discussions about all manner of topics. They are in Welsh of course and even I, after eighteen months of learning Welsh, only understand about half of what is said. So, there is this mini Welsh Hay festival going on too.

It is worth going just to experience simultaneous translation. Basically the translator listens to the Welsh and then instantly translates it into English to you via headphones. These people are amazing, to be able to keep listening in one language, translate and  speak in another language, while continuing to listen in another language, without going completely mad is such a high level skill and so impressive.

Y Stondin / The Stands

All of the above can be overwhelming and far too exciting, so you may need a break,  angen paned o goffi [need a cup of coffee]  and the opportunity to stretch your legs for a bit. So head to the stands. The stands are essentially trade stands , but so much more. There are squillions of book shops to stock up on Welsh language books, because, sadly, most bookshops don’t stock books in Welsh, I understand there are some books in English too, lots of other shops to browse/ buy cakes from, but also the stands of various organisations in Wales, where you can find out about what they do, have a nice chat in whichever language you fancy, a paned and often these stands hold their own musical performances and programmes of discussions too. Sometimes you will stumble on some very strange yet wonderful things:

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‘Classifieds y Farmers Guardian’ gan y Welsh Whisperer

 

Pethau eraill / Other Things

As if all that wasn’t enough there is also an art gallery, a history museum, a science and technology tent (well this tent seems to largely cater to keeping children entertained with fun things to do, but worth a going as an adult too).

If you are Welsh you will also meet random people from your childhood/ earlier life, which is always nice. So there is so much to enjoy and do and I haven’t even mentioned Y Gorsedd, who wear strange robes and perform strange rituals at various points of the week and carry around a very large sword; it’s ok, mae’n heddwch [there is peace]. I have no idea what happens if there isn’t peace…

There is so much to do and enjoy at the Eisteddfod. I went for just three days this year and didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to and wished I could have had more time. And you really don’t need to speak any Welsh at all, a simple  ‘Dw i ddim yn siarad Cymraeg’ / ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ is all that is required if someone seems to be speaking Welsh at you.

Of course if you are learning Welsh, the Eisteddfod is an amazing playground to practice speaking and listening and the more Welsh you know, the more a part of the Eisteddfod you will become. Personally I did indeed enjoy the Eisteddfod even more with another year of Welsh under my belt. However even if you have zero Welsh, timetables and maps are provided in English to help non-Welsh speakers navigate their way around the Eisteddfod, it’s very accessible and very friendly, there is no need to feel intimidated at all.

Just cofio [remember] that Welsh speakers have to speak in English all the time, every day, so really appreciate the Maes as a place where they can speak in Welsh all day yn gyntaf [firstly], yet are happy to speak English with anyone who hasn’t learnt to speak Welsh yet. Speaking in Welsh isn’t being rude and neither is speaking in English rude as long as you are willing to listen and communicate as you can. It’s ridiculous that this non-issue comes up so often. Rant over

Amgylch y Maes / Around the Maes

Y Maes / The Maes / The ‘field’ is where all the action described above takes place. I and others are not sure how this is going to work next year when the Eisteddfod will be in the centre of Cardiff, the Welsh capital, but the concept of the Maes is quite important I think. However there are other ‘Maeses’ which can confuse the uninitiated:

Maes B

Maes B is usually located outside the main Maes. It contains an adult campsite (the cheapest place to stay at the Eisteddfod!) it is generally full of young Welsh speakers. Indeed spending a week at Maes B is regarded as a rite of passage for young Welsh speaking adults, to chill and make new friends. Also, for the last four nights of the Eisteddfod the big names of Welsh rock perform late night concerts on the Maes B stage in front of the aforementioned young and now often quite drunk people. It is quite an experience, though there are usually a few old fogies like me bopping away ar y cefn [at the back]

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Helo Maes B!

Maes C

Maes C ( Maes Carafannau a Campio) isn’t very exciting, it is simply the camp site next to the Maes where families stay, it’s quite pricey and books up early.

Maes D

Confusingly, Maes D, Maes y Dysgwr [Learners Maes] isn’t really a Maes as it’s part of the main Maes itself, it is found next to the Mynedfa (Entrance) and is the Welsh learners tent. I think the  idea is that you pop in to learn some Welsh over a paned to prepare you for entry to the Maes proper.  A place if you lack confidence in your Welsh, or somewhere supportive to ymarfer siarad [practice speaking], want to learn a few phrases or to start the day with a reasonably priced coffee, give Maes D a visit. Maes D also has it’s own stage, for Welsh lessons, discussions and a few musical performances tailored to those not yet rhugl [fluent]

Maes E

There is no Maes E. Well there is the song ‘Maes E‘ by Datblygu about the Eisteddfod experience. Incidentally , the song which I heard them perform at my very first Eisteddfod when I was fifteen! However, there is usually an Eisteddfod ‘fringe’ of competitions, discussions, gigs etc held at venues close to the Maes, but not ‘officially’ part of the Eisteddfod.

So there you are then, a guide to the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol. Just by reading this article you probably have enough Welsh to enjoy the Eisteddfod.

Edrych ymlaen i weli di ar y maes flwyddyn nesaf [Looking forward to seeing you on the Maes next year]!

Language Personality

One of the most fascinating things about learning a second language is the phenomenon of seeming to have a different personality in a second language. I do feel a different person when I’m using Welsh and I know other learners who experience a similar thing.

There are many possible explanations for this phenomena. Firstly there is the possibility of the language structure being different, that things are expressed differently in other languages, so this may have some bearing on feeling different, that perhaps languages themselves have different personalities. Indeed we often talk about how people from different countries in general have national personality traits and a part of this may be due to the native language.

However, I feel that other forces may be at work, related to the process of language learning as an adult. Learning to use a second language is not just learning the language itself, it is a re-working of social skills. The language learner is thrust into communicating with a considerable lack of vocabulary and an ignorance of the many nuances of fluent speakers. So, these basic skills have to be re-learnt, explored again. It is like being a child again, having the freedom to experiment, to find what works and what doesn’t. It is just an awful lot of fun, without the feeling of having to demonstrate competence, to conform to sets of rules and be a lot more free. The language learner, whilst nervous about speaking in their new language also relishes opportunities to practise communication in the new language and a part of that is learning through experimentation.

So, in a sense, in the new language as people we are largely letting go of our systems, of our social rules, there is a sense that we can be who we really want to be. We no longer have to act a role, or rely on acting as ourselves and can be more just ourselves. We can allow facets of our personality that are suppressed in our native tongue to flourish and be played with again. Learning allows us the chance to play.

Someone said to me recently that they are an introvert in English, yet in Welsh they feel like an extrovert. I get this, I too, feel more like an extrovert in Welsh. The question is how much is this a product of wanting the practice in the language and to speak to lots of different people that otherwise I would perhaps be less inclined to chat with, that we are more happy about being sociable with people for extended periods to live in the language, rather than in ourselves. We are not yet capable of being fully ourselves in the new language, as we lack enough experience of expressing all our everyday thoughts and feelings, so as we explore the language we also explore ourselves. It’s like we have to re-build our personality for the new language. So, perhaps we wish to play at being an extrovert.

It is very much like being a child again. We desire expressing ourselves. Indeed we want to talk about our joy in simple pleasures, even if it’s just doing an everyday thing like buying somethign in a shop in the second language. Doing anything for the first time is always a thrill, which becomes more routine and everyday when doing things for the umpteenth time. So learning a second language gives us a huge number of opportunities to do things for the first time. I recently got drunk for the first time in Welsh and it joyful to make myself understood without feeling obliged to speak in proper sentences, to make more jokes and laugh, an experience akin to when I got drunk for the very first time.

So, the question is whether the increased extroversion is simply a product of seeking social experiences in Welsh, whether it’s a more fundamental desire to be more of an extrovert or do we simply have different personalities in different languages. It is such a fascinating question. I now have friends whom I have never or rarely speak in English with and I don’t really know if we would have exactly the same relationship in English.

Please comment below if you have any thoughts on this as I would be really interested to know. I would be especially interested in hearing from bilingual people in other languages; does using a different language change how you behave?