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?

Fear of Welsh

A lot of people are afraid of the Welsh language. I think that there are a lot of complex reasons for this rather odd fear.

I have just done a whole week in the Welsh language, doing everything in the language, living in a house with fellow Welsh learners under the guidance of our tutor. I remember feeling somewhat scared about the prospect of only speaking in Welsh for a whole week as we sat around the dining room table preparing not to use English.  I was nervous of losing the comfort blanket of my first language for a whole week.

Yet, it was an enormous amount of fun. Perhaps the most important aspect of the no other languages rule for the week was not being able to ask: “What is the word for X in Welsh/ Beth ydy’r gair am X yn Cymraeg?”, not being able to use a dictionary and having to rely on finding ways to describe things with my limited Welsh vocabulary or simply using gestures. This also meant not being able to use the internet for a whole week.

The result of this single rule was to live in the Welsh language, to think in the Welsh language, to enter an entirely different world really. Instead of simply looking for the equivalent English word or expression, I  lived in Welsh, enabling a close personal relationship with the language. It was a very special and unique experience. Indeed it is one most Welsh speakers never experience, as Welsh speakers always encounter someone who can’t speak Welsh in any given week, or simply use an English word for somethign they don’t know how to express in Welsh.

It was very very mentally tiring not being able to use the vast amount of understanding of the English language I have acquired. English almost became a ‘foreign’ language, which meant that sometimes when walking in the street and overhear someone speaking English, it would sound odd and garbled as I was indeed thinking and being in Welsh.

There were a couple of occasions during the week when I would encounter fear of Welsh from English speakers. The first time was when as a group we were laughing and joking  about a Welsh sign. A man approached and asked ‘Are you lost?’ As we couldn;t speak English someone said ‘Dan ni’n iawn diolch [We’re fine thanks]’ and smiled. A smile is almost universal and I’m sure he understood that we needed no help, however he persisted ‘I don’t speak Welsh’. I made an apologetic face ‘Dan ni’n iawn, diolch, rhaid i ni siarad yn Gymraeg yn unig [We have to only speak in Welsh]’. Suddenly he raised his voice ‘ I said that I don’t speak Welsh, you are being very rude’. At which point our tutor, who was allowed to speak English, intervened to try and explain this unique circumstance and an argument proceeded. The thing is this is a fairly unique aspect of Wales and the Welsh language , in that almost every Welsh speaker can speak English too and many monoglot English speakers are troubled by the Welsh language as this man obviously was, he felt threatened by it, that he has encountered a rare situation where he was unable to communicate. The thing is in most of the rest of the world this doesn’t happen, you cannot assume a knowledge of English you encounter people who don’t speak English and you do communicate with gesture and tone of voice and broad feelings are communicated. Having said that there are Welsh speakers who don’t speak English, in Patagonia in South America, a bilingual Welsh-Spanish speaking community and indeed a few Welsh learners from non-English speaking countries. The man had an negative attitude to the Welsh language and was hostile towards it.

I experienced this again after the language immersion experience. For the first day after, i stayed predominantly in Welsh. I visited a local castle and asked for my ticket in Welsh, quite naturally, The lady at the counter responded ‘I don’t speak Welsh’ at which point i reverted to using English and asked politely for a ticket in English, however she shied back from the counter and another lady took over my transaction. Another encounter with fear of the language.

Of course as a learner of Welsh I regularly experience language fear when talking to strangers, particularly first language Welsh speakers, especially when you don’t know their attitude to a Welsh learner. It’s partly a fear of being judged on your ability and risk of appearing to be a simpleton, which in effect you are at the time, and this is coupled with all the incessant language politics we suffer on a daily basis in Wales. My week in Welsh, has helped me grow my confidence in Welsh so much, being in Welsh I don’t have the cloying memories of anxiety I experience in English. It’s like I have a different version of my personality in the Welsh language.

As English speakers, we are just incredibly lucky to be able to travel in so much of the world in our first language, so many British people, never learn another language, never placing themselves in a situation where they have to learn to use another language to communicate. I think that some of these people simply find it threatening when people use non-English languages in Britain, the phrase ‘Why don’t they speak English’ is often heard in the certain circles in English society, lobbied at the Welsh speaking community and other language communities. However, an I have learnt that being able to exist in another language is a truly wonderful experience. As a Welsh speaker, sometimes I want to experience the world in Welsh and sometimes in English. Hiding within only one language and being hostile or fearful of other languages is just a very odd desire, to want everyone else to be as similar to you as possible. As learners we now our fearful feelings are somethign to get over to leave behind, non language learners ar perhaps not ready to take a risk in a new situation and wish to remain fearful?

 

Awakenings

Waking up to a new day, a new start, a whole day of possibilities is a very wonderful thing. However, it often doesn’t feel like it, often we are worried about all sorts of things or just feel like we can’t face it this morning. So, when we go to bed there is a sense of not knowing what things will be like in the morning. For those who suffer from anxiety or depression this sense of the unknown is not a neutral thing, it grinds us down with excessive worrying.

Waking up in a broader figurative sense, with a full realisation that much of your own worries are unnecessary, turns those rare happy bouncy days into somethign more regular, more likely. When there is a bad day, there is a real reason for it, such as bad news. This is what waking up from or recovering from anxiety is like, the troubles come from the world rather than from inside ourselves.

Perhaps the greatest thing about not being anxious anymore is being able to feel with other people, to be on the same track as other people some of the time, to share success together or even endure bad times together on the same emotional wavelength. This enables a real sense of connection with other people, enabling you to be open with people and it not to be terribly inappropriate and enabling you to empathise with what others are communicating to you.

To be anxious is to be living with a big shield around you, it’s stops people getting in and stops you getting out. It’s a pointless shield, cutting yourself off from your own emotions and those of people you care about. Of course you need to protect yourself from chaos, but some trust in the world and other people is necessary, you have to go an journey and trust that it will be all-right, that there aren’t monsters lurking around the corner. I think that in the modern world to increase trust in the world at the very time the world is becoming less trustworthy as our sense of community is under attack

This is what recovery from anxiety gives you. The first flush of super positivity and energy from getting there is amazing. Once you get used to it you realise some quite important things.

Firstly that modern society has got it so wrong, we are all increasingly living in our own worlds, we are not communities that bond together and share the ups and downs, we are on our own rides, much like the person suffering anxiety or depression.

Secondly, a sense that we post-anxiety people are always going to be on this different ride, simply because all those years we have suffered anxiety and cut ourselves off from the world we have learned social skills in a much different way to other people. We have learnt social rules in an academic way, through trial and error, to find ways of getting by and causing the least damage to ourselves and to other people. Whereas the non-anxious learn more ‘naturally’ with their feelings bouncing off others feelings and finding what works well, rather than what limits damage.

The difficulty with getting older is that we have more responsibilities and less time to play, less time to learn, so there is a sense of knowing that we will never really catch up with these abilities, the shadow of anxiety will always remain with us. This is compounded by the fact that other people do find it odd that as a more mature person you are acting like someone much younger and you just have to blot that out to keep learning and not drift back to anxiety.

It’s unlike learning a second language, where you can put the time and effort in to catch up on the language skills. Yet, second language learners know they will never quite gain that true fluency that comes from learning a first language. It’s like second language speakers miss out on being a child in that second language. Even though we can play like a child in the language we will never be children in the language. I think it’s a different thing with learning Welsh and being Welsh because many of us are learning a language that we wish we had been brought up in, rather than learning a foreign language to better explore a different culture somewhere else in the world. There is a sense of it being bizarre to learn a ‘native’ language later in life. Yet it isn’t!

It isn’t because it’s the same thing as overcoming anxiety, it’s learning a set of skills that we should have learnt when we were much younger. But, you can’t be young again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn and make your own life better.

Anyway, I’m off to live in a closed community for a week, an immersion week of Welsh only, no English, no other languages, just Welsh, kind of trying to experience growing up in Welsh! I’m really looking forward to it, it’s such a rare thing outside of families and when grown up and so very special.

Oh, and the UK is suddenly having a General Election. I have so much to say about that. It seems to be about a battle for Britain and those of us who feel a part of Britain, whether Welsh, Scots, Cornish, Northumbrian or even just English, of those for Britain and those against. Those who seek to divide and those who seek unity. Those against Britain are miles ahead in the polls, it’s very disturbing, so I feel that I should do whatever I can for the dear people of these isles. Anyway, but that’ll be for when I’m back here at this keyboard and knocking on people’s doors. If you are in the UK and thinking about voting Tory or UKIP, please please please please think very hard about whether that choice is really the best for Britain.

Hwyl fawr tan tro nesaf / Goodbye until next time

The Art of Language

The study of language has always been lumped together with the arts as an academic discipline. However it is only today that I have really connected how language, specifically learning a second language is really what art is all about.

We don’t learn a second language in order to communicate or to get by in another language; though sometimes this is why people learn a language as adults. We learn a second language to discover new ways of communicating. We learn how to express thoughts and ideas in a different way and when we receive thoughts and ideas through another language those ideas are quite different.

Essentially these new avenues of expression are the function of art, to express things in ways that are outside of our everyday language, so we can see and hear things in new interesting and enjoyable ways.

Probably the closest art form to language learning is poetry. Most languages have rich poetic traditions, because everyday words are combined in new ways to express different thoughts. This is exactly what we do when using a second language. It’s like we have instant access to art by trying to express the same thought in a second language, we instantly have a subtly different version of the initial thought that can be in itself thought provoking by making us view that thought in a different way.

Everything is somehow a different world in a second language and there is of course new realms of art of writing and music to explore in that language as a speaker of that language. Strangely this art argument for learning new languages seems to be seldom used to promote language learning. It is reason enough to learn  as a bonus to being able to understand more people in their native tongue.

The differences between language learning and the other arts is that use of the second language is not usually done with the intent of producing or appreciating art. There are no great works of language learning, the process is too messy to ever be considered great art. However for the individual learner this process is very much like the mental processes involved in absorbing ideas from great pieces of art.

Ignorance of Welsh

Anwybodaeth – Ignorance

Well, here’s a new word for the day, always an exciting moment for the language learner. We can see ‘gwybod- to know’ hiding away inside anwybodaeth, which in itself is a rather wonderful concept.

As a Welshman, I often have to tolerate ignorance of the language, not just knowledge of the language itself, but ignorance towards it.

I grew up as a non-Welsh speaker, in a part of Wales where speakers of the language were few and far between. The only Welsh speaker I knew personally was my great-uncle and he lived in Surrey, England. At school, we made jokes about the Welsh teachers and this funny little language they tried unsuccessfully to teach us. At high school we even had classmates whose parents took them out of Welsh classes as it was a ‘dead language’. Yet, growing up in Wales most of us held a sense of being supportive and respectful of the language, despite the jokes we made about it.

As we grew older, we slowly began to realise how odd, how unusual it is to be in a country with a minority language, where it is one of many other minority languages such as Hindi, Arabic, Polish, Mandarin or Spanish, but where that minority language is the native language of the country, a language much older than the concept of the nation of Wales. The non-Welsh speaking Welsh, as I once was, have this strange relationship with the language. We put up with the hassle of bilingual information as we feel a sense of guilt about not speaking Welsh, or a sense of anger perhaps that our family lost use of the language in only recent generations, or that our English ancestors played a hand in trying to suppress it. Whilst feeling supportive of the language, we are always aware that the Welsh-Welsh, as we called them, who seemed were much more passionate about the language than we were, I used to often hear ‘oh she’s very Welsh she is’ this being in Wales! Also, we felt a little bit scared of learning the language, for fear we would turn into some rabid nationalist, ever cursing the oppression of the English.

I believe everyone in Wales knows that learning Cymraeg,  the language of Wales is a political act. Really, if it wasn’t such a political act I feel fewer people would be put off learning it. Yet, we all boisterously sing the national anthem ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau’ and in particular ‘O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau – Long may the old language continue’

And then I decided to learn Welsh and things changed. The change being that instead of supporting this facet of Welsh life, I became part of it. There is this strange moment in learning a language, where it ceases to be simply an academic exercise and you accept the language fully into you. Even though I am far from fluent and attempting to write this essay in Welsh would require huge amounts of effort and result in hundreds more mistakes, I now feel as though I am a member of the Welsh speaking community. It’s not that I feel any more or less ‘Welsh’, rather that I simply have an extra dimension of Welshness, a new language to be Welsh, or English (which is lots of fun), or indeed anything else  in.

As I am a Welsh speaker, it is obvious to me that it is a living breathing language, that I always now have a choice, to use Welsh or English, or even any other language I become passably proficient in. It’s this choice, that seems to be the root cause of all the language politics. Welsh is still a minority language, and us Welsh people, being a generally polite bunch, don’t like speaking when there are people present who can’t understand what we are saying. I lived in a town with numerous Welsh speakers, and they never uttered a word of Welsh to me, until that is I started speaking to them in Welsh. However, people have come to realise that if we only speak Welsh with other Welsh speakers, then the language will die, it will cease to be a living language. Is it really fair that Welsh should die, just because it has lived peacefully alongside what became the worlds lingua-franca (English) for it’s entire life? where is English’s respect for it’s elders? Really what is so difficult about saying:

‘Mae’n ddrwg gen i, dw i ddim yn siarad cymraeg’ well you might struggle with that, but probably not if you went to school in Wales,  so how about:  ‘Sorry, I don’t speak Welsh’. No-one will bite your ears off for saying this, even at the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol, whenever someone starts a conversation in Welsh with you.

No, it isn’t the most wonderful experience to be somewhere surrounded by people speaking another language, we’ve all been there at some point. Usually we just go ‘well I am in the middle of Africa, i shouldn’t really expect everyone to speak English’, so why don’t people think this in deepest darkest Wales? You do have theluxury of still being able to communicate in English, which isn’t always the case in Africa and you can always learn the language if you want to join in the fun. It’s optional, no-one is actually forcing anyone to speak this language, but it is a living language, so the option to speak,  read signs or whatever in Welsh should always be there for those that do speak.

I can almost hear the usual critiques wailing ‘but why should children be ‘forced’ to learn Welsh at school’, yet these people generally have no problem with teaching children to read, do sums, learn about science, or history, or Finnish literature,well that’s usually only an option, unless you happen to be in Finland. This is the point, no-one in Finland says ‘why should my child have to learn about Finnish literature, they can read in English! So, really, why should it be any different in Wales?

And then people go on about the money it costs to produce material in two languages. It doesn’t cost that much and I’ll wager there are at least a hundred things the government waste much more money on than supporting a native language. Welsh is valuable anyway, it is not until you can speak more than one language that you realise how restrictive, how bias any individual language is.

This is the thing, you more you learn about Welsh, or really any other subject, the more you encounter ignorant views about it. Why isn’t there more awareness about ignorance. Why do we now seem to live in a world where a view is equally valid from someone with no knowledge of the subject? I rarely hear news about life in say, Laos. If I hear some news from Laos, I may well have an opinion about it, but I wouldn’t dream of thinking that my ill informed view is as important as the opinion of a Laotian about it. Yet why do some people seem to think opinions about Welsh are valid without an understanding of Welsh. Yes, outside opinion is often useful, but decisions should be made with the best available evidence and that surely has to involve the Welsh speaking community.

The thing is, now that Welsh is a part of me, I am now more protective about the language. Any attack on the language feels like an attack on me and all the other Welsh speakers. It is so easy to forget that in becoming a member of something, you can forget , or become ignorant of what it like to be ignorant of it. Nothing is wrong about someone in England making jokes about Welsh, to them it is just this funny little language they may have heard on a summer holiday in Wales. After all that is what is was to me when I was young and ignorant of the language.

We should respect and tolerate ignorance, no-one can know everything but no-one should try and ascribe equal value to views based on ignorance.

The Language of Brexit

This blog is perhaps a vehicle for my tirade against the world that almost everything exists as spectra, the world is not binary. Perhaps language itself is partly responsible for this and Brexit seems a good example of this.

Language is rarely precise, this is why we have poetry to be able to express ideas and that there is always more than one way of expressing the same thing. We use language as a kind of shorthand. We reduce long lengthy explanations to just a few words and expect that we will be understood. Indeed we often ask if our shorthand has been understood by adding an ‘isn’t it’ or something similar to the end of our sentences. We refer to things such as national characteristics, that we hope our audience may share an understanding of to enable higher level discussions. Complex discussions are only possible when the basic concepts are understood. Through this very process of creating shorthand, we often reduce complex nuances thoughts to a few words, thus creating binaries, it is or it isn’t to spectral ideas. The first words we lean are often Yes, no and not. Later we learn the much more complex vocabulary of quite, very and slightly. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the binaries created in language are not real binaries.

The Brexit referendum was itself making the complex position of the UK in the EU into a simple for or against, to which many people wished to answer: ‘yes But…’ or ‘no But…’ often with very big buts. The issue of immigration is perhaps the biggest theme of the debate. Indeed, the meaning of the very word ‘immigration’ has subtly changed through the various debates. Whilst we know what immigration is, the movement of people into an area, the word has come to mean lots of different things to different people. In a sense this one word has lost it’s practical meaning in being a shorthand for a concept.

Even as a binary opionion, people are not for or against immigration, this is almost absurd. Most people are of the opinion that there should be less immigration into the UK. However how much less, what specific types of people are to be restricted is a huge complicated spectra. Yet, arguably Brexit won the vote when Nigel Farage said ‘the only way the UK can regulate immigration is by leaving the EU’, however exactly how this is to be achieved has not really been made clear, that;s the complicated bit and i would argue we don’t have the democratic structure to enable this to be implemented well. Lots of other things have to be sorted out for benefits to come about.

Yet, the issue of immigration in the UK is not even a simple ‘how much less?’ question as there is a whole spectra of arguments for why immigration should be reduced.

At one end of the spectra is the the cultural argument, that some  people simply don’t like ‘too many’ people from different cultures living amongst the native population, for all sorts of reasons. This position is very close to racism, but not in itself racist. However racists will have this opinion. Indeed UKIP have used this argument to appeal to people with racist views, but cleverly hidden behind statements that are not in themselves racist. If you get the cultural argument and agree with it, it is simple to agree with this argument.

At the other end of this spectra is the economic argument: That a high net level of immigration is bad for the economy. The UK is economically unbalanced between the North and the South. The UK population doesn’t produce workers with the right skills, geographically where organisations require them. The UK economy found a work around to this in importing workers through immigration. The UK called out to the people of the British Empire to come and help rebuild Britain after the Second World war, so the UK now has significant populations from India and the Caribbean. These immigrants did suffer a lot of racism that we have made progress in moving on from that, these populations are now reasonably integrated into British society. However the more recent influxes from central Europe were to take jobs the resident population were unable to fill, rather than unwilling to fulfill. The argument is that it would simply be better if the UK arranged it’s economy so that it did produce the workers it required. We are now in the position where we have to import Doctors and Nurses as we don’t produce these skilled workers natively. We have a shortage of medical doctors in Mid-Wales which  seems absurd as GPs are quite well paid. We don’t produce these workers naively because of the housing crisis, declining education standards and  a declining healthcare system where doctors are over-worked. We are asking young people to go into a six figure debt to fund their own training, to do a job where they have to do a ten year induction before they achieve salaries that can re-pay their student debt, without mentioning, that during this 15 year period, we expect them to subsidise those who own property, save money for their own housing which is more expensive every year and somehow find the money to bring up their own children before they are too old. Is it any surprise that people do something else and leave these skilled jobs for immigrants who study somewhere where the cost of living is much less. There is the  argument I heard during the Brexit campaign from people in areas with negligible immigration, people were concerned about immigration, because it meant jobs went elsewhere and didn’t come to their area (South Wales). This even applies to high earners, who refuse to accept offers of work from London as they can’t afford the housing costs there. London is harder to move to for a British person than it is to move abroad. The other part of this argument is that the failure of successive governments to provide housing , education and healthcare befitting a 1st world economy, has finally come to popular light and simply immigration, whilst papering over some systemic problems with the UK economy, puts additional pressure on housing, education and hospital places, which are still not being sorted out,., I would argue because of deficient democracy. This economic argument for reduced immigration is a lot more complex and nuanced than can be summed up in a single word ‘immigration’, so left an centre politicians struggle to communicate it effectively.

Essentially, it seems the population of the UK at large has woken up to the failures of the political consensus, or the establishment of the centre-right orthodoxy that has somehow held sway for the last thirty years. There is a widely felt understanding that the consensus was indeed wrong and has failed; as it was predicted thirty years ago that it would. However, there is no clear answer to the UK’s problems. There are two main forces seeking to implement their solutions, the liberal centre and the populist right. both of these groups with very different visions of what to do with Brexit, both groups share the frustration of never having been in political office to implement their visions. Largely because of the UKs binary democracy, that prevents non consensus ideas being implemented, and that the consensus view is itself a minority. Somehow the centre-right orhodoxy is still in power and not popularly opposed. The establishment is cleverly playing the two sides against each other to retain it’s own grip on power.

A serious Brexit government would be out there consulting widely, forging agreements and finding ways to make Brexit work for the UK economy. Instead they are arguing amongst themselves behind closed doors. Perhaps the idea is that all the division and dithering over Brexit will eventually mean that popular calls for Brexit are eventually dropped and the centre-right can continue as normal. This is frustrating the Brexiteers, who fear Brexit may never happen, but turning their ire against the centre-liberal ‘remoaners’, who never wanted this mess in the first place, it’s a distraction for us from the real work of making the UK economy stronger and a better place to live and work..

Which is all largely as I predicted. I was against Brexit, not out of love for the EU, but simply that the chances of making Brexit work well were tiny.What the UK needs more than anything is electoral reform, but this is challenging to argue for when there are so many other things going on. However , we need a system that enables the right decisions to be made and the current system proves again and again, that it is incapable of implementing the right solutions, or even basing it’s decisions on evidence based data.

If there is to be an alternative, the odds are stacked towards the populist right. Indeed as they were in the 1930s when the fascists were able to capture the popular imagination more than the communists, in Western Europe at least. Favoured, simply because the populist right can use the word ‘immigration’ as shorthand for their dislike of different people, whereas the liberal left have the much more complex, nuanced economic argument that will get lost in the clamour of what passes for debate in the main stream media these days.  Essentially, it is a battle for whose meaning of a word becomes the consensus and it is much easier to do this with a simpler message, one that can be repeated often until people accept it. After all hate is simple, hope is more complex.

Maybe, the nature of language is at the heart of why political debates can be won with flawed arguments, through clever rhetoric. A symbol, a word, can be more powerful than a concept or a sentence. Such symbols have the power to change the world.

My first day on the Maes

Having spent six months or so learning to speak Welsh, I was keen to go to this years National Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is essentially a celebration of the Welsh language and culture. It’s primary purpose is for artists to perform in competition in front of a panel of judges. In many ways it is much like any other outdoor festival, there are various stages and venues hosting a wide variety of events: music, literature and Welsh culture. So, the usual lots of fun in a muddy field, portable toilets, food and drink stalls and other commercial stands promoting their wares.

It was an amazing day out and is just very Welsh. Welsh celebrities are everywhere and are approachable and happy to talk to people. Indeed the main point of the festival, like any other festival is to chat to people and enjoy yourself. Having learnt just about enough Welsh to be able to converse in Welsh, it was even more fun to be part of this language theme park.

I enjoyed a political discussion, listened to a storyteller, listened to bands perform, bumped into so many people I know and seen more harps in a day than I have ever seen in my life and went to a harp playing competition. As the Welsh language predominates, Welsh speakers are a culture of around 500,000 people + learners, so has a vibe of inclusivity and friendliness that I haven’t experienced at any other festival, you just feel welcomed by the huge ‘Croeso’ [Welcome] in large red friendly letters. I love the harp, I think it’s an astounding musical instrument and the performer who won the competition I sat through was simply overflowing with talent and musicality.

Anyway, I’ll keep this blog entry short, as I’m going back again tomorrow to meet up with a group of fellow Welsh learners. I’m on a positive vibe, away from the all the politics and Brexit nonsense for a change!

Curing Masculinism

You do occasional here about so called ‘masculinism’ these days as a ‘response’ to feminism, from people who don’t appear to understand feminism in the slightest. As a male myself, collectively men seem so far behind women in getting over trying to be something expected of us by our birth gender role. Both men and women are swamped by images of how what our gender should dress like, behave, enjoy etc. and if you don’t quite fit within this definition or at least play along with it, tough, you’re an outcast. Not only is this limiting and destructive, it is so boring and limiting. For example the idea that I grew up with that ‘Boys don’t cry’, beautifully parodied by my favourite band ‘The Cure’. It took me years before I regained the ability to cry when I was upset. How is it great and ‘manly’ to not feel sad about sad things because we are ‘tough’ that we are don’t want to be affected by anything or have to actually deal with it. So many men, never get over this restriction.

Children very quickly pick up these gender stereotypes and very quickly conform to them. There is evidence to suggest that this conformity is the child demonstrating that they have understood. Society does indeed seem to encourage the development of ‘masculine’ traits for boys and ‘feminine’ ones for girls. However in Western culture particularly we have started to question these gender roles. Really, back in ‘cavemen’ times [or should it be cavepeople? oh wait they didn’t actually live in caves (sic)] it helped society together than the generally larger stronger sex went out hunting. However in an increasingly urban world, there is no need to encourage hunting skills, so why does society have this tendency to stick with these traditions?

Then there is a form of sexism that some men have of expecting women to behave in a ‘feminine’ way, which I don’t get at all. The logic seems to be well I have chosen to conform to a definition of masculinity, so I expect everyone else to conform this way too, even the other gender.Or is it more than this, there is this idea to teach people to conform as the idea as doing this will make your life easier, you will fit in and not stand out. However, it seems that these days success is achieved by the people who do stand out, who do take a different direction.

Often other men ask me “But don’t you like women wearing pretty dresses?” because what I find attractive in women, doesn’t fit the algorithm for how it seems most mean assess or a woman’s attractiveness.

Well I do like women wearing pretty dresses, wearing make up and having done something with their hair, but, only if I have seen them wearing normal clothes first. I like to see the change, the difference. Because most of the time the most attractive thing to me a lady can wear is jeans and a woolly jumper.

As a biologist I have spent some time working in jungles. Working in a jungle is hot and damp and in order to protect the ecosystem we don’t wash clothes in ‘modern’ detergents and th eonly way of gettign them dry is for them to get very smoky drying by a fire. So our clothes are always stained, and holey (from brushing past spiky plants regularly). This did not prevent me from finding some of my female companions attractive. When the project was over and everyone returns to a city, there is often a final social get together in a restaurant before everyone goes home. There is an opportunity to wash properly, wear clean clothes and often the women put on make-up. For me these are special times, to be able to see women I’ve been working for for several weeks in a completely new light. They are not more attractive than they were before, it’s just nice to see them having done something with their appearance. However I gather from other men that they suddenly notice how attractive these women are, I don’t get this at all.

I visited Germany last year. In a sense it was wonderful as the women in Germany dress normally (dress down?) most of the time and usually only have a few dresses for dressing up once in a while. I did indeed think that this was a place I would like to live, a society where my preferences were less different. Having said that a guy shoulder charged me for wearing a floral shirt, anyway German men dress appallingly, stripes everywhere) However some people complain that such Northern European women are somehow ‘less feminine’. They are just as feminine as women anywhere else, what perhaps they mean is that such women do not conform to some traditional view of femininity as in other places.

There are some obvious avenues to explore to explain this. Firstly Northern Europe is densely populated and industrialised a long time ago, so there is a bigger gap to a world where hunting was possible, the culture has had time to develop in new post-industrial ways. Secondly there is language. I’m been learning Welsh recently. Welsh like many other Indo-European languages assigns nouns a gender, masculine and feminine. So the language itself encourages speakers to view things in a gendered way. It is interesting that each language assigns these slightly differently, but there is a broadish conformity with traditional ideas of gender. However, in the Germanic languages of English and I believe the Scandinavian languages, this focus on gender has been lost or is rapidly disappearing. For example we now use ‘they’ for a person of unknown gender, or when the gender is not important (even in Welsh nowadays), whereas in Spanish, such a ‘they’ is masculine, unless the group only consists of females (‘ninos’ (male or mixed group of children) and ‘ninas’ (female only group of children).

How gender is dealt with is hugely complicated. We still live in a world where there are gender expectations. If for whatever reason you don’t fit the traditional roles, you have to find a way to deal with the stereotyping. Personally I have got myself into difficulties with women  who have misinterpreted my attention as seeking a relationship with them. I don’t know whether it is always a mistake to let women know that you find them attractive and then quickly ascertain that they are not interested in exploring a relationship with myself or not. However I often find that some women continue to believe I am seeking a relationship when continuing a non-sexual relationship. It is difficult, because I now see how much negative attention women get from men that is pursuing a relationship. It’s kind of like I had to come to terms with being different and to not be concerned that I was being treated in a seemingly strange way.

I think my conclusion that a traditional model of what masculinity and femininity is not wrong, or something that needs to be cured or got over, however not thinking about it at all can have negative consequences. If you happen to fit in, that is a wonderful gift, yet it is still worth understanding how much of that is really you, how much you are happy to conform and find out where you are different. What I would suggest though is that we do all need to discover who we are for ourselves and not blindly adopt roles. Even if you are an outsider, to function socially you require an understanding of the way the majority behave; which is perhaps why children learn gender roles at a young age. Essentially what I am saying that understanding is good and that we need to understand ourselves better and also find what grounds us, what roots us to ourselves and our communities, to realise that everyone else may be on such a journey too.  We should not criticise others for their choices in how they ground themselves, but we should be wary when others try and pressure people to behave to conform.

 

 

Science is Golden

Scientists are perhaps simply people who like to know how things work. I am a scientist and I do feel a compulsion to understand how everything works. The desire to take things apart, see how each component functions, then try to put it back together again making a single change to see what happens. Of course Scientists realise that as individuals they cannot understand everything, so scientists specialise into an areas they are interested in.

Scientists go out into the world like everyone else and are often somewhat startled to realise that not everyone is a scientist. Other people often become another subject themselves to try and work out how they work, usually is some empirical way. however as human society is too big and too complex a challenge, scientists realise that society is something they can only make some progress in understanding and never fully understand.

Generally, scientists are profoundly appreciative of artists and have a huge respect for people who can transcend the compulsion to understand how things work and simply create things based on partial understandings. To the scientist this seems to be how other people function. Instead of seeking the most accurate, rational explanation possible, most people seem to be more comfortable with things that are probably true, or simply use systems that work most of the time and seem to ignore the rare situations where the frailty of that system is exposed, or explore how that is interesting, rather than how it works.

The image of scientists as the geeky obsessive with poor social skills is actually fairly accurate in many cases. This is exemplified by such popular culture television series as ‘The Big Bang Theory’, where a group of scientists struggle to interact with the real world. The problem is that scientists use scientific methodologies to learn social skills, in a social world where there is such a diversity of people and changing social values that such any understanding of social rules ends up being based on very rough, but workable approximations. Actually to develop social skills more efficiently a non-scientific approach is required, which is what most scientists try to do.

This issue has been brought to my attention through learning a second language. It is possible to learn a language in a way familiar to academics; to study the workings of the grammar, learn vocabulary, make sentences with the system, then experiment. However, to actually use the language to speak with people, to read and listen, requires understanding of how the language works in context. Often language is illogical, in any language you can construct a sentence in a sensible way, only to find that such a structure is not used by speakers. I have found a more rapid language acquisition method is to learn through how words are used and build up from an evidence base, with repetition. What this means, practically is letting go of the desire to focus on the mechanics of the language and simply use sentences that are probably correct, then correct when their failure rate is high. It’s a shockingly bad use os statistical method, but it works practically as language isn’t really trying to mislead. It is important not to try too hard to make sense of the second language in terms of the first language. I can construct sentences in Welsh from English sentences, that are grammatically correct, but are not how the language really works. it’s the need as an adult learner, to through off the shackles of the English way of expressing things that is deeply ingrained.

I am spending a lot of time listening to Welsh language radio and television. It is frustrating not being able to completely understand what people are saying. when I switch off this rational scientific desire and just listen to what I can, I can pick up the gist of what is said, expand the process of fitting in new words from context and understand more each time, without spending too much time thinking about why it works that way.

Using a non-scientific method as a tool for acquiring the ability to speak a new language is justifiable, because it is known that there is a rational structure underneath, which can be explored later, once the new language is fully bedded into the memory. However, the world of human beings seems a world where so many things happen that are not based on how things really work, decisions are not made from a scientific enquiry. Often decisions are made on the idea of systems that work most of the time, being applied to all systems. the scientific mind screams about how wrong this is.

We live in a world where the media reports such things as ‘Science say this’, or ‘Scientists say that’. Science does no such thing, the media seem to ignore the fact that all science does is attempt to answer questions to the most rigorous way possible. The answers that science provides can only be understood in the specific context of the question asked, you cannot leap from a specific case to a universal rule.

The worst example of this is the political world. Now, to the scientist, politics presents an interesting realm, politics asks questions like ‘what is the best way of running an economy?’. So the scientist then begins to think about all the various factors and competing forces, it is a very big, complex and interesting question. However the politicians of today, don’t base their decisions on the results of such enquiries. Today the political world involves the spinning of media stories, appealing to particular emotions, crass universal applying of a specific principle to the whole economy. Rarely do politicians actually make rational reasoned decisions based on evidence to increase the efficiency of an economy. This causes scientists and other rational thinkers to despair and become angry, how can people be this,well, stupid. It is tempting to withdraw back to a world where discussions lead to evidence based conclusions, where things get settled.

It is one thing to ignore how things work to to achieve a goal, such as learning to drive a car without also learning how the engine works, or indeed learning a language, it’s another thing to ignore evidence and rational enquiry and base decisions on things that seem to work well in a specific context to the huge complex system of a global economy.

 

 

 

 

 

Speak my Language

It was perhaps a new years resolution, but this year I have made my mind up to learn a second language. I do want to learn a foreign language at some point, however I feel compelled to learn the language of my country first, Welsh. Perhaps because I have attempted to learn Welsh in the past and grown up in Wales, that I have some advantages in learning, so, after just a few weeks I feel as though I have made enormous progress.

The main reason I want to learn a second language is to broaden my thinking, away from the constraints of being a monoglot English speaker: Firstly because I often work with people whose use English as a second language, so having some experience of a second language myself, will help my communication skills and increase my awareness of how misunderstanding happen. Secondly, to be able to think in another language, to be able to express ideas in different ways. There is a third reason, I am a complete child who never really grew out of enjoying material aimed at children.  I have got to the point where watching children’s television programmes is useful, as I it also interesting to try and pick up a language in the way children do, for example use of songs and games to learn the colours, to describe the weather, the language used to instruct children in how to make artwork; all of which is very useful to a language learner too. So I watching a lot of the excellent children’s programming on S4C.

I’m using the ‘Say Something in Welsh’ course [Dweud rhwybeth yn Cymraeg!]. I have found this course to work really well for me, so I can heartily recommend it. I have tried various other courses in the past. The basis of the course is simple, a sentence is given in English, you then say it in Welsh before hearing it said by two Welsh speakers. What I like is that vocabulary is built up slowly, so you can concentrate on saying the phrases quickly, almost automatically, as a native speaker would. Other courses I have tried and studying Welsh in school focus too much on grammatical rules and building up grammar, before you have the basis of how to speak the language, which does seem the wrong way around. I have spent too much time trying to remember vocabulary, to the detriment of getting the patterns of phrases construction in my head.

I am now at the beginning of the stage where I have began ‘thinking in Welsh’ and understanding the literal or real meaning of words in the language itself, rather than simply translating, or constructing sentences using grammatical rules and remembered vocabulary. It feels like a massive breakthrough, to comprehend the idea that conceptually learning a language is not simply a case of finding exact equivalence of a phrase in another language. Such equivalence doesn’t exist, because different languages evolved in different ways. Commonly used words simply mean different things but can be used in a phrase to convey the same thought. So it is important at soem point to learn the literal or real meaning of a word in the language itself, here same language dictionaries, rather than translating ones come into their own.

What has helped me enormously in making this breakthrough is the language correction website ‘Lang-8‘. The concept of this site is that language learners post short pieces of writing in the language they are learning, then native speakers correct the language to how native speakers would phrase the sentence, correcting spelling and grammar along the way. Correcting the writing is lots of fun, I have found it to be quite addictive.It’s also incredibly useful to the people whose work is corrected, so you are doing a good deed, there is a real mutual benefit. Also it provides a forum for  communicating with people from around the world. Doing such corrections have helped me develop my ability to de-construct English, which helps with my learning of Welsh.

It is the realisation of the difficulties I and I’m sure most learners have, with prepositions. Prepositions such as: as, with, on, at, to, have, is, be, after, next etc. I have realised that the meaning of each preposition is different in each language. So, you should not even attempt to look for equivalence. for instance the word ‘have’ in English has so many different meanings and is used in many different circumstances, whilst Welsh doesn’t really have a word for ‘have’ in the English sense, rather Welsh has different ways of using all the different meanings for ‘have’. Really, as a native speaker I have a conceptualisation of a word such as ‘on’, but my use of ‘on’ is basically learnt from years of practice using yet. For example English speakers say: ‘The paper is on the table’, ‘the train is on time’ ‘the computer is switched on’ ‘I went for a walk on Wednesday’, the exact  meaning of ‘on’ in each sentence is different. It is this concept of non-equivalence is what i really didn’t understand, I wasn’t taught this at school, so it’s no wonder that people, such as myself, come out of British schools with poor language learning skills and have picked up habits that actually make learner a second language harder. You perhaps have to learn like children do, by learning to speak first, before reading and writing, so many language courses focus on reading and writing, before speaking or really understanding the basics of the language as they are used by speakers.