Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Helsinki and (yet more) Cultural Expectations

I recently took a short trip to Helsinki with my favourite travel buddy, my long suffering mother. The city was perfect - direct flight from Kazan and Manchester for us, and weather slightly warmer than that in Kazan. It is also well known that the Nordic countries speak English reliably enough, and that vegetarianism has caught on enough there for me to be able to eat something at least.

Unfortunately my first plane was cancelled, meaning that I had to get a different flight via Moscow, where I was greeted by the following presumably tongue in cheek display from Russian news site Russia Today:

"Missed a plane? Lost an election? Blame it on us!"

Our first stop was of course the city's free walking tour, which was as enjoyable as ever. Hearing about the history from a local is always much more interesting because they cut straight to the bits that impact on the locals and their sense of identity the most. Walking around the city, it became immediately obvious that most things were available in Finnish and Swedish, if not English too. This meant that with my knowledge of German, things would always be at least partly comprehensible! What I hadn't realised, however, was how much conflict there had been between the Swedes and the Finns over their history, and how the Finns were essentially passed between the Swedes and the Russians at various times. The fact that they managed to retain their own sense of national identity and their own language through this is no mean feat!

Our visit to the island of Suomenlinna was an excellent day out. The fortress there is a wonder to behold, with the warm museums complementing the bracing wind outside. Our particular favourite was the Toy Museum, which must have scarred many a guest with the dolls' eerie stares. The island is very easy to reach from the city centre and you can quite easily spend a day there, especially I would imagine in nicer weather.

We also visited the Orion cinema for various foreign films with English subtitles. The Hungarian film 1945 was a particular highlight, dealing with guilt among ordinary people in Hungary for what happened to their Jewish population. The cinema itself is very charming, and though it is not too far out of the centre, it is cheaper than some of the more central cinemas which can charge 14 Euros a ticket, much to my dismay.

I would recommend the Helsinki City Museum, right by the cathedral in the city centre, to those who appreciate a well-organised, calm and free(!) visit. Accessibility, plentiful seating and facilities such as wifi, phone charging and free lockers make the museum even more of a joy to visit, and the exhibitions that I saw were very engaging and available in English.

The thing that I was most excited about, however, was the bounty of dogs available in the city. For some reason the only dogs available in Russia are street dogs, who are very lovely but not always safe to pet. In Helsinki, however, there were many dogs walking alongside their humans in the city centre, enjoying the local parks and seaside views. It cannot be overstated how much of a positive impact the presence of dogs makes! But I digress.

The more I travel, the more I see in other people that convinces me that your home culture shapes you much more than you could imagine. Recently I have dealt with other people having what I would consider unreasonable behaviour or views on many topics, which they considered completely reasonable, not limited to the importance of respect for other people and animals, the notion of racism, of temperature and personal space, of the value of religion or language learning.

One of the fundamentally challenging but necessary parts of travelling is realising that people are as convinced of their opinion as you are of yours, and that that doesn't mean that they are wrong or less informed.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

The "Quick as a Shot" Method by Rensa Gaunt: How to Improve Fluency by Being Tipsy

It is with great pride that I, like many other language bloggers, reveal my own method for learning a foreign language, customised to the areas that I think are the most difficult for English native speakers. This package will set you up for linguistic confidence in any country that you choose!

The "Quick as a Shot" Method by Rensa Gaunt: How to Improve Fluency by Being Tipsy

My programme will introduce you to the fundamentals of any language in 5 easy steps:

1. Pronunciation
As everyone knows, the key to great pronunciation is feeling comfortable and breaking down the initial barrier of shyness. As studies have shown, the first unit (or "shot") will take you there:

Their conversations were recorded and their foreign language skills rated by native speakers, who didn’t know which participants had consumed alcohol. The researchers found that those who were slightly intoxicated had better pronunciation than their sober colleagues. (source: The Independent)

2. Conversational Fluency
Ever felt too hesitant to being able to consider your conversations truly fluent? The second shot will help you to overcome any residual apprehension or inhibition, and will help you to say whatever you want, when you want! Sources at the University of Maastricht have explained that "One possible mechanism could be the anxiety-reducing effect of alcohol. But more research is needed to test this", and we couldn't agree more. Cheers!

3. Cultural Understanding
Other cultures are weird, right? We at Quick as a Shot can guarantee that after your third drink, you will not only have a greater appreciation for other ways of life, but also those around you will become your close friends, like, really, you guys, it means so much to me that you are here, you know? Like, you guys are the best. Really.

4. Grammar
After your fourth shot, any hesitation to just say whatever grammatical endings come into your head will have dissipated into the warm, fuzzy glow that surrounds only the best foreign speakers. Thanks to the new found bond you will have created with your interlocutors, mere trifles such as adjectival agreements or the concept of agency or time will seem less important than just saying what you can, however you can say it, and isn't that really what language learning is all about?

5. Vocabulary
Those who have reached the final step of the programme will find that their vocabulary in their foreign language will be similar to that of their native language: that is, they won't remember many words, but, really, just being with you guys is the greatest; this is the only communication that really matters.

Side effects of blurred vision or physical instability pale in comparison to how much you just "get" the new language, and how you feel that your new friends really "understand" you. (Disclaimer: this understanding is limited to the emotional realm and in no way suggests that your speech is comprehensible to other humans)

Reserve your "Quick as a Shot" package through A Linguist Abroad today and get a free Babelfish (or "April Fish" if you will) with your delivery! We wish you the best in your foreign adventures!

The Labour dream is over

This article by Another Angry Voice expresses my own views better than I ever could, please head over and check out the original article here. It explains in simple terms why voting Labour makes less sense now than ever:

"What kind of idiot thinks politics is about reaching out to people with policies they actually like, rather than scamming as much as possible in expenses, imposing policies that benefit the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else in society, and lying so much and so often that it becomes second nature to coat everything you say in a veneer of dishonesty?"

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Learning sign language via Youtube

Youtube really can be a great tool for learning languages, especially at the beginning when you don't encounter many difficult constructions. I've been using videos for Russian Sign Language (RSL), such as this one, where you can learn how to say "my name is" and "I have". If you understand the video correctly (in Russian, of course), you will know how to say you have a dog, and how to name it! I can't think of a better reward.

The same channel has a video showing the differences in signs between Russian and Japanese Sign Language. The word is fingerspelled in Russian, and then signed in the two languages. I personally found the spelling much too quick, so had to rely on my preexisting knowledge of signs to work things out, but for much of the basic vocabulary the signs are relatively easy to work out. Subtitling, as ever, is rarely available, but is so useful to have.

I find audio essential for learning spoken languages, and of course videos (as opposed to pictures or written descriptions) are much clearer for learning a sign accurately. Videos are also a lot more interactive than a book, so they can hold your attention for longer. And who knows - maybe the language or skill you want to learn next has a suitable video series available?

Theoretical spoons

This post will try to briefly give you insight into life with chronic fatigue. I've had it for approximately a year, and it has had a big impact on my life.

For those of you unfamiliar with spoon theory, essentially it states that many people living with chronic conditions need to plan their lives around only having a certain amount of energy to do what they want, and that banal tasks such as grabbing something to eat or having a shower use up enough energy to need to be factored in. Each activity is represented by a spoon, and once you're out of spoons, you need to rest before you can do anything else. Depending on the condition and its current severity, people start out with different numbers of spoons and find different tasks use up varying amounts of energy.

Now, you might think, this is all well and good feeling tired, but we all feel tired from time to time, and we just power through!

I kindly ask that you never, ever say that to anyone with a chronic illness, or potentially anyone at all.

The first time I went to stay with a partner for a week, I was awake for only some parts of most days. I do not need to tell you that I wanted to be awake, and not need to rest, and that the whole situation was entirely frustrating for me.

Or how about the time I fell asleep in a cafe for an hour, and woke up to a random person staring at me fixedly, telling me how long I had been there? Or the time I went to a festival and was usefully awake enough to see only 1 or 2 acts throughout the whole 4 days? Planning a party with your friends and needing to nap before it's even properly gotten started? I think we need a new word for that feeling, because embarrassing does not quite describe the feeling of planning a weekend away with friends or loved ones, only to actually be able to do anything for a couple of hours.

So, when I tell people that I couldn't take my exams because I was effectively out of action for the whole of the exam period, I remind them that, I have missed way more fun things that I wanted to do, than dull things I needed an excuse for. (I also am an adult who can choose not to do things without needing an excuse!)

I've found that the balance is hard to keep. If you rest too much, you get insomnia. If you don't rest enough, you fall asleep in public or else go to bed after a busy evening and wake up 30 hours later wondering how you missed a whole day. And if you get it right, you feel like you could have gotten more done. That's the problem with a condition where, if you manage it properly, you don't feel "that bad". If I rest enough, I can spend half the day busy and get enough sleep to keep major commitments and meet my basic needs, without feeling awful or aching. Paradoxically, the more you rest, the more you feel afterwards like you didn't need to rest that much, but actually you only feel that good because you did rest in the first place! I've had enough "busy days" followed by missing the next day completely to know that it's up to me to know my limits - many people have this condition to varying degrees.

It's a lot of trial and error, in my experience, and dealing with it myself is OK. "Helpful suggestions" from people who know nothing about fatigue make me sad, and I'd rather not use up my finite energy to explain to you why I'm not just being lazy. I'll listen to my doctor instead, if that's alright.

If there is anything I would like you to take away from this post, it's that being ill long term is no fun, and since you likely don't understand someone's condition that well, finding out more about it before you offer advice would always be a welcome first step.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Comparison of manual alphabets

I realise that this sounds like a dry topic but you know what, I find it interesting, so, there.

I know bits of British (BSL), German (DGS) and Russian sign languages (RSL), which are different and non mutually intelligible, even if some signs are similar or overlap. Overlapping signs tend to be iconic (i.e. where the sign is not purely arbitrary) because the logical sign for a certain action can be more or less universal. But since spoken languages are only tangentially linked to their signed counterparts, for many signers, the alphabet is mostly arbitrary and not particularly relevant to their signing.

This has led to a variety of alphabets being in use across the globe, much in the same way that different writing systems have also developed spontaneously.

For the Latin alphabet, the main two signed alphabets are either one handed (American, French, German etc) or two handed (British, Australian etc). This means that although German and English share an alphabet for the written language, for the signed language, the alphabets are completely different, which initially threw me when trying to pick up sign language in Munich!

Incidentally, this also means that, although English is spoken in both the UK and in America, the signed alphabets and indeed languages are not mutually intelligible. The more you know!

Here are the sign alphabets for BSL, ASL/DGS and RSL respectively. German and American sign alphabets differ only by the letter T and the special letters that only German has, so I will treat them as the same alphabet for these purposes.

You will notice that, although the alphabets in general are very different, they do share a certain amount of features. The letter C is the same in all 3, because the form of the letter can easily be replicated. X and Y are the same in ASL and RSL, which is interesting because the Russian letters Х У actually represent the sounds Kh and U. So, even though the letters X and Kh; Y and U sound different, their similar written forms have influenced the sign alphabet such that they are signed the same.

BSL has the advantage of being spelled with two hands, meaning that the letters can have more varied shapes, although it still very much relies on letters being iconic. For example, BSL uses two hands to form a capital D, whereas ASL forms the lowercase d with just one hand.

These are the signs for M in BSL, ASL and RSL respectively. We can see here that, although all 3 signs are distinct, they have all used the shape of the letter M in their sign, representing the 3 vertical lines of the letter with 3 fingers.

I personally prefer the BSL alphabet to other variants, for a few reasons. Firstly, since it uses two hands, spelling is slightly slower, and therefore easier to read. Secondly, because the signs are using a bigger space and more movement, there is more room for wordplay. While ASL for DVD is simply D-V-D, BSL combines the two-handed D handshape with the one-handed V handshape to create a unique sign that simultaneously represents both letters. I have been unable to find a video of this sign, because the official, formal sign is indeed D-V-D, but on my BSL course I did learn the more informal combined sign.

I am led to believe that the sign alphabets for non-European writing systems are way more diverse, so, although I'm finding the RSL alphabet tricky at the moment, I shall count my blessings!

Niche language logic

You know you're doing a good job when your life plan is unintentionally memeable...

Monday, 12 March 2018

Planning my next languages

As explained in my recent post, here is the current outlook for my languages (following the Common European Framework):

Spring 2018
C2,1: English, French, German
B2: Russian, British Sign Language
A1: German Sign Language, Tatar

Where A languages really are very much beginner. This term, living in Russia and taking a course in Tatar, I hope to improve in both languages in a meaningful way. I have also made friends with some local Deaf people, and so I hope to pick up at least a little Russian Sign Language!

I had intended to carry on with Russian at university during my 4th and final year, but since my chronic fatigue really is not improving markedly and I would like to actually pass my degree, I have resigned myself to studying German in final year instead. I also am likely to opt for a course in beginner's Polish, instead of having an exam based on Russian! This would bring me up to about B2 level.

An additional point of interest is an exchange organised through my university, where students are sent to Japan for a year to learn the language and teach English, as well as travel. This is a funded opportunity, meaning that it is accessible to those graduates who may not have the means to travel otherwise. And if I take part in this, then by the end of university, I could have the following language profile!:

Autumn 2020
C2,1: English, German, French, Russian
B2,1: British Sign Language, Polish, Japanese, Tatar
A1: German SL, Russian SL, Japanese SL

P.S. It is fascinating to look at the viewer stats for my blog: over the years most of my viewers have been from the UK and USA, whereas over the past month most were from Russia and Kazakhstan, and over the past week mostly from Germany, Egypt and South Korea! My blog stats only display the 10 most common viewer countries over any time span, so I'm not sure exactly how many places I could mention, but I would like to thank you for reading all the same, wherever you are from!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Fundraising for Crisis Centre

This post is to draw attention to a local charity in Kazan, where I am studying. I would urge anyone who can give any amount to donate via this link (here, via Paypal) or by the official website (here). You are welcome to share any of this information.

The shelter "Hope" in the city of Kazan, Russia is designed for young mothers with newborn children, as well as mothers with many children who would otherwise need to be separated from their children. Our city of a million people has only a few shelters for women in need and we are relying on your support to meet our monthly costs of £1516.
It is International Women’s Day on Thursday 8th March, and Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday 11th March, so we have decided to offer customised E-Cards for all donations of £10 or over, letting your loved one know that a donation has been made on their behalf. Just drop us a message at giving their name, email address and any personalisation requests, and we will send the E-Card to them on the 8th March. Alternatively, give us your email address and you can give them a printed version on the day of your choosing!
Because of the strength of foreign currencies, your donation goes much further with us and even a small donation of £1 would really help. The following amounts could buy:
£10: 750g milk formula or 2 large packs of diapers
£20: 70 trips via public transport or several trips to the doctor
£50: 1 month's supply of diapers, 2 cans of milk formula, 2 bottles of children's shampoo and 1 bottle of children's skin creme
Throughout 2016-2017 we were able to help more than 45 mothers, 49 children aged 2 to 7 years, and 9 newborn babies.
Here you can see and learn about the stories of our clients who received support in the Crisis Center "Hope" with the Charitable Foundation "The Gift of Giving" (in Russian)
As well as shelter, we provide complex social and psychological assistance to mothers with children and pregnant women who find themselves in a difficult situation, including:

  • psychological support;

  • legal advice;

  • support from a social worker;

  • humanitarian assistance;

  • providing temporary residence.

  • The project relies on contributions to meet the minimum monthly cost of 120,000 rubles (£1516).
    This amount includes the cost of maintaining the center:
    1. Rent for the shelter - 40 000 rubles (£505)
    2. Utility bills - 8 000 rubles (£101)
    3. Meals - 21 000 rubles (£265)
    5. Children's products (diapers, formula, food for children, children's hygiene) - 17 500 rubles (£221)
    6. Household goods - 15 000 rubles (£189)
    7. Employing a social worker - 18 500 rubles (£234)
    Any donations over this will allow for little extras such as toys or personal items. Your donations will go straight to these women and children, and will give them the chance to move on from the past and build a new life for themselves.
    Our website is available here:
    And our Facebook here:
    (in Russian)

    Whether you can donate or not, please consider sharing this fundraiser on social media, so that those who can donate get to hear about us!

    Why this is so important to us:
    The Russian law has recently been changed to effectively decriminalise domestic abuse, meaning that women who cannot afford to flee or find a place in a shelter must decide between staying with their abuser and making themselves voluntarily homeless, in a country whose winter kills.
    The recent BBC3 documentary Russia’s War on Women is a must-watch if you want to understand the scale of the problem, which is often played down by the authorities.
    According to the Russian interior ministry’s own estimates, in Russia 40 women a day and 14,000 women a year die at the hands of their husbands or spouses, while 600,000 face violent domestic abuse each year. (Source:
    There is a common Russian saying: if he beats you, he loves you.
    Together let’s change that, and give the gift of hope to women who have nowhere else to turn.

    Click here to donate!

    Thursday, 22 February 2018

    Language update

    It's been a while since I updated my profile and told you all how I was progressing with my languages. For the uninitiated, here's the scale many people use to chart their progress:
    Image result for cefr level

    I would say my French and German are both a reasonable C1, being that I can communicate what I want and it's still obvious that I am foreign, even though I can get my message across, because I still don't have a native vocabulary. Obviously my English is C2 standard (one would hope!), but making that step up to C2 for my other languages takes many years of work and is not a place I am aiming for right now.

    My Russian, meanwhile, is at a B2-ish level, in that I can communicate but it is still a bit painful for all concerned if it's not a predictable and rehearsed situation. Interacting with people in shops or offices invariably includes me apologising for not understanding, and my explanations in class are similarly hit and miss, even though my comprehension of the lesson itself is normally very good.

    My BSL remains around B2, and other languages such as German Sign Language and Tatar remain way below this. C1 is a good level to aim for, but ultimately reaching B2 is an important milestone in any language, especially if it's more of a hobby language than a serious endeavour, so hopefully I can bring some languages up to B2 and take my more advanced languages to a comfortable C1. While in Russia I hope to strengthen my Russian to a C1 if possible!