Sunday, 18 December 2016

Elitism, what elitism?

"What did my background ever do for me? Sure, it taught me the value of education, gave me the confidence and knowledge to pursue my goals, the contacts to help me along the way, the stability and encouragement to keep me focused, and the skills needed to help me better deal with the problems I'll face... But apart from that, we're both at Cambridge now, what's the difference?"

As someone once had the good manners to tell me, it may be that I was given a university place because I fill enough quotas. Being from a state school (that'll be good for the statistics), which of course in Cambridge means being from one of the country's few and sometimes very selective grammar schools, and fulfilling a handful of other criteria too, statistically I would be a tactical choice.

The admissions process and the amazing Outreach work done on behalf of the university would have you believe that no one begrudges your presence at the university, or would think that you don't belong. But the more you see and the more people you talk to, the more you notice that people like you are often the punchline, more often than could be a coincidence. Other students joke about talking to town folk not at the university, or even more hilariously, students at the 'other' Cambridge university, ARU. Not to mention the cleaners, who are sometimes referenced after the phrase "I wouldn't mind them, but-". You realise that this is how these people would refer to your family members were they to work here instead of at home.

Most of it isn't particularly malicious or directly aimed at you, and the people coming out with these comments seem otherwise reasonable human beings. Many students, for whom 1 year at school cost significantly more than your family's annual income, do acknowledge that we don't all experience Cambridge in the same way, and are inspired to write well-meaning, highly patronising articles that encourage us to see value in other human beings because they "could have been one of us", the deciding factor for defining value, rather than whether all humans fundamentally deserve basic respect irrespective of how much 'like us' they are.

The staff, too, are well meaning. You hear comments like "We shouldn't look down on the poor, we should envy them - they're happier than us" and "It's so brave for students whose parents don't have a degree to study at university - how could they possibly support them?" (these comments were from 2 different classes during the same morning).

During term, your sense of what is normal is warped by those around you. Your supervisors assume knowledge of French and Latin as academic languages as standard, even though you're studying neither, and you seem to be the only one who finds that a strange assumption, though you develop assumptions of your own - statistically, any given student will have at least 1 doctor in the family, and will think it normal to spend on one night what you would normally spend on a holiday. Like any example of culture shock, when you go back to university and you go from being in the majority to being in the minority, social norms you've spent your life learning and following with no trouble suddenly aren't quite right. 

However, as people are keen to point out, you aren't being discriminated again, you're just feeling vaguely uncomfortable. No one really says anything explicitly against you, and they're not biased against you - they think you're nice, well, when you're not going on about Cambridge elitism. All this narrative seems vaguely imagined or exaggerated, because, even though other people can see it, the only ones talking about it seem to be the ones directly affected.

The real question is this: are those who benefit from a system they didn't put in place too embarrassed to talk about it and risk implicating themselves, or do they benefit from it too much to ask questions?

European Student Think Tank

Since September I have been Ambassador to England for the EST, based in the Netherlands. This is a great opportunity to encourage political engagement amongst young Europeans, and to this end I have written several articles about the state of the UK and the political mess we're all now in (if you'd like to read the first one then click here!).

We in the UK team have just launched a competition aimed at UK secondary school students, where you could get your response to one of our articles published on the EST website. If you'd like more info then please check out the competition here.

And if you decide to check out the wealth of articles available on our website or check us out on Facebook, happy reading!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Year abroad plans

Seeing as I have to have semi-finalised YA plans by the start of next term, it seems fitting that I actually have some idea of what I want to do. I finish my exams at the end of May 2017 and only go back to university in October 2018, leaving me with around 16 months to play with.

Here's my plan so far:

July-January internship in Germany
February-June studying in Russia
July-September volunteering in Ukraine

That will give me about 7 months speaking German, and 8 speaking Russian, in addition to the 3 I already have for German, 1.5 for Russian and 11 for French.

The advantage of studying in Russia is that I can really get the Russian language immersion I need, despite how difficult that will be, and by studying in the second term rather than the first I can avoid the worst of the Russian winter. Ukraine, on the other hand, is much easier to get to on account of visa-free travel and affordable flights, and so hopefully I won't be spending 8 solid months without seeing anyone from home(!).

The internship in Germany might be harder to organise, since many companies prefer year-long placements, but considering my language ability, my translation experience EN<>DE and my work experience as a whole, I'm hoping to get some success.

The fact that my course-mates will also be abroad at the same time means that I will have to get planning some tactical breaks from work and studies! It's a tough life, but someone's got to do it.

Paris II

At the end of what has been a tiring term I took a short trip to Paris, to see friends who are there on their year abroad. An exciting glimpse into the very near future!

A highlight of the trip was our visit to the Mundolingua museum, which has a vast collection of language and linguistics-related information and artifacts. It would have been very easy to spend an entire day there, and even if your French isn't up to scratch, information is available in the 5 other UN languages for your convenience!

After spending much of the summer and indeed this term in near-constant contact with other people, this trip reminded me of just how much I appreciate travelling by myself, and being able to explore a city at my own pace. This is obviously made much easier by understanding the local language, something I'll (hopefully) have no problem with next year.

I can't wait!

PS. There is a certain charm to a city so polluted that you get free public transport during your stay. (That fact should probably have worried me a lot more than it did..)

Language progress 2016

It's great to see my readership growing, with nearly 3000 views in the past month - I'm really glad so many people enjoy reading my blog!

This is a post I've been wanting to make for a while, documenting my language progress to look back on after I've (hopefully) improved. In the video I talk about how I learned my target languages and what I hope to do with them over the next year. Make sure you watch til the end - the last clip is my favourite (subtitles are available for good reason)!

The effect of alphabets on synesthesia

I've previously briefly written about my experiences with synesthesia and the uses that it can have, but now I'm finding that the more I learn, the less strong these associations are. In my case there is a link between letters and colours, and a merging of these when the letters are in a word, as shown below:

These associations between the letters and colours have been there since I was very young - I remember using the colours to remember various spellings in primary school. I was never quite sure as to whether it was the letter shapes or the letter sounds that evoked the colours, because they were only ever used together.

Now, of course, simple spelling is not the only association I have with the Latin alphabet. I have been playing piano for over 12 years and have found that the notes (A, B, C etc) have different colours than their spelling counterparts. The key of E is distinctly orange, despite the letter 'e' being decidedly blue.

And what about other alphabets? Cyrillic doesn't map exactly onto the Latin alphabet, and there are letters that look like Latin characters but which sound completely different. Take for example the word ехать. In Russian that string of letters is pronounced 'yekhat' rather than 'examb', and so the sound-to-grapheme mapping has completely changed in my mind. This has weakened the connection between the grapheme and colour association, which I assume is because the true synesthetic connection is between the sound and the colour, and the grapheme is only affected by association. The Russian р (pronounced 'r') does not have a strong colour for me, because the sound would suggest orange, whereas the grapheme would suggest pink, and in my mind there is a sort of mix of the two.

Interestingly only a few letters have colour associations for me when fingerspelling, which would again suggest that the real connection is between the sound and the colour. Strong colours such as green (f, t) and red (a, n) still come through, but weaker colours don't tend to.

Let's hope I don't lose my synesthesia altogether - if nothing else it's quite handy for memorising and recognising new words.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Next year at Cambridge

So, I've had a great 4 months on my summer break, not doing very much academic work, exploring different countries and generally pretending that I have no other responsibilities. This has been great fun.

Somewhat unfortunately, I have to return to university now. Part of me is looking forward to this, because the topics I wasn't enjoying as much last year (read: Russian literature) are no more, and I am free to focus on linguistics, languages and language acquisition. There is, however, another part of me that wonders why I am going back into such a stressful environment. I am not sure how much of the reason that I am at Cambridge is because I felt that I couldn't turn down the opportunity, even though the environment is not always the best.

That's not to say that I didn't have fun last year, during my first year - I did. It's just that there are a lot of people who, possibly by dint of being so impossibly gifted in their particular field, are quite eccentric and even deficient in some other areas. This makes Cambridge folk rather tiring to be around at times, especially in greater numbers.

But did I perhaps ought to be as eccentric as they are? The problem with trying to work out whether you are doing alright or not is that, because all of the people around you also attend Cambridge, you are invariably comparing yourself to people who are at the end of any given spectrum, and what's more, you're only comparing yourself to the ones functional enough to emerge from their rooms and engage in social interaction. As a result you are left in a sort of limbo, where you know fine well that compared to the general population you are much more X than Y, and yet compared to the people around you at Cambridge you seem to be verging on nothingness, such is the extent of your non-eccentricity. And by 'you', of course, I mean 'me'.

Ah well. I suspect I will enjoy the chaos once I get back into the swing of it!

Photos from Russia

This post is a bit self indulgent, but there are lots of pretty photos to distract you.

The above photos are of the Winter Palace, which contains the Hermitage museum. A truly magnificent building, particularly Western.

The Bronze Horseman (see Pushkin's poem)

Church on the Spilled Blood, very reminiscent of St Basil's in Moscow.

The city was in parts very western-looking, in parts very Russian, and very Soviet. Quite an interesting contrast, that doesn't necessarily contradict itself.

Here you see several different types of meals - pancakes (called blini, can be sweet or savoury), the breakfast that we received in St Petersburg (accompanied by "You westerners like this sort of thing. We don't.") and a canteen ("stolovaya") meal. The latter is very cultural, and not limited to school but can be found everywhere around the city, even now. The prices are so cheap that it is cheaper to eat at a stolovaya than to cook for yourself, but on the downside I think I ate 5 fruit and veg in the entire 3 week stay. I'm gonna need a better plan if I'm staying longer next time...!

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

More thoughts on St Petersburg

I'm just back from St Petersburg, and in just a few days I will be heading back to university to start the 2nd year of my degree. Here are a few more of my thoughts about my time in Russia:

As per usual when abroad, I give myself away immediately with the volume of "please, thank you and excuse me"s. Something that did surprise me, though, is that no one once thanked me for holding open the door for them, nor did they do so for me unless really it was unavoidable, even though to me this is the most basic form of human politeness.

It seems that there are a few metro rules that we didn't get the hang of, since talking at all did get us looked at funny (even told off on a few occasions), and there is a massive temperature difference between outside and in the metro itself, uncomfortably so, yet it appears to be an unspoken rule that no one should remove their coat even when visibly melting on the tube. I possibly marked myself out as a tourist straight away by taking off a few layers in response to a 20 degree jump, but I was the only one in the carriage who could breathe comfortably, so who's daft now?

The metro in St Petersburg really is beautiful, lots of granite and casual Soviet symbols, and with the longest escalators I have ever seen descending down for a solid few minutes, you have time to admire your surroundings (seriously, when you are halfway down/up, you can see neither end of the escalator, very disorientating!). One journey costs about 40p and is therefore exceptionally good value, but should you want to see the city out of the window, there are also buses and minibuses available everywhere for a similar price. You really do have to speak a bit of Russian to navigate those, though. People are not particularly sympathetic towards speakers of English, whether they actually think you're English or not.

Foreigners are stupid
You don't realise just how intrinsic this idea is until you spend time with people who, because of your inability to speak Russian, also assume you cannot do the most basic thing for yourself. I have posted this image before and shall continue to do so until it's no longer applicable (which will be never):

There is meat in everything
Don't try to find an exception. There just is. Staff in restaurants will tell you otherwise, but there is probably still either pork or beef in whatever they just gave you.

St Petersburg is a mish mash of styles
Half of it looks like Vienna, the other half like a very Soviet part of Moscow. I suppose that's the result of the 'European' capital of Russia interacting with the actual capital. It makes for some wonderful photos, though! Now I see why there are so many tourists here..

Alcohol is very cheap
Well, that wasn't going to be a surprise, but yes, alcohol (especially vodka) is very cheap. And accordingly, any messing about in bars or clubs will get you swiftly escorted out not by the owners, but by the actual military. I saw this in action, and quickly made my excuses! The metro doesn't stay open very late either, so that is convenient for giving you an excuse to leave before things take a turn for the worse.

Young people like speaking English to you
And as nice as that is, I could really really do that any time I like back in England, so I have had to develop some techniques for keeping the conversation in Russian. I am really not proud of this(!) but my most successful one is just to respond "Sorry?", as if the person's English is so incomprehensible that you cannot even respond properly. People normally switch straight back to Russian to explain, and then the conversation doesn't switch back, now that their ego is dented. That trick doesn't work on me, because I already know how bad my Russian is, so luckily nothing is really going to knock my confidence substantially. I am sorry to every single person I have done this to, and I hope you understand why I had to.

I can actually say some things in Russian
...which I found a bit odd, to be honest! I wouldn't say I am conversational just yet, but after 1 year of university I am perhaps at a B1 level, maybe pushing B2 in some areas but definitely not in speaking! It's a bit tricky to gauge because my French and German are so much better and more comfortable than my Russian, but it's definitely coming along better than I had anticipated. Perhaps I will succeed in the end, stay tuned to find out if I ever figure out Russian verbs....

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Russia so far

As I write this post I am 2 weeks into a 3 week stay in St Petersburg, Russia. Having followed language courses in Belgium, Austria, Ukraine and Germany so far (!), it’s really fun to compare the course here to my previous experiences. I’m staying in a homestay, with a retired couple and another student from our course, which means I’m speaking more Russian in one day than I usually do in a week, and also means I’ve had to get over the multitude of mistakes I’ll inevitably make (and I will!).

I am staying in a part of the city that is well connected and has lots to do, but that is far enough away from the center that it takes 1 hour each way between the flat and the language school. The walk between the flat and the nearest metro station also basically involves risking my life on a daily basis, because some town planner several decades ago thought it would be a great idea to have a complex motorway and public transport system running directly between the metro and the estate where thousands of people live, without a proper crossing in place.

Paradoxically the woman we are staying with does not trust us to get dressed warm enough for the journey to school in the morning, and will happily call us ‘молодцы!’ (good girls!) if we manage to put on what looks like a vaguely appropriate attempt at dealing with September in St Petersburg (rather like England in December), but she expects us to survive this catastrophe of a journey in its entirety. She is brilliant - in any given conversation she manages to mention how the different members of her family have each survived different wars and conflicts, how great the Soviet Union was, and also how there was never anything to eat and how they took in student lodgers in an attempt to survive and get enough money to exist. None of these things seem to contradict each other for her.

She is also trying to save money to support her grandson in England. I don’t have the heart to tell her that the exchange rate and sheer cost of an education in the UK makes it almost not worth bothering.

One thing that has surprised me is how positive everyone is about Putin. I suppose compared to leaders like Stalin there is nothing to complain about, and the relative stability that Russia is experiencing is welcome, with any instability able to be blamed on the West or at least on Ukraine. Things are not exactly as you would expect, which makes you aware of how much of your idea of a foreign country is due to the media portrayal of it, but also I am decidedly not in the UK here.

Going well here anyway, very interesting to say the least, here’s to a good return to England!