Sunday, 17 September 2017


This morning I ventured out to watch the parade marking the beginning of Oktoberfest. I had definitely underestimated how much of a big deal Oktoberfest (which of course takes place mostly during September) really is. As I travelled towards the city centre I noticed that about half of the people around me, including young children, were dressed in the appropriate dirndls and lederhosen, both of which can cost hundreds. I felt a little awkward in my jumper and jeans!

The parade consisted of traditional Bavarian clothing, music and yodelling, and even the horses were dressed for the occasion, if slightly confused about the whole affair. I picked up a flag that states "die mog i" in the Bavarian dialect ('das mag ich' in Standard German, or 'I like it' in English), a perfect way to sum up everyone's mood at the parade. Over the coming weeks I will have the opportunity to experience Oktoberfest in its full glory - I can't wait!


I decided to make the most of my new location by visiting a great friend of mine in Zurich, Switzerland, which is a mere 3.5 hour bus trip away. We visited many cities in Belgium, Austria and Germany together when we were both working in Belgium, so we figured that Switzerland was a no brainer.

The city itself is charming and offers wonderful views of the cityscape, river and mountains all at once. 

It is definitely worth a visit for at least a weekend, though it's not a cheap city for any length of time - an ice tea in a bar cost me £5, which would be ridiculous in the UK in all but the fanciest of locales.

We took a trip to the Swiss Museum, which offered an amazing high-tech view of the country's development. A particular favourite was the interactive books, which used projected images onto paper to create the effect of a real book with video display and a touchscreen interface. The museum did rely heavily on stereotypes, mentioning every few metres how rich the Swiss are and how they produce chocolate and watches, but I suppose this is to be expected from such a tourist-oriented location.

Interestingly, while outside the museum I saw two passersby signing, and realised that I had understood them - they were using British Sign Language! I had already learned a few signs of German Sign Language (DGS) from an online course and was sure that the signs would have been completely different had they not been in BSL. I am very excited to start my DGS course in a few weeks' time, especially as from what I have already seen there are quite a lot of differences compared to BSL.

Talking to my friend is also an adventure in code switching and in changing languages rapidly. When together we talk in French as in Belgium; when with German-speaking company we speak German and similarly for English. I imagine this will stay the same even when we are both back studying in the UK, as it feels unfair and unequal to speak in a language where one speaker has a higher level than the other, which is not the case for French.

Here's to more adventures together!

Edinburgh Fringe

This year I was lucky enough to be able to spend a weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe, which is a festival of theatre, comedy and lots more besides that runs for the whole of August. As was to be expected, it was cold and rainy the entire time, handily saving me from the heatwave I had been experiencing in Munich! There's nothing like needing a thick coat to make you feel at home.

Even for those of you on a budget, I really would recommend a trip to the Fringe, as many brilliant shows run on tips rather than selling tickets. And there are enough free shows for you to not only fill your day, but also be spoiled for choice - I actually found that many of the free shows put on by less well known acts were of a better quality than the popular ticketed shows! This included some student-run theatre which left me really impressed, and feeling rather lucky to have been able to see some acts that surely have a bright future ahead of them.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

German efficiency

If there were ever a stereotype I would like to be true, it would be that of German efficiency. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it's all wishful thinking.

I have been living and working in Munich for about 5 weeks and nothing has struck me as particularly more efficient than in the UK! Quite the opposite, actually. Take, for example, the ticket machines at train stations. Not only do they not allow you to select a different starting point than the station you're currently at (God forbid you should attempt to buy a ticket in advance), but the machines also seem to, at random, not accept certain payment methods, such as accepting credit but not debit cards, and then take an unreasonable amount of time to cancel the purchase instead of allowing you to change one minor detail.

And while we're on the topic of payment... UK debit cards essentially allow you to do everything except get into debt. German cards on the other hand... I was issued with 2 cards for my savings account, 1 to be used for ATMs, online shopping and payments abroad, and the other for use in shops and ticket machines. The first card is also a credit card, so would let me spend money I didn't have, a function I specifically avoided in the UK. Oh wonderful land of efficiency, please tell me why the functions of 1 UK debit card need to be shared across 2 German cards?!

Being that Germany is a big producer of pharmaceuticals, you would also be forgiven for thinking that access to basic painkillers would be as simple as at home, where you can pick up a pack of paracetamol for about 30p. As I've learned the hard way, the same pack costs about 10x as much here, and can only be purchased from a pharmacy, not any convenience store as in the UK.

One thing that I've found interesting, however, is how every adult, regardless of their age, is treated with a similar amount of respect. Interns are referred to as Mr or Mrs Soandso, just as their superiors are, and I have found myself challenging my preconceptions on who counts as a 'real' adult in way I wouldn't have done in the UK. But as the German insist on using Sir or Madam in situations where we usually wouldn't in English, as well as the fact that nearly all job titles have a male and female equivalent with no option outside of the gender binary, I also find that identifying a person's gender has become essential, even just when addressing them via email or discussing a client at work. Perhaps this is why gender issues seem to be more commonly discussed in England than in Germany: here there is no other option than to adhere to one or the other, whereas the English language leaves a lot of room for variation, for example by using a non gendered job title or by using the pronoun 'they'. The German approach also requires a lot more words to express the same meaning.

There is a lot to be said about the impact of language on a person's world view, it would seem!

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Wieder in Deutschland!

This post marks the start of my year abroad. I am very excited to leave academia behind for a short while and pretend to be an adult for a few months. I'm actually getting closer and closer, as Germany is now the 4th country I have worked in, this time for Actual Money instead of volunteering or working minimal hours!

I'm working as a translator in Munich until January, when I'll move to Russia to study in Kazan, both of which should give me plenty of travel and language-related insight to write about, that of course being the original purpose of this blog.

I have already been here for two weeks, and I am delighted to say that everyone at work and at my accommodation has been lovely to me. Of course, the standard "Oh you're foreign? Let me explain basic concepts to you as if you couldn't have come across them in your own language and culture" does still apply, exemplified by the German recycling system - I am aware of the concept of recycling, I just want to know roughly what needs separating into what bin because it varies between councils, never mind countries.

The job itself mostly consists of preparing and carrying out translation orders for a global chemical engineering company, which means that some of the topics are very, very specific. This necessitates the use of a colossal database of translated chemical terms, but as with any text, you need to understand it to translate it - this is where I often come unstuck! However, the training I received in translation on the course in Germersheim last year is coming in handy, and I'm sure with more exposure I'll be able to make sense of it.

My work placement comes under Erasmus, which provides a bit of extra funding, though this may not be available for much longer if the UK withdraws from the scheme, so if you're looking to work abroad in future, adopting a casual second nationality might not be a bad idea. It looks like I'll be covered for the duration of my stay, though with Brexit going the way it is, all bets are off, and my year abroad could yet undergo some massive restructuring - stay tuned to find out.

Finishing second year

As I look back over the first half of my languages degree, I realise just how hard this past term has been for me. I fell ill just before I was due to take my exams, and thankfully was allowed to stay in college while recovering even though I wasn't sitting my exams.

This might seem pretty ordinary to you if you're not familiar with the Cambridge method of dealing with struggling students, but for those who are, it might come as a pleasant surprise to hear that I was allowed to stay in accommodation that I had already paid for, despite being signed off with exhaustion, as I was a potential 'distraction' to other students, what with my raucous tendency to sleep most of the time and to avoid socialising because I just felt so ill all of the time.

The university as a whole seems to be a system of horrendous protocols administered by more or less reasonable people: numerous rules were bent quite knowingly, by people who knew that I should officially be sent home, far away from my support network or the doctors treating me. In a way, I'm lucky to have even got that - many students in less sympathetic colleges are not given any right to stay in Cambridge, as though the hypothetical risk of them damaging the university's statistics or distracting others by visibly trying to recover is unspeakably worse than the risk of them not getting treatment at home.

As can be said of most of my ideas about Cambridge - people are realising that the university needs updating, and it could happen sooner if enough people cared about people's individual lives rather than maintaining tradition at all costs.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Language and identity in Ukraine

From talking to many Ukrainians during my trips both in Ukraine and in Germany, it has become clear to me just how important language is to identity in Ukraine. It should come as no surprise that the largest European country should have linguistic variation and differing ideas of identity like any other region, however, the issue of identity is tied up not only with one's family history, but also with the war and great losses that the country has faced over the past few years and indeed for its entire history.

If you ask Ukrainian Russian speakers for their native language, they may well tell you that it is Ukrainian, because it is their 'cultural' language even if it is not their true native language. But of course, this depends largely on the region. When visiting Lviv, on the Western border with Poland, I was told that Russian really was considered a foreign language, whereas on the Eastern border with Russian, Ukrainian is considered a foreign language, not necessarily incorporated into the Russian-speaking everyday. In Kiev I hear both around me constantly, and everyone seems capable of both, flitting between the two as is necessary. But it seems that an association with the use of Russian exclusively instead of Ukrainian can suggest that someone supports the Russian-sponsored aggression in the east of Ukraine.

Needless to say, I haven't found anyone who is in favour of the conflict. No one wants their country to be at war, and no one wants their country to be threatened by another, especially when the two countries have a long history of exchange and of cooperation. Many people in Ukraine have their roots partially elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, and I have heard how this has created tensions between parts of the same family, split across different countries. The part that settled in Ukraine live their lives here and have access to certain information about the conflict, and the part that settled in Russia have different information. It seems that during the Soviet time this would have led to an unavoidable conflict of opinion, seeing as the official party line was the only information available to the people, but in the modern day, even though there is still to some extent a heavy political influence in the media, it seems implausible that people are unable to find information that contradicts popular opinion. One anecdote that really made an impact on me was that of a family who now refuse to talk at all, because the 'Russian' half of the family refuse to accept that Russian aggression played its part in the conflict.

While in St Petersburg I did hear positive things about Putin: mainly that, while he wasn't the best president one could wish for, he had brought a lot of stability and prosperity to a country that desperately needed it. Of course, Putin is not at all popular here in Kiev, and I am yet to meet a single person who has a nice thing to say about him. This extends to shopping habits – I am told that over the past few years it has become expected that people will avoid Russian-owned shops in favour of the Ukrainian equivalents, because Russian profits mean more funding for the war. I recently saw a protest at a branch of the Russian bank Sberbank, where graffiti was being sprayed liberally, music played loudly and smoke filling the busy street. Most notably, the police were not present, even approximately half an hour in. I am left wondering how deliberate this was.

I have no doubts that my stay in Russia next year will give me plenty of opportunity to hear the story from the other side, though I am finding it hard to imagine any version of events that would cause me to stop sympathising with the Ukrainian people. One thing is certain: we mustn't confuse the regime and the people living under it.

Sunday, 26 March 2017


Here are some photos from my recent trip to Chernobyl. Some extra info to give the photos some context:

Chernobyl is the name of both the nuclear power station where the disaster occured, and of a town some distance away which is within the 30km exclusion zone, but which is still partially inhabited. This is not that dangerous, as parts of Kiev have a higher level of radiation than the town of Chernobyl does. The pictures of the abandoned town are from Pripiat', the town close to the power station where the workers lived.

The big metal fence structure is a missile detection system, which was hidden in the forest near a secret town called Chernobyl II, and no photo can get across just how ridiculously huge this structure is. The structure that looks sort of like a big aircraft hangar is the protective shield that has been put over reactor number 4, which suffered the catastrophic explosion.

Stray dogs are a reasonably common sight in Ukraine, and we were expecting the dogs we found in the exclusion zone to have extra legs or something, but they seemed very normal and very, very cute.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Past wisdom

It's funny how Russian is the 3rd foreign language I have got to B2 standard, and the realisations I'm having about the language and culture are, on reflection, the same as the ones I had about French and then German.

In October 2014, 2 months into post A-level French immersion, I wrote in Difficulties in comprehension that I couldn't follow at all when people were speaking quickly, and in Only English in January 2015 that I was assumed to be in the wrong by dint of being foreign rather than due to any other reasons, such as, say, any of my personality.

These are exactly the things that are bothering me now in a Russian speaking environment, only now I have the experience to know that it does get better! And I am definitely looking forwards to that point.

That leaves me with the question: in future, will I try to improve my foreign languages (+ BSL) as best I can, or pick up a new language instead, and go back to the 'uncomfortable' stage again? Maybe it's time for me to enjoy what I have learned and actually be comfortable in a conversation?

Thursday, 23 March 2017

iTunes U and linguistics

I will talk grammar and linguistics to anyone who will listen. But who talks grammar and linguistics to me? Sadly, there are some times when there is no such person around, and it is at that moment that I turn to iTunes U.

Essentially you can download university lectures for free, and, unlike real life lectures, if you find a particular talk dull or confusing, you can skip right past it.

One that I have really enjoyed recently is the talk 'Al-Sayyid: A language blooms in the desert' from the University of Arizona, 2011. The lecturer talks about the initial development of language, which is hard to talk about with any certainty because most modern languages have developed slowly over thousands of years. There are, however, 2 processes that help us to understand how languages developed before records were available: creoles and sign languages.

Creoles occur when 2 or more languages mix to form an entirely new language, with aspects of its constituent languages, but that is not necessarily at all comprehensible to non-creole speakers. What happens is that the first generation speakers are essentially just trying their best to be understood, using whatever words and phrases they can communicate with in the absence of a lingua franca, but there is no set grammar or any part of the pidgin language that can necessarily be seen as 'correct'.

The interesting part is this: even though this is not a language in the true sense of the word, by the time the second generation is immersed and become natives of the pidgin language, they create a grammar where there was none, and they create linguistic rules from the irregular language that has been handed to them. This is where the pidgin language becomes a creole, a 'true' language. This suggests that the human brain has the innate ability to find rules and structures where there may be none, and to develop a language more sophisticated than the input language.

If you want a very readable introduction to linguistics and the theory that the human mind has an innate capacity for language, I would highly recommend Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, available here as a PDF.

But what happens if you don't give the next generation any stimulus at all? What if you want to find the 'true' first language by denying children any linguistic input?

This is referred to as the "Forbidden Experiment", as it would be completely unethical to attempt it, and in fact much of what we know about the alingual brain is from cases of extreme neglect and abuse. However, something much like it regularly occurs the world over, perhaps not out of deliberate neglect, but out of circumstance: Deaf children often grow up a- or semilingual. Here's a short video from Unreported World that shows the difference a language can make to people who have gone without one for so long.

This can happen in isolated locations where Deaf children never meet anyone with any Deaf awareness or sign language skills. But the real magic happens when you have hereditary Deafness, and you suddenly get a group of Deaf children together, who have no linguistic input from the older generation, and are left to come up with a language between themselves. This happens in a similar way to creolisation: the first generation of the language is relatively unsophisticated, but after several generations the language gains all of the features that any other language would: nuances, grammar, etc.

This is the subject of the talk I mentioned: a sign language that developed in the desert because of a high rate of hereditary Deafness. If any of this post was interesting to you then I would suggest you go and have a listen; just search for the lecture title in iTunes and it will come up.