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.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Kiev so far

I'm currently 3 days into a 2 week stay in Kiev and having a fab time (shout out to my university for funding me for unknown reasons that I will not question because free money). At the moment I have more free time than expected because the language school I'm at doesn't have anyone else at my level, so I'm having intensive individual lessons rather than the group classes I originally planned for, which reduces the amount of class time I get.

On the plus side, I really think I am at B2 level for Russian: I did 2 placement tests, one of which was B1, which I got completely correct, and one of which was C1, where I made lots of mistakes, mostly due to vocabulary, but also got a lot of the questions right. I feel like I am at the same level after 1.5 years of studying as I was with my French or German after 6 years, which is pretty incredible.

In itself Kiev is a lovely city, but I can't help thinking that anywhere I look in the city centre, I can always see all 3 of: a picturesque church, lots of roadworks, and a McDonalds, which makes every glance a strange collection of cultural clashes. I was only expecting the first of these three, especially after various anecdotes from the last time I was in Ukraine, where people essentially told me that the head of national transport found plenty of other ways to deplete the budget, without the risk of any roads getting repaired or any connections improved. Something which also worries me disproportionately is that cars are allowed to turn blind corners onto zebra crossings and don't feel obliged to stop, despite the green man tempting the pedestrians into an early grave. It seems that zebra crossings as an entire concept depend on you daring to cross, rather than the cars having any obligation to, as I've tried to capture in the following image, which shows a ~6 lane road, where the crossing relies on you putting your breakable human form directly in front of these uncaring vehicles travelling at speed.

I have so far only had the chance to wander around admiring the beautiful buildings, and I have visited one museum, the National Chernobyl Museum. It's really worth paying the extra £2 for an audioguide, because the exhibition doesn't really make much sense without one, although the photos do speak for themselves to a certain extent. Included in the exhibition are some wonderful portraits that really highlight the fact that every person who died in the tragedy was an individual with their own life. I found it particularly striking to hear of the individuals who decided to stay in the power station after the explosion to try and reduce the damage, rather than saving themselves, acts which surely reduced harm to others significantly.

In case you feel like visiting Kiev, on reflection I wouldn't recommend coming alone unless you have at least a bit of Russian or Ukrainian to support you, especially (sadly) if you are female. Things are improving here, but like in many parts of the world, young women are not treated as adults like you would expect, say, in England. This has resulted in me getting a lot of unwelcome advice from people who obviously are not in a position to be offering advice: for example, a middle aged man completely seriously offering me his clandestine vodka at 4pm, while criticising me for drinking water with my meal because it's very bad for my health. I mean, I don't even know where to start with that one. Metro journeys cost the equivalent of 12p per trip though, so, swings and roundabouts.

(Just a heads up: if you ever travel with Ukrainian International Airlines, they only have online check in for about half of their flights, and waiting to check in in the airport, with the check in staff being possibly the least helpful people I have ever come across, was really unpleasantly stressful, especially since their inefficiency led to people who had been queuing for over an hour nearly missing their flight.)


Over the weekend I took a trip back to Liege to see the people at the kids' home I used to work at, and to see a concert that was being put on there. As I have mentioned before, I have various reservations about the constant presence of trainees and volunteers in the home, especially since the latter need have absolutely no training or interest (theoretically) in the field. I am left optimistically thinking that I can't have been that bad myself, after all, I tried my best and the kids seem to like me when I go back, but then I realise that they are also attached to the people whose actions led to them being taken into care, and so that perhaps isn't the best measure of someone's character.

As a self-respecting (?) adult (??) I decided to travel by Eurostar and train this time, instead of by coach. I normally go by coach mostly because it is very little effort, you can take a lot of baggage and the tickets are cheap. Despite this, I made a promise to myself when coming back from Stuttgart to Lincolnshire by coach that I would never, ever do that again - over the maybe 20 hour journey, I got to the point of sleeplessness, travel sickness and general irritation with my fellow passengers that I decided that it was never, ever going to be worth it to put myself through that again. We'll see whether I end up with enough money to stick to that decision!

In any case, the concert was a great success, and featured a singer who lives in Belgium but who is originally from Ireland ("One of you!" I was told. I strongly suggested that they might not want to say that to him...). What I did find interesting, though, was the dynamic of this concert, whose aim was to raise money for the children's home. Those who had bought a ticket were put directly next to the kids, who didn't necessarily want to be at the concert, and who, I felt, were being put on display in a sort of attempt to allow the audience to feel good about themselves rather than building any sort of connection. I am very sceptical of the idea that encouraging financial donations should come before the comfort of the kids who are meant to be benefiting from this charity, especially in their own home.

I really do enjoy catching up with everyone, though - hopefully I will get to visit again in summer before I head off to Germany. Not quite sure what the plan is there - much too busy worrying about exams and my current travels to think about July!


Over the Christmas break I took a trip to Dublin with my darling mother. It is very much a city designed with tourists in mind, so shopping and drinking are pushed pretty heavily in the centre, but we managed to get in some cultural moments too(!), including seeing the sights, and a visit to the National Leprechaun Museum, which is 100% cooler than it sounds - essentially you get an intro to the folklore and to the history of Irish storytelling. Would fully recommend! (see pics below)

But, what I actually wanted to write about was the two walking tours that we took part in. These have basically become my first activity in any city I go to - I reckon I have been on 12 so far in various cities, and the quality is always great because they are for tips rather than pre-paid, and, as we all know, the best motivator is fear of abject poverty.

I've been on these tours all over Europe and in Ukraine and Russia, without any problems, even though we are obviously a group of tourists, and what's more, English-speaking ones. But on one of the tours in Dublin it appears we really were not welcome: our tour guide (who incidentally is perhaps the most interesting and impartial guide I've ever had) was heckled by passers-by, called a liar for speaking about the conflict between Ireland and England, and the group actually had eggs thrown at them for stopping by a plaque marking the location of a particularly significant struggle. I suppose it is true that anti-English sentiment is strong because the wounds of conflict have not yet healed, but I still found it interesting how this is the only place I have really had problems as an English tourist. I am writing this from Kiev, where being English certainly is remarkable to some people, and despite our questionable foreign policy, I've not been made to feel unwelcome just because I'm English.

As 'the English', we are very much allowed (despite all evidence) to see ourselves as the 'good side' in the world, and Irish history is a good place to start should you wish to question this idea.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Conflicting ideals in the Cambridge social scene

Let me preface this with the admission that Cambridge is a city in its own right, with a variety of inhabitants and therefore lifestyles in it, and that even within the 20,000 strong university, not everyone is going to agree.

There are certain traditions I've come across while at university that I have found quite perplexing. For small celebrations, it's customary to attend Formal Hall, which, depending on the college, is usually a 3 course meal where you are dressed in a suit or dress and gown and waited on. There is also sometimes a blessing in Latin if that's your sort of thing, too. The novelty of this tradition has very much worn off for me, although the Latin muttering is fun if only because, despite me having never attempted Latin and therefore understanding none of it, the offensively strong English accent is still very much perceptible through the language barrier.

I suppose this might be influenced by the fact that veggie food at formal is normally uninspiring and that to be honest I would rather go get a significantly less pretentious pizza, but I really feel that these dinners are more of a social statement than anything else. No one (I hope) in the hall thinks that this is a standard thing for young adults to be doing, but because 'we're at Cambridge' and 'it's tradition', that's what we're all doing (read: I want an excuse to feel like I deserve this, and this one will do).

This is so integral a part of expected social behaviour at Cambridge that there are not only formal dinners that we are expected to attend (e.g. matriculation dinner, scholars' dinners, etc.) which I find essentially overly self-celebratory, but even when dealing with Access for students from non-traditional backgrounds, formals seem to be an unquestioned part of the social scene. For example, both in the university-wide shadowing scheme, which matches current students with sixth formers from non-traditional backgrounds, and in the smaller Working Class Students mentoring scheme, people are given the chance to socialise over dinner in some of the most Harry Potter-esque surroundings I have ever encountered. Admittedly, these two dinners are both provided at no cost to the individual students, which I suppose does go some way to make formals more accessible for low-income students, but this assumes that the issue is purely a financial one, and not one of the social implications of being waited on in such a traditional manner.

At the risk of turning this post into a list of things that make me uncomfortable about Cambridge (and that is tempting; the list is not short), there is an entire phenomenon of industrial-scale celebrations referred to as balls. If you are a member of another UK university, you might be tempted to equate this with your own experiences, but after much discussion with friends I have come to the conclusion, as ever, that the Cambridge experience out-ridiculous-es everywhere else. In fairness, I've only attended one ball, and, while great fun, it was possibly both the cheapest and most convenient one that I could have picked (tickets can easily run into the hundreds of pounds, followed by the justification 'yeah but there's free alcohol!' - I suggest these people reconsider their definition of the word 'free').

I think what bothers me more than how normal it is to spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds on these sorts of events, is the fact that no one seems to question it, or wonder how it came to be that this is the norm for a bunch of young adults who have most likely never held down a job or otherwise earned enough money to be spending it in such a ridiculous way. Essentially, Cambridge has always been a place for entitled individuals to celebrate their own lifestyle incessantly, without having to consider the wider world around them, or even to consider the individuals whose hard work enables all this to happen.

Instead of accepting 'tradition' as harmless, we should be looking at the circumstances that enabled these traditions to develop, and we should ask ourselves whether this is an idea of normality that we want to perpetuate.

Easter and summer plans

Great news: I will be spending 2 weeks over Easter attending a Russian language course in Kiev. Although I only spent 1 day in the capital during my trip last year, it really made an impression on me and I can't wait to return! Hopefully it will also help me in terms of exam preparation, as my Russian speaking exam will take place right as I get back to Cambridge in April.

I have also secured an internship with a large company in Munich, Germany, which will last from July to January. I will be working (and what's more, being paid!) as a translator from German to English, with the possibility for extra work from French and Russian.

Being in Munich will give me the opportunity to take a course in German Sign Language - I had hoped that I might be able to incorporate some aspect of SL-as-minority-language into my dissertation that I will be writing while abroad, although it would be much easier to concentrate on local dialects and spoken languages. Still, I'm the sort of person who takes courses for fun, not necessarily because the skills they teach have an immediate application!

I am really excited to be heading off again, and I am really pleased that I will be living in Germany before moving to Russia, in the hope that the culture shock won't hit me quite as hard the second time.

Synesthetes collide

This follows from my previous post on synesthesia.

At a local language evening I found myself discussing the condition with a fellow synesthete. We were comparing perceived colours of certain letters and words: since colours vary between individuals, of course, we were not going to agree on everything, but what surprised me was how strongly we disagreed and how almost offensive it felt to have a difference colour suggested. For example, for me, 'Mum' is very clearly a bright pink colour, whereas it was equally obviously a bright red for the person I was talking to.

I know that this same feeling is evoked when grammatical mistakes are insisted upon, for example repeating 'le table' instead of the accepted 'la table' in French. However, these conventions are agreed upon by a wider community of language users, and individuals learn what is and what isn't permissible through interaction with these other users. No one ever corrected my interpretation of 'Mum' as pink, nor did they affirm it, it merely continued to be correct in my own separate view of the world, and yet it feels somehow as if it automatically ought to be universal, as shown by my sheer disbelief at the idea that it might be red.

Very strange...!