Archive | April, 2013

Learning a new language: why is it so difficult?!

23 Apr

I have always appreciated the determination and skill it takes to properly master another language; however, despite my best efforts, I have been rather unsuccessful on the language front.  I went to a grammar school for girls and had to undergo painfully bad Spanish and German lessons for several years, which seems to have psychologically affected my attitude to language-learning.  Language classes at school, and I imagine for most UK state schools, were a bit of a joke.  We would have classes of around thirty pupils, the majority of whom viewed foreign language lessons as the time to muck around and emotionally torture the language teachers.  They were often naive and young native Spanish or German speakers, fresh from studying their PhD in England in the hope of pursuing their dreams.  I have a memory of my Spanish teacher in year 9 in the middle of what can only be described as a nervous breakdown – sobbing uncontrollably under the desk – because one of the girls was standing on the table and shouting, trying to spark some sort of frenzied revolt among the rest of the class.

Anyway, anything that was learnt was learnt via painful memorising and inefficiently cramming for weekly tests in which cheating was commonplace.  There was supposed to be a focus on speaking but in reality, in a class with 30 pupils, we were lucky if we said one sentence during the whole lesson.  We were given musty old textbooks that smelt and gave us information about scary-sounding things like ‘declensions’, and the GCSE oral was the most dreaded exam for many – who actually likes listening to their recorded voice?!

I did OK compared with many of my peers – indeed, I was even considered ‘good’ at languages but this was all relative.  I was hardly ‘good’; I simply had a good method for memorising that stood me in good stead in exams, which allowed me to get good grades.  However, as soon as I would finish an exam, any knowledge that I did possess – and most of it was rather tenuous anyway– would literally fly out of my head.  This isn’t to say that I didn’t try – at 16, I went to Santander in Spain for what was possibly the worst week of my life to work in a bookshop.  Instead of improving my Spanish speaking skills, I was stuck with a group of hormonal adolescents that I didn’t know and spent most of the time in dodgy nightclubs, nursing a headache sparked by one too many WKD’s and watching precocious British teenagers getting with greasy older Spanish men.  I definitely learnt why Brits get such a bad rep abroad so I guess it was a learning experience, definitely, but not in the way I intended.

Our school did make some half-hearted attempts at getting us enthused about learning languages involved a trip to the ‘Europa’ centre when we were about 13.  If possible, this actually made me less enthused.  It was sold as this centre where you were effectively in Germany; the brochure showed various shops and cafes and the idea was that you could explore this town using the German you had learnt.  There was literally a pharmacy and one shop, a vintage clothes shop (but not in the cool sense) and you were not actually able to buy anything – you just had to pretend that you wanted to buy the stained puffer jacket on the rack.  If you said anything incorrect, the woman in the shop would basically reprimand you quite aggressively.  The cafe sold soggy microwaveable chips, so at least I got to use a phrase that we repeated in lessons – ‘Ich möchte Pommes Frites kaufen bitte’. Please see the picture below of the shop at the Europa centre to give you an insight into how incredibly unexciting (and stuck in a time warp) this school trip was:

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Obviously, language-learning needs to be an active process, something which is cultivated and practised regularly.  It’s no surprise, then, that I remember very little of what I learnt and it is an embarrassing fact that I probably couldn’t hold a fluent conversation in Spanish or German despite studying them in sixth form.

This weekend I am going for a city break to Munich and I was intending to brush over my German – die Einheimischen beeindrucken (that’s ‘to impress the locals’, just in case you were wondering ;)).  However, the more I look into it, the more I realise that I’m not simply ‘brushing over’ anything – I literally have to learn things again.  Perhaps it is my laziness or a general lack of dedication that prevents me from really getting my teeth into a different language.  A couple of years ago, I went to some Beginner Mandarin classes at SOAS and while I began the course feeling highly motivated, I soon found myself getting annoyed with the teacher and the rest of my group and decided to slide into the background very quickly.

I suppose what I have gathered is that it is about addressing what learning style suits you best.  I know that I would be best suited to a disciplined teacher in a one-to-one setting.  In groups, I become lazy and demotivated and I am one of those annoying people that need the slight fear factor to do well.

Maybe I will try again and shake off the old associations I have with learning languages.  But the problem with me is that I find myself getting so disheartened when I don’t see immediate results – something that needs to be overcome if you plan on really mastering a language.  I’m always looking for a quick-fix solution, which is something that is simply not feasible if you want to speak another language fluently.  However, I do feel to succeed in mastering a language requires an element of fun, something which was completely missing in school lessons and indeed, in many of these evening classes that suddenly seem to be all the rage. Without this, the process will most likely resemble a chore and you will have wasted valuable time, energy and resources in return for not very much at all.

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The benefits of keeping a diary

22 Apr

I have kept countless diaries since I was young.  I haven’t exactly discriminated either; my diaries have consisted of handwritten squiggles in old notebooks, saved Microsoft Word documents and even forays into the mysterious world of the ‘e-journal.’  However, I have never previously looked at my diary entries as aiding my creativity as such, which is the way in which Virginia Woolf viewed the process.  Woolf started writing diaries relatively late in life- at the age of 33 – and she came to view the art of keeping a diary as ‘a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.’

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This makes a lot of sense.  Writing a diary is an excellent habit to cultivate which forces you to introspect and relay your innermost thoughts onto paper.  This process of trying to eloquently express your emotions can be incredibly difficult.  Indeed, most of my diary extracts from when I was about fourteen only serve to emphasise this point.  Stilted and often grammatically incorrect angry ramblings, frequently littered with obscenities to try and convey my frustrations and apathy with the world in which I was living.  As a teenager, I would mainly write in my diary when I was feeling ‘out of sorts’ which in retrospect, are highly embarrassing and self-indulgent.

An example from when I was 15: ‘ I honestly hope it’ll be all OK in the end. That’s what everyone says, isn’t it? Oh don’t worry, you’ll be fine. You’ll have done better than you expected. How can they know though? I know I completely fucked some of my exams up. What if I’ve actually done WORSE than I expected? I can’t believe less than a year of studying has come to this. It all seems so wasted now.’

Although I would like to think (and desperately hope) that my writing has improved A LOT since I was fifteen, reading over my old entries has actually shown me that I still hold onto a lot of the securities that I did as an angsty fifteen year old.  Not good!  However, diaries are an amazing way to provide a snapshot into your life at a certain period.  With time, the little things are forgotten and diaries provide you with an insight into what type of person you were and allow you to view how far you have come since then.  Writing my diary then and even now is mainly due to the therapeutic benefits it brings.  When I feel overwhelmed or just have things on my mind which I can’t talk to anyone about, I turn to writing as a release.

Perhaps, now I am older and serious about writing as a profession, I should take heed from Woolf and view writing in my diary not only as a tool of self-exploration but as as a kind of R&D for my craft, as Woolf approached the process.  After all, if you are serious about writing, you should try to write everyday and diaries can help you develop and enhance your writing skills.

Preconceptions and judgement

20 Apr

It’s strange how your preconceived ideas can reveal so much about your personality, your defences and your worst fears.

I work in PR and a couple of days ago, I made my way to a media briefing with an editor of one of the publications we try and place some of our clients in.  So, as expected, the room was full of fellow PR flacks and I found myself scanning the room, a delightful breakfast sausage canape in one hand and one of those embarrassing badges they make you wear in the other, seeking confirmation for the stereotypes of people working in PR that I clearly still harboured.  Given that PR is notoriously female-dominated, the room was representative of this although the fact that this was PR specific to the financial services meant that there were a few suited and booted men swanning around.

What it made me realise is that I have an irrational fear of ‘rah’ women. This is of course not a technical term but please bear with me while I try and explain.  In my opinion, ‘rah’ women belong to a certain ‘elite’ group; they are the by-product of Higher Breeding Programme.  They are predominantly Caucasian and tend to have long locks of tousled hair that they like to run their hands through every few minutes.  They are not just well-spoken; they are downright posh.  They exude an innate confidence and possess a genuinely unwavering belief that they are amazing, most probably instilled when young and they won a competition at Lacrosse or the like.  Anyway, I digress.

What I mean to say is that I have, quite unknowingly, categorised girls and women into this category and they have come to represent something that I find painfully intimidating.  During my one and only term studying English Literature, it was these kinds of girls that I was in tutorials with and I could not have felt more out of place.  Heck, even on my first day at Cambridge, I was given my  University card, which had the wrong picture on it – instead of my scared face, there had been some mistake and it had been usurped by the  girl before me in the register, a glorified ‘rah’ girl who could never be bothered to talk to me.  This led to problems in Freshers Week when I was denied entry to a club everyone else in my Halls was going to because the bouncer took one look at my card before laughing and shooing me away.  (Weirdly, fast forward a year, and my roommate at LSE was a former classmate with the girl in question and let’s just say, I don’t think she was the nicest of people).   Anyway, this all contributed to me feeling completely unsettled and out of place, being the only non-white English Lit student in my college.

However, five years have passed since then.  I know I’ve grown stronger and become (more) self-confident, yet why am I still fazed by women who come to remind me of a time when I was more vulnerable and depressed?

I guess I have categorised people into a group to try as they spark thoughts about all my insecurities in myself that I try not to think about: my intelligence, my looks, the feeling that no matter how hard I try, I will never truly fit in.  Perhaps these are things that I will just have to live with to some extent but I realise that by trying to force people I don’t even know into some narrowly-defined container implies a sort of snobbishness – that I am some kind of superior individual.

I have always hated arrogance and people who think they are superior to others so this has really made me question the way in which I view people.  However, I think I understand why I categorise people.  It’s a kind of defence mechanism; if I put people that I think can potentially hurt me and make me feel inadequate in a box, then I can avoid these kinds of people and this only serves to perpetuate all the preconceptions I adhere to.  But this way of thinking is incredibly limiting.  It means I might miss out on all sorts of relationships with people just because I think (because let’s face it, it’s always me thinking as I don’t truly know these people I’m judging) that they wouldn’t be my type of person.  I dismiss people, having made a swift initial judgement, and then pride myself on being intuitive and able to ‘read people.’

This is something I need to change.  I suppose being aware of it is a first step.  I have been proved wrong so many times in the past, when I am pleasantly surprised by so many people after hastily writing them off after the first meeting.  Indeed, if I switch sides, I dread the first impression I must have given to my peers at Cambridge; I was erratic, emotionally unstable and full of self-hatred.  So, how could I expect anyone to look at me beyond all of that if I don’t do the same?!

The PR media briefing was of course fine once I became aware of my tendency to revert to the scared adolescent I once was and I chatted to some lovely people that I would have avoided previously.  Not as scary or alienating as I once would have thought.

Thus, I resolve to judge people a lot less.  It makes sense seeing as I hate it when people judge me, so I should really practise what I preach.

The Place beyond the Pines

17 Apr

I have a feeling I’m in the minority here but I watched the long-awaited ‘The Place beyond the Pines’ last week and HATED it.  Well, perhaps, ‘hated’ is too strong a word; there were positives, for example Gosling’s raw performance, the beautiful cinematography and the soundtrack.  However, what started out as a semi-promising film soon disintegrated into an oversentimental and thoroughly predictable plot.

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I had expected great things from director Cianfrance, as ‘Blue Valentine’ starring Ryan Gosling (again) and Michelle Williams was heartbreakingly beautiful.  I have the DVD at home and it never fails to move me.  Part of Blue Valentine’s appeal was its realness when looking at the painful process of a relationship breaking down.  While some of these themes are revisited in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’, it is the realness that is missing.  There are far too many ‘coincidences’ and the shifting through time is unnecessary and incredibly cheesy.  I found myself wanting to walk out when the film shifts to ’15 years later’ when, by a coincidental twist of fate, the two sons of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper’s characters become friends.  The portrayal of teenagers and the god-awful accent of AJ (Cooper’s son) was almost too much to bear.  I was unable to empathise with the characters by this point – instead, they exasperated me and I was really starting to grow impatient with their sloppy character portrayal.  Although Bradley Cooper’s character was initially intriguing and had the potential to be developed further, most of the second half was embarrassing, clunky and awkward – it literally made me squirm in my seat because of its awful dialogue.

Thoroughly disappointing.  Although, one thing I have discovered is that Gosling’s acting never fails to impress me; however, this time, not even him wearing a Metallica t-shirt with tatts, giving off a Marlon Brando vibe was not enough to save the film…

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Don’t leave the day job, folks

4 Apr

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In a recently discovered 13 page letter by the acclaimed author, Oscar Wilde advocates writers to continue with a day job, believing that his success was due to him never relying on the craft as a source of income.  This little gem is useful for all those would-be writers out there who are contemplating whether to just pack the office job in completely and begin life as a full-time writer.

“The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.

“Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you.”

I found this both interesting and enlightening as I guess I had always assumed that I do things best when I’m under inordinate amounts of pressure, which seemed to be the case with pretty much all the exams/ academic achievements in my life so far – and what would be a higher pressured situation than not having any money?  However, the logical and rational side to me acknowledges that my belief that hard graft and stress will bring results is deeply flawed.  Not everything needs to resemble some type of endurance test (for this, I blame my Asian blood, where pain is considered ‘a good thing’ a lot of the time).  I have to remind myself that writing should ultimately be a fun, relaxing and therapeutic process, otherwise, well, what’s the bloody point of it all?

I had never seriously considered giving up the day job, as my (lack of) funds would literally feed, home and clothe me for about a week before I would be forced to crawl on my hands and feet back to the mother, but I had recently been considering other means of income.  I came up with many; however most of these ideas were either implausible as they would require a lot more capital than I could feasibly come up with or in some cases, they were literally impossible…

But if Wilde says ‘don’t do it’, then that pretty much settles things for me 🙂

Maths + writing?

3 Apr

I’ve been helping a friend with the maths parts of a professional exam, which got me contemplating the formula to writing a good book.  I’m by no means a mathmo but I studied Maths at A-Level, although wisely opted out of the masochistic ‘Further Maths’ course, plus studying Economics at the LSE was incredibly maths-heavy.  However, I had forgotten the innate satisfaction from solving one of those annoying maths problems that for the life of you, you can’t work out until suddenly… the penny drops and you manage to move beyond the struggle and see the solution.  This has been a surprising contrast with all the writing (or lack of it, in most cases) I’ve been attempting lately, where there is no ‘exact’ answer that you are working towards.  Of course, this is partly what adds to the beauty of the process but I can’t help but wish there were some more formulaic approach to be had.  I’ve researched the various writing methods authors use, including The Snowflake Method, to try and see what would work best for me and it seems that most of these ‘methods’ boil down to intense preparation and planning of a novel.  For some reason, though, I can’t quite seem to plan properly; I’ve always started writing and let the story develop that way, although most of the time I do have some general idea of the themes and the way in which I want the story to develop.

Anyway, rambling aside, I just wish I could make my writing process a lot more efficient and less trial and error.

Unfortunately, though, it looks like I’ll just have to try my best and persevere with this, remembering that ‘the path to success isn’t always a straight line.’  So, yeah, I guess that means I’ll have to put up with the frustrating scrapping of drafts and the sudden decisions to change a character completely but perhaps that is all part of the maddening(but hopefully ultimately rewarding) process.

I figure if there were a formula for writing a good novel, it would be something like: some function of all the books you’ve read in your life time and your love of literature plus a measure of your persistence plus a measure of self-belief minus a measure of your procrastination…(for me, the explanatory variable here would be shockingly high).

Writing a good novel = F(past books you have read, love of literature) + a*persistence + b*self-belief –c* procrastination 

Museum of London exhibition: Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

2 Apr

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Given my taste for the macabre and having read rave reviews of this exhibition,  a friend and I made our way along to the Museum of London over the Easter weekend.  I had never been to the Museum of London, situated on London Wall, despite it being pretty darn close to where I work so I was excited to explore. 

The exhibition was detailing the history of grave-robbers who would steal freshly buried corpses to sell to surgeons.  Victorian England suffered from a shortage of bodies on which surgeons could learn more about the human anatomy thus grave-robbing became a profitable venture, to the point where grave-robbers even resorted to murder to meet this demand.  The exhibition had grisly wax models of dissected bodies and there was a statue of a convicted murderer who had been flayed and cast in wax, which was both amazing and thoroughly disturbing.  I learnt about the Anatomy Act which was passed that largely put an end to the gory business of burking (grave-robbing) although many argued that this simply meant that the more vulnerable in society would be those who would end up donating their bodies to further the cause of science.  What really struck me, apart from all the grisly stuff which I have worryingly become desensitised to, was the impact religion had on people’s attitudes towards the advancement of science.  Indeed, there was a little video that exhibited a cross-section of peoples’ attitudes  today towards donating organs and religion seemed to be the main thing that held people back as people were concerned they would not be ‘whole’ come Judgement day.  As a staunch atheist, it shocked me that with all the technological innovations that science has brought us, people are still unwilling to donate their organs to science in this modern age.

Overall, informative and grisly in just the right amount.  However, perhaps for the tourists, the videos seemed to be full of exaggerated cockney accents and I would have perhaps liked to have learnt more about the daily life of student surgeons during the Victorian era in comparison with how they would learn about dissection today.