Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Loony Module

Today was session one of my new MA module, ‘Intercultural Communication’ Part II: same day, same time, same place – it’s back, and it’s mean as hell’. Our department is umm, relaxed about things, generally. I had been told that day one was to be January ninth, and so set up my room and materials, and waited. By five past ten, nobody had showed up, and by ten fifteen there was reason to hope nobody would. I went to see the centre director and by checking his e-mails, he ascertained that we were two weeks early and everyone was probably still in China. ‘Claim anyway’ he said. I said I certainly would, and went home. Don't you just hate it when that happens.

M le Directeur puts together the handbooks for these modules and in each one there’s a session-by-session breakdown. The sessions last two hours, and there’s usually enough material proposed for a whole week:

Embracing the differences: High power versus low power distance relationships. Polychronic cultures versus monochronic cultures; relationship based business cultures versus pure business cultures. We will scrutinise the language and paralinguistic features embedded in each of these phenomena.

There’s matter in’t indeed, then, but having produced these copious timetables, M le D waives them away - ‘don’t worry about that’ – implying that they are for somebody else’s consumption, and we can do what we want. This of course is just to give me the freedom to teach what and how I see fit, but unfortunately, since most of this content is as much news for me as it is for the students, deciding what to leave in and what to chuck out is no easy matter. I feel like an apprentice surgeon from the days when barbers sawed bones, dithering over a petrified patient.

‘Yeah, OK, but which bits do I chop off?’

‘Whatever. S’up to you.’

It’s a good thing the students don’t get to hear the casualness of this approach, as it might not inspire confidence. Imagine, as you buckle your seat belt for the long haul from Beijing to London, you overhear the pilot saying to the co-pilot ‘bruvver-in-law’s birfday larce night. Got a fuckinelle of an ed.’ Students are unaware of how much teaching is like this. They must be, or they wouldn’t keep coming back.

Yesterday and today I had the first-session nerves all over again, that lousy bloody rotten stage fright that seems, contrary to expectation, to increase with experience. There was Kong, the lad I was sure had complained on the feed-back form on the last course, and I fancied as I entered the room that I saw his countenance darken: had he hoped someone else was going to teach this module? When the session got underway I went and asked him if he had felt that there had not been enough communication and collaboration on the earlier module, because some bleeding ungrateful bugger had had the sheer bloody gall to moan that this had been the case. ‘No, no!’ said his girlfriend, brightly. ‘He like!’ Kong nodded and smiled, a man of few words as always. An appalling realization struck me: if the one moaner had not been Kong, the only male on the course, I no longer cared who it was. Then I was able to temper this apparently sexist gut-reaction somewhat. Kong had always been very quiet and reluctant to speak English, and I had taken his silence as disdain. When someone complained about a lack of opportunity for discussion on a course built around discussion and roleplay, I had, in my paranoid fashion, assumed it was Kong, and evidently assumed wrong. So had there been a silent and sullen female, I suppose I would have taken her for the malcontent. As it is, the moaner is obviously one of the women, all of whom thrash things out unrestrainedly, so I have no idea where this ‘lack of communication’ bollocks came from.

After an hour and three quarters of feeling like a concerned host at a party, worried that people were not enjoying the canapés as much as I’d hoped because they were accustomed to tastier, the course suddenly took shape in my mind. The students had been involved in a negotiation. Company A had send a man to company B for training in cross cultural communication, and the bloke had proven useless in his new post with company A despite the £5,000 they had shelled out on bringing him up to snuff. So company A’s representatives had to meet with company B’s to strike a new deal. As I circulated, I noted these utterances:

You trained our guy badly.
You need to revise your teaching and testing systems!
Your training was inefficient, it’s your fault.
His English wasn’t good enough for the job!
We thought you were the specialists and we trusted you!

I put these on the screen and asked if everyone thought they were OK to use in the situation. Everyone did, which gives rise, does it not, to the question ‘why am I asking you this, if that’s the case?’ In a British context, all the above would of course be perceived as highly insulting to the integrity of the trainers. You’d have to imply it all by saying things such as:

We feel he didn’t benefit from the course as much as we might have hoped. (Which of course was your fucking fault, but we leave that unsaid.)

His language wasn’t quite up to the demands of the job. (To put it mildly, which we always do, but we're not mild, don't be fooled.)

So we are on track now: it’s business English, but I can treat it as sociolinguistics and pragmatics, and all the stuff I feel more confident about.

After the session a student came and said, ‘you know, Steven, I really like the way you teach. I always learn something with you.’ Well, I came over all unnecessary at that. Earlier this month another student gave me a New Year present of a jumper and 500 ml of Hugo Boss eau de toilette. The jumper would fit a man twice my size, so it’s a bit delicate: if I don’t wear it she will assume I don’t like it, and if I do she will see that it makes me look like a bouncy castle. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for any explicit token of appreciation in a profession where you often feel that in students’ estimation, you are only as good as your last lesson, and the upper levels of management couldn't care less about you.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Interior Spaces

I’ve grumbled a bit here and there about the slipping production values in my dreams of late. I know it’s free entertainment, but even so, whoever lays mine on used to do some pretty good stuff: there’d be temples, stained glass and incense, therioform mountain ranges, dark and sooty mediaeval cities, spirit people and what-not, but it seems over the last few years the dream-works have given up trying. If I remember my dreams at all, they are usually washed-out grey or sepia tinted fragments, banal as Tuesday morning, a load o summat an nowt, as my grandma would say, scanning the listings for a dull evening’s telly. Last night’s was a good one, though.

I have taken a job in Crete, λέει, where I am living in a vast house. To cross the open-plan rooms requires several minutes, and depending on which floor I’m occupying, answering the door could be quite an expedition. It’s as if I’m the sole occupant of a major branch of John Lewis. So, as I’m exploring the levels and expanses of contemporary furniture, showroom after showroom of it, I come across a naked young man asleep on one of my umpteen billion sofas. I approach him with commingled curiosity, apprehension and lust, and as I do so he awakes and stands up. The lust doesn’t last long; deucedly plain lad, unfortunately, and as you do in dreams, I note with disappointment but no particular surprise that although he has balls, he has no cock.

The boy has some connection with the previous tenant of the mega-house and their business is clearly unresolved, as now another young man shows up, leading a posse of dangerous-looking local lads. Boys one and two hold a brief colloquy before the gang contrive to draw curtains between me and the first boy, and behind them set about him with clubs. The curtains are blown dramatically upwards and apart just as the lad’s head is smashed like a coconut.

A group of local women arrives. One of them rouses me as I am dozing on one of my day-beds - I have trillions - and tells me I am welcome to visit anyone in the town. I should call on Kyría [= Mrs] So-and-So, whose speciality is some delicious confection made with cherries. I am given to understand that everyone is hospitable and generous, but to use that irritating cliché, there’s the Elephant in the Room. It is left unspoken, but it seems that getting shut of the corpse of that that poor, broken, dickless boy is to be entirely my affair.

So how about that?


“Men get into trouble by taking their visions and hallucinations too seriously.” – H. L. Mencken

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Multiple Messages

De nada 'you're welcome'.

Reblogged from Language Log

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Mama Africa

Two songs here from Sangoma, the best album of the late Miriam Makeba. Sangoma is a collection of Xhosa and Zulu folk songs that covers the lot: delight in children, loneliness and ostracism, fear of illness and deliverance from same, celebration at release from captivity, bereavement, intimations of immortality, warnings to horny and impetuous youth: if that's not getting your money's worth, I don't know what is. Totally marvellous stuff that you should investigate at once.

The first one is Baxabene Oxamu, a nonsense song to help kids master Xhosa cl
icks. The 'x' here represents the 'gee up' lateral tongue-click you use to get your horse moving. The line that follows is:

Beliqhata baba bgeqothyo leqhude

...where 'q' is a sound made by letting your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth and pulling the air in suddenly with a champagne-cork pop. I bought the CD in Piraeus at the tail-end of the nineties when I lived in a basement flat in Kolonaki, Athens. I had an echoing hallway to myself in which I practised my clicks, and I think I'm like, sordov, pretty click-literate by now, yeah? I have a colleague who is a native speaker of Zulu, and I once listened to her talking on her mobile to her husband. Those resonant pops are absent from everyday speech, unfortunately. I heard the clicks because I knew Reine speaks Zulu - otherwise I would probably have missed them.

Baxabene Oxamu by Miriam heard the clicks only because I knew Makeba on Grooveshark

The second song is Angilalanka, meaning 'I do not sleep'. Insomnia is taken as a sign that one is chosen by the spirit people to be a 'sangoma' or healer. If you are having trouble getting off, this might be why.

Angilalanga by Miriam Makeba on Grooveshark

There you go. A change for those of us normally in thrall to Middle Eastern wailing.

Why art thou amazed?

Tried to post this yesterday, but ad trouble wiv me widget. We have passed the point in the Christian calendar at which this piece would be appropriate, but since I don't believe a word of it anyway, let's not worry about that. It's not Twelfth Night until tomorrow so we can still have Christmas songs until then, and this is light years away from Noddy Sodding Holder or frigging bloody Wizzard. Here, Soeur Marie Keyrouz performs the song Li-madha ta'jabina ya Mariam? 'Why art thou Amazed, O Mary?' i.e., that thou hast not known man, but art yet up the duff, and art like, 'why me?', yeah? It does strain the credulity a bit, let's admit it.

However... Soeur Marie sings the Kathisma of the Office of the Nativity from the Byzantine Melkite tradition with such heart-stopping intensity and technical accomplishment that we can forget the crassness of commercialised Christmas, the absurdity of the story and the horrors perpetrated in its name, and ride the thermals of her astonishing voice.

Kathisme de l'Office de la Nativité (Byzantine Melkite tradition): Li-mâdhâ ta'jabina yâ Mariamu? by Soeur Marie Keyrouz/Ensemble de la Paix on GroovesharkLink

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Babelfish Strikes (Yet) Again

Is Babelfish really any bloody use to anybody? I clicked 'translate this page' whilst skimming through the blog, and the posts were swiftly rendered into pidgin Greek. In my 'auto interview' post, I answered the question 'what would paradise be like if you were in charge?' like this:

'The food and wine would be first rate, free, contain no calories and be served by naked, ithyphallic twinks.' The translator came up with:

Τι would ουρανό είναι σαν να ήσασταν στο τέλος;
Το φαγητό και το κρασί θα είναι η πρώτη τιμή, δωρεάν, δεν περιέχουν θερμίδες και να εξυπηρετείται από γυμνό, ιθυφαλλικός Ηλικιωμένες.

If we ignore the scrambled noun-adjective agreement and capricious use of singular and plural verbs, we could turn this back into English something like this - emphasis added:

What would sky is as though you were at the end?
The food and the wine will be the first price, free, they don't contain calories, and will be served by naked, ithyphallic elderly ladies.

Which is about as far from my idea of paradise as it's possible to get. Can you sue Babelfish for misrepresentation?


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