Wednesday, 24 June 2009


Moving house 搬家Image by kattebelletje via Flickr

Much as I love Blogger, it has its faults. Mainly, I find the text-editor to be buggy and quirky. For all its fancy features, finding that italics don't always work properly, or pasted/imported text can be a markup nightmare, detracts significantly from the whole core blogging experience for me.
I've now found that Wordpress is a little better managed, slicker to adminsiter and a bit more powerful, even if the interface is a little slower.
I felt like a bit of a traitor trying it out, using the included tools to import my Blogger posts, but finally being able to resolve the issue I raised in my first substantive post - by claiming my rightful name-space in the blogosphere - was too big an incentive to ignore.
So, I've relocated: here is my new Wordpress blog.
Also, having the option to use the Wordpress engine on my own domain sometime in the distant future - much like my brother already has - is a distinct advantage in this uncertain virtual world.
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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Saying NO in Japanese

It's been a while. How have you been?

KYOTO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 9: Ichimame, an 19-yea...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I kept meaning to write - started a couple of times - but never got around to sending anything. I'll probably post those old musings at a later date, when I've finished developing them.

In the mean time, I have a question: How does your medium affect how you speak? How does your writing style differ from your conversational style? How about when talking to different people? Or how about when you know you're being recorded?

We all moderate our style of communication according to audience and medium; sometimes deliberately, but in my experience it's almost entirely subconscious, and a built-in survival skill (I understand it's something autistic people struggle with, though.)
I know that, when speaking about a serious topic with real gravitas, I have a tendency to use full-bodied sentences and a rich vocabulary - more like the manner in which I write - whereas in everyday small-talk I tend towards pithiness or triteness (depending how the day's going).

Similarly, my girlfriend tells me that when I read aloud, the tone and timbre of my voice takes on a story-book quality; a narrative style and a tendency to be more measured with pace. I can't do the voices though.
I've been considering trying to get a late-night slot on the Cambridge Student radio station, and I'm very curious to find out how my speech would come across on-air. Oh, to have the chocolatey tones of Boggy Marsh, or the dry wit of Mo Dutta (now sadly no longer a part of my weekend mornings). The best I can hope for is not to sound like Joe Pasquale reading the script to Mulholland Drive.

But I digress. My point is, the nature of the language itself doesn't really change. We may tend towards formality, or use smaller words, or litter our speech with colloquialisms, but the rules of grammar and syntax remain the same, however poorly we apply them.

Not so in Japanese. Any student of the language will be quick to discover (and point out, if they're showing off), that the language is moderated significantly according to the relative status of the speaker and audience, and the formality of the conversation. I came across a site that demonstrates some key Japanese verb conjugations in a very tight and lean manner, and one of the first things to notice is the proliferation of unusual verb-productions; such things as:-
  • Passive/respectful
  • Honorific
  • Humble
- not to mention the stark contrast between Plain and Polite forms, which is a crucial (and challenging) part of the language.

This modification of grammar according to audience and context is something we just don't have in English. We tend to slacken off and drop a lot of the more cumbersome rules when in casual conversation (or all the damned time, if you were educated with a banana and an inner-tube), but the rules don't change.

This is well-known to anybody who's studied Japanese for any length of time though, so I don't want to bore you with that. Instead I want to bore you with something else I learned from Hiromi-sensei: conversational grammar can change according to whether it's written or just spoken, in the following way...

When you wish to communicate a reason, an expectation or a circumstance surrounding an event or statement, you would use the - (-te or "plain") form, and the ending の です (no desu). This is a fairly typical conversational structure. So:
~の です (~te no desu) means "because of ~ " or "the fact is that ~ " or whatever the context implies.

So to say "because I studied...", we would write べんきょう した の です ("benkyoo shita no desu, - (-ta) being the past form of -). Makes sense so far.

Well, when saying this, you would actually say べんきょう した です. Spot that? The (no) becomes a (n). For the purposes of easy conversation in a casual setting, that makes sense. It's like a contraction - like saying "won't" instead of "will not". There are other examples in plain speech, where dropping a syllable doesn't cause the sentence to lose meaning to a native speaker.

But that's not what surprised me. When I was reading a sentence with this structure, my teacher pulled me up on pronouncing it as ~ です. "You read what is written - it's ~です."

Wait, can that be right? I'm quite comfortable with the notion of contracting structures in accepted ways for convenience - we do it all the time. Having separate rules for written and spoken grammar, though? Surely not...

Well it's true, as far as I'm told. If you speak conversationally, you use ~n in this construction, but if you write it then you use ~no. More importantly, if you read a written conversation, you would read the ~no just as it is written. Let me shout this bit: a listener would be able to infer that you were reading a written transcript, rather than having a real conversation. The written form is not merely visual representation of that which is said, but has slightly different rules.

This is a totally alien concept to me. What little I have understood about linguistics so far tells me that the written word is a means of recording what would otherwise be spoken - speaking came first, then the oral tradition of passing on stories, laws and wisdom, and then writing was invented to immortalise that wisdom.

And yet in Japanese, there is a sense (to me, at least) that the writing system has a life of its own, concurrent with - but somewhat independent of - the spoken word. One of the things that makes the language so challenging is that Kanji are inscrutable if you don't already know them, because they are not phonetic.
Anything based on Latin, Cyrillic or Arabic can be read, if not necessarily understood, and that encourages an emergent understanding of words that have not necessarily been directly learned. Written Japanese, however - along with a number of other logographic languages of South East Asia - is a one-way street. With no implicit correlation between writing and pronunciation, there's no way to learn to read something if you don't already know how it's pronounced, and bear in mind that most kanji have several distinctly different phonetic readings.

Frustrating as that may be, it's just one more dimension to this enormous puzzle. Whenever I feel that I'm getting a grip on some unusual aspect of the language, I realise that there are ten new and subtler idiosyncrasies hidden behind it. Every time I learn something, I get the impression that I'm only being told just enough to get a general idea - a lie that brings me closer to the truth.

断定の助動詞「だ」「じゃ」「や」の分布図。 Zones map of Japanese co...Image via Wikipedia

Thanks go to my brother for introducing me to Zemanta, a blogger's dream that helps find contextual images and a host of other doohickeys. It's already taught me that the core Japanese copula "です/だ" (desu/da) is not as immutable as I thought, and actually varies greatly according to the regional dialect - see right.
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Friday, 20 February 2009

So yeah, Cambridge.

Everybody knows now, which makes it hard to motivate myself to write this entry. Still, it's important and worth me recording publicly.

My original application was to Wolfson College (one of the two "mature student only" colleges to take undergraduates) under the advisement of the Chair of Japanese Studies. He felt that I might be happier there than at a more teen-dominated college, given my advanced years(!)

And finally the letter came, one Friday in January. "Sorry, but we don't want to offer you a place this year."


But what's this...? "We have submitted your application to the Winter Pool..." Should another college decide they like your ugly face, they may fish you out of the pool and offer you a place instead.

Well, a quick look at the statistics gave me little cause for hope: I was among the lucky one-in-five to be pooled, but of those only one-in-five get offered a place elsewhere. It's a mechanism usually employed as a safety-net not for students, but for faculties, providing them with an opportunity to make up any shortfalls in numbers if their selection process has left them with too many empty seats. Good if you're looking at a high-volume course like Medicine or Natural Science, less hopeful for a "we'll take who we damned-well want" minor language course like Japanese - any given year for which might have as few as three students.
My heart sank; I swallowed hard and got on with deciding where my life would go next. Time to get used to nothing much happening, I guess.

Two weeks later...

Another letter from Cambridge? But surely it's too late now. "On the basis of your academic record, we would like to offer you a place at St. Edmund's College" on the condition that you can prove you can damned-well afford it.

Good lord.

But I'd started making plans!

Oh my.

I'm going to Cambridge. The other college for mature undergraduates decided to take pity! I can't express what a profound surprise that was. Given that the Japanese course was much more geared towards research than undergrads, I really didn't think I had much hope.

How to explain this bizarre coincidence? Perhaps the course-representative of the interview panel liked me while the college-rep didn't, so he decided to recommend me elsewhere. Perhaps I just got lucky. All I know is that my life, for the foreseeable future, will be significantly different than it might otherwise have been.

It's been a hairy, skin-of-the-teeth affair right from the start (and arranging for funding is going to be just as troublesome), but it looks like I'm in. I'd better get cracking with those studies, and the pre-course reading list...

Oh look, they have a good boat club, too :-)

I really should stop posting these things when I'm at work...

Monday, 2 February 2009

Ups and downs

If life is a roller-coaster, mine has been one of those really scary ones that rattles with worrying harmonics every time you crest a peak, subjects you to enormous g-forces at every bend, goes so fast that you can't anticipate the next twist, and generally leaves you clinging onto the harness for dear life despite the fact that it's pressing uncomfortably into your bladder.

I guess it was worth waiting in the queue for the last few years though!

I should probably start where I left off: my best friend's wedding. Ben is a very likeable chap, with a disarmingly harmless air and a likeable cheekiness that makes him very easy to be around. His wife (as of December), Holly, is a bright, outgoing lass with a tendency to cope with stress by getting aggressive, which makes their relationship both energetic and amusing, from a distance...
The day went absolutely perfectly. Nothing really went wrong, everybody got on well, good times had by all, and both bride and groom really looked the part. It was a struggle to get Ben through The Night Before without getting too drunk (there were some agents of chaos out that night, working towards such a messy end), but he spruced up rather well the next morning, and managed not to fluff any of his lines.
I have to say, I was pleased at the low-key nature of the event. Not cheap or tacky, but relaxed and down-to-earth enough for everyone to just enjoy themselves, without the headache of everything being just so. A testament to Holly's practical and unassuming nature, I think.

The speech went down a storm, having been impressively preceded by Holly's dad. I was repeatedly approached and congratulated on my delivery, which of course gave me a great big glow but also left me feeling a little uncomfortable - it wasn't "my day", after all!

Still, the couple were very pleased, and that's what counts. They recently presented me with a fantastically thoughtful thank-you gift of a fancy Parker pen, and a fetching sake serving-set (a tokkuri and four choko). Who knew being Best Man would be such a blast?

They had a fantastic honeymoon (well, honey-week) on a riverboat cruising the Nile, and they're still together a month later. I guess that's a good start...

This all served as a good distraction, helping me not to fret over my Cambridge application so much. So... What happened about Cambridge??

If the gifts from Ben & Hol haven't given it away, stay tuned for the next instalment!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Aaaaaaand relax...

I've avoided blogging about Cambridge ever since I submitted my application. It's been such a big part of my life, but I've always maintained that this blog was to be about more than What I Did On My Holidays.

More than that, as my optimism varied from day to day, I wanted to avoid committing anything to the cyber-ether that would later cause me to look back and cringe. I have complete and historical editorial control over my posts, of course, but as a matter of principle I try not to tinker with or remove old posts except to correct typos or formatting. Quite apart from anything else, it'll be interesting to see how the blog - both my writing style and the way I think - develops over the months and, possibly, years.

However, the deed is done - the interview took place yesterday, and it's time to record the events that led up to it, for posterity and for the sake of those who read this thing and might be curious. So, here's a potted history of my attempt to insinuate my way into possibly the world's most prestigious academic institution.
  • Having made the decision to apply, I had a couple of weeks to get the UCAS form completed and submitted.
  • I consulted all and sundry regarding my Personal Statement, and the end result was pretty good. Thanks go to the dysfunctor and various good friends and colleagues for critical commentary.
  • The written reference presented a tricky choice of referees. The inestimably wise Dr Coates, my tutor at Birmingham Uni; my good-humoured Japanese Tutor, Hiromi; or my incomparably supportive line-manager, Gill. For one reason and another, Gill ended up providing my glowing reference.
  • Deciding which college to nominate was tricky. I was tempted to do so on the basis of application requirements (essays, tests, interviews etc), especially upon seeing that Trinity Hall seem to rely principally on the Thinking Skills Assessment (a form of testing at which I excel), but upon the Chair of Studies' advice I eventually went with Wolfson College - a college open only to mature (over-21) students.
  • Shortly after submitting the application, I was requested to complete the online Supplementary Application Questionnaire, specifically for Cambridge applicants. Another several hundred words of selling myself ensued, and I was nearly late submitting this as I had difficulty obtaining a suitable photo. (As I was amused to discover later, the print-out received by the interview panel was of such low resomolution that it may as well have been a photo of my cat)
  • Many agonising days of waiting later, I received a letter from Dr Sally Church inviting me to an interview with her and Dr Barak Kushner on Weds 10th December, 4pm. I was also requested to provide two examples of marked essays by the preceding Friday. Since I hadn't written an academic essay (not that would be suitable for Humanities, at least) since my GCSEs ten years ago, this was a problem...
  • A brief email exchange with Dr Church resulted in a request to provide a 1500-word essay entitled "Discuss the nature of society-state relations in the modern world in any region of your choice." I had a week to research and write it (including the stag-weekend in Amsterdam) and I'm pretty pleased with the result. Again, many thanks to friends & family for their support and advice. The dysfunctor's girlfriend, Chisa, was particularly kind in putting me in touch with a fellow academic in the field, although I was sadly too rushed to take advantage of this.
The day finally came, and I got the train down to Cambridge, suited up and looking dashing. It's always nice to know that you can brush up well when the need arises. Lucky tie and everything.
I managed to keep my nerves under control for most of the day - I usually do well at interview - but upon stepping off the train I suddenly felt an unholy lurch in the pit of my stomach. I've never been so anxious about anything before, which is a strange thing to admit; there were more serious, more important and more uncertain occasions in my life, I'm sure, but right then it was hard to remember any. It probably wouldn't have done me any good if I had, either.

I have a friend who suffers from occasional panic-attacks, and he's tried to describe them to me before. I've never had such a thing, but right then I think I understood a little of how it feels.

Anyway, I managed to control my bladder and stop shivering, and sat with a calming cuppa tea for half an hour or so. As I walked up to the faculty for the interview, a well-worded, well-timed text from a friend arrived to soothe me. I had five minutes to sit in the common-room with a couple of other young prospectives (for Chinese), and I realised that I was in a far better place than they were. I had chance to reflect on my previous Cambridge interview, back in 1998, and how I had been successful on that occasion, and was far better prepared and equipped this time to face the panel.

As it turned out, the panel was so much more relaxed and informal than I was expecting, too. I finally got to meet Dr Church - a pleasant, quiet lady, whom I feel may even have been a little more intimidated by the interview situation than I was - and the other interviewer, Dr Kushner. He was a very likeable man, with an air of intelligent confidence when he spoke. His enthusiasm was clear, in spite of the late interview, and he seemed quite eager to discuss everything from the ideas raised in my essay to the possibility of studying Taiko during the 3rd year in Japan.

Generally speaking, I think I presented myself fairly well - enthusiastic, intelligent and affable, if a little green. Most importantly, I think I demonstrated a genuine interest in the subject, and established that I'm already learning what I can. Beyond being a bit more coherent with my ideas, it's hard to know what more they would've been looking for.

I'm by no means certain that the interview was a success. However, I got the impression that they weren't just "giving me a chance"; rather, that they were already hopeful and wanted to see if I lived up to their expectations. If I read it right, I think my chances are decent.
Anyway, a couple of things were said which gave me good reason to be hopeful:
  1. When discussing the possible difficulties of being a mature student among a small class of 18-year-olds, many of whom would have joined "principally to pursue an interest in Anime", Dr Kushner intimated that it was more about gregariousness and personality than age, and that I seemed like the sort of person who'd get on fine. It felt like a vote of confidence.
  2. More significantly, my prior studies of the language were raised. It was suggested that I may find the first year "boring" if my knowledge and fluency in Japanese were of a sufficient level, since students are expected to enter with no prior knowledge. The notion of direct-entry to second year was raised, and that made me feel that they were seriously looking at how and where to fit me into the syllabus.
Good signs, then, and I don't think I really made a tit of myself at any point. It's hard to gauge how well they took me, but I felt that I got on with them pretty well, and got to express myself. They tested me a little - follow-up questions to throwaway comments - but I think I kept the ball rolling in the right direction.

Anyway, time for me to stop worrying about it now. The deed is done, and I've devoted quite enough energy to this application now. It's out of my hands. Time to focus on the next event in this month's hectic schedule - my best friend's wedding.

I think I'll need a holiday after this Holiday Season. Roll on January...

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Fear the mighty Organ!!

Freedom: what a terribly misleading word.

Please excuse the formatting - something went a little haywire. I'll fix the post later.

It’s a trite but understandable observation that “Freedom to starve is no freedom at all”. When we’re free to do absolutely anything, can we be trusted to act rationally and compassionately, or do we just degenerate - as a society - into a rampant conglomerate of consuming, self-serving organisms, like a particularly aggressive sea-sponge; an irresponsible, unfettered geophage?

Hard to say. As with most sweeping observations, the answer is probably "a little from Column A, a little from Column B." The more astute question - one posed by environmentally-conscious and socio-politically aware armchair philosophers everywhere - is "Individual acts of altruism aside, what is the general trend of our society, or of our race?"

Iain M. Banks' supposition in his Culture series of sci-fi/space-opera novels is that, given effectively limitless resources, the cumulative impact of personal choices made by people with absolute freedom becomes inconsequential. People are still inclined to present a seemingly contradictory combination of self-indulgence and philanthropy, with variable leanings one way or the other throughout society, but it really doesn't matter - personal choice has no societal impact.

This is a technological Utopia: when resources and possibilities are effectively limitless, there is no need for society to impose restrictions upon its members, and people find their personal unfettered equilibrium.

Banks' implied comment, however, is that we are indeed that rampant viral consumer, and only by expanding the "world" faster than we can eat it (through technology) will we remain free of the pressures and conflicts that usually cause war, economic difficulty (or indeed "economy" at all, in the usual sense of the word) and competitive savagery. It's a stark but not unrealistic perspective on the human race, and one that permeates the collective consciousness.

Hey, the "human virus" concept even got a mention in The Matrix. That's, like... whoah.

(Anyone else find that Keanu's acting revolves entirely around expressions of varying degrees of bewilderment?)

So, it's a fairly well established posit that mankind cannot, in general, be trusted to look after its own best interests on a global scale when individuals act individually. Some form of governance is necessary - indeed, government is an inevitable product of society more than it is a navigator - and that leads to a whole big bag of socio-political philosophy and argumentation. I don't intend to go into any of that in depth here. What I would like to mention - because it's on my mind - is... The Media!

To set the tone: isn't it curious that the first page of hits from The Quotations Page when entering the keyword "freedom" includes these three results? How readily - and how cynically - we associate freedom with the press.

The relationship between government, national media and the popular opinion of society is complex and fascinating field, and the clearest insights can be gained by comparing the nature of these relationships in different regions and nations.

Moreover, if it's true that you never really know someone until you see them under stress, perhaps these relationships are most clearly emphasised during times of war. Comparing the propaganda-machines of Japan and the US in WWII with the highly critical attitude of the UK press towards our involvement in the recent Iraq conflict, and the respective governments' popularity with the common man during those times, gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm getting at. Does the behaviour of the media during such unsavoury times reflect the attitude of the people, or dictate it? Is the government afraid of the media, or in bed with it? And who will tell you if it's the latter? Who can you trust??

The national press generally takes two forms of governance, as far as I can tell: privately owned, and state-governed. (The mighty BBC seems to occupy some sort of middle-ground where it is privately funded and independently run, but according to state mandate. That's a discussion for another time)

There is an appreciable correlation between ownership of the national media and the form of government, and this is no surprise.

Democratic nations have a much stronger (almost exclusive) privately-owned presence in the media, while Dictatorial government is typified by a state-controlled press. This may have more to do with the economic characteristics often associated with these opposing poles of leadership than the leadership styles themselves, but the correlation is still visible.

The symptoms of different forms of media-ownership are painted in different shades according to the political leanings of the speaker.

Laissez-faire proponents, evolutionary biologists, chaos theoreticians and anyone else with an obsessive fascination with the perfect beauty of emergent order will generally marvel at the way a privately-owned press represents the will and informs the interest of the society from which it arose. This commonly reflects a socio-political belief that iconic institutions such as the media, the church and the guv’mint are organs of society, defined by and answerable to the people. As such, any interference with the press is to be discouraged as it would disrupt the correct and natural functions of the organ. (If I wanted to be unkind, I would point out that the ultimate emergent order is the final heat-death of the universe, but that’s a bit facetious even for me)

Those who espouse a more purposeful, directed political system might be inclined to suggest that the very purpose of entrusting the state with power is so that those best-equipped and best-informed regarding the nation’s current predicament have the power and control to steer a clear and safe course. If that means giving the media a little shove here and there, to prevent sensationalist panic or to promote beneficial practice and morale, then so be it. (To those idealists, I might suggest that the reason that extreme Communism and Fascism seemed to result in such similar unpleasant outcomes, at least in Europe, was due to the extent of power granted to the state and nothing to do with the nature of government itself… but again, I’m not trying to argue one way or another just yet)

You may have noticed my occasional reference to news agencies as “organs”. This was once a fairly common and accepted term for such things as printed publications, but is now sadly only used for cheap laughs by the ever-witty Private Eye. It’s been some time since I read a copy, but I’ve no doubt they will have gladly jumped all over the recent excitement over John Sergeant’s recent withdrawal from some bloody Reality TV show.

And this is what got me thinking about our media, and its relationship with the people – or more specifically, with the proletariat. And when I say “thinking”, I mean “fulminating”.

Here is a man whose impressive and dedicated contributions to hard-nosed journalism - serious coverage in the face of mortal peril of serious issues that affect everybody, such as his coverage of conflict in Israel, or when trying to confront Maggie Thatcher – has passed almost without comment as he moved on from front-line reportage to political commentary to editorial control. A man who by rights should be remembered for his commitment to and grasp of serious high-level political affairs in his attempt to keep the public informed. And as soon as he pulls out of a light-entertainment show precisely because he was worried that popular opinion and entertainment-value were going to cause seriously committed and talented people to fall away unnoticed, he gets an hour long special dedicated to his brief dancing career.

I was once asked to define irony in two words, and seldom has my response felt more apt: poetic injustice.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single serious attempt – even by the beloved Beeb – to make clear to the less-educated members of its audience just what the hell is going on with this “economic downturn”. No more coverage has been given to the economy over the last couple of months than it ever received during the last decade of easy-going stability. Portentous buzz-words get thrown around on red-top tabloids (usually in the cont. p32 section) without any serious attempt to educate or clarify, and the Joe Public is left with a vague sense of disquiet and a fear of Negative Equity.

They may as well just print “FNORD” as the headline and have done with it.

My point is this: we are idiots. The average “me” may have a pretty good idea of what’s best for him, as long as it doesn’t get complicated, but he doesn’t have the first clue what’s best for everyone else. At the age of about 25 we all start pottering about the house having arguments in our heads with people we’re never going to meet, constructing vague right-wing social policies, but at the end of the day the whole point of government, media, churches and every other “organ” (snigger) emergent from society is to give people who might have a better idea of what’s best for everyone enough power to make a difference.

Hopefully we’ve learned not to trust such people implicitly, but somebody’s got to do it.

What’s perfectly clear from the relative press-coverage of Strictly Come Prancing and the Economic Crisis is that we, as a body of individuals, don’t know our arses from our elbows and could probably do with the occasional prod in the right direction. But then, that also means that we can’t be trusted to elect the right person either.

Churchill expressed the problem beautifully with two of his most famous – almost contradictory – quotes, each bitterly true:

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.

Too true, Winston, too true. I guess all you can do is vote with your feet, and try to read a newspaper that you trust.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

I fear I to be unable such a thing do, Dave.

Learning a language is like digging a moat for your sandcastle, as the tide inexorably rises. Or maybe like gardening. It isn't enough to say "There, I've done that bit - now I can move on" - you must constantly revisit and renew your earlier endeavours, or they will be washed away, overgrown, lost like tears in the rain...

I have a pretty good facility for languages, I think. I don't know why - a memory for detail and vocabulary, decent ability to pick up accents, or simply enough interest to make it stick - but whatever the reason, it's something I struggle with less than most. Some years ago, during a very brief and somewhat abortive relationship with a lovely South African girl, I couldn't help trying to pick up a bit of Afrikaans as a courtesy.
The accent wasn't difficult - light on the tip of the tongue, heavy on the pharynx - and the grammar was the simplest I'd ever encountered (except perhaps Chinese), so it was good fun to throw new phrases I'd learned into conversation, and have the occasional slow, stuttering conversation in her native tongue.

As you can imagine, the opportunities to reprise my conversational Afrikaans have been somewhat scarce since then. I didn't realise just how much of it I'd lost until someone offered to make me a cuppa tea. "Please", I wanted to respond, and perversely chose to do it in Afrikaans. Only... I couldn't remember the word!!
I mean, please, for goodness' sake! It's got to be one of the first ten words or phrases you learn in any language, and I was stumped. From having been able to understand and construct simple sentences, I suddenly had next-to-no vocabulary, just six years later.

The phrase I wanted (I remembered after a few moments) was Asseblief - roughly "if you please". And yet I had no problem recalling the phrase for I only speak a little - it's a pretty language, but I never use it. Obviously this phrase was one for which I'd had more use...

Human memory, of course, works nothing like a database. There are no convenient boxes in which to store information. There is no empty Tweetaalige Woordeboek (bilingual dictionary) waiting for you to indelibly inscribe it with every acquired transliteration.
Memory serves its purpose by retaining and reinforcing that which is used frequently, and slowly losing grip on that which is fleeting or trivial. The passage of memory from short-term, through its various stages, to long-term memory and (in the case of a skill like languages) into active process has been thoroughly researched by neuroscientists, linguists and tinkering hobbyist educational reformers for decades, and it all comes down to the three 'R's of learning:
  • Repetition
  • Redundancy
  • Repetition
(The above stolen from a Jhonen Vasquez comic about the spirit-crushing drudgery of state schooling, but I like it anyway.)

So it's about what you use, and how often you use it. You can even unlearn your native tongue through atrophy. I know of a man who moved from England to Germany in his early thirties. Now at 65, he is still in touch with his friends in England - but he finds he can only communicate, haltingly, over the phone. If he tries to write or email, he struggles with the English language. In a Firefox-esque feat, he now thinks in German, quite naturally, and struggles to do so in English.

I wonder: will I ever be that good at Japanese? If I work hard, and move over there someday then... well, why not?

The process of professional translation intrigues me; I find myself wondering, how does it work in their heads? Do they listen in one language, and then express it quite naturally in the other without any intervening explicit process? Or do they listen in one language, then switch their thinking to the other - donning a different thinking-cap, as it were - before trying to express the nebulous ideas and idiosyncracies in a natural fashion? I'm quite certain that it's possible to "think" natively in more than one language...

Even then, translation is not a simple process. Grammar notwithstanding, even syntax can become confusing when expression is rendered in culturally-significant shades of meaning.

I recall hearing of an assembly in the European parliament being brought to a standstill as, during a speech by the French representative, several of the English-speaking delegates burst into laughter. Having made an appeal for calm and rational consideration of the issues, he exclaimed that what the problem needed was "la sagesse Normande".
The English translators, quite faithfully, relayed the speech thus:
"What we need is Norman Wisdom!"

That's not the half of it though. Humans, with their inherent understanding of the ideas behind the words, can translate faithfully rather than accurately. Computer software has no such cognitive gifts at its disposal, and the results of even the most sophisticated attempts at translation are derided throughout the blogosphere.

It's the same problem: a database can give you a word-for-word equivalent, but nothing cogent or intuitive - and even with simple words, cultural ignorance can lead to confusion. A generation or two ago, there was no distinct word for "green" in common use! あお (ao) is taken to mean blue, but it was also used for green not so long ago, and some Japanese still use it as such. This sort of cultural knowledge is invaluable when trying to make sense of, for example, Natsume Sooseki's Ten Nights of Dream. It's easy to get stuck trying to understand the significance of the lily's blue stalk...

Does this mean that elderly Japanese people can't tell the difference between blue and green? No, of course not...
And yet, there is some truth in that statement, bizarre as it may sound. Not in an extreme sense, but studies have shown the importance of language to perception. According to research undertaken at Goldsmith College (and almost certainly many other studies since), the range of words you have for different hues affects your ability to distinguish between them. If we had 20 words for subtly different shades of orange in the English language, we would perceive them as distinct colours, and would recall them as such without difficulty.

It all smacks of Derrida and Phenomenology, doesn't it...?

This ties in nicely with another study (thank god for New Scientist) investigating the way in which our infant brains adapt to perceive distinct sounds characteristic to our mother tongue. Through repeatedly hearing - and presumably expressing - certain ranges of sound and learning to interpret them as the same sound, we lose the ability to distinguish between the subtle variations. This is quite necessary, for the sake of efficiency in communication, but can be a hindrance when learning a new language.
The classic example is the Japanese l/r sound, which is neither one nor the other. Through careful and diligent study, one can relearn the distinctions lost in infancy, but it is difficult - the mind learns to perceive certain patterns in the chaotic landscape of reality, and convincing our brains to jump tracks in its well-worn neural grooves is hard work.

So how can there be any hope for computers? Is it possible, somewhere in the hypothetical space-opera future, for software to "understand" language in the same way that humans do? Derrida or Heidegger might argue that all of perceived reality is exactly that - perception only. Given that language is the exclusive realm of signifiers and symbols, one might suppose that computers - which deal only with symbols and signifiers - would be ideally suited to the task. Can one be "trained", in the manner of a human mind, to have intrinsic understanding of a concept? Can an artificial mind be kicked out of its paths of databases and into a more functional, fluid form of expression and translation?

Perhaps the answer lies in that last question. Functional programming languages (Haskell, Lisp) operate on a basis somewhere beyond the mechanical strictures of Structural languages (Pascal, Aida) or the deliberate and measured methods of Object Oriented Programming (Java, C++). My brother (the Dysfunctor - get off your arse and fix your Blog, mate) could tell you a million times more than I could about this topic, but I have some very basic understanding. All things are functions - processes, if you will - and everything is signified rather than explicit. Sound familiar?

Artificial Intelligence (the emergent kind) and a computer really learning a language are in the same chapter of philosophy - the same page, even - because language, perception and intelligence are so closely linked. They're pretty much a blurry smear of concepts, as any drunk philosophy undergrad will rant. There's no point trying to tackle one without approaching the others, but if we come at it side-long, with a very long game-plan in mind, and functional programming as the tool (or the precursor to a better one), then who knows...?

Still more curious: if we created machines with the ability to learn and communicate, but didn't teach them anything, what language would emerge from their society? What could we learn from their linguistic development?

Before they wiped us all out, I mean.