A paradox of language learning

Communicating in a foreign language is a difficult task. This is an emotional difficulty – fear of social embarrassment – and a cognitive difficulty – mental exhaustion. Both are largely tied to the high level of ambiguity that characterises exchanges between second language and native speakers.

To succeed, it is crucial for learners to build resilience in situations of high ambiguity. However, most language learning models focus on increasing fluency – how to understand and communicate better – rather than increasing the capacity to cope with ambiguous settings. In other words, education is focused on teaching students how to fail less often in their communicative and interpretive efforts; learning how to better deal with failure is only incidental.

What if we reverted this proposition, and designed language learning activities optimised for dealing with communicative failure, with particular attention to the emotional dimensions of the experience? This is what much of my work with Marco Polo Project was guided by!

On work

What is work? We’re now using this verb/noun to describe all sorts of activities. But where exactly does ‘work’ start, and where does it ‘end’? As we look closer, the boundaries blur.

For some of us, work occurs in a fixed period of time – 9-to-5, or the duration of a shift. But even so, reading emails on the tram, filing administrative papers, is that not work? And if we move a step further, what about cleaning the house or buying groceries? Some people do that as ‘work’, for others; and when we clean our own bathroom, or fill our own fridge, is it suddenly no longer ‘work’?

But as the category grows in all directions, holes appear at the core. The pauses of course – lunch, coffee, toilet; social media, personal emails – they occur at work, but are they ‘work’? What about those extra ten, twenty, thirty seconds or more we give a fleeting thought or feeling between tasks – is that ‘work’? And leisurely peeling carrots with pleasant music on, or a stroll to the market with a loved one – is that ‘work’?

We define ourselves largely by ‘what we do’ – by ‘work’. Yet ‘work’ is more elusive than we like to think, more diffuse, more diverse. And the more independent and creative our activities are, the more boundaries blur.

Maybe we need a new vocabulary to better capture the complex interplay between our activities, the value we create and the communities we form. One, maybe, that would better capture the oscillating nature of work and rest, the constant breathing involved in all continuous human activity.

Now articulating this, would that be work? Is research or study work? And as I write this, am I working?

On rituals

There is a particular pleasure to rituals, whether inherited, or made up. Such is – for me – the January 1 action movie that I watch with Philip on DVD, as we finish a slow day, started late, purging the excesses of New Year’s Eve. This year, it was Ant-man.

To talk of celebrating a ritual, the Chinese say ‘过节’. The character 过 refers to the physical act of crossing a river or a road,  but is also used as a grammatical particle to mark a form of the past tense, equivalent to the English past perfect – I have been, I have gone.节 refers both to a festival, and a joint. Celebrating festivals is therefore represented as crossing an articulation in the skeleton of time, and transforming a past period into an experience. Rituals accompany this transformation.

2015 has become our past. By celebrating New Year, and accomplishing the rituals that accompany the celebration, we make it history, converting the loose threads of remembered moments, images and sounds into patterns of meaning and causality. We cross the border, and move onto the next segment of our articulated lives, 2016, January, the new cycle.

And so the wheel turns, rituals marking each of its spoke: Australia Day, Easter, Bastille Day, August 15, Halloween, Christmas – celebrations we share – and our own personal ones: birthdays, anniversaries. Cyclically repeating, every year.

In Australia, as in France, it is common to make resolutions with each new start of the cycle – committing to doing one thing at least differently. Not so that our lives will spin into a different groove; but so that our spiral may go both higher,  and deeper.

That’s fine

We all have our linguistic pet hates. I have written before about my thoughts on ‘busy‘ people. Now I’d like to share my feelings about  ‘that’s fine’.

When you tell somebody that, no, you won’t do some extra favour they asked for, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you were somehow holding on for their permission before exercising your freedom to refuse.

When somebody asks to meet you at the last minute, you say you’ve got other plans already, and they reply ‘that’s fine’, as if you somehow owed it to them to be constantly available, but they granted you permission for this one time to honour previous arrangements.

When you’ve been struggling with a piece of work or an assignment, as other responsibilities have come piling up, you tell your colleague or boss that you might need to reconsider scope or deadlines because you can’t really see yourself finishing the task to the level expected within the delays expected, and offer a clear, workable alternative that will not compromise the whole edifice – and they reply ‘that’s fine’, with no further word of support or encouragement – superbly granting you their blessing for that solution you found.

Please, find something else to say. Please don’t ‘that’s fine’ me.

Project Gutenberg

My first real encounter with the internet as a revolutionary publication tool happened when I was in high school, during a history class. My teacher was a specialist of religious history, trained in Latin and Greek, and was telling us how important the internet could be for the future of classics, that in America, universities were digitalising the whole Greek and Latin corpus – and how it would, or could, save these texts from oblivion. I also remember a name  ‘Project Gutenberg

Later, in my undergraduate years, when I was studying English, philosophy and classics, I often went to the project gutenberg page, looking for originals of Plato, Aeschylus, Aristotle. Or the Bible. At the ecole Normale, where I was studying, the Department most thrilled by the internet, apart from IT, was Classics. A guy in my year had written a programme that automatically generated Latin verse. Others were doing revolutionary research on the history of concepts, searching all occurrences of a word from Homer to

Whenever I hear one of these trite debates about the internet, and how writers should get paid for the content they create, I think back on these formative encounters, and doubt. The internet started as a wonderful library, gathering the memory of the world. A new Alexandria. For me, it started as a multilingual utopia, where the memory of the world all came to the one place, and was accessible at one click. The internet meant I didn’t have to go to that annoying woman in the library – or spend a lot of money – to read some obscure Greek poem about volcanoes erupting; or erotic Latin verse.

I haven’t read Greek or Latin for a while, but my relationship to the internet has been forever coloured by this early vision. It is a repository for the world’s memory. I know it’s very 1.0. I know we’ve had facebook, and twitter, and youtube, since. But I think, in a weird form of dialectics, that 3.0 will take us back to that initial vision of Project Gutenberg. Wikipedia is already there: a huge semantic web, accessible in multiple languages, that aggregates all the knowledge of the world. A super-memory, with hyperlinks connecting parts in unsuspected, surprising ways. And your web identity’s nothing more than the sum of links you aggregate?