Saturday, 18 December 2010

Reading, handwriting, and becoming illiterate

I love the Middle East: the sights, the smells - oh, the smells! - the sounds, the architecture, the music, the history, the name it, I find it fascinating. One of the things to do on my 30 before I'm 30 list is to learn Arabic to a conversational level. For all that I've travelled to the Middle East up until now, I've never managed to get beyond the basics of speaking and listening to preliminary greetings, and "thank you" and "no". I haven't even learned to swear! Reading and writing was beyond me. I could recognise the "Exit" sign - a useful thing when you're driving down a highway and wondering why your lane is about to disappear - but that was about it. For the record, it looks like, but doesn't always have the English translation.

I'm taking a basic Arabic course through university - 2 hours a week of class, plus 15-30 mins a day of homework and drilling. We're learning the alphabet 5-6 letters at a time, and some weeks we have vowels and vocalisation marks thrown in for free. There's 28 consonants in the Arabic alphabet, 3 of which serve double duty as loonnng vowels. Like, really long: it's one of the many features of the language which has no English equivalent. Then there's 3 short vowels which aren't usually written and 11 or so other marks or versions of letters to learn.

I've just discovered what it's like to be illiterate. It's horrendous. I love books. I always have done. Ever since I was a little kid, books have been keys to other worlds, with the author's words providing a framework around which my imagination can fill in the other details. When I read, I don't just read. I vanish inside my own head, with the author leading me by the hand through the world they have created and shared through the printed word. I'm terrible at watching films based on books that don't stick to the original point. I'll read anything that's lying around, including very trashy fiction.

And now...I can't read. At least not in Arabic. I can slowly and painfully spell out some words, but it is letter by letter. And if there's more than 3 or 4 letters in a word, chances are I've forgotten the beginning by the time I get to the end, and I end up spelling it out 2 or 3 times before all the bits stick in my short-term memory long enough for me to string them together into a full word.

Adding to the complication is that many letters share the same basic shape, distinguishable only by the placement of dots. 1 dot or 2? Above or below the line? Or no dots? Are there no dots because I forgot to write them, or does this basic letter shape have a legitimate form with no dots? I can manage 20-30 minutes of this before I get a headache and have to stop. It's worth it though. It really is. Knowing so little means there's tangible progress every single day, and every day I can look at a string of Arabic and recognise more and more of the shapes. I don't have all the keys needed to open the door, yet, but I'm definitely getting a clearer picture of what's beyond the door when I do get to open it.

The other thing that has struck me is that my handwriting (in English, French, and anything else based on the Latin alphabet) is terrible. But in Arabic, it's turning out to be not too bad. It's not the beautiful calligraphic script which Arabic is famed for, such as this panel in a mosque:
but it's not hideous.

Compare the English scrawl of my title with the repetitive Arabic words here:

For what it's worth, I've tried many times over the years to neaten up my handwriting. I really have. I can do a decent Black Letter when I need to and a passable cursive hand, but it takes aaggeeess. I've never managed to make either of them something I can do at speed. And let's be honest, in today's world of meetings, lectures and use of computers, how often to any of us write anything extended or slowly by hand? Even my shopping list is done on my Android phone these days. But maybe, by learning a new script at this age instead of being the impatient so-and-so I was a child, I can learn to write Arabic not just neatly, but beautifully. That really would be an achievement!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Boats to build

I've been doing a lot of work lately with Colourful Coach over at Colour in your Thinking. After a fairly intensive session this morning, my brain presented me with the fragment "...with these two hands..." and calmly insisted I figure out where it had come from. Usually when this happens it's fairly easy to figure out which of the many songs I know a fragment comes from, and why my brain thought this was an appropriate use of time. Today, this wasn't the case. I had no idea where they came from, apart from a vague sense it might have been a hymn from school days. (It wasn't. Or, if it was, I have yet to find it.) This is slightly odd, since I'm not remotely religious. Spiritual, yes, but not religious. A quick hunt on Google showed that the phrase is not exactly uncommon, so I sat and ploughed this fantastic site where lyrics are organised by theme/topic/motif, not artist.

All4One's "I Swear" contains the line, but my brain was quietly insistent that this was Not What It Meant, and would I please Just Keep Looking. Right, brain, if you're so certain about what you mean why can't you just tell me?! Scanning the rest of the first page, one song - credited to two different artists - turned up repeatedly and caught my eye. Whether or not I knew this song beforehand, I do now. And I love it.

Boats to Build
Alan Jackson, and/or Guy Clark

It's time for a change
I'm tired of the same ol' same
The same ol' words, the same ol' lines
The same ol' tricks and the same ol' rhymes

Days, precious days,
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend, I got planks to nail,
I got charts to make, I got seas to sail.

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Sails are just like wings
The wind can make them sing
Songs of life, songs of hope
Songs to keep your dreams afloat

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Shores, distant shores,
That's where I'm headed for.
Got the stars to guide my way
Sail into the light of day

I'm gonna build me a boat with these two hands
It'll be a fair curve from a noble plan
Let the chips fall where they will
'Cause I've got boats to build.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Butternut Squash and Parnsip Soup

Or, what do I do with these vegetables and half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc? Note that as a boozy amuse-bouche this could be served straight after pureeing, at which point it will serve LOTS of people!

Ingredients: makes about 2 1/2 pints
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
3 parsnips, peeled, cored & chunked
1 slosh olive oil, maybe 3 tbsp?
1/2 bottle good Sauvignon Blanc
Salt to taste
1/2 pint semi-skim milk

  1. Preheat oven to 175C (fan). Put vegetables in roasting tray and toss in olive oil. Roast for 45mins, tossing once.
  2. Put half the vegetables in a blender with half the wine. Puree til smooth. Add remaining vegetables and wine in batches until fully incorporated and silky smooth.
  3. Place soup in pan, stir in 1/4pt milk. Bring to rolling boil, cover leaving a gap for steam and leave for 20mins, stirring occasionally. Add salt to taste, and more milk if required
  4. Serve with crusty bread.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

What I've learned so far about being a Master's student

It's coming up for the end of my first term, and the workload is finally feeling manageable. It's been an exceptionally rubbish couple of weeks academic-wise, preceded by an exceptionally rubbish couple of weeks personal-life-wise, preceded by 4 weeks of exceptional stress, what with moving down here and everything. And suddenly there's 9 weeks of a 10 week term gone!

The things I need to learn from for next term are:
  1. History is something I can do. It uses all the same transferable skills as my undergrad degree and my old job, but in a different form. Primary source analysis, worldview of writer, motivation for writing, evidence and sources used by writer etc is basic stuff I can do with my eyes closed. Historiography (what has been written by other historians) is remarkably similar, but also includes which school of thought their work is based in. I need to make the distinction in my own head about which of my readings are primary and which are historiography, and section my notes accordingly.
  2. This is my academic level. This is the point where for the first time (apart from my abortive attempt at a Further Maths A-Level) I cannot coast by doing the minimum. This means I have to work at it. The course on Ethnic Diversity was easier because it's using the familiar IR/social science methods, theories and examples from my BSc, albeit arranged in a newish way. The two History courses are within my reach, but I need to work harder at the background, because the discipline is unfamiliar, as are the subjects. The former I can't do anything about, and the latter was a deliberate choice, so I have to make that work for me.
  3. I will not be comfortable speaking up in class unless I'm sure I know what I'm saying. I've been told I make excellent points when I do speak, but I should do so more often. This means I need a two-pronged attack: firstly, to be more comfortable agreeing with another viewpoint but for a subtly different reason - my contributions don't have to be unique; secondly, doing sufficient reading that I have a grasp of the issues in question AND the contextual background in which they reside; thirdly, paying more attention to the seminar questions when preparing, rather than just assuming that my brain will arrange the information into coherent argument on the fly. I can do that, and it's an important exam skill, but it's not the best way to approach an in-depth 2-hour seminar.
  4. Stick to the timetable I've written, where this is a "job" from half-nine to half-five each weekday. There's more than enough hours in the week to do all the studying and a smattering of extra-curricula activities, but not if I get locked into the cycle of faffing in the day, studying til midnight then sleeping as late as possible to catch-up. I know this. I really do.
  5. Get used to the fact that, unlike my undergrad, there are weekly non-negotiable deadlines. I don't have a year in which to fit a year's work: I have a week in which to fit this week's work, and another week next week in which to fit that week's work, and so on. I handled regular reports and meetings with ease in my job, so I need to apply the same techniques here - see above re: timetable.
  6. I need to learn to cite properly. So I'll write a couple of paragraphs each week for each seminar with citations and ask the Professor to check that I'm citing appropriately. This will also force me to crystallise my thoughts ahead of time.
  7. This is supposed to be fun. In order for it to be that, I need to have the confidence I can get the work done and not be stressing about it, which means, I need to do all the things listed here.

Finally, I guess, I need to come back to this list every week during Lent Term and make sure I am, in fact, learning the lessons rather than just observing them, filing them and ignoring them.