Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Language difficulties

June 23rd, 2012

I’d be the first to admit that foreign languages may not be my greatest strength, but that doesn’t diminish my fascination with words or expressions, intrigued as much by everyday oddities as the more complex vernacular. Take impossible heels, a regular tabloid term, and whilst I understand what it is meant to imply, the literal is wholly nonsensical. Unless taken to describe a woman quite unable to stand. And then my other favourite, enjoying a little popular resurgence; industrial action. One of those oxy things I think if I’m not mistaken.

Then there’s alliteration. I’d joked with a friend that this was one of the hallmarks of a poor education. It’d fallen just as flatly at the time. But it is a frequent feature used by writers, journalists and authors. A common contrivance. I’m also quite fond of a structure I lavishly call reverse chronology, others simply flashbacks. Been scribbling the odd note into my pocket book, at first just a random collection of thoughts, little details that might be brigaded together later to give the story colour and depth. Eventually a structure emerging, journeying into the suburbs of Belgrade on a packed evening commuter bus, the account interspaced with reflections on preceding events. Even gave it a title. Chapter One.

But then back to a bit of pro bono work, writing a fresh chapter on cycle expeditions for a pretty prestigious handbook for those contemplating venturing to some of the more challenging places the world has to offer. It’d been a bit more tricky than I’d expected, not least because I was seeking to strike a fine balance between inspiring the novice, contemplating their first trip, and keeping the nodding respect of my peers, other seasoned riders, quite a few of whom I know beyond mere name. And getting the substance right, making sure the technical content is accessible rather than acerbic, incisive gems from the road suitably expressed, the imparting of insight as much as knowledge.


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Fish and chops

June 17th, 2011

Want to tell an Aussie from a Kiwi? Ask them to say "fish and chips". One gets it right. The other says "fish and chops". Now you know. Unfortunately, it’s rarely quite that simple. Waters made more murky by immigration. Or a multitude of passports.

Met one New South Wales resident born in Venezuela. To British parents. Educated in an English boarding school. Spell in an Aberdeen college. Before breathing helium as a North Sea deep-sea diver. Hazardous occupation I’d wondered. Yes. But probably not as much as a plummy accent in a tough oil town.

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Around Xi’an

November 24th, 2010

Bell - web

Xi’an. It somehow felt different. Subtle nuances. Elusive at first. Masked by familiarity. Similarities with other cities I’d passed through. Urumqi. Lanzhou. Barely discernable order on the roads. Hectic. Pavements at times as frenetic. Familiar shop fronts. Small cafes.

Western influence a little more in evidence? Or simply catering to tourists, drawn to the walled city by the Terracotta Warriors nearby? A few more smart hotels. Unappealing. Bold monoliths, devoid of the relative homeliness of the small establishments. Faceless foreigners. Wealthy Chinese busying themselves.

Mug - web

A morning amongst the side streets, the markets, vendors in the city’s Muslim Quarter. Then a coffee in Starbucks. I’d baulked a little at the cost. Quite a bit more than I was used to paying. But, I realised, suggestive of greater urban prosperity. A shift of emphasis. A few more upmarket shops, catering for disposal income rather than necessities. Ever so slight, but there nevertheless.

And there was something else. But far less subtle. Westerners. Saw more in a single day than I’d seen in the previous month. And with that, inevitably, English, both spoken and written. On street signs, in places foreigners might well frequent. The de facto international language.

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Back to school

August 18th, 2010

"Never tire to study – And to teach others" – Confucious

Explaining the relationship between terms like UK, England and Britain probably wasn’t the simplest of topics to tackle, but I was pleased we’d avoided plunging further into ethnicity, my knowledge of Angles and Saxons hazy at best. I’d been invited to give a seminar at Zheng’s English language school.

Back at school - group - web version

Some had studied English at University, keen to polish their skills, others still grasping the rudiments of the language. But all hugely enthusiastic. And joined by a couple of Pakistani medical students, studying in the city.

Back at school - blackboard - web version

Lots of questions. Curiosity. Why had I come to China? What did I think of the country? Except for the medical students, and Zheng who’d previously worked as an interpreter, none had ever been beyond their own borders. That, I was told, was not easy to do. Red tape.

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European question

May 9th, 2010

Not just a potential stumbling block for Nick Clegg and David Cameron, but my own curiosity. Was Azerbaijan Europe or Asia? Back in neighbouring Georgia the responses had been mixed. Early days, but here people seem to have less polarised views, suggesting instead that they have much in common with Europe, but with a strong Asian influence. What the question does is expose historically shifting borders, migrating ethnic groups, a never ending state of flux. Georgia had the breakaway region of South Ossetia to contend with, Azerbaijan has Nagorno-Karabach.

Back in the saddle, the linguistic implications of all this is very much a mixed bag. Azeri shares the same origins as Turkish, remaining sufficiently close for them to be mutually intelligible. Or so I’m told. I’ve tried Turkish here. Just get blank looks. But to be fair, it was often the same in Turkey. Russian is widely spoken, to the extent that I find myself widening my albeit limited vocabulary by blending it with Azeri in the same conversation. Seems to work.

My mastery of languages remains a definite case of enthusiasm over ability. And I’ve a long, long way to go to even equal that of Silvana and Johan and their children. I’d met them in the Azerbaijan town of Sheki, enjoying a short break from their home in the country’s Capital Baku. Between them, fluent Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, Russian and, I’m sure, a pretty good grasp of Azeri.

I take some comfort from the fact that whilst English is not a numerically superior first language, geographically it is widely spread across the world. And the fact that I can readily explain where I come from by mentioning the words ’Manchester United’. Usually elicits an enthusiastic response. I’m guessing this Ronaldo chap is some sort of footballer? My turn to look blank.

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