Learning Finnish

If you look at my CV or my About pages you will see that in 1998 I spent some time in Finland learning Finnish. It was four intense weeks of Finnish through the medium of Finnish, supported by the nice people in the Finnish Government who, at the time, funded two people to go to study at summer school in Rauma each year. I am not sure if they still do it and I don’t even know now how I found out about it. I was a temporary agent in Brussels at the time but I got the scholarship on the basis of being Irish.

Anyway, four weeks of intense study will take you so far, and I did some follow up work while I was still living in Belgium, but life took an interesting turn into computer programming and somehow, this habit of acquiring bits and pieces of human languages got set aside in favour of speaking directly to computers. I wrote assembler for a long time. And I learned Java, and I made projects happen with Javascript, Python and R. And SQL.

I did a postgrad in computer science last year which finished up around September and usually, when I do something like that, I follow it up with some completely different activity. Instead of it being some form of craft work (my last postgrad was followed up by a stained glass and mosaics design course), I decided to pick up Finnish again.

Finnish is an interesting language in a lot of respects. It is a branch of the Finno-Ugric languages which are generally thought to be unrelated to the Indo-European languages (although I believe there is some research in philology questioning this). Unlike most languages, it has an entirely logical spelling system with no irregularities. It has some grammatical oddities and structurally, it has some serious idiosyncrasies. Above all, it is a highly compacted language. I remember some of the very basic stuff, but I have more or less forgotten the verb and noun rules.

Being prudent, I have picked up the books I bought 15 years ago to study Finnish, mainly because I know they are good books, and also because getting decent dictionaries seems to be harder now than it was then. And this includes going through the Akateeminen Kirjakauppa book store online. The other thing I am doing, which is linked to some rather traumatic memories involving German, is reading a news story a day with the aid of a dictionary. This is massively challenging for several reasons, of which, having forgotten the verb and noun rules, identifying root forms of both can be impossible, and of course, it just takes a long time. I do, however, believe it is one of the more effective ways of broadening your vocabulary. It’s just not that easy.

In terms of language acquisition, some things are much easier now. I am not really going to talk about Duolingo (I have doubts about it as a learning tool for me anyway, and I don’t believe it offers Finnish), but the simple availability of media. Even for Finnish, there is a substantial amount of material available through Youtube videos, for example. There are a number of radio stations available via TuneIn. YLE, the state broadcasting service does a special Easy Finnish news report which is what I use as raw material for my reading exercises. At the weekend, I think I will be able to watch skijumping and ice skating in Finnish.

When I was learning French, to get any media at all, I used to hide in a car which had a long wave receiver. At this point, it doesn’t massively matter how much I understand, only that the amount I am understanding is growing on an ongoing basis. My passive vocabulary will grow much more quickly than my active vocabulary and this is not all that surprising since this morning’s news story was about unemployment and part time work.

The interesting thing, from my point of view, is how much hard work goes into language acquisition. Being absolutely honest, it is harder work than learning programming languages.

And yet, in certain respects, it is very rewarding. One of the interesting things about Finnish is how sentences are structured and how that might suggest a completely different way of looking at the world. I find it fascinating purely from that point of view, never mind being able to converse with people in Stockmann when I go shopping there. In a lot of ways, I am really sorry I set it aside for so long. I am having fun with this.

The activity of interpreting

One of the things which a lot of people don’t actually know about me is that I trained as an interpreter in my twenties. I have a diploma from the University of Westminster, which, at the time, was the leading interpreting school in the United Kingdom. While I don’t interpret any more, I’m still interested in on a tangential basis and that’s why I found this article from Mosaic very interesting yesterday. I’ve always wondered about how it can be possible to carry out simultaneous interpreting even as I did it. A lot of it is practice related, and technique/strategy building. In certain respects, I found it a lot like playing music. It’s a skill you learn by doing, not so much by understanding how it works inside your mind. And yet:

The caudate isn’t a specialist language area; neuroscientists know it for its role in processes like decision making and trust. It’s like an orchestral conductor, coordinating activity across many brain regions to produce stunningly complex behaviours.

I strongly recommend reading the piece – even aside from the whole question of interpreting, the piece brings up some interesting information in the area of the neurosciences. I wasn’t familiar with the site before now, but it had an interesting collection of science writing on it from a number of different fields in the life science sector so the interpreting piece aside, I (so far) find it a valuable resource.

One of the aspects of programming life that most software developers will talk about, in terms of getting anything done, is flow. When you’re in a zone where everything is just working together nicely, the problem solving is happening, it’s you and the code and the phone isn’t ringing. There’s a space I used to get into in interpreting – I miss it a lot – which is broadly similar; I called it the zone; I imagine other people approach it different because like most effects, it can be quite personal. I actually did an interpreting test for the first time in more than ten years last year and while it didn’t go perfectly for me, I did, in the course of practice, hit that zone a couple of times. I’d love to see what my brain activity looks like when I hit; it’s a place where you’ve to fight for nothing mentally.

There are a couple of different paths into a career as a conference interpreter. The University of Westminster cancelled the course I did a number of years ago and appear to have replaced it with an MA in Translating & Interpreting, but there appears, in Ireland, to be a course at the National University in Galway, and in the UK, there are joint translation/interpreting courses at the University of Bath, the University of Leeds, London Metropolitan University, The University of Manchester, the University of Salford and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Outside the English speaking colleges, there are options in France and Belgium at ESTI and ISTI and in Germany at Hamburg and Heidelberg (at least). These courses are postgraduate courses so fees are very obviously going to be a factor to consider.

Ultimately, the two big employers of interpreters in the world are the United Nations and the European Union institutions.

From the point of view of what you need to go down the road of interpreting, the obvious ones are a) a very strong command of your mother tongue and b) comprehensive understanding of two other languages.

You also need the ability to research and get up to speed with various different fields of expertise. The one which used to make my blood run cold during my training was any discussion of European fisheries policy as fish species in English were ongoing hassle, never mind fish species in French and German.

In many respects, it’s a career which allows you access to learn about a lot of other different areas; I’d be happy to go back. But I’d also like to look at breaking down the challenges in automating it as well and that’s a really hard problem to solve; not least because we haven’t solved machine translation very effectively either although a lot of work is happening in the area. Not because I would like to see a bunch of interpreters lose their jobs – they shouldn’t because for all that we might get actual words automatically translated, we are missing a lot of the non-verbal nuances and cultural markers that come not directly from the words themselves, but how they are used, and marked with non-verbal clues, for example. Computers don’t get irony or sarcasm.

One of the reasons I really like the Mosaic piece is that it provides some useful other references for you to carry out your own research. With respect to science writing online, this is really helpful. I have to say kudos to them.

Word of the Day: Entlieben

In addition to the tech stuff, and the data stuff, and opinions linked to each, I have an interest in languages as well (this might explain one of the projects I have running in the background)

Given the fact that I lived in Germany for a few extended periods between the ages of 19 and 23, it’s surprising that the first time I came across the word entlieben was this morning, in particular, since entlieben perfectly describes something that’s happened me a few times in my life, and probably most people.

If you go to online Duden, the definition is given as:

aufhören [einander, jemanden] zu lieben

This can be translated as “stop loving [one another/someone]”

But I don’t think that’s quite the holy all of it in atmosphere. I prefer the “fall out of love with” translation which adds a little nuance which I think matters in the case when we are discussing labelling feelings.

The opposite – incidently (because, mostly you have to do it first) – is verlieben. Interestingly, Duden defines that as:

von Liebe zu jemandem ergriffen werden

To be moved to love someone is the literal translation. Here, we would say ” fall in love with”.

The verb lieben means to love or to like – a bit like French it covers a few bases, although both have closer equivalents to like in the indirect forms “Ca me plait” and, specifically for German, “Das gefaellt mir”. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that usage of the verb “like” in English functioned this way around five hundred years ago, per Shakespeare. But this is not a discussion of verbs describing the action of “being pleasing to”.

What is interesting – if you are of a systematic kind of mind is the impact of prefixes on a root word like lieben, and how they can be used for similar impacts on other root words. I’ve been aware of these for years – the ones that stand out from German language tuition at university are Einsteigen, Aussteigen and Umsteigen, which respectively mean “get into” [a form of transport], “get off” [a form of transport] and “change from one to another”[form of transport].

I’ve seen the form ent– before in verbs like “entziehen“, to take away, withdraw. I’ve just never seen it used on the verb lieben before and despite the fact that it’s a straight application of an unmysterious system in the German language, it seems rather lyrical in a way that something de- does not in English.



Languages from a young age

I’m not entirely sure who dropped this in my twitter feed this morning but it caught my attention because it relates to teaching children foreign languages from the age of 3.

I am in favour of children learning languages from a young age and I am starting to do some research into how children acquire language for a separate reason anyway, but this concerned me:

When children join the preschool class of Moreton First at three years of age, they are exposed to four languages.

The four languages are English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Catherine More, the head of the Moreton First School mentions explicitly research discussing the benefits of bilingualism and I fully favour that. However, bilingualism only works if it’s done properly. Quadrilingualism is not doing bilingualism properly.

Having spoken to parents in bilingual households, full fluency in two languages is hard work and that is with the benefit of home contact. If I were looking to school a child in an atmosphere where they were to be getting linguistic advantage, I’d prefer it to be just one foreign language, but taught in a more indepth manner.

Moreton First is a feeder school for Moreton Senior School. It would be interesting to test the fluency of children in the four languages as they progress through school.