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Yoga in Norwegian

16 Aug
Here is a little reflection that I wrote several months ago about an experience during my springtime visit to Oslo:
Similar to taking aikido class in Chinese or capoeira class in Spanish, I understood a very limited amount of what the teacher said. A far more limited amount, in fact, than in China or Spain, because I speak no Norwegian at all. But I could still pick out a few words, just due to the similarity between Norwegian and English. I remember hearing something that I clearly recognized as meaning ‘push down.’ I find it amazing that with no study at all, I could understand a few Norwegian words. This experience was repeated at museums where I also recognized various Norwegian words in the context of their displays.
But my familiarity with yoga routines helped me, too. If this has been my first doing yoga it would have been much more intimidating, but I could imagine what the teacher might be saying in Norwegian because I had heard other teachers say it in yoga classes in English years ago. The fact that is was a physical activity helped a lot, too. I never could have taken a history class or a followed a political discussion in Norwegian, but with yoga I was able to follow the movements of the teacher and of the fellow students. This is a major reason why learning dance or martial arts in another language is a relatively easy way to join a target-language activity: it is language-light and context-dense.
It was the first time that I had attended a yoga class in more than a year, and it felt magical. The relaxation and calm that I got from the class, combined with a bit of work and pushing myself, was one of the best things of my whole trip.



I’ve got a lot of time before I die

31 Jul

I tend to focus on time a lot. I think about how I should finish this MOOC as soon as I can. I should read this book ASAP. I should improve this language as much as I can in as short a time as possible. I recently wrote to my dad that “I feel the pressure of the hours rather than that of the years.”

You should understand that I’m not just rushing around willy-nilly because I was born after 1980, nor because of the influence of Facebook or television on my brain. Not at all. I am rushing around because I understand that investments pay off. Skills and knowledge don’t work exactly like money, but I think that the same general principle applies. With money, X dollars invested many years ago can be considerably larger than X, but if you’ve only invested that money recently it will hardly have grown at all. In a parallel fashion, the sooner I gain a skill, the more results I will see from the use of that skill over the course of my lifetime. For example, if I learn how the human body works at age 20, I can do half a century of medical research or medical work using that knowledge. Even if I don’t actively use that knowledge, merely having the awareness of such knowledge in my brain broadens my view and improves my life. However, if I study and I gain such knowledge at age 60, then I simple have less time to use it. That is how I often think about knowledge and skills: the sooner I get it, the more I will be able to use it.

And I think that it is right. Proper. Correct. But I shouldn’t think of everything that way. I shouldn’t think of single, isolated goals that way. I shouldn’t think of my leisure activities that way. I’ll dive into this a little bit deeper.

I have a list of life goals. It is a flexible list, and I regularly take items off it or add new items to it. One thing that has stayed on there for a long time is “run a marathon.” I only started to work toward that when I was in a pretty bad period of life in the autumn of 2011, and since then I have, on and off, been progressing toward that goal. Recently I’ve stopped running in order to focus on Portuguese, and I feel bad, because I know that my goal of running a marathon is getting farther away from me. But I shouldn’t feel bad. I have plenty of time to do it. Finishing a marathon will not have increasing returns over time: it isn’t a skill that will benefit me more if I do it in two weeks as opposed to in two decades. (with the possible exception of bragging rights, but I feel that my two half-marathons already give me enough of that).

I feel the same about all the literature and the history that I want to read. I’ve got over 1000 books on my to-read list on Goodreads. Some of those could be useful for jobs in the future, but a good part of them are also just there for my own pleasure. The history of Japan, classic literature from Russia, and the philosophy which piques my interest all falls into this category. I shouldn’t rush to do these things… and neither should you.

There are some things that should be rushed. I really should pay off my debts as soon as I possibly can, because those are the type of thing that will keep growing until I get rid of them. The longer I wait, the harder it will be. I do want to improve my language skills as quickly as possible, because then I will be able to use them more, effectively getting a greater return on investment. I should learn how to use excel. But we should be careful not to lump everything into the ‘urgent’ category. And even for things that might turn out to be careers, I don’t necessarily need to start those immediately. I need to remember that I’ve got many years left to do these things, and therefore I’ve got many hours left. A question on Quora about people who started after the mid-20s gives me a lot of hope. All those legends, all those succesful people who didn’t even start until they were older than I am. I think that is a good point to end on.

Similarity and context

20 Jul

I’ve never studied any Norwegian, but that didn’t stop me from understanding some of it. During my trip to Oslo this Spring, two major things helped me to understand a decent amount of written Norwegian: the similarity to English, and the context. While Norwegian is officially a North Germanic language and English is a West Germanic language, there were enough similarities  in vocabulary to help me understand. The second thing that helped me to understand was context. For example, when I was in the Resistance Museum in Oslo, I knew that the whole museum was telling the story of how Nazi Germany invaded Norway and how Norwegian rebels fought back. Knowing that context, I was able to make sense of a lot of the displays, many of which didn’t have any English translation.

2013-04-06 10.46.04I have this picture of a bell to serve as an example of both the first and the second point. Both the context and the similarity to English nudge me to assume that it says like 900 year anniversary, May 14th 1950. The context here is a big giveaway: usually if you see 14 unknown word 1950, that unknown word is going to be a month. Aars for years and anniversary from jubileu are just guesses, because it seems similar to French’s ans and the English word jubilee. This is a major language learning and language using strategy that I’ve used while learning new languages: context and similarity. This is why Portuguese is so easy for me to learn, and it is also why I was able to read so much Catalan when I visited Tarragona. These strategies help me seem like a much more advanced language user than I really am.

Air China from Madrid to São Paulo

9 Jul

My flight from Spain to Brazil was operated by Air China, and all the pilots and stewardesses were Chinese. I started by using English to communicated with the stewardesses, but I ended up using my Chinese. The Chinese man sitting next to me made a comment that I spoke really good Chinese (as Chinese people tend to do when any non-Chinese person is capable of using any Chinese), and we had a conversation about Brazil, about his business, and various other small talk things. It really made me realize how bad my Chinese has gotten. I would say that I am down to a B1 level. Just to be friendly, I also spoke to the mother and father of a little baby who were sitting near me. I spoke portuguese to them merely commenting that they had a cute kid and that it must be hard to be a parent. I slept intermittently on the flight, but not as much as I had hoped.

I was quite surprised by the in flight entertainment. Each seat had its own video screen, which wasn’t unusual for such a long flight, but the selection of movies shocked me. On the flight the selection of movies was split roughly this: 60% Chinese films, 30% American films, and 10% other (including Korean, Spanish, and Russian). But the subtitles are what really surprised me: many of the films didn’t have subtitles in multiple languages, meaning that they weren’t available to a wide range of audiences. The American films, for example, only had subtitles in Chinese. The Chinese films had subtitles only in Chinese and in English. Keep in mind that this flight was going from Madrid to Sao Paulo, so most of the passengers would be (assumably) Brazilian or Spanish. Despite this, few of the movies offered either subtitles or audio in Portuguese or in Spanish, effectively eliminating all a large number of the passengers from the use of the entertainment system. For a flight that did not land in nor take off from China or the USA, it surprised me that English and Chinese were both such dominant languages in their system.

Japan’s Soft Power is visible in Murcia

16 Jun
2013-02-19 11.35.57

DBZ’s Goku at a primary school in semi-rural Spain.

I never expected to see Dragon Ball Z so far from major cultural centers, but I have been shocked by its reach. People often talk about the power and the draw of American culture (mostly they mean Hollywood, American music, and American fashion), but it is nice to be reminded that there are other superpowers of soft power, too. Japan’s anime and manga industries are an excellent example of this. It is quite ironic that I am surprised by this, considering how much a preach about the wonders of the internet and it’s ability to spread information, but it serves as a good reminder  these things can be found in unexpected places.

Learning, Excuses, Time

12 Jun

A roommate of mine wanted help translating the abstract of his thesis into English, and I was hesitant to help. One part of it was of course the selfishness of not wanting to spend time doing something with no direct benefit for me, but even more than that was my wholehearted belief that he could do most of the work on his own. His English isn’t fantastic, but by finding unknown words in a dictionary, using the forums at word reference, and making liberal use of google translator, he could easily create a rough draft which I would be willing to edit for him. At least, that is what I thought. He knew about these different languages resources, but he kept repeating that he wasn’t able to do it. It strongly reminded me of John Pasden’s story about trying to teach someone to juggle:

Learner: Wow, you can juggle?

Me: Yeah. It’s not very hard. You can learn in 30 minutes if you try.

Learner: Really? Let me try.

[I demonstrate the basics and hand over the balls. The learner takes a few tries, quickly dropping the balls.]

Learner: This is harder than it looks!

Me: Yeah, but if you keep at it for 30 minutes, you’ll be able to juggle.

[5 minutes pass.]

Learner: This is too hard! See ya.

I explained exactly what my roommate needed to do, and he was able to do it. Nonetheless, he wasn’t willing to devote the time and effort to actually do it. He used the difficulty of the text as an excuse. (a common claim among language learners, as well as a common reason why people don’t do things in general: it’s too hard) In reality, the text wasn’t that difficult or advanced. The hard words consisted of analyzes, physical expression, sample, and predisposition, and if someone is sitting at a computer with internet access, I consider not knowing a word to be a poor excuse, because dictionaries are at their fingertips. I think of it like a person who knows how to use a car sitting in the drivers seat with the key in the ignition saying “I can’t turn on the car!”

Of course, figuring out how to phrase things and how to structure sentences is much more difficult and much more important than merely translating words, otherwise machine translation would do everything (it actually works fairly well for non-professional uses between languages that are similar to each other, such as western European languages). But I clearly offered to my roommate that I would edit and correct his first draft. He gave me a new excuse now, which I find comical. He told me “I don’t have time!” I literally had to suppress a laugh. Allow me to explain: this is a boy who watches TV for at least an hour everyday and who I’ve recently observed playing video games quite a lot. I usually don’t like sounding judgemental, but if someone uses a large enough amount of his or her time for recreational activities, then I think that they lose the right to legitimately complain that they don’t have enough time to do work activities. The similarities with Clay Shirky’s Where do People Find the Time are not lost on me.

Of course, I shouldn’t be too harsh. He is a few years younger than I am, and he hasn’t had the same opportunities and influences that I’ve been so fortunate to have. But I’m still left wondering: is my roommate a really lazy, unresourceful person, or am I hyper-resourceful? Seeing his performance and observing him in life, I certainly wouldn’t hire him if I was a boss because he has demonstrated to me that he is unable to do things on his own.

In the end I helped him translate it in exchange for him editing an Eng-Span translation that I had done, and for which I was far underqualified. A few more friends will look over it for me. I hope to post it up here when it is all finished.

New marketing?

9 Jun
2012-11-10 11.17.20

At least some local business are starting to become aware of the increasing importance of the internet. Lots of shops and restaurants aren’t even present on Google Maps, but I’m happy to see that some are proudly announcing their presence.