Warning: Parental Language

Twins_0002

As the parent of a girl and a boy, both under five, and both Swedish-English, I’ve discovered at least one area where Swedish, despite its much tinier vocabulary, has the edge over English.

Swedish boys possess a snopp; girls, a snippa. That’s standard, pre-school appropriate terminology. English boys have a ‘willy’, though it sounds slightly silly. Or a ‘pee-pee’, though that strikes me as both twee and kinda American.

But for infant English girls? No, the options are all terrible: Mumsnet, surely the holy gospel and iron fisted authority on such matters, proves it. There are arcane, family-specific codewords. There’s the stuffy ‘fanny’, archaic-sounding and confusing to Americans to boot (I promise, I’ll leave American English out if it now).

Worst of all there are the prurient British circumlocutions, the ‘front bottoms’ and ‘lady bits’. FFS. Dreadful. Those seem to be common currency purely because there is nothing else on offer, but I can’t help but think that it’s a strange to set your child out unable to directly name their own anatomies, only approaching warily, through the sanitizing gauze of euphemism.

Sweden didn’t always have snippa to help out us poor struggling parents of girls. No, snopp for boys has been around since… oh, ages! (Note To Self: more research here plz.) Snippa was a relatively recent development, only popularised as recently as 2000, thanks to Anna Kosztovics, a social worker in Malmö. But it’s already established itself as firmly as its male counterpart. A word, fit for purpose, meeting a need that was introduced without much fuss and quickly established itself as the de facto term.

Sensible, practical, and equitable. About as Swedish as you can get.

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Slow Learning

Dilatory Autodidact TY SwedishLast week I finished a protracted slog through the pages and exercises of Teach Yourself: Swedish.

“That took a while,” I thought, as I marked the textbook completed on Goodreads. (Yeah okay, logging textbooks on Goodreads, you got me. TBH if they were printed with an ISBN I’d probably have a Goodreads shelf of takeaway menus.)

In fact it took more than “a while”. The start date was March 2012. Back when we lived in Amsterdam. 3.5 apartment moves and five years ago.

FIVE FRIGGING YEARS. (Nothing against the book, it’s fine. Serviceable. Okay.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the stoic will-to-mastery of autodidacticism. Or rather for the *idea* of it.

Self-motivated, me-powered learning! It’s a daydream, one of those poisonous momentum-sapping ones where the fantasy gives a watered-down version of the satisfaction you’d get from the actual achievement, hobbling any real progress. Because that’s the only languge exercise book I think I’ve ever finished.

And language apps are handy, since they’re always pinging at you from your handset. Addictive when they get the gamification right. IMO yer Memrises and Duolingos are lacking, pedagogically speaking: TBH I’ve found them best for building vocabulary,  but the grammar doesn’t stick.

When it comes to educating humans, nothing beats another human.

Deploying that slowly-absorbed book-learning, that app-jacked rote learning, in conversations with Real People. Or signing up for lessons, group or one-on-one, where it’s harder to skim over exercises, or worse, let them slide. For, say, five years.

In truth, it’s a mix of inputs that is best. Practice in the wild is always critical, courses are great. TV, radio, films, books and podcasts too, though they’re best absorbed with some attention, even if intermittent.

The apps and lonely exercise books of the self-learner have their place too, whether it’s by providing new vocabulary and grammar to test out, or explaining the why behind language you might already be using.

But ivory tower learning in solitude just makes the whole process needlessly hard. It’s like training for MMA with shadow boxing only – how much training would you feel was enough before you ever stepped into a cage?

 

Three Swimming Elk: Telling Lessons in Swedish

I’ve been slogging my way through a Swedish course on Duolingo. I don’t know whether the French course, say, uses the same examples. But I suspect not.

The nature questions are heavy on Swedish flora and fauna – pines and spruce, wolves and elk. The supernatural ones are lousy with trolls and gnomes.

  • Vi såg tre simmande älgar (“we saw three swimming elk”).
  • Ett fullt troll tittade in genom fönstret (“An ugly troll looked in through the window”)

There are those characteristically inexplicable language course headscratchers. I’m fairly confident I’ll never need to tell a Swede that “a turtle came swimming” (En skölpadda kom simmande). But on the whole you’re less likely to stumble across surrealistic whimsy than you are the kind of thing you expect from Henning Mankel. Antalet mord i staden har ökat: “the number of murders in the city has increased”, indeed.

The most arresting examples, though, sit squarely and morosely in Bergman territory:

  • Hennes moster är döende (“Her aunt is dying”)
  • Din fru kommer att ha tagit alla dina drömmar från dig (“Your wife is going to have taken all your dreams from you”)
  • Gav du henne en rakhyvel? (“Did you give her a razor?”)

And the unbeatable:

  • Det är jag som är Döden (“It is I who is Death”)

For the sake of my emotional equilibrium, I’m not sure I can carry on with this course for much longer…

Google Translate and Plato

google-translate-ai-2016-11-24-01

So you’ve seen this news [New Scientist/Wired], right? That the Google Translate AI has supposedly invented a new internal language to help it translate language pairs it hasn’t learnt. Having been taught English <> Japanese and English <> Korean, it can then do the job for Japanese <> Korean.

The headlines position this as the AI inventing its own internal language, or interlingua, to handle those conversions. Every article notes the difficulty in anyone knowing exactly what is happening in there, the deep learning that’s going on inside the AI. (Engadget had the slightly more nuanced report on this, further from the “invented a language” headline.)

An invented language? That’s one interpretation. But if a language consists of signs, symbols that exist in the world, is that the best description for the process?

So Google Translate learns that English table means both Spanish mesa and Swedish bord. Does it then need to tell itself:

IF table = 1010101011101 = bord
AND table = 1010101011101 = mesa
THEN bord = 1010101011101 = mesa

?

That’s not how we meat-sacks use language. It skips over another interpretation, lacking from the reporting I’ve seen so far, which is either totally thrilling or utterly chilling, depending on whether or not you’re looking forward to the ascendancy of Skynet.

I (and I’m willing to assume you too) have an idea of a table, based on years of experience:

  • It’s a flat surface atop a number of legs (often 4);
  • It’s usually (not always) around thigh height;
  • Most are made of wood, or metal, or plastic;

All these things contribute to a mental representation of [table]: a confluence of images, physical experiences, language labels, and a heap of Venn diagrams of different properties that coalesce around the label of table. A lot of overlap with something like [chair]; less – but some – overlap with [dog]. A mess of connections and firings in the neural pathways, impossible to pin down, even while it’s possible to see where they cluster.

The Platonic form of a table, if you like. That is what’s triggered when I hear the English or Spanish or Whateverish word for [table]. English is my mother tongue, but if I were to translate a Stockholm restaurant reservation for a Spanish speaker, the mental process wouldn’t be “(Swedish) bord = (English) table = (Spanish) mesa”. It would be “bord <> [idea or Platonic form of the table] <> mesa”.

Look at that map up top again. That string of Japanese word/concepts on side, the English string on the other, the Korean somewhere in the middle but tending closer to the Japanese. The whole forming a neat oval, a cluster of meaning. OK, so the AI only has language input, there are no sights/feelings/memories of [stratosphere] associated, not yet.

But what if that oval, that pattern of pinpricks of understanding, represents the rough formation of a Platonic form; an AI idea?

Priorities: Reading v Writing v Due Date

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsNo GoodReads Reading Challenge for me this year. I reached last year’s target, again thanks to a few choice graphic novels/comic hardbacks to counterbalance doorstep’s like The Luminaries. But TB-brutally-H it felt as if I was reading to bump up the book count, with the target always to finish fast. Is that conducive to good reading? Wide reading, intensive reading, yes. Clinical, technical, checkbox reading, yes. Not so much with the luxuriating in a text, wallowing there, inhabiting it body and soul.

There’s also the twinge of cynicism I can’t help but feel about GoodReads now that it’s Amazon-owned. In that light, the Reading Challenge just feels like a prompt to buy, buy, buy more inventory.

Reading is no problem. But it’s writing I need to be doing more of. Isn’t that always the complaint? Write, write more, write about anything. To blah or not to blah. Here it comes, another blogpost about blogposts. *SHUDDERS*

It’s never a thoughtful blogpost for me. Is that a mistake? Instead, it’s the first draft brain dump. Unedited stunt writing, unexpurgated, a la Knausgård – who BTW in Book 2 of My Struggle (“A Man In Love“) is coming across as a total dick, which okay is a bravery all of its own, an honesty less glamorous than petty criminality or heroin hijinks, because let’s be honest who comes off best, the helpless addict or the father whinging about his childcare duties? So Knausgård struggles against the selflessness required to be a parent in order to pursue the erasure of self he finds in writing. Transcendence, flow, engagement… it’s all pushing up towards the point of Maslow’s pyramid. Right?

So yes, we have a baby on the way, and that was probably the impetus for this post. We’re moving, and I’m freelancing, and I still need to learn Swedish (not nearly fluent yet). And even now it’s hard enough to maintain the writing necessary to keep contributing to the Amsterdam writing group that I’m still Skyping in to. How’s having a baby going to impact that? Or will it bring regularity and order to our lives, minute-to-minute scheduling that magically *does* give me the space to write?

Glide: Glided, Glid, Glode. Strider Strode.

Strider

I’ll never really believe that the past tense of “to glide” is glided.

It seems childish. Any reason it should follow “to elide”, i.e. elided?

That’s a Latinate word. Not Germanic, like “to stride” which gives strode,

And “to ride”, obv. rode. So what about glode?

It might be archaic, but it feels right. Righter even than glid,

As per “to hide” giving hid, “to slide” and then slid.

By analogy, I look to Swedish for a similar pattern. There, glida (to glide), rida (to ride), strida (to battle) give gled, redstred. Well, that was no help.

Come to mention it, strider (Swedish: “fights”) does remind me that Tolkein’s Strider (aka Aragorn) is secretly a warrior, not just someone with a leggy gait.

*END OF THOUGHT*

Beyond SFI

Ellis Island 1892 not Stockholm 2014

I’d been looking forward to signing up for the free Svensk För Invandrare (“Swedish For Immigrants”) course. How great is it, that the government lays on free language courses for new residents? It had taken a while to get my personnummer through, but now that I had it I wanted to get signed up. SFI was closed, but opened again on 28 July, and I thought that was a good time to try and get in early.

As did two or three hundred of my fellow recent immigrants.

It was a sweltering Monday morning, and SFI applicants were streaming through the front door of the building and up the stairs to the third floor registration office. The waiting room was packed to capacity, leaving many of us in for a long wait on the stairs – where it happened to be a lot cooler anyway, I mean, why would you choose to stand in the cramped sweaty quarters of the waiting room when you could perch on blissfully cool mock-marble?

After ninety minutes or so (it’s cool, I went out for a walk and grabbed a sandwich. But thanks, your sympathy is touching) my number was called and I registered my details. Queue another wait for assessment. This time, so that I didn’t miss the docent calling my name, I stayed in the waiting room, where I could marvel at the condensed sweat dripping from metal fixtures on the low ceiling – just like being in a badly ventilated mid-90’s London nightclub.

Anyways, the docent came and we had a brief chat, then she showed me to the computer room, where I could run through the standard tests. This seemed to take a good hour or so, though I was *just* within the time limit. My closing essay (“Tell us about where you live”) was especially wonderful, having all the literary merit of, say, breakfast cereal serving instructions written by a 5-year old who’s forgotten their ADHD meds.

This was followed by an interview with a second docent, wherein I was struck inexplicably dumb. I could barely string a sentence together, and we’d managed to get on the subject of work, which is not a subject I’ve yet got down pat. Docent #2 went to consult with Docent #1, and she came back to say my level was probably slightly above the four grades of SFI.

Lemme stop you there. This isn’t a humblebrag – “gah, all that time waiting and I’m just too goddamn smart for SFI!” I’ve already lived here for ten months, and I’d been casually/lazily studying the language for at least eighteen months before we got here.

Docent #2 suggested I check out Komvux, Sweden’s adult education courses. Svensk som andraspråk grundläggning (Swedish as second language foundation) course picks up where SFI leaves off. And they have the course at Hermods, a school that a Dutch friend recommended as one of the best for SAS courses. It doesn’t even seem to cost anything, but maybe I’m missing something in my clumsy translation of the website.

Dictionary Swedish English, 201 Swedish Verbs, Complete Swedish, Essentials of Swedish Grammar, Rivstart A1 + A2 Textbok ÖvningsbokSee? Told you it wasn’t a humblebrag, I’m still only a decent beginner. And I’m actually wary of going to Komvux and finding out I’m not so skit bra (“shit good”) as I think. Am gonna hit these books again, see if I can work up a bit more confidence and fluency first…