Saturday 29 March 2014

10 things language learning has taught me


Achieving fluency in a new language can take so much time. So, one of the first things language learning taught me was how to set long term goals, and how to stick to them. Language learning has taught me as well how to manage these goals, and especially how to deal with boredom the days these goals seem far and unreachable.


With languages, a little goes a long way. With speakers of other languages, even in the cases when you simply know one greeting or two, it can make much difference. It shows that you respect and acknowledge these people.


Having said that, I believe it is equally important to enjoy taking care of the small details while moving towards your goal. And this goal should be none other than fluency. Personally, I enjoy being fluent; when I use another language, I thrive on the quick game my mind is playing while searching for the correct word or expression.


With learning new languages, many methods work, from the most ancient to the most state-of-the-art ones. In other words, there is not a best method for every student and for every purpose.


With language learning, a little goes a long way, as I said. If you study for a while every day, you will be able to see the first results very soon. This has taught me that if you give time to something, it will grow. In other words, if you take care of something, it will take care of you.


Since languages reflect reality in many different ways, using another language can bring out another side of you. Personally when I use a different language, I become quite a different person. The medium affects the message, as they say.


Have you ever felt you lack the words to describe a situation? That words are not enough? This happens because language evades us. Reality is far more complex than language, and what's more, people tend to use words in their own way. The fact we are able to translate between languages with meaning staying roughly the same shows that there is a level which exists below the surface of language. And while we can reach this level through language, it will always evade us. And it is better to try to think in other ways, for example through images and feelings, and don’t take language too seriously. This is closely connected to what I am going to say next:


Since language is only surface deep, and speakers of different languages usually describe the same state of affairs using different means of expression, learning new languages can shed new light to our experience of the world. For example: in the English language, we 'jump' to conclusions, emphasising this action as premature or thoughtless. In Greek we say we 'bring out' conclusions. So, for me, conclusions are both 'brought out' and 'jumped to', and despite my being a native Greek speaker, when I think about conclusions it is impossible not to think about 'jumping'!


Not knowing anything about a group of people can lead to stereotyping and xenophobia. But interestingly, when you start learning their language, these people begin to have a voice. And it always comes out that this voice is very close to yours. In a world that emphasises differences, learning each other’s languages will bring us closer.


They say that a new language is truly yours when you dream in it. Do you think it is required to have achieved fluency in order to be able to dream in a new language? No, not at all! I have dreamt in languages I had just started to learn. Have you ever experienced looking at something and at the same time name the thing in your mind in another tongue? Or, have you ever started to use words, expressions, even whole chunks of language in a new language without realising it? This is native-language-style processing, and it certainly can happen with languages other than your own; especially when the situation calls for it!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Let the children play

I was very happy that so many people liked my previous post: It’s better late than never for freelance translators. However, I would like to point out that while for most things in life it’s better late than never, there are some things that must happen at the correct moment. But before I continue, I’d like to say that while I haven’t got children myself, I used to be a child, and people who are not parents should not be excluded from the discussion a priori. All voices have something to contribute, right?

So, what I’m trying to say is that while it is possible to do a lot of things later in life, it is impossible to relive your childhood. That’s why for me it goes without saying that no-one should mess with a child’s childhood.

My own childhood is a very special place that I enjoy to revisit quite often. I am capable of locating this precious feeling of being a child. I can recall how it feels to be open to every possibility, how it feels to be fresh, innocent and receptive. A certain song, a comic book, a movie can send me straight back to that special place, giving me at the same time a new lease of life, and strength to keep going. I can remember exactly what excited me as a child: a new book, learning English, exploring geography and astronomy… and this excitement is ever alive with me, even in my darkest moments.

It is impossible to experience being a child again. Our childhood happens only once. That’s why it is extremely important to let children be children. They are entitled to have this special place of their childhood to accompany them as adults. Some people don’t understand it. That’s why we see certain parents relying on their children, assigning to them roles and responsibilities that the children cannot resume. Usually these parents feel especially ‘proud’ of their little ‘lambs dressed as muttons’. But that’s just not right.

Childhood is about making mistakes. About playing. About being innocent. About exploring the world. About making silly declarations or ludicrous revolutions. I know that it is very difficult to become a good parent and that we should not judge. But when you think that it is impossible to become a child ever again, you realise that, after keeping children healthy and fed and clean, we must protect their childhood. Let the children play.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

It's better late than never for freelance translators

You may find it strange that this post seems to invite freelance translators to stop worrying because 'it’s better late than never'. Freelance translators always have some deadline that should be respected at all costs. However, this blog post is not about such deadlines. Rather, it is about the deadlines we set to ourselves, according to popular beliefs and the latest trends.

These deadlines usually go like this: we have to have finished university by the time we reach [certain age]; we have to get a real job by the time we reach [certain age]… and so on and so forth. Some people are actually building their lives around these beliefs, without paying any attention to what they truly want. That’s what leads, in my opinion, to the so-called mid-life crisis: you enter the rat race, you keep up with the Joneses in terms of life decisions and one day you wake up, half of your life has passed and you wonder: did I really want this?

I saw a very nice film recently, and its last lines reminded me of something that had happened to me when I was a kid:

When I was eight years old, some people from the Ministry of Education came to our school to inform us about a certain sports contest that was to take place the following Sunday. As it seemed, they wanted to discover whether any kids with tremendous aptitudes (athletically speaking) could be found among my classmates and me.

I was helpless at sports. I was precocious in Greek and English; I was very good at math and music. But I was really, really helpless at sports. Even today, I can’t understand any kind of sport; I am not able to comprehend the rules to save my life. But the authority of these people hinted that it was obligatory to show up.

I had to show up.

Even now that I am writing these lines I can clearly recall how terrible I felt standing among my classmates in that field on that chilly morning and preparing myself… well… to run a race. Okay, let’s do it, I told myself. I started running and my stomach ached from the effort. Oh dear. After a while it was impossible to go on. So I began to walk away, when suddenly a young gym instructor appeared to my side.

She said: “You have to finish. It doesn’t matter if you finish last, what really matters is to finish”. She even ran with me, at my side, encouraging me to go on. No other teacher had done something like that for me before.

I finished last. My name was actually written in a list which was pinned up at school for everyone to see. It hurt so much! But after all these years, I feel that on that Sunday morning the only kid that actually learned something from the whole experience was me. It became obvious to me that it doesn’t matter at all if you finish last, what is important is to finish.

There are a few things that I did ‘late’ in my life, and many things that I haven’t done yet. For example I got my second degree much later in life and at that age I became a translator as well. It doesn’t matter at all if I have started late. The satisfaction I get from my profession is enormous. Instead of spending my time regretting, I chose the path of ‘better late than never’. And regarding translation as a profession, I think it is not so bad after all to have started a bit later. So, if you have some wild dream, consider whether it falls in the category of ‘better late than never’, and go for it!

“No, what matters is to finish it. Films have to be finished, even if you do it blindly.
─Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), Broken Embraces