Friday, February 29, 2008

Happiness is a roomful of books

I have a recurrent happy dream, and it looks something like like this picture on the RHS. What a delightful idea, a staircase that doubles as a bookcase, leading up to a reading room! The only change I would make to this design would be to arrange for a couple of cushions on some corners of this stair/bookcase, so that, if you happen upon a book you wish to investigate further, you could just browse then and there in comfort.

I have a modest collection of about 300 books now (not counting academic volumes at my office), but have ambitions of some day owning 10 times more. Sadly, homes in the UK are not cut out for such large collections. Given the astronomical house prices, space comes at a hefty premium, and it is unrealistic to harbour ambitions of storing and displaying large collections. That will have to wait for later, much later - retirement! Bee and I have idly spoken of building our dream place in Khon Kaen, her hometown. Projects like these would be much more viable there, where you can make homes to order without parting with an arm and a leg. Someday!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Speaking in tongues

The daily language lab rolls on indefinitely. I've been juggling Thai and French for the past couple of years - 15 minutes a day, everyday. 3 days of Thai and then 3 days of French and so on. With both languages, I had a period of initial formal lessons; Thai for 2 years at SOAS in London, and French for a year right here at my University. Here is what I have learnt about optimal language learning:
(i) For the first couple of years, formal classes are a must. One really needs help with those formidable initial hurdles - scripts, basic grammar rules, etc. Brave is the person taking this on without expert help.
(ii) After the initial couple of years, you can plough on on your own. Progress will not be as fast as it would be with a formal class structure, but it is possible if you are disciplined. 15 minutes a day is really all you need, but this has to be more or less everyday. Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate. Keep going back to the same lessons and repeating them. It is very tempting to keep pushing for new lessons, but really only a quarter of the new material will stick in one's mind after a couple of weeks pass. Hence the critical role of revision and consolidation.
(iii) Following on from the last part of (ii), it is a pre-requisite to be extremely bloody-minded and infintely patient. On average, my estimate is that it takes at least 5 years of consistent input to get moderately comfortable with a European language, and closer to 10 years for a non-European one. I have found French so much easier than Thai, and that should really not be surprising.

The Thai language is curious. It is one of the most economical languages around. It favours short words of one, or two syllables at most, using minor variations in vowel attachments and tones to weave a whole language out of a small number of basic sounds. But it is precisely this economy that makes it a deuce of a difficult language to learn. About 10% of the Thai language derives from Sanskrit - these are typically the longer, fancier words. I can usually guess the meaning of these words, for obvious reasons. I can also remember them relatively easy, because they are typically distinct from one another and fancy in their construction. But it the 90% set of small devils that frustrate me to no end.

Why learn them at all? Surely one can make do with English? Yes, I think so, even in Thailand. But learning languages has ceased being utilitarian to me, and has become pleasurable for it's own sake - a hobby, in other words. Much like running is for some people. I would personally never run more than is absolutely necessary to keep myself fit. But I can understand that running is not just utilitarian for many (although the question always nags away at me: but don't you find it spectacularly boring?!)

Thai and French will keep me going for a while. I have idly contemplated Chinese for the distant future, but I think it is going to be a bridge too far! Perhaps Spanish, although I consider acquiring another European language as a bit of cheating once you have a couple under your belt already.

One will lose most newly learnt languages without constant practice. In fact, even languages that one has known forever depreciate somewhat over time. My Tamil becomes shaky every now and then, sometimes embarassingly so (although my Hindi has not depreciated quite as much, curiously).

All the hard work really pays off when you see that squiggly sign while travelling in rural Thailand, and are able to make out what it says. You feel strangely proud to have deciphered 'Do not use, Toilet broken'!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Old Friends and Bookends

It's been a year of getting back in touch with some rather fine amigos from the past. Like many others, I get all misty eyed every new year's eve when the chorus breaks into anglicised Robert Burns:

'And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
And surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.'

Usually, the sentiments drain away with the pint cup and the new year reveals itself to be much like the old year, except with more work and more commitments and less contact than ever with auld lang syne.

However (and this is very possibly an early indicator of mid-life crisis), I've lately been feeling the urge to reconnect with the past more than ever. An Xmas card from me resulted in a long letter from an old chum. I've also tracked down and emailed others after years.

They say you can never go back there again. It is true that sometimes these reconnections work - you meet old Joe Blog after 10 years and the two of you pick up over a pint like you had never left off. In other cases, the magic has sadly slipped away with the tide of settings and contexts. You talk a little bit of old stories and how mad things had been, you spin the meeting out with more yarns, you find yourself reverting to the same story you had reminisced about half an hour back, and you can feel the link fading steadily.

No matter. 'Time it was, and what a time it was'!