Like many people in the world of ELT I was shocked and disappointed by the results of the EU referendum this morning. Like many people in our position, my wife and I have been sitting on the sofa in our house in central Portugal, in a state of bleak disbelief struggling to understand both how the British people could have made this choice and of course, what the ramifications are for us.
We are asking ourselves questions like: Should we stay here? If we want to stay here, how do we go about it? Should we go somewhere else? Should we return to the UK? Do we even want to return to the UK? How on earth are we going to make that happen if we do?
There is a lot of anxiety in our thinking, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of speculation, none of which adds up…
With the full support of a desperate Danish Language learner:
Dear Danish language,
I am sure you are very surprised to receive this message – I would actually be surprised myself if you actually remembered I am still around. I reckon we haven’t had much interaction lately, even though we supposedly know each other like old friends – we’ve grown up together and we’ve been through much, and yet we never gave up on each other.
However, something has changed. Something big.
Our communication is somehow broken. We used to care about each other, understand what were each other’s problems. But now… look at us. Or rather, look at you. You barely give me time to speak to you, so I never have the chance to talk. My opinion, my suggestions, my recommendations… it’s all ignored.
Please, now tell me, Danish, what did I do wrong? Is there anything wrong in my looks, or perhaps I have behaved in an inappropriate way at some point and I’ve hurt you? Stop being so passive-aggressive and speak. I am tired of being unheard. You listen to me only when I’m right in front of your face, like in gade, gyde and gård. That’s my only chance to speak up, you can’t really avoid me then, can you? Honestly, I just want to have more chances to make my voice heard when I desire so, not just when you feel like putting me first for once. Kage, dejlig, uge, morgen, tage, bog, tog, jeg and dig. Do these ring a bell at all? That’s where you get very clear about warding me off.
For some time, I did think you cared about me. I thought you wanted to make sure I was getting enough free time to sit back and enjoy life a little bit… you know, when you insisted that I should hang out more with my friends, like ø and o, a or i… everything looked fine then, in søge, røg, bøger, Vagn, vogn, lige. I thought that was proof that you wanted me to be happy. But no, no, you just wanted to get rid of me already. Now that I think of it, you were probably trying to make me sound more like i, that b…awd. You really like that one, don’t you?
I know, I can picture you turning up your noise in front of all this ‘nonsense’, ‘balderdash’, ‘gobbledygook’. Think what you want, it’s now my time to stand up for my rights. I might have been tricked by love, but I will not stand this further. I will fight for my rights to be heard, and I will not let you keep me soundless. Or I quit. And I really want to see you there, telling people to drive on an ade, or to address their prayers to Ud.
This rather obscure sentence inaugurates my travel journal, a gem from last Christmas’s haul. November 2014 pinpoints the end of a dull existence devoid of a full Venetian experience. Since then, I have hopelessly fallen in love. It was late evening and Venice’s street lights do not really light up the darkness, so everything – the canals, the buildings – looked vague, unreal.
Hang on, did I say street lights? HA! Well, that was silly wasn’t it?
This is exactly what makes Venice so captivating – and disorientating. We grow up with a very simple idea of the urban space – houses, schools, hospitals, parks. All interconnected by a thick web of roads. Venice challenges that idea, re-conceptualises how a city can be made functional. And like commonly conceived urban spaces depend on roads, so Venice depends on canals: ambulances and taxis are boats, which means that the mailman and the dustman have their own boats, too.
The atypical situation that typifies Venice has obviously affected the language spoken in the city. And I am not speaking necessarily of the Venetian language itself – all languages spoken within the Venetian lagoon (be it Italian, English or Chinese) somehow change as they breach into the Venetian alternative universe. The reason is simple: you wouldn’t say such things as ‘I am parking my car’, ‘you need to cross the road’, ‘let’s get to the other side even though there’s no pedestrian crossing’. These expressions do not make any sense in Venice and language, as a result, is forced to re-shape itself due to geographical necessity.
Throughout the centuries, the Venetian language has mirrored the maritime and mercantile spirit of its people. Technical jargon has often spilt over everyday language, so a carabera, originally a storehouse, is today a very messy house. And when you wander about doing nothing, or are not be able to walk straight (too many drinks, perhaps?) you’ll probably claim that you’re going a torzio (around, not straight) just like an ungoverned boat drifting away in the sea (that’s what that expression originally meant).
Venice is the administrative centre of Regione Veneto, which includes other well-known Shakespearian sites such as Padua and Verona. Veneto is also where dialetto veneto is spoken, a northern Italian evolution of the Latin language spoken there. In English we call ‘Venetian’ both the language spoken in the macro-area of Veneto and the local variant spoken in Venice (veneziano or veneto lagunare), but locals tend to highlight the presence of a conspicuous number of break points. Regardless of their differences, the lingua veneta is considered a linguistic group per se of the northern Italian dialects, mainly characterised by flat vowels and the lack of double consonants (conversely, a peculiarity of Italian). The last point in particular was at the core of a linguistic debate raised after the restoration of Venice’s nizioleti, i.e. the old ‘road’ signs painted on the buildings’ walls (a bit like cheap frescoes). In 2013, what appears to be a local language activist has blackened out the extra consonants in some of the signs that had been recently restored. Sottoportego della Madonetta, with that unnatural –tt-, was probably not only seen very out of place but also as a threatening influence of the national language over the local variant.
The nizioleti represent an element that help reconstruct the history of Venice: they tell us what happened in that particular calle in the past, be it a fish market or a brothel, and they are an interesting record of written language. The nizioleti were in fact taken into account for the GVU project (Grafia Veneta Unitaria, or Common Venetian Spelling) – carried out by a group of linguists and experts, the GVU project tries to respond to that urge to preserve the local language by providing a standardised writing system. This would supposedly ease the conservation of its written records and a more effective implementation of the local language teaching into the school curriculum. Expectedly, many praise the effort, many others turn up their nose.
Venice speaks the veneto lagunare, or lagoon venetian. This linguistic area includes main Venice, Murano and Burano, Lido, Chioggia and Caorle. The Burano variant is said to be the closest to the language commonly spoken in Venice in the XVII century. What else would you expect from a tiny, colourful island that takes 40 minutes to reach on a water bus?
Fortunately, in spite of the generally opposite global trend, the lingua veneziana is not dramatically endangered. A recent survey included in a dissertation project has reported that the younger generations frequently speak veneziano, and that the younger speakers are intentioned to hand down the knowledge of the local language to their descendants. If this corresponds to reality, does the Venetian case represent a model that should be followed and can it be followed? Or is it just a unique case that lives on the glories of its past?
For more info on Venetian toponyms (in Italian): http://venicexplorer.net/tradizione/topos/index.html
Humankind is bound to change, and so are languages. Dante couldn’t almost believe to his own conclusions, whereas nowadays we simply get away with the fact that our grandparents used to speak differently than they themselves do now – let alone the earlier generations. The gap widens the farther we look back. Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr has taken up the challenge and has played with it. In a very effective way, I’d dare to add. Mi have een droom (I have a dream) is set in Rotterdam, in 2059. It’s the monologue of a Rotterdammer who ponders upon the changes the city has gone through. What’s most interesting about this poem is the language Nasr has created anew blending colloquial Dutch with English, street slang (straattaal), imbued with the language of migrants, such as Arabic and Surinamese.
wullah, poetry poet, let mi takki you 1 ding: di trobbi hier is dit ben van me eigen now zo 66 jari & skerieus ben geen racist, aber alle josti op een stokki, uptodate, wats deze shit?
Nasr imagines what the language of the future looks and sounds like, on the basis of that linguistic freedom that typifies modern languages and experiments all the different possibilities that the Dutch he knows and overhears in the street can offer. The outcome is exceptional, and a nice, pretty job to listen to even if you are not familiar with the Dutch tongue. I fell in love Nasr’s own recite of his poem: the way he utters every single words, the way he moves his hands make it sound plausible, realistic even. He creates a language that works, because it gives voice to a real society that has changed the face and soul of our cities. The twofold Dutch-Palestinian identity of the poet might have a significant impact on the general ideas running in this particular work, but it doesn’t matter that much in the end. It’s the story of stories, the outburst of crowds speaking different languages and praying different gods. Nasr stitches these voices together – their sounds and tones, their imperfections and irreverence. This is the way society is going; language simply re-constructs itself following the same pattern. Is language actually impoverishing its forms and expressions, or has today’s language been enriched by the interference of the language of the ‘newcomers’?. The language Nasr invents is a breach in the linguistic borders as we know them, a wild fire wrapping everything up – or at least this is what is going to happen in 2059. For now, we just get the early sparks. Interview with Poet Laureate Ramsay Nasr (in Dutch) – the complete poem can be found on the last page.
At some point in our lives, we might have engaged ourselves in an imaginary heated conversation on the phone just to avoid someone we vaguely know (or wish didn’t know) so that we can pretend we haven’t actually seen them – just make sure your phone is set on silent mode, or it might get very awkward.
Well, guess what? This anomaly in our social behaviour can be used for better purposes than ignoring acquaintances on the street. Like testing your language skills, for instance.
What in the world am I talking about?
Well, considering that I desperately need to convince my family that I am not a weirdo after all, I just can’t walk around the house speaking to myself in another language just to practice. I used to do that, by my mum has grown very worried about it. To be honest, I myself feel very uncomfortable just talking to no one about random things while wandering in my room. In this tricky circumstance, your phone is the answer.
Sit down and pretend that you have free calls abroad (if only!) and that you can call that friend who’s native speaker of the language you are currently learning. Pretend to be dialling their number, too! But, in reality, you are just opening the voice recorder app to have it ready. Put your phone on your ear (or use headphones, depending on your habits) – say hi to your friend, ask them how they are and go with the flow, with a pinch of creativity: make up a conversation, imagine what your friend would say in reply and answer back. In the meantime, you’ll be recording everything. 5-10 minutes of an inventive conversation is enough (and trust me, you’ll run out of topics after a while). At the end of it, say bye to your imaginary interlocutor (potential eave-droppers will be reassured that you are actually speaking with someone on the phone) and voilà, you have just completed an excellent practicesession of your language skills – and on top of it, you have a file that records it. Listen back to it later, analyse your own pronunciation and compare it, check your grammar, monitor how your vocabulary has grown. Note down major mistakes, think of how you could have said words and phrases differently, look for idioms! Idioms are great and the fact that you use them is a sign you are mastering the language. It’s a perfect method to individually test your oral language skills that you can take up literally anywhere – even walking on the street! Nobody will consider you a nutter, as long as you make sure you are talking on your phone. Don’t be afraid of awkward silences when you don’t know what else to say – they occur in real conversations too, so what’s the deal?
The ability to evaluate your own performance from the recordings you will have collected is a sign of major improvement. Do you have ten minutes to spare, or are you walking alone for a significantly long time? You can dedicate this time to your daily dose of foreign language learning.
‘To be out of element’ is an idiomatic phrase that conveys a sense of estrangement from a situation, a conversation, a determined environment. In simpler words, it’s that unpleasant feeling that you don’t fit in or belong.
This is the price to pay when you decide to be an exchange student in your native country – and if I have to be honest, I was more than prepared to see those frowns and bewildered faces people usually pull after I tell them my story. However, there is something I have found myself totally unprepared for. Many people have taken up the habit to associate my odd and unsettling situation with an automatically acquired foreignness. As I live and study in the UK, as I am in Rome for one year only as an exchange student, they assume that I am now ‘a foreigner’, I’m ‘English’, because, apparently, I speak like a foreigner, too (so I’ve been told). ‘You have an accent’, they say. My t’s have turned Anglo-Saxon, my intonation in questions goes up the English way, I say shorts, hobby, budget (all words that have entered Italian vocabulary) the British way, even if they come up in a conversation in Italian.
Some people may call it pretentiousness; others may call it an urge to estrange the self. And I somehow understand the last point. I reckon that my foreign-accent acquisition was an accelerated process on which I have worked painstakingly, nourished by a great desire to start everything up anew. But you can’t erase your past, nor can you pretend you have a different story. You end up in a limbo, between past and present. You were so eager to fit in the new society that you have detached yourself from the previous one too soon and you now belong to neither of them.
This is more or less what I am experiencing at the moment in Rome. I am Italian and act like one most of the times, but suddenly turn something else when it’s somehow convenient not to understand/speak Italian, and I have never felt as English as in these circumstances. Or I miss step-motherland, and build around me the illusion that I can recreate that particular dimension here in Italy.
That’s my sin: I always end up identifying myself with a specific ‘us’ in the wrong place. This identity chameleonismdoes not help my mental sanity either, and it also affects my relationship with others. It is very true that we are always someone else, depending on who’s looking at us. But before analysing how others see me, I still need to figure out what and where I want to be myself. Starting, for instance, from the language I want to use when I think and dream.
The paradox of tourism lies behind the secretive re-conceptualisation of a place’s identity, bound to the exclusive perspective of who is visiting. Each of us approaches space differently, and each of us shares a specific relationship with those places where our life unfolds. Airports, for example, mean both arrivals and departures, reconciliations and goodbyes. Each traveller looks at the airport from their own perspective, so as each member of the staff relates to the spaces inside the airport differently from one another.
Tourism corresponds to an avalanche of identities projected onto a single place, visited by people who carry with them the most interesting stories. And tourism challenges also identities and compels them to conform to a pre-given standard that wants to sell before it wants to live. What happens then to the local spirit, the identity projected by those who work there, live there, eat there every day? What hides behind the flawless façade that the industry of tourism has framed in a photoshopped postcard?
Every time you step in a new city, you are entering a multi-layered dimension in which different varieties of the same city occupy the same geographical space. The eye must be trained to spot the multitude of signs that call for this concealed co-existence. And these signs will tell you the true stories of the city, those who cannot be found in guidebooks and airline companies’ magazines. Take Rome, for example. The eternal city, the dawn of civilisation: Colosseum, Piazza Navona, the Ara Pacis, Trevi Fountain. This is the timeless idea of Rome, carved in its ancient walls. But it does not portray faithfully what Rome is today.
I think I have ended up in the most controversial, multi-faceted and enigmatic city in Europe. There is so much to explore one could spend a lifetime and still that would not be enough to grasp the immensity of Rome. An immensity that is replicated in a variety of copies and sub-copies of reality unfolding as ‘invisible cities’ piled up on one another. The cat shelter in Largo Argentina, right in the middle of ancient Roman ruins; the 500 hundred women painted in San Lorenzo, and Termini station – which is a magic, labyrinthine portal to everywhere in the world.
“Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality”.
I am on the tram now, on my way home. The people looking at each other with resignation – because we all look like canned sardines in the most miserable-looking tram I have ever seen in my life – are recounting the true story of one of the most visited cities in the world. They teach me that the expectations publicised in tourist guides are fake masks, because they sell an incompleteimage of Rome, of the world, of life. No one really wants to visit the aseptic room of a hospital. Travelling must be considered as a continuation of life, rather than an interruption. The contrast between ugly and beautiful, majestic monuments and old warehouses falling apart, is what encompasses a form of beauty that is closer to reality. Rome is a metaphor of life, and this realisation is a gift I will keep with me every time I am outside, looking up and admiring the stripes of blue sky between the Roman stunning palazzi and those ugly apartment blocks.