Monday, 22 August 2016

Change the record - Part 2

Further to my recent Olympics-related post, the 2016 Rio Olympics are now over and the newspaper sports supplements are full of praise for Team GB's impressive tally of 27 gold, 23 silver and 17 bronze medals - and rightfully so. That's two more medals than at London 2012 and 19 medals than the target set for GB athletes.

As a result, we now know that Rio 2016 is the "first time a host country has increased its medal haul at the following Olympics", and that the event was Team GB's best ever Games. But at London 1908, over a mammoth contest lasting 187 days, Team GB won a whopping 146 medals. This now explains the nebulous descriptions "away Games" or "best performance at an Olympics in the modern era". Those calling it the "best ever Games" are clearly keen to dismiss 1908 as either too long ago or with too many variables, subsequent rule-changes or other differences meaning that no comparison with the Olympics of today can be made. Not that the media spend much time explaining such details, of course! Like the geek I am, I trawled through Team GB history for my own explanation.

The "best away Games" tag is simply shorthand for "best-Olympic-Games-ever-except-for-London-1908-which-went-on-for-six-months-so-sort-of-doesn't-count-really". So there you have it! I'll leave it to others to fill you in on how much each medal has cost relative to the funding for different sports, and the comparisons with China in terms of population, area and medals won. I stand corrected; Rio 2016 was Team GB's best ever away Games. Now let's hope the athletes and those whose names we don't yet know can do even better at Tokyo 2020.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Change the record

It's perhaps only natural that my propensity for pedantry should be heightened during Olympic coverage, given that I watch television more intently than usual during this particular sporting showcase. But the gaffes made by BBC commentators are just cringeworthy.

The first slip-up came during the opening ceremony. After the Greek athletes had been led out around the track (as is usual), the commentator remarked that the subsequent order of teams was awry. It was alphabetical — albeit not alphabetical in English. Maybe since London 2012 someone has forgotten that, just like the Olympics, the alphabet is not just for speakers of English! For example, in other languages, say, Portuguese and French, South Africa (√Āfrica do Sul and Afrique du Sud in Portuguese and French, respectively) comes before Andorra in the list of countries.

Other infuriating commentator calamities come when, as if the achievements of athletes are insufficient in and of themselves; the jingoistic journalists change the record to reflect some kind of first gained in addition to the gold medal. One widely reported example came when John Inverdale, claimed that Andy Murray was the first tennis player to win two Olympic golds — a claim immediately corrected by Murray himself, as he rightly highlighted the achievements of Venus and Serena Williams (who have won four golds each). Murray is merely the first person to be a double Olympic champion in the tennis singles discipline. Oops!

Inverdale inadvertently ignoring the achievements of women in the immediate afterglow of Andy's triumph only serves to demonstrate the sensitivity needed when reporting the firsts or "first gold medal since ..." stories. We've now had Laura Trott and Jason Kenny winning golds to become the "first British woman to win four gold medals" and "winner of six gold medals to equal the tally of Sir Chris Hoy," respectively. As the golden couple are getting married next month, perhaps at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, if they successfully defend their 2016 gold medals; they'll become the first married couple ever to win gold medals at consecutive Olympics held in host cities that both end with the letter 'o'! How great would that be?

My point here is that the media spin to change the record for the sake of a new 'first' often detracts from or even trivialises the sporting feats being celebrated — as first female African-American to win gold in swimming, Simone Manuel, indicates:

"The title 'black swimmer' makes it seem like I'm not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I'm not supposed to be able to break records and that's not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.''

Athletes, like everyone else, just want a level playing field, literally. Anything that stands in the way of that fairness, such as an award, distinction or epithet seen to refer to the kind of inequality we should be striving to eradicate, is unhelpful. 

This includes the infuriating phrase "away Games". Rio has already been Team GB's best ever 'away Games'. The event has been held here four times in its 120-year history. Most Olympic Games are 'away games' for most of the participants! When and how did not hosting the Olympics on British territory become such a disadvantage? Were we expecting the host nation to win the lion's share of the medals in Rio? This distinction is a huge insult to any country without the means or luck to have been allowed to host the Olympic Games as often or at all! I wonder if reporters in other countries display the same sporting imperialism to create new records and statistics in this way. 

I understand that competition is fierce — and rightly so. But journalists and content writers have an important role to play in reporting achievements accurately and respectfully, so that the public see athletes not pigeon-holed by gender, ethnicity or nationality; but rather as heroes for all humanity.       

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Clarity begins at Home Office

There are plenty of linguistic things I could rant about on my first blog post of 2016. Perhaps I could poke fun at Larry Lamb and the British Council's drive to get people in the UK to learn a foreign language while UK politicians continue to do the hokey cokey on the subject of the country's membership of the EU. Rather than looking outwards and promoting the benefits of stronger engagement with our European neighbours and their languages, many of our deluded politicians demonstrate how isolationist you can choose to be if you live on an island.

At a house party over Christmas, a friend's sister excitedly told me how her 12-year-old daughter had recently shown talent and enthusiasm for learning German. Should I ever meet the 12-year-old, I have been instructed to chat to her in German - which I would be delighted to do. This is how any language-learning drive should work. Don't tell working adults with established careers, families, commitments and other distractions to learn a few phrases a day in another language - tell and encourage 11 and 12-year olds! They have more time and a stronger motivation. It is only by training them to become language graduates in a decade's time that the UK will have any hope of addressing the UK's multilingual malaise and missed trade opportunities. The sad reality, of course, is that language learning is on the wane in schools and universities and few people seem to care.

But I won't rant about that! I won't even rant about the new idea that forcing members of non-Christian minority groups to learn English will be an effective tool in tackling segregation and radicalisation. It's a confusing proposal, given that segregation rarely occurs due to language alone. Secondly, the majority of recent evil acts or excursions falling into this category were carried out by those who seemed perfectly able to speak either English or the language of the European country where they were based. I won't even highlight the plight of the many UK-based TEFL teachers who, according to writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen, have been made redundant in huge numbers over recent years - only to witness this apparent volte-face now that the political elite have suddenly decided that teaching English is a good idea, supported by £20m in funding.

I won't rant about 10-year-old schoolchildren who live in terraced houses and who inadvertently misspell the word and spark major police investigations as a result. In fact, I won't rant about anything today because I think this embarrassing error by a government department tells us everything we need to know about how important languages are in the UK.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The Great British Shake-Off

"The whole world is full of refugees - just like you and just like me."

This is a line from the The Everlasting, a great song that I heard performed live by the Manic Street Preachers. The line has haunted me for several weeks as refugees, mainly from Syria, began arriving in Europe. Many people watched the news and wondered what they could do to help. People immediately organised marches and began collecting items to donate to those in need. The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, organised the benefit concert With Love From Liverpool on 19 September to raise money. The band Crowded House will also release their song Help Is Coming to raise funds for the cause. I've pre-ordered a vinyl limited-edition copy and bought two tickets for the Liverpool gig. A few clicks online to buy a couple of things is the least I could do. Some people have even offered refugees accommodation in their own homes. Germans, in particular, have shown humbling humanitarianism.

Many other people, however, are engaged in cynical semantic antics online to muddle the narrative by differentiating - unhelpfully - between the terms 'migrant' and 'refugee', presumably as a justification for their own inaction. Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole wrote a very helpful piece, Migrants are welcome, the second section of which explains just how irrelevant these labels are in this case. Yet the shoulder-shruggers in the Great British Shake-Off believe that we should put our own homeless citizens first.

Irrespective of any criticism of the UK government's response to this or any other crisis, its pledge to home 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years will reportedly be funded from the foreign aid budget; so will not affect any support for the UK's homeless at all. The response of private individuals to the plight of the refugees is a matter for them. As a result, the "we" in the pleas for us to first look after our own suddenly becomes a "you".

What have YOU done personally to help the UK's homeless this week? If you've constructed this UK vs Syria either-or scenario and are unsure of how to proceed, allow me to make a couple of suggestions. These are in addition to calling on your politicians to do more for the homeless - which you're obviously already doing:

1. Empty your spare room/home of all the items you no longer use, sell them and give the money to a UK homeless person to help them find temporary accommodation and help. In the interests of fairness to the Syrians; this person should have lost all their possessions and ID, and should have no access to sustenance, sanitation or state or charitable assistance of any kind. They should also have been forced to flee from a war zone here in the UK. They will have watched loved ones die, either at the hands of others, or else on a perilous journey across the whole country, lasting weeks or months before reaching a place of safety.

2. Having now created more space in your home, offer to house a Syrian refugee temporarily. Alternatively, you can buy the charity single, go to the gig or support the refugees in some other small way.

Is this what you mean by putting the UK first? If it is, then by your own rationale, you should put Syrian refugees second, surely? Or is the plight of thousands of displaced refugees even further down your list of urgent causes to support? Of course, many charities need our help. But if you firmly believe in supporting people in the UK at the expense of, not in addition to, others in desperate need elsewhere; may I respectfully suggest that while the rest of us do what we can to help, you find some other, anti-social media on which to air your unhelpful opinions.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Island of lost souls

Today, I'm returning to a topic I've written about many times before — the decline of foreign language learning in the UK. So I also apologise for repeating myself. But the situation is even worse than I thought. Take the case of export sales manager Sarah Grain, for example. The company she works for in South Wales does 70% of its trade exporting to European countries. However, she was unable to fill her most recent export sales position with anyone from the UK; describing the lack of development of foreign language skills as "soul-destroying".

This is surely the consequence of a sustained decline in modern foreign language learning for at least the last decade. The statistics make for depressing reading. According to responses received from 136 secondary schools as part of a recent study by the CfBT Education Trust, the number of students in Wales taking French and German at GCSE has halved between 2002 and 2014. The decline is blamed on numerous causes, including the perceived difficulty of languages compared to other subjects, the limited choice of subjects, and timetabling or inspection pressures. To my mind, these are all excuses made by those seeking to blame the seemingly fixed education system itself. This stance conveniently absolves them of any moral responsibility to stem the decline or put pressure on others in a position to take decisive action. 

Forgive me for focussing on my favourite modern foreign language (German). However, the fate of German, in particular, is indicative of the scale of the problem. Recruiting skilled German speakers in Wales must be difficult, given that the survey found that in 2014, just 114 candidates sat German 'A' Level. Germany is the UK's biggest European export market (11%) and globally, is second only to the USA (12%). Even Switzerland features in the top 20 UK export markets (1.7%), so German, French and Italian skills would also be useful to service that trade too.

But perhaps more worrying than the educational or economic aspects are the social ones. In the conclusion to the study of language trends in Wales, the outlook is bleak:

"Teachers' responses suggest that the majority of young people in Wales are neither aware nor appreciative of the benefits which skills in foreign languages and intercultural understanding can bring in terms of advantages for study, personal development and employment. [...] To stem the dramatic decline of Modern Foreign Languages in schools across Wales and to address the widely held perception that languages are unimportant and of little use will require concerted action at the highest level, in order both to address the systemic/structural challenges being faced by schools and to begin to tackle entrenched and unhelpful social attitudes."


England has fared slightly better than Wales in the take-up of languages at GCSE in recent years, with entries rising in 2012-2013 by 19% and 10% for French and German respectively. Though this cannot even begin to address employment needs, which require higher-level language skills. The situation is likely to only get worse in the near future, given the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU that has been promised by 2017. The political narrative on EU membership has been largely negative for decades, skewed by scaremongering over a perceived erosion of UK sovereignty and an overly simplistic, unhelpful portrayal of the movement of people between EU Member States.

Anyone in the UK currently under 58 years of age has never had a say on UK membership of the EU. That may be so, however, unless steps are taken over the coming months to highlight the economic and social benefits of EU membership — which can and should be driven by a redoubling of efforts to positively promote foreign language learning in the UK and freedom of movement to Europe, especially for younger voters — the country's future position in or out of the EU, though determined democratically, will arguably not be based on a balanced assessment of pros and cons.  

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Resistance is futile

After relocating to the UK from Switzerland, I now hope to start blogging more regularly again. I enjoyed reading of newscaster Alistair Stewart becoming exasperated at the use of the following English words and phrases:

"Actually" - Here, predictably, the writer assumes the term's meaning as a truth marker. But the less literal interpretation, that of merely foregrounding one proposition against others, is not explored.

"It seems to me ..." — as opposed to "I think" or "I believe" shows a much clearer difference. "It seems to me ..." introduces your own perspective while almost inviting other people to offer a contradictory viewpoint with other evidence. The alternatives are stronger, governed by the first-person subject "I", rather than the weaker, non-referential subject "it".

Alistair Stewart also rails against "almost unique". Rightly, he notes that the adjective 'unique' cannot be graded. Something is either unique or it isn't. But something that is "almost unique" accepts this. If two things are essentially identical apart from one aspect that one of them is lacking; then surely the deficient item would be 'almost unique'. The one-off status of 'unique' as a term remains ungraded and absolute. An instance of "very unique" would indeed constitute grading, though this is not the phrase being considered.

The writer dislikes the term "real people" and the overuse of the modifying adverb "incredibly". Again, these are examples of language users looking for ways to emphasise certain ideas in relation to others. Stewart may dismiss the phrases "real people" if he has never met people who act in a 'fake' manner, governed by self-interest. The implication is that "real people" are more like us: genuine and down-to-earth. 

'King for a day' Stewart is not amused by the verb neologisms "helicoptered" or "motorcaded". Coining a new verb from a noun is done often for effect or as a result of a perceived increase in a certain practice. Do we see more helicopters trips or motorcades to the extent that new verbs are required? Working within the 24-hour news environment, where every journey — and every breath — the politicians, dignitaries and celebrities take is broadcast; Alistair Stewart should know.

His final bugbear is the recent tendency for people to begin utterances with "So ..." with no causal reference to a preceding idea. I don't yet know where this phenomenon originated. Though perhaps by starting an utterance with "So ...", users documenting every detail of their lives in numerous posts on social media are continuing their ongoing personal narratives for the rest of us to follow.

New forms of language, especially these spoken examples, will be rooted in an emerging social practice or function not adequately served by current language use. Some new forms pollute the language; most enrich it. Individuals or news organisations seeking to stand out will use many linguistic devices to make an impact. As competition for our attention increases, this linguistic creativity will only accelerate. Resistance of it is a futile denial of the world as it now exists.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Home truths about language learning

Following the rather negative tone of my piece a couple of days ago, yesterday I woke up and read about one woman and her organisation in the UK with just the kind of international outlook I think the country is severely lacking. Bernice McCabe, headmistress of a north London school, advocated in a speech delivered yesterday that, regarding languages, teachers should go beyond "functional phrasebook competence" for their students, and should bring the outside world into the classroom in order to encourage students to become global citizens. Amen to that! She also said that teachers should be "a thorn in the side of British insularity and reticence". I won't argue with that, either.

However, I am alarmed if schools are reluctant to offer language qualifications because top grades are considered harder to achieve in languages than in other subjects. Surely this would constitute a de facto dumbing down of education overall. This would then be exacerbated if language exams were also set and marked differently – an idea she also welcomed to increase the take-up of languages. But do those educating the next generation honestly believe that the best way to improve language learning, standards and global awareness is to seemingly make exams easier?

Learning languages may indeed be hard. But if you want to be a global citizen, or you want to move to a country whose language is not your own, or you need to engage with locals beyond your functional requirements as a tourist; you quickly learn about hard work, humility and assimilation. McCabe seemingly recognises that lessons in a cosy UK environment won't help you if you lack the vocabulary to tell a barber how you want him to cut your hair; or how to sidestep geographical questions about your home country when you haven't a clue. Besides linguistic competence, skills in politeness and an appreciation of other people's culture and preoccupations are also required. These aspects are not covered in course books! So further tinkering with language exams seems to me to be at odds with these crucial additional aspects McCabe alludes to.

I've voiced these views before, I know. But future generations need to understand the value of being able to live and work in a different language; how it at least puts them on a more equal footing with the millions globally who do the same; how it might help them avoid an economic recession in their home country (as in my case) and how it enables them to debunk myths and about their mother country abroad. Learning languages changes you personally. You learn to engage with people, to be flexible, think on your feet and adapt your outlook and behaviour. These are skills that are acquired – not taught – as result of living in and using another language over time.

So, Mrs McCabe, hello – is it me you're looking for? I'd love an opportunity to tell others about these real-world benefits of language learning on my return to the UK. Where do I sign?