Interview with Alexandra Turner – translator, writer, editor
Alex left her London life a few months ago to go and travel around the world. She is passionate about culture and languages and has traveled to 26 countries up to now. At the moment she lives in Stockholm, Sweden (and we deeply envy her for that).
EuroTalk: What made you start learning languages?
I started learning German and French when I started secondary school because it was compulsory. Straight away I loved both of them and they became my favourite lessons. Outside of school I was interested in watching movies or looking at books in those languages and continuing to learn (I know, so geeky!). Then two years later I started to study Spanish too as an optional subject for GCSE (the exams we do aged 16) and I loved that too – my lessons made me think about sunny Spain instead of depressing London 😛 I was starting to get pretty interested in languages so I also took Japanese lessons after school (again, yes, I was a geek…) So I kept on with those language for a few years. I started learning Italian just two years ago because I met my boyfriend who’s Italian, so I learned just by listening to him talking, by watching Italian TV with him and later on by going to Italy. Finally my other language is Ukrainian, which I started learning because I was living in L’viv, Ukraine, and I really needed the language to get around day to day.
ET: What gives you motivation to continue learning?
To be honest I mostly learn for fun. I am really fascinated by languages, how they are different and yet sometimes similar. If I have spare time I am as likely to grab one of my language apps or watch a foreign movie as I am to surf Facebook or watch TV. And in fact if I DO surf Facebook, Twitter etc, half my feed is in other languages anyway.
I also learn for work because I’m a translator and I feel like I need to keep improving. And travelling of course is a motivation because I need languages for practical things.
ET: What do you find to be most rewarding about language learning?
Earning money is one thing! But the best feeling ever is navigating a practical situation using one of your languages, or having a real conversation for the first (or second, third…) time. I get so psyched when I talk to an Italian person and they actually understand what I’m saying. Or just doing something simple like buying some tomatoes at the market in Ukraine, I feel pretty cool!
ET: What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Loads! When I was at school I found grammar boring and I just wanted to learn loads of words (I was pretty naïve!!) So later on my grammar was a total mess and I had to go back and try to put it into place. So I still have a pretty terrible knowledge of some fundamental things like genders in German, which can only be fixed by hard, hard study later on. So if you want to reach a decent level in a language, I recommend to get the grammar in place ASAP, which I’ve done with Ukrainian (older and wiser) and it’s helped soooo much. Also I now find grammar amazing, like doing a Sudoku puzzle 😀
Another challenge is that I am shy and afraid of speaking to new people in new languages. This is incredibly hard to overcome, but the only solution is, like Nike says, Just Do it! Start with easier situations like buying a beer or a stamp and progress to harder ones. Or stick yourself in an environment where you are forced to use the language. For me that’s spending time with my boyfriend’s family who speak NO English, or by living in Ukraine where many people know no English at all. Another helpful thing is to organise a language exchange or find a conversation teacher/partner who will give you one on one help. You gain confidence just by doing it over and over and over…
ET: Tell us your favourite word/expression in your favourite language.
Wow there are so many! There are loads of amazing expressions in Italian although most of them are too rude to write here now… The best things are the gestures, there’s a funny one you can do to show that you’re being left alone or ditched, where you make the shape of an artichoke (for some reason…) with your hand. In German I like the expression ‘das geht mir auf den Keks’ – ‘it gets on my biscuit’, which means something annoys you. I also really like using the word ‘pobrecito’ (poor thing) in Spanish whenever I’m being sarcastically sympathetic to someone.
ET: Any funny/weird/awkward situation that happened with a native or another speaker?
Too many awkward situations to count. At the moment I keep accidentally using Spanish words when I speak Italian, which is quite awkward when people stare at me and say ‘what does that mean?’ In Ukraine I had silly situations every day, such as trying to order food and having to make animal noises when I didn’t know the name of the type of meat, for example. Luckily people found it fun rather than being annoyed. Also I’d get really annoyed when I went into a продукти to buy milk or bread – I’d so proud that I’d remembered the right words, then they would ask me some silly question like ‘which type of bread?’ which I clearly had no chance of answering. Last time it happened, I replied to the woman ‘Я не знаю’ (I don’t know) in exasperation, and she laughed at me for about five minutes…
Today’s guest post is by Joe Paterson, a student at Keats School in China. Joe explains Chinese chengyu, which are absolutely fascinating and a perfect example of why we love languages so much – they’re all so unique and interesting. Do any Chinese speakers have more examples – or does the language you’re learning have an equivalent?
Each language has its own idiomatic richness. English is full of proverbs, sayings and odd phrases like ‘Bob’s yer uncle’. Chinese is no exception. When you learn Chinese in China, you will definitely come across all kinds of interesting and creative ways of saying and expressing things. 土包子 (tubaozi/earth steamed-bun) means a country bumpkin or someone with backward or poor taste, and to wear 绿帽子 (lv maozi/ green cap) means to be cuckolded. But perhaps the most uniquely Chinese idioms are 成语 (chengyu).
Chengyu are four character phrases that can be thrown into daily conversation but will throw up a wealth of meaning and significance to the interlocutor. Some of these phrases seem quite bizarre without a context, but many have a background story which explains the meaning and also conjures up images that reinforce the word’s meaning.
The first chengyu we will look at is 东施效颦 (Dongshixiaopin/ Dong Shi effect frown). The literal translation is altogether puzzling but a native speaker would instantly know the meaning to be to imitate someone but have the opposite to the desired effect. It is only when we know the background story to the saying that we can fully comprehend it. The story goes that there was a beautiful girl named Xi Shi in the ancient Yue state who was admired by everyone in the village. However Dong Shi, another girl, was ugly and could never command attention. One day when Xi Shi fell ill she walked out of the door holding her hand to her breast, her face contorted in pain. All the villagers were concerned at her trouble and pain. Seeing this, Dong Shi attempted to imitate her mannerism. But when the villagers saw such a grotesque sight they were repulsed and ran away.
Nowadays people might use 东施效颦 to describe someone blindly imitating a pop star’s outfit, only to be ridiculed themselves for looking stupid. Or, someone plagiarising another’s business idea only to find themselves go bankrupt.
The second chengyu is 刻舟求剑 (ke zhou qiu jian/mark boat search sword) which means to pursue a goal despite changing circumstances that should be considered, or, in short, being stubborn in a foolish pursuit.
The phrase comes from a story where a man drops his beloved sword into a river. He marks the side of the boat to show where the sword fell in. Once at the shore he dives back in to find the sword but to no avail. Of course between marking the boat and getting to the shore the boat has moved downstream. An example of when his phrase could be used might be if someone insists in investing in a certain product even if research shows that the product might not sell.
Other phrases are not strictly chengyu but are made up in the same structure and used in daily speech, even though most people may not know the exact origin of the term.
乱七八糟 (luan qi ba zao/confusion seven eight pickle) is a word used to describe anything messy and unorganised, from a bedroom to the way in which someone does something. The phrase actually originates from a late Qing dynasty novel by Zeng Pu, in which he describes the way craftsmen used to keep their workshops in a 乱七八糟 state.
Many common chengyu may not have such an interesting background but serve to colour the language with images that are created by the visual characters themselves or their meaning. 自讨苦吃 (zi tao ku chi/ self ask for bitter eat) provides an image for the idea to ‘ask for trouble’ and 利欲熏心 (li yu xunxin/ profit desire smoke heart) would be the equivalent of the English phrase ‘blinded by greed’, but creates an interesting image of the desire for profit creating a vapour masking the heart.
The ability to use chengyu well is very much admired in China and so it is well worth trying to improve one’s own use and trying to learn more. After a while some chengyu become so natural to explain a certain scenario or situation that sometimes they even surpass one’s own mother tongue equivalent word or phrase. Taking a Chinese language course from a professional language school could help to establish one’s linguistic and cultural foundation to be able to understand and use chengyus in a versatile way.
Joe Paterson (Keats School)