Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things to get used to in Nebraska

1. Calculating with Quantum ESPRESSO
2. Getting on and off the bike gracefully
3. Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius
4. Crumpling (as opposed to folding) toilet paper
5. ~20 degrees C diurnal temperature variations
6. Paying by credit all the time
7. Daily Rosary (Thanks EWTN)
8. Wide, sprawling buildings
9. Time difference (-13 hours)
10. Local wildlife
11. Unholy opening hours of services
12. Thrift store shopping
13. Random acts of kindness

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The curious notion that one should not discover a dead thing and then leave without doing it some small service

Lehtisaari, 2013
In Halldór Laxness's 1935 novel Independent People, Guðbjartur Jónsson discovers the body of his son Helgi in the thawing snow. As the corpse is already in an advanced stage of decay, he could not recognise him. Out of a curious notion that one should not discover a dead thing and then leave without doing it some small service, Bjartur removes his right glove and throws it onto his son's body. Afterwards, he goes to his mother-in-law and asks her to knit a new one, and no more needs to be asked.

The idea of honouring the anonymous dead in this way came to mind again when I wandered the Helsinki suburbs one Summer afternoon. It was in the middle of the bike path at Lehtisaari where there lay a formless mass of bones and feathers. On the top of the pile lay a flower stalk. This arrangement had most likely not arisen by chance; I like to think that a passerby had placed the flowers over what was left of the bird, simply so that they would not be forgotten.

At the same time, in another forsaken corner of the world, Bjartur chances upon the faceless, nameless remains of a young man, and pay his homage with his right glove.

And since that time I have noticed the same practice repeated again for many of the times when I chance upon the carcases of a certain dead animal, in my own country no less. Only two weeks ago in school, at Mochtar Riady, I found what until recently used to be a bird with a very handsome green plumage. It lay, motionlessly and unobtrusively, at the base of the hedge. Here again someone had picked a handful of ixoras and scattered it over the creature. I picked a modest trumpetflower and added it to the shrine, and there these would stay until the rain or the janitors arrive.

Written 14 April 2015

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sobre mí barrio ideal

Näsåker, 2012
Mí barrio ideal es un pueblo en el norte de Sueca. Este pueblo está en un valle muy grande y muy precioso, y debajo hay un río realmente limpio. En este pueblo hay solo quiniento habitantes, porque en el norte no hay muchos gentes. Los habitantes son a menudo granjeros o pastores. Los casas son pequeños y algunos tienen techos de cespéd. Extrañamente, no hay caminos entre los casas. Quizás salen raramente.

A través del pueblo hay solo un calle, y le llamamos El Storgatan. Al lado del Storgatan hay un supermercado, un ayuntamiento, y una parada de autobús. El pueblo no está muy bien communicado, pero el autobús viene aquí todos los sábados, por llevar unos gentes al mundo.

Cada agosto, los habitantes del pueblo hacen un festival de música. Ahora, el pueblo tranquillo se hace mucho mas ruidoso. Los gentes llegan de Stockholm, de Sundsvall, de los otros ciudades del sur, y de los otros países también. No hay suficientes hoteles aquí, así que cada visitante tiene que levantar una tienda en alguna parte, pero en el bosque construyen tres etapas, un patio, y algunos puestos de comida.

De viernes a domingo, todos en el bosque bailan al ritmo de la música, se atiborran de comidas extrañas (par ejemplo: el pad thai sueco y el pad thai tailandés no son los mismos), o salen al lado del río. Nadie duerme por la noche, porque es demasiado frío.

[El lugar real en Google Maps]

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Valerio Learns Chinese: Part 2 - Grammar and Vocabulary

So it happens that 3 lessons and 1 holiday have passed since our last update and I am way overdue in writing Part 2. Issues regarding phonetics are largely settled, as there does not seem to be any more new thing that I have forgotten to mention. For lessons 2 to 4, Valerio learns some basic grammar and vocabulary.

A First Note
Foreign-language classes face a perennial dilemma in the sense that one can prioritise
1) Learning how to say or write anything in a language, or
2) Learning specific stock phrases for practical situations such as ordering dishes, shouting for help in emergencies, explaining yourself to the police, or flirting.

It is usual, at least in the courses that I have attended, to juggle both of these priorities according to the needs of each student. However, I am going to place some more weight on the former focus because
1) Valerio asked for it,
2) Grammar allows for a more flexible and therefore more formidable command of a language, and
3) If you rely on a phrasebook to flirt (for example) and then the conversation moves on to more specific things, then it becomes very awkward very quickly.

If unprepared, native speakers of Mandarin are in for a hard slog when they pick up a language such as French, German or Spanish, all of which are rich in grammatical artifacts like gender, declension of nouns according to case, conjugation of verbs according to pronoun, and tenses for actions that happened in the past, in the present, in the future, in the future but before an earlier-mentioned future event, a hypothetical past event after another hypothetical event further in the past, or suchlike. In contrast, Mandarin Chinese is blessedly free of such rules, and it becomes easy to write the language off as something grammarless. That said, I shall prove this wrong shortly.

Scope of Grammar: Copula, simple verbs, phrasal verbs, negation, tenses, imperative voice, passive voice, questions, conjunctions, sentence structure, subordinate clauses

The idea of lessons 2 to 5 two was to teach the bare skeleton of the language in the hope that it becomes something like a form into which you can just fill in the blanks to suit any purpose, which is fine if you don't try to be too adventurous. Let's try an example:

我是人 - I am a human being
This is a copula sentence. We learn here that 是 is the Mandarin from of "=".
Now for the case that I = cat, we say: 我是猫 - I am a cat
Or for the case that I = police officer: 我是警察 - I am a police officer

Suppose you are neither a cat nor a police officer. In this case we use the character 不 for negation:

There is a second noun that means "to be" in Mandarin. This could be a problem for English, French or German native speakers, who can then go and run to the Swedish and Spanish speakers for help, because both of the latter also have two such nouns roughly corresponding to the Chinese:
是 (to be a thing, to be equivalent to) ≈ Ser ≈ Vara
在 (to be somewhere, to be doing something) ≈ Estar ≈ Finnas

The negation for "to have" is trickier because it uses a different character, 没. For example:
有钱 - I don't have money; not *我不有钱

The negation of an imperative verb is also different:
走开!不要走开/走开! - Go away! Don't go away! not *不走开

On top of these, we seem to run into a special class of verbs whose negations go in the middle:
上去! - Go up! (Go-up away)
我上去。 - I can go up. (I go-up ~DE away)
我上去。 - I can't go up. (I go-up not away)

As a student of Spanish I am extremely grateful that the language has a single word "no" that can negate anything. For a person without that special sixth sense that Mandarin speakers possess by virtue of having grown up speaking the language, it probably has to be taught case by painstaking case.

I forgot to mention that despite not having tenses, Mandarin has a way of dealing with time:
我以前  来这里。 - I've been here before (I in-the-past come ~GUO here)
我以后去  那里。 - I will go there in the future (I in-the-future ~HUI go there)

The way one asks a yes/no question is also unique, but this is a less surprising thing for Mandarin as many languages seem to do so each in their own way.
English: You are a cat. Are you a cat? (Word order change)
French: Tu es un chat. Est-ce que tu es un chat? / Es-tu un chat? (Added phrase "est-ce que" in front to indicate a yes/no question. Alternatively, a word order change can also be used)
Spanish: Eres un gato. ¿Eres un gato? (Inflection change)
Finnish: Olet kissa. Oletko kissa? (Suffix -ko on verb to indicate yes/no question)
Mandarin: 你是猫。你是猫?/你是不是猫?(Literally: You are cat ~MA? You are are-not cat? The first one uses a particle, the second presents both yes and no options)

Scope of vocabulary: Basic action verbs, modals, positions, words specific to (Valerio's) everyday life, time (days of the week, months, date, time of day, relative time), numbers and quantifiers

Here, we treat knowledge of vocabulary as a repository of words to fill in the blanks in a grammatical scaffold. Here, some sense of priority is needed. One of the first verbs that I learned while learning French was "pendre la crémaillère", which means to throw a housewarming party. Having no occasion to ever pendre la crémaillère or to see someone else do it afterwards, this figure of speech fell into disuse. For want of efficiency, the most commonly-used and relevant vocabulary should be taught first.

I relate to my first attempt to learn Indonesian six years ago, when my army unit held an exchange with the Indonesians. We were given a crash course of two to three weeks in the language, and then sent into the country to talk to the locals. Our Indonesian buddies were supposedly also trained in English to prepare for our visit, but they gave up the moment we tried our Indonesian on them. The period of the exercise was slightly over one week, so we had to learn the language in a hurry. How I eventually did it was:

1. Go out and talk
2. Find something which I don't know the word for (e.g. I need the word for "sometimes")
3. Ask the Indonesians for the word (they say "kadang-kadang")
4. During rest time, read up on and learn all related terms (jarang = seldom; selalu = always; sering = often)

In this way, acquiring vocabulary became intimately coupled with what I needed in my day-to-day doings. Much of the vocabulary taught in Lesson 4 relied on the experience of trying to answer questions like these in small talk:
- Where are you going now? - - We are going outside (keluar) -
- What time is it? - - It is now 1 p.m. (jam satu) -
- When will you be going home? - - Next Tuesday (selasa depan) -

In the lesson notes, the diagrams that I used in the joint exercise were duly and accordingly revised to teach the Mandarin equivalents of the vocabulary.

As anyone who is learning a new language would know, learning words for communicating politeness and good intentions is a key component of not getting murdered by a mob in a foreign land. I think Valerio knows most of it already, but maybe he can learn them again in a future lesson. Meanwhile, I had better sign off before I get too carried away and try to write down every single topic in this update.