Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Day in the Life of a Language Student by Francesca

  © 2012 

A pleasant way to learn French

It is three o' clock on a Thursday afternoon.  I'm sitting in my dressing gown, writing an e-mail to my cousin. However, I don't feel as if this lounging around the house is totally unproductive and indulgent.  I'm busy listening to French radio as I'm writing.  This has always been one of the great benefits of studying foreign languages.  The act of studying can take many forms, from passive studying like listening to France Inter on the radio while writing waffly e-mails, to more active forms, such as meeting French friends in the pub, and again engaging in waffle en français bien sûr!

The conscientious language student should try to make use of different media forms in their study.  With this in mind, a few hours later, two friends and I are at a showing of a film called Les Plages d'Agnès about the life and work of the surrealist French film-maker and photographer Agnès Varda. There must be a grand total of twelve people who have come to the vast auditorium for the film.  The three of us sit in the back row, eating biscuits and chocolate-covered peanuts, and skitting at the film.  It is genuinely funny.  At one stage there is a clip of  Agnès Varda lying Cleopatra-like on the beach, in an enormous beautifully coloured tent in the shape of a whale.  She explains that she was influenced by the story of Jonah and the Whale and says that she feels safe in the belly of the whale!  Later in the film, there is another clip of her dressed in a very strange brown costume.  She explains quite frankly, and with the lovely logic of a surrealist, that she has decided to dress as a talking potato in order to draw people in to an exhibition of her photography.  In one of the final scenes of the film Agnès Varda is collecting brushes, and shows us a collection of about eighty. We laugh delightedly thinking of the old saying ''as daft as a brush''.    

Surreal, slightly daft, amusing and with some beautiful cinematography, Les Plages d'Agnès is well worth seeing.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable film, and a good evening's study! 

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Green Maze

From Madelaine Nerson Mac Namara, for Cork Non Fiction Writers'Group, 13.06.2013


Green bean stalks hurl
Swirling arrows
Aimed at the sky
Sink shallow roots
In hope of ground   
Balancing act
The knotted rope
Trapeze and rings.

The bean pickers
Crouch low, fold forward
Anchor their hips.
Their heads twist up
Bob, roll, seek the angle
That will spotlight
Through the green maze
The green treasure. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Very Empty Seat by Victor Sullivan

     © 2013
A student pilot's first solo flight.

How often have you seen an empty seat? I mean totally empty, utterly empty, terminally empty?
I have. Once. I'll never forget the occasion. It happened half a century ago but every detail is vividly etched in my memory.

It began with a simple wish, desire, ambition, a decision and finally, action. I would learn to fly.
I signed up, paid the fee, bought the books, studied, learned a great deal and pleased my instructor who provided one-to-one practical tuition and who sat beside me on my hour-long training sessions, all of which I found thoroughly enjoyable and exciting. I was making really good progress, I was becoming intuitive my instructor informed me. 

On one memorable day, following the routine preparation, pre-flight checks and engine warmup time, I communicated with the Control Tower and received permission for EI-AMF, ('Mike Fox' in aviation terminology), to taxi to the end of runway 35 at Cork Airport for another training session. With my trusted flying instructor beside me I prepared for take-off, moved forward and aligned the aircraft with the centre-line of runway 35. We waited with engine ticking over. 
"Mike-Fox you have permission to take-off" crackled the message from the Control Tower. I reached for the throttle only to have my hand grasped by my instructor. 
"Wait! Let me out first."
He opened the cockpit door and stepped onto the runway. "Off you go! Good luck! You're on your own for just one circuit!" he added as he closed the door.
Adrenaline production went into overdrive, pulse rate tripled, I was invincible. I opened the throttle and with engine roaring, accelerated along the centre-line of Runway 35, getting faster and faster, the rumbling of the wheels on the concrete adding to the noise level. I reached take-off speed, pressed gently back on the control column and the vibrating contribution from the wheels was hushed. I was airborne. I flew straight and level for a little longer to pick up more speed then began to climb. The airport buildings and control tower fell away behind me. I was applying everything I had learned as and when necessary, confident in my mastery of my new skills.

Independence! Freedom! A break from the bonds of gravity! This is what humans had longed to do for millions of years, to fly like the birds. Now I was doing it, even if only for one circuit of the airport. 
Time to turn right; bank gently, turn ninety degrees, maintain altitude, perfectly executed. Keep a lookout for other aircraft, (even though I knew the next plane due hadn't even left London).
I was ecstatic, enjoying my utter independence in this three dimensional environment. Monarch of all I surveyed; from that place and time it meant the entire city of Cork, its vast Harbour and environs with the shimmering river Lee winding its way through the lush scenery that was spread out below me. All too soon it was time to start my next turn to the right onto the next leg of my circuit.
That was the moment when I caught sight of the instructor's seat beside me. It was empty, utterly, utterly EMPTY!!!!!! It was the emptiest seat I had ever seen .... and I was alone, very alone, up there in the clear blue sky, flying a light aircraft at 120 miles per hour with the altimeter indicating 1,200 feet.  I completed the right angle turn and flew parallel to the main runway from which I had taken off a couple of minutes earlier but I was now going in the opposite direction. I had to get back to the other end from where I had begun my takeoff and land on that tiny strip of concrete that seemed to have become far smaller than it had ever been before. The seat beside me continued to be life-threatingly empty. 
That was when I experienced one of those Moments of Truth spoken of by the Great Philosophers: I would have to land this aircraft by myself, just me, alone. No other human on the planet could land it for me, there was no point in expecting help from anyone, not from my flying instructor, my mother, St. Patrick, the Wright brothers, the angel Gabriel or God. It was simply up to me, in my sublime isolation, to land the plane intact and undamaged with me inside it, equally undamaged.

Another thought rose momentarily to prominence. There would be watchers, Control Tower staff, casual observers in the passenger terminal, plane spotters, my anxious flying instructor and Aero Club fellow members, all watching my first solo landing, ready to declare it a mere solo 'arrival' if it was anything other than a perfect landing.
Concentrate Victor! The seat beside me was still extremely empty and that miniscule patch of concrete down there was where I would have to land this machine.
One more right turn and it would be time to alert the Air Traffic Controller with: "Mike Fox turning finals."
"Mike Fox you are clear to land."
I turned 90 degrees and was on my final approach towards the rapidly growing runway.

Photo by the author but not taken on the same occasion!

 I flew steadily towards the white line painted down the centre of runway 35. Engine ticking over, airspeed correct, glide-path correct, wings level, over the painted stripes of the runway threshold, steady, hold off..... let it sink.... keep it straight ... steady... both wheels kiss the concrete gently and simultaneously without even a hint of a bounce... slow down now, keep straight...  gentle brake pressure. A perfect landing! I have flown solo! I can fly a plane all by myself! Euphoria! 
I brought Mike Fox almost to a stop, then turned around carefully and taxied back sedately and proudly to the the Munster Aero Club's premises, there to be met and congratulated by my instructor and a press photographer, Roy Hammond. 

The author after his first solo flight. Photo by the late Roy Hammond
While walking from the aircraft to the Clubhouse my euphoria was suddenly quenched:  It is customary to buy a round of drinks for everyone in the Aero Club bar on completing one's first solo flight. Had I enough cash in my pocket? Not having expected to fly solo that day, I hadn't a bean. The photographer came to my rescue and offered me a loan. Many years later his son married my daughter.

Learning Chinese in America

Learning Chinese in America         by Marie Guillot
©  May 2013  
Graphic © by Marie Guillot

When we received the Company memo offering a 40-hour Mandarin language course, I was thrilled. In the past, I had been trying to learn Chinese with tapes, without much success, (actually, none at all).

Shortly after that, twenty-four employees are gathered around the table of the conference room, with one brave teacher, Zhang Xian Sheng. He is a young man from Shanghai, presently studying engineering in the USA, and sent to our factory by the internationally acclaimed Berlitz School.
Per the Berlitz method, we are to use only Chinese words during the class. The idea is to acquire only comprehension and spoken language, not reading and writing. The teacher must encourage the students to practice the new words immediately, while preventing them from using their English.
To explain, he uses repetition and gestures, printed images and objects from the room, until we understand and repeat. Then, he asks simple questions, expecting simple (but correct) answers. Politely, but also blatantly and consistently, he ignores any English word that may be heard across the room; a very efficient deterrent indeed.

Being capable of saying The blue book is on the table fills us with a sense of high magnitude achievement. I have a pen in my right hand and three plus five equals eight come next, with the same eagerness from the group. 
Xian Sheng keeps going: My yellow airplane is bigger than your red car and We are all sitting around the table; some of us are American, some are not.

These complex constructions may sound advanced, but the basic Chinese grammar is simple enough and there are no articles or conjugations. At our level, all it takes is the association of nouns, adjectives and verbs, mostly a matter of vocabulary.
However, as the weeks are passing by, our little group is shrinking. You really have to be strongly motivated to pursue the effort. Six of us stay on, faithfully suffering the ordeal. At that point we each get a book. 
The text is presented in Pinyin, the international phonetic system transcribing Chinese characters into Latin letters since 1982. This book is a welcome novelty, adding effective written exercises and breaking the established routine of the class.

What now about the real world? For us in the class, the real world is in the next lab: two employees from the Taiwan Branch of the Company have recently arrived for extended training. We go and try out our recent knowledge on them.
A cruel disillusion awaits us and dampens our enthusiasm; maybe they are not really Chinese at all, maybe they are spies? How come that our teacher understands everything we say so well, while those Asian newcomers seem so puzzled, even suspicious, as to what we seem to expect from them?

A few more weeks and we learn the meals, the time, the weather, the family, the days and the months. The teacher keeps asking questions and we keep answering. 
But now, with all these words accumulated in our heads, he may be sometimes taken aback by our answers. Recovering quickly every time, Xian Sheng explains and asks, again and again. His patience is infinite, which must be a pre-requisite for Berlitz teachers. We students are happily juggling with those answers, enjoying each other mistakes tremendously.

For sure, when we will visit Chinese factories our overseas colleagues will get information about the colour of our pens and cars, about the size of our chairs and beds, and we can ask then how many brothers they have and their respective ages. 
But, is there anything else one needs to know, really?

At the end of the 10 weeks, one of us reads an excerpt (in English) from Barron's Traveler Language Guide, Mandarin
"The Chinese are delighted when foreigners try to speak their language. They will try their best to understand you, even if your pronunciation is close to unintelligible, and probably even compliment you on your excellent command of Chinese to boot. You need not take such flattering compliments too seriously; they are simply the Chinese way of expressing appreciation of your efforts."