À la table du seigneur… 

Travailler sur des romans historiques m’a permis d’en apprendre beaucoup sur les habitudes culinaires de nos ancêtres. Certes, les romans que je traduis se déroulent surtout dans l’Écosse médiévale, mais pas toujours, et au plaisir de la découverte et de la plongée dans une certaine couleur locale se sont ajoutés la difficulté de surmonter certains écueils ainsi qu’un travail de recherche terminologique plutôt conséquent.

 

Banquet
Source : Stevie-B, Banquet, CC : https://flic.kr/p/myJot

Un festin de groupe dans la grande salle

Ce qui m’a d’abord marquée est que tout le monde prend son repas ensemble dans la salle d’apparat où viennent parfois jouer des acteurs et jongleurs itinérants ou des musiciens (luth, harpe, pipeau…). L’espace peut rapidement se libérer en démontant les tables qui sont de simples plateaux de bois montés sur tréteaux et assortis aux bancs grossiers, parfois ornés de gravures, sur lesquels on s’assied. Les chaises étaient considérées comme un luxe et on ne les utilisait pas pour prendre son repas. À la limite, un tabouret pouvait faire l’affaire.

Le seigneur et ses proches ou ses invités de marque prennent place sur une estrade faisant face aux tables du bas et généralement surmontée d’un dais. Dans certains romans, l’estrade n’existe pas, mais le dais marque la séparation entre les gens “du haut” et les autres.

Dans les foyers plus modestes ou dans certaines familles, on mange dans la pièce à vivre, à son bureau ou au beau milieu de sa chambre à coucher, l’usage des pièces n’étant pas établi comme à l’heure actuelle.

Un tranchoir ?

Quel concept étrange, et cela même si je vis en Norvège, le pays du sandwich “ouvert” qui ne présente qu’une seule tranche de pain sur laquelle s’étale la garniture. C’est un peu la même chose. Les assiettes modernes n’existant pas, on pose sa nourriture sur un tailloir, une plaque de bois ou de métal, selon sa position sociale. Le tranchoir constitue la base du plat, sur lequel on dispose le reste des aliments, que l’on découpe avec son couteau personnel et que l’on mange avec les doigts, la fourchette étant plutôt une sorte de brochette commune qui sert à attraper les aliments dans le plat. À cet égard, il est d’ailleurs important de se laver les mains avant et après le repas et de faire preuve de civilité, puisque les ustensiles sont utilisés par tous, y compris le verre, que l’on partage parfois avec son voisin.

Pour l’anecdote, j’ai rencontré dans un de mes romans l’expression anglaise qui se traduit littéralement par “ouvrir des yeux grands comme des tranchoirs” (à comprendre : comme des soucoupes – très anachronique) et j’ai hésité entre conserver le petit trait d’humour et ajouter une note ou bien modifier l’expression (en remplaçant les tranchoirs par des ronds de charrette). J’ai opté pour la deuxième option.

Dans un autre livre, la romancière avait utilisé le mot plate (assiette) dans le texte source, alors que l’objet n’était pas usité à l’époque. Puisque le plat en question était du haggis, plat écossais s’il en est, ma correctrice et moi l’avons traduit par écuelle, qui était, avec la cuillère en bois qui l’accompagne, un des objets de base de la table médiévale.

Scandinavian Pie
Source : Vrangtante Brun, Pie, CC : https://flic.kr/p/6yPj3z

Du gibier à tout va

Si dans les maisons privées, les personnages de romans se nourrissent de haggis, de tartes, ou encore de pain et de fromage, au domaine des lairds, on consomme du gibier (sanglier, cerf, faisan…). Les plats sont souvent en sauce et les fruits secs ont la part belle. Les pâtés sont également des incontournables de la table médiévale.

Le matin, on consomme du jambon, du pain, du beurre, des œufs… mais en temps de disette ou comme cela se produit lors de certaines histoires, les personnages sont contraints d’engloutir des écuelles entières de bouillie d’avoine (le fameux porridge), à peine égayées de quelques fruits secs.

Pensez-y la prochaine fois que vous lirez une scène de banquet et… bon appétit, bien sûr !

 

Quelques liens pour en apprendre plus

http://www.lecerclemedieval.be/histoire/A-table-au-Moyen-age.html

http://voyageurs-du-temps.fr/Comment-dresser-la-table-d-un-repas-banquet-festin-avec-recettes-de-cuisine-moyen-age-medieval_868.html

http://www.la-cour-des-saveurs.com/fr/75-mettre-la-table-au-moyen-age

 

 

 

La B.O. des Demoiselles des Highlands 

La première série écossaise de Tanya Anne Crosby, Les Demoiselles des Highlands, contient de nombreuses chansons ou mélodies traditionnelles, vieilles de plusieurs siècles et dont les paroles ont évolué au fil du temps, notamment selon le contexte politique.

J’ai souvent écouté ces mélodies pendant que je traduisais ces romans historiques, et je vous propose aujourd’hui de faire de même, grâce à ces quelques vidéos.

L’Épouse du MacKinnon

Capturée par le sauvage Iain MacKinnon et répudiée par son père, Page se retrouve sans foyer au milieu d’une bande de Highlanders revêches dont elle ne comprend pas toujours la langue. Quand le petit Malcom lui demande de lui chanter une berceuse, elle se souvient d’une chanson que lui chantonnait son amie écossaise, mais dont elle ne connait pas les paroles en langue scots. Pris par le moment, les hommes se mettent bien vite à l’accompagner, qui en chantant, qui à la flûte, et cette mélodie entêtante projette dans l’esprit d’Iain une vision qui pourrait lui révéler le terrible secret qui entoure la mort de sa mère.

Il s’agit de la balade “Hush Ye, My Bairnie”, interprétée dans la vidéo suivante par Bok, Muir and Trickett sur leur album de 1980.

Le Cadeau de Lyon

Meghan Brodie est belle mais revêche, et lorsqu’elle est capturé par ce Sassenach de Lyon Montgomerie, qui n’a rien à faire dans cette portion des Highlands, elle n’hésite pas à lui faire savoir exactement ce qu’elle pense de ses machinations en se faisant passer pour folle afin de dissuader de l’épouser.

Grimpant sur l’une des plus hautes poutres de la grande salle, elle se met à chanter à tue-tête une chanson pourtant si jolie mais qu’elle n’hésite pas à massacrer.

Il s’agit ici d’une chanson dont les paroles ont évolué au fil du temps, mais qui était en vogue au milieu du XVIIe siècle. On dit notamment que c’était l’une des mélodies favorites du roi Henri VIII. Le poème original s’intitulait “Will Yow Walke the Woods soe Wylde” et a été écrit par Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Il existe plusieurs arrangements, dont voilà l’un des plus modernes, intitulé “All for Love of One” et interprété par les Mediæval Babes.

À Genoux devant elle

Seana a passé toute sa vie aux côtés son père dans la pauvreté d’un cairn humide et délabré. Marquée par une infirmité de naissance qu’elle a réussi à surmonter, elle en veut terriblement à Colin mac Brodie, le plus grand séducteur de la Scotia, de l’avoir repoussée si durement lorsqu’elle était petite. Misant tous ses espoirs sur Broc, qu’elle voudrait épouser, elle cherche pourtant refuge au manoir des Brodie à la mort de son père.

Assise dans le brouillard du soir, vêtue de la robe de Meghan et maquillée par Allison, elle chante sa peine, ignorant que Colin l’écoute à bonne distance.

Très anachronique, sa mélodie est un air de cornemuse dédié à la cause jacobite par Donald MacCrimmon, et qui préfigure la déroute du clan MacLeod à Culloden, bataille auquel le compositeur ne survivra pas. La version suivante, très épurée, est interprétée par Barbara Dickson.

Une mélodie des Highlands

Gavin mac Brodie a pris la décision de quitter le manoir familial et de commencer une nouvelle vie en solitaire, ce qui lui permettra, il l’espère, de retrouver la foi. Mais c’est alors qu’il fait la rencontre de Cat, une femme picte peinte en bleue. Retournant vers la maison qu’il construit et espérant revoir la mystérieuse jeune femme, il chante une chanson que lui a enseignée sa grand-mère et dont il ne connait que le premier couplet.

Il s’agit de “Westron Wynde”, une chanson anonyme aux paroles séculaires dont la mélodie a servi de base à des cantiques et à des chansons à vocation religieuse. Son origine remonte probablement à la moitié du XVIe siècle.

La version suivante est interprétée par Francesco Barbieri.

Bonus : L’espoir des MacKinnon

Dans l’esprit d’un Conte de Noël de Charles Dickens, Hugh FitzSimon reçoit la visite de l’esprit de sa défunte épouse qui lui montre ce qui a été, ce qui est et ce qui sera s’il ne tente pas de corriger ses erreurs.

Abandonné par tous dans son manoir glacé, Hugh n’a qu’une envie : retrouver son lit, mais c’est sans compter sur une mélodie qui se fait entendre dans le solarium. Gagnant la pièce à pas de loup, il voit une lumière éblouissante émerger de la pièce et une silhouette de femme qui semble bercer un enfant près du feu tout en lui chantant une mélodie qu’il a toujours trouvée irritante et sirupeuse.

Hum, il semblerait qu’il s’agisse ici d’un léger anachronisme, puisque l’origine de “Greensleeves” serait en réalité élisabéthaine, mais il s’agit d’une des mélodies des temps anciens les plus reconnaissables, reprise par de nombreux artistes et référencée dans de nombreuses œuvres populaires, de Shakespeare aux Beatles. La rumeur voudrait aussi que l’écriture de cette chanson ait été commanditée par le monarque Henri VIII en l’honneur de son épouse Anne Boleyn.

La version suivante est interprétée par Méav Ní Mhaolchatha.

Lass : la fameuse jeune fille écossaise

Si vous avez la chance d’être bilingue et que vous avez lu en V.O. quelques romances historiques se déroulant en Scotia, vous avez certainement remarqué cette étrange épithète : lass (ou lassie), qui se retrouve dans la bouche de tous les Scots dès qu’ils sont en présence d’une femme. S’il s’agit simplement d’un terme écossais des plus communs pour désigner une jeune fille ou une jeune femme, sa fréquence et surtout son emploi sont parfois déroutants pour les lecteurs de traduction en langue française. Il semblerait donc que quelques explications soient nécessaires.

30044737415_030c1671c9_z
Source : Flickr, Tatters, Old Scotland, CC : https://flic.kr/p/MLX8G4

Une étrange apostrophe

Philippe Safavi, le traducteur d’Outlander de Diana Gabaldon, le dit lui-même : quand on essaye de rendre les particularités du parler écossais en français, notamment en piochant dans nos accents régionaux pour en recréer l’impression, cela peut parfois devenir un peu “plouc”. Incompatible donc avec la romance… Alors que faire ?

Utilisé comme apostrophe, lass peut faire penser au “ma belle” dont nous affublent volontiers les Sudistes ou à “ma petite dame”, mais sans connotation de classe ou d’origine paysanne. Plus familièrement, on pourrait aussi le comparer au “femme !” qu’utilisent parfois certains hommes envers leurs épouses ou tout autre personnage féminin (surtout quand celles-ci les contrarient, n’est-ce pas ?). Certes, c’est sexiste et horripilant, mais pour la petite histoire, quand j’habitais à Glasgow, j’ai été surprise de m’entendre interpeller à longueurs de phrases par des inconnus qui me disaient man. Mate (mon pote) me fait déjà grincer des dents, alors un changement de sexe imposé…

Dernière remarque. Attention, comme l’ont suggéré certaines lectrices dans leurs critiques en ligne, le terme ne possède aucune notion affective (bien au contraire, puisqu’on en infère que les locuteurs n’utilisent ni une formule de politesse, ni le prénom de la personne), et n’est pas non plus un surnom. Il s’agit simplement d’un de ces tics de langue auxquels on ne peut pas couper.

Quelques astuces pour le traducteur de romans écossais

La solution de facilité, et qui aurait également l’avantage d’expliciter cet usage et de mieux faire connaître la culture écossaise, serait d’ajouter une explication. Deux choix : insérer une note de traduction après le premier usage de l’expression “jeune fille”, ou bien conserver le terme lass en italique tout au long du texte, après une explication initiale sur son utilisation si particulière.

Dans une optique cibliste et pour rendre la lecture plus aisée, on peut tenter d’en diminuer la fréquence en rendant le propos plus formel ou, au contraire, plus personnel, en prenant en compte les relations entre les interlocuteurs. Par exemple, si l’un des guerriers du groupe s’adresse à l’héroïne de haute naissance, on pourra le remplacer par “Mademoiselle”. D’un autre côté, si c’est un prêtre âgé qui est touché par la détresse d’une pauvre prisonnière, sa bienveillance sera mise en valeur si l’on traduit lass par “ma jeune dame” ou une formule de ce genre.  Ce ne sont que quelques exemples. Libre à vous d’en trouver d’autres et de m’en faire part ; je serais curieuse de connaître vos petits trucs.

Cela étant, je ne suis pas forcément partisane du changement trop violent ou de la suppression pure et simple, mais les chroniques de lecteurs passionnés et familiers du genre soulignent souvent que l’usage répété de “jeune fille” ou “jeune femme” au sein de la narration est perçu comme lourd, incorrect (encore pire !), ou parfois même niais, alors qu’en langue anglaise et pour les gens qui ont, comme moi, vécu en Écosse, il s’agit d’une des marques de fabrique du dialecte écossais.

 

mackinnon
Page, ma première héroïne écossaise, se prêtant d’autant plus à l’emploi continu de “lass” qu’elle ne possède pas vraiment de prénom (elle occupe les fonctions de page du château).

En conclusion, il est important d’écouter les remarques des lecteurs du genre qui sont peut-être habitués aux romances ayant subi le traitement Harlequin, destiné à faciliter la lecture d’un texte cible que la traduction a rendu parfaitement lisse, et ce, peut-être, au détriment de la couleur locale. D’un autre côté, il est bon d’informer les lecteurs, car la plongée dans un contexte historique ne passe pas seulement par un respect des costumes ou bien des us de l’époque, mais également par certains tics de langage, aussi déroutants qu’ils puissent paraître.

 

Pour aller plus loin :

Cliquez ici pour lire une fantastique interview du traducteur Philippe Safavi sur Outlander France.

 

 

 

 

 

Making decisions in literary translation: translating dialects

Translating is a lot like solving an enigma or a riddle, or even reading a crime book with a pencil and a pad of paper at hand, trying to guess who did it. Though one might argue that there are no right or wrong answers for an experienced translator, only an enlightened decision, making the right choice of word, or finding the best solution to the original clue, if you want, can be of capital importance to the success of the book.

On the topic of historical novels or dialects

“Aye, pray thee, bonnie lassie, dinna ye ken wot that mon is sayin’?” Errr, probably no more than a translator who has not lived in Scotland, no. And what about those historical novels that take you to the Southern States before the Civil War? Or take one of my translations, featuring a main character that could barely speak English when she moved to America, prompting the novelist to write all her dialogues in a broken mix of English and Spanish that I was, for a moment, at a loss to translate.

There are several choices translators can make to allow their readers to grasp the feeling that, let’s say, a dialect or an archaic language is being spoken, without it being too strenuous on the eyes nor obtrusive.

Though not a favourite amongst translators of fiction, as it slows down the reading process, is the option of inserting a translator’s note at the bottom of the page. It could be used to explain a foreign word that cannot be translated without losing a huge part of its meaning (referring for example to a plant, an animal, or even a custom that is present only in this specific region of the globe, and that the narrator has chosen not to elucidate elsewhere in the text).

Having to deal with a Scottish romance, for example, I would chose to keep exclamations like “Ach”, or “Och” in French, as well as Scottish Gaelic phrases, provided that I juxtapose a French translation of the word. Meeting the words uisge beatha in a narrative, I would probably keep it in italics, followed by “du whiskey” or “de l’eau de vie” (or something in the vein of “that famous Scottish water of life”), depending on the century the action is set in.

As far as Southern or foreign variations of the language that are represented in phonetics to underline the fact that the speaker does not master the language fluently, I have always had problems working on those. I would certainly not have managed to produce a faithful rendering of Gone with the Wind or To Kill a Mocking Bird into French, as I would probably have chosen to have the characters use poor or mangled grammar, and that’s it, and not to make them use what I consider child speech, which would only serve, in my eyes, to belittle them. Don’t ask me, I’m certainly wrong, but it tickles my moral bone, though I am well aware that some communities are proud to have developed their own lingo. You is kind, you is strong.

How to make an enlightened decision?

  • Read other books (or samples) of the same genre that were written directly into your target language or translated into it.
  • Wait… Isn’t that plagiarism? Nope, it is drawing inspiration from what other translators have done to solve the same riddle you are facing, while creating the right mood for their narratives.
  • Work closely with your proofreader, or have a sample of your text (with the permission of the author/publisher) be submitted to a panel of readers in your target language. In the end, all linguistic considerations put aside, these people will be the ones to please; they will be the ones who should forget that the book they have in hand was written in a foreign language in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed these few considerations. These are good examples of the decisions a literary translator has to make on a daily basis. Next time, we will be covering the process of finding the right title and the importance of marketing considerations in that respect.

Feel free to share your experience!

8 easy tips to memorize vocabulary

Everyone possesses a different intelligence: some people react to colours or shapes, other to sounds. Some like to learn by rote, out of context, while others only manage to learn a language by listening to it. Knowing how your brain functions will help you learn new vocabulary in a better and durable way. I know for sure that I would be nothing without the written word. My Norwegian improved greatly by listening to the radio or watching TV on a daily basis, but I need to support that way of learning by seeing the words correctly written, compiling a list, or writing them down a few times.

Here are a few other tips on how to learn and memorize vocabulary:

1 – Stay in context: I’ve noticed this works well with newspapers. Let’s say that I want to learn vocab on health. For one week, read 5 articles a day in your target language and underline all the new words or the phrases you want to memorize. By the second article, you will notice words that pop up again.

This works particularly well with connecting words and phrases that are not usually found in fiction. Phrases like “on the other hand”, “besides”, “as a conclusion”… all those rhetorical bits that make up a good essay abound in the press.

2 – Repetition is key: Once you have made a list of the words you want to memorize, find a way to repeat them. My Latin teacher always said that you memorize by forgetting and relearning 7 times. So take a pen and jot down the words 10 times, or repeat them orally. Finding a way to put them into context by creating imaginary dialogues in which they could be used is equally effective.

3 – Finding the root and identifying affixes: Some words share the same root, which is modified by a prefix or a suffix. Take the word “identity”, for example. Several words can be created from the same root: identical, identify, identifiable,… Knowing your affixes will help you “guess” new words and learn them more easily. It also works well with a language that is very different from yours, as finding resemblances is a good mnemonic trick.

4 – Learning cognates first. This works if your target language is similar to your native one, or if you master another in the same family. It simply means that there are some words that sound and mean just the same in languages from the same linguistic tree. This allows me to understand Swedish and Danish while I can only master Norwegian, and I identified in my Norwegian vocabulary book a lot of words I already recognized. It will give you a head start.

5 – Make topical lists and learn them. Looking up every new word is not enough. You have to compile them in thematic lists, a trick I learned in high school and at university. This is half of the work as you pick them up from context, check them, copy them down, re-read them and try to use them. You see, you’ve already repeated the word 5 times.

6 – Learn by heart… but adapt it to your strengths. I had a problem learning some practical vocabulary out of context, like botanical terms, for example. Once, way before Desperate Housewives, I came across “wisteria” in a translation exam. I had learned a list of flowers by heart so I knew the French translation, but it made me realise that I couldn’t picture them in my head, and it explained why all that vocabulary disappeared from my mind over the summer. When I come across the name of an animal, a flower, an architectural or pictorial term I’m unsure of, I search for a picture of it on the internet, and it’s usually enough to make me remember both the foreign name and its translation.

7 – Play with words. My favourite crosswords are “skeleton”, in which the black squares are missing. I discovered them while living in Britain and I’ve started doing word puzzles in Norwegian. I’m sure that, in the age of interactivity, you can find apps that offer word games.

8 – Keep accountable. You have to learn everyday. Set aside 15 minutes a day and a longer period during the weekends to learn by heart, clean up your lists or simply read a difficult text or listen to the news, pen in hand. You will notice an improvement within 6 weeks.

There are, of course, other ways of learning. Word associations, for example. Some people also use riddles or little stories to remember complicated words. For example, they will learn “subconscient” (unconscious) by associating it with a submarine, going under the surface of the conscious (don’t laugh). It works for them, but I prefer doing the suffix thing and staying linguistically aware, or my head would explode, learning too many stories.

For a little bit of recreation (and inspiration), watch Daniel Tammet learning icelandic in one week. Of course, his autistic brain allows him to learn by synesthesia. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Translating a first-person narrative: What I learned in the process

The work of a literary translator is not limited to fiction. Over the course of the past few months, I have worked on a short story and a novel told in the first person, as well as memoirs and a non-fiction book in which the author uses “I”, instead of the more academic and general “we”.

But who is this “I”? It has struck me that I, as the French voice of that imaginary or real person, have been affected in my work as well as personally by the permanent use of a first-person pronoun I needed to distance myself from.

Here are a few points that I learned:

1- Translating a fictional “I” is easier. It may be psychological, but it was easier to separate myself from a fictional I, even when I worked on a short story in which the narrator was an alienated artist. This first-person narrator is not omniscient and the text is coloured by their inability to control all aspects of the plot. Even if the character is not particularly likeable, it’s easier to see them as a “vehicle” to travel through the story. Of course, those who have translated books like Les Bienveillantes into other languages will tell me that it’s not that easy, and I can understand how working on translating the (fictional) confessions of a horrible character has affected them.
And this bring me to my second point.

2- You will judge that narrator, or operate a transfer and become them. You may not always agree with the author. Translating literature is also having to write political opinions contrary to yours in the first person, transmitting advice you may differ with. You may think the narrator brags, or embellishes the truth. Of course, should your personal opinions differ too much from the message the text wants to convey, this is a matter of deontology. As a personal example, I often browse the platform Elance, and I see job offers for translation of religious based books. Not a problem in itself, but, after having leafed through some of them, I discovered homophobic opinions confidently expressed by an “I” I could not differentiate myself with. As far as non-fiction goes, there are personal opinions I simply could not bear to translate.

On the other hand, I have often fallen prey to becoming too attached to the character. Translating A Good Day to Die, by David Danish, was sometimes difficult, as I liked the first-person narrator, for his naïveté and openness, and I felt I was living through him the turmoils Iran knew at the beginning of the 1980s. Okay, it was based on real-life events, but it was still a fiction, or even a catharsis for the veteran writer who fought in the war and needed to communicate something about it.

But translating Outcry, a Holocaust memoir by Manny Steinberg, proved extremely taxing emotionally. How many times had I had to read, translate, edit and proofread a sentence that began with “I” and ended in horrors, tortures and beatings?

I realised I was becoming too involved when I started putting adjectives in the feminine form in the French version, as if it was me, Angélique, who was talking: I had lost myself.

3- To avoid this, keep your concentration and find the narrator’s voice. Try to write all you know about the character. How would they speak in French? When and where were they born? Who are they talking to?

For the memoir From the streets to Wall Street, written in English by a French native, I was lucky to have him correct the street slang I had tried to use. After having done some research, I had got most of it right, but his help proved invaluable during the copyright process, in giving his character the adequate voice, the one the author had when he was younger.

And you, have you had any experience working with first-person narratives?

Janteloven: The rules of social conformity in Norway

Whether you have only studied a Scandinavian language or lived or worked in close contact with Norwegians, you cannot have escaped hearing about the Law of Jante (Janteloven). It is a concept as near the Norwegian heart (for better or for worse) as “dugnad” is.

The Law itself has no legislative value whatsoever, but its ten commands are meant to hold a mirror to Danish society in the 1930s. It originates from the 1933 book, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, by Dano-Norwegian author Axel Sandemose, representing life in the little Danish town of Jante, which could be anywhere in transparent Scandinavia.

The ten rules are as follows:

  1. You’re not to think you are anything special.
  2. You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You’re not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You’re not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You’re not to laugh at us.
  9. You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Pretty humbling, eh? But what does it actually point to? A positive, stable society where everyone develops together at the same pace, or a rigid, inert group of people forbidding others to make themselves be noticed, as the unwritten 11th rule states: Perhaps you don’t think we know a few things against you?

Here are a few points to consider that would help you understand Norwegian society better, through Janteloven.

Transparency

Norwegian’s society is transparent, and it goes way beyond not having curtains in the windows. Tax returns are available for consultation provided you pay tax as well, enabling you to know how much your neighbour has in the bank. Gossip runs amok (after all, that is understandable, especially in the countryside, where everyone is a potential cousin). I hear more from politicians here than in my native country, and they have an open dialogue with each other instead of being thrown in the mud by journalists. The media make it very easy to know what is going on in the country, but, at your local level, the grapevine functions perfectly as well, enabling the group to control you and the image you project.

Egalitarianism and social cohesion

For society to remain stable, without conflicts that the group would not be able to handle, everyone should have access to the same opportunities. On the positive side, it means that all parents receive help from the government for the first 18 years of their child’s life, that these children will be able to participate in “culture schools” where they will learn art and music for a moderate sum of money, that these teenagers will later have access to State-funded loans to finance their studies, be them from impoverished or rich backgrounds, and that “everyone is best!” This is perfectly illustrated by the Norwegian education system, which is centred towards practical subjects as well as oral communication, and everyone’s love for sports, particularly team sports like football or handball.

On the other hand, it means that, should you be born gifted, like I was, your parents will have to move to another country to enrol you in a school that would suit your needs and your heightened pace, as “you are not to think you are smarter than we are.” Of course, I would be the first to say that, on average, Norwegians are well-educated and practical-minded, good parents, interested in art and heritage, good with their hands, fantastically fit and very good bakers. But remember that no one is allowed to excel in their craft; it would be even worse than bragging about it.

Defeatism (or, at least pessimism)

I remember reading an article when I still lived in the countryside. Two girls from the local town had moved to London on a musical venture that went bust after a year. No one was surprised and everyone expected them to fail, as they had dared “stand out” from the rest. This inertia, these endless meetings going on for years and years before a decision is made (or not), this expectation of failure and discontent are difficult to deal with on a daily basis for people who come from a dynamic culture that is solution-oriented. Not wanting to change something that is broken and preventing those who want to act is frustrating.

On the other hand, it may be because of that Norwegians love art and the country is so generous with stipends: it confronts them with their problems in a way that does not force them to take action.

A few parting words

Janteloven is a much debated topic, and the younger generations have come up with their own Anti-Janteloven rules, proving that it exists and functions as a weight on the spirit of some. Then again, as an instrument of social cohesion, it functions.

Learning a language in a formal environment

The second part of our language learning series is about learning a new language in a formal setting. Last week, we talked about immersion, that is learning “on-the-go” by letting all the nuances of the language flow into you almost unconsciously. But there are limits to how efficient this way of learning is without being backed up by formal learning techniques.

Let me draw the scene: a blackboard, tables in a semi-circle around the teacher (preferably a native speaker), textbooks and exercise books. A lot of reading aloud, grammar exercises, writing and speaking prompts that are directed at preparing you to an exam… This form of teaching is far from being communicative-based, and some say it is outdated. I beg to differ, as I believe that learning methodically will help ground the informal experience that is so often incomplete by exploring all the little cogs of how a form of communication functions.

Learning how the language functions
There are numerous benefits to learning a language formally, particularly as an adult, if only to satisfy your curiosity about how it works. For example, understanding grammar, morphology and syntax will allow you to make perfect sentences from the get-go and identify that you may have been making mistakes or using slang or child speech. For example, in Norwegian, many young people would say, “Jeg har snakket med han” (/I have talked to he/) instead of saying, “Jeg har snakket med ham” (I have talked to him). Using this type of slang may be okay (after all, languages evolve), yet it would be useful to know what is right and make the difference between a subject and an object pronoun.

The exhaustive approach of explicit grammar
For those who attend classes, having a teacher explain rules and exceptions will prove beneficial and may answer questions that have been baffling you. Are you thinking back about your time in school, copying rules from a book? Don’t worry, adults will grasp explicit grammar better than children and will be more focused. What they have picked up implicitly from their immersion experience will be validated, corrected or explained. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Memory tricks
Learning in a formal environment will also provide tricks. There are some techniques to learn vocabulary, that your teacher or your book will communicate to you. For example, you can make comparisons with your language and learning first words that are similar. Another technique is to learn by roots, adding affixes. It’s a great way to learn as it forces you to think of how to make an adverb, an adjective, etc, from a substantive. For the verbs, it is knowing how to recognize the root and which ending to add.

In that regard, the influence of Greek and Latin on European languages is also important and being aware of which words are inherited from those two languages will help you identify them and learn them. On the other side of the world, learning what Japanese Kanji represented helped me pick up the meaning of some Chinese ideograms, as they share a common history.

Learning by rote
For some languages with conjugations of verbs or declensions, there is no escaping learning lists by heart. Not doing it will hinder your progression. Think about Latin languages and their numerous verbal forms. Or the Eastern European languages and their numerous cases. My Spanish teacher in junior high had a technique for the most difficult examples: print a list of irregular verbs and tape them somewhere where you can see them several times a day. And that’s how the back of our bathroom door showcased the irregular Spanish verbs in the preterito for several months.

Of course, due to their personal circumstances, some people will learn without a teacher, at their own pace, and it’s perfectly okay. As long as they have the right tools, their self-directed approach will pay off.

This discipline will teach you how to learn a language, which will open doors for your multilingualism.

So, as a conclusion, which of the two approaches that we have covered is the most beneficial? I would say that both are necessary to master a language, but that a good formal approach from the get-go will lay a solid base to whatever learning comes afterwards, be it only formal or in immersion.

An introduction to learning a foreign language through immersion

There are several approaches to learning a language. In this entry, I would like to talk about immersion.

When people talk about immersion, they often refer to international schools or classes in which part of the curriculum is delivered entirely in a second language. If started early enough, beginning by telling or listening to stories, or playing games in the language, young students are adequately equipped to develop bilingualism. Their young brain is more malleable when it comes to processing new sounds and vocabulary; they will be more susceptible to pronounce their new language without any trace of an accent. Enabling students to deal with complicated concepts in a foreign language prepares them for higher education or employment in foreign or multicultural environments.

But there is another way to learn a language by immersion – be it complemented or not by formal classes – and that would be to move abroad, in  a land where your target language is spoken.

There are different ways of doing it: younger people can spend a holiday with a family or go on an exchange program with their schools. Here, in Europe, with the development of programs like Erasmus, there has never been such a movement of students across the continent, spending the last year of their BA abroad, being teaching assistants, getting enrolled for PhD in dynamic research centers… Some are expats, moving for prolonged holidays or for employment reasons, while others, like me, have joined a volunteering program.

All of these people may not have the comfort of a classroom to practice their language skills. Depending on their daily environment, they may have to depend on their target language or at least English as a communication tools. Here are a couple of tips that could help.

The power of absorption

Think about people in the Nordic countries, who understand English so well. Fair enough, they may have strong accents, but their mastery of the language is impressive. But ask yourself how it came about. Was it particularly successful language classes, or constant exposure to non-dubbed American and British TV-shows? Scandinavians also like to travel around and, considering that their languages are not very commonly spoken, they need to turn to English to make themselves understood. This passive exposure to English gives them amazing skills without having to rely on a lot of formal education, as the process functions as an absorption.

Let it go!

Being immersed in a foreign language is like learning how to swim. All your bearings are lost and it kicks off your survival instinct. You become more resourceful, while learning practical vocabulary that you use everyday, before building up on that. Of course, without prompts learned by heart in a classroom, knowing how to begin a conversation can be tricky. People often joke that starting to speak in a foreign language is best done while drunk. It all boils down to inhibitions. In other words, let go! Remember that we all make mistakes. Log on to Livemocha’s blog to read some funny mistakes we have made. Yours truly once mistook the word “gravy” for the word “gravel” when she was talking about the trail she went hiking on…

By the way, the picture on top of this page shows me singing the poems of Jakob Sande in a little Norwegian café. I dared!

Build up vocabulary

Once you start being able to understand “niche” programs like political broadcasts or scientific documentaries, you will notice recurrent vocabulary and phrases, and reading on those themes will reinforce what you have heard. For example, here in Norway, I log on to the NRK radio online and listen to Politisk kvarter, a 15-minute daily political program. The representatives who are invited talk about current issues that I will be able to read about in the newspapers. If they use a word I cannot spell, chances are that I’ll pick it up later in Aftenposten. This is a good example of (double) contextual exposure.

Cultural communication

Spending time abroad will give you the advantage of learning nuances and idiomatic expressions that are not always taught in a classroom. Picking up a regional accent or a dialect is a very good incentive to travel. You will learn to speak like a native and not like stock characters in a school book.

Immersion helps you communicate, learn the non-linguistic components of a form of communication, like facial expressions or even silences. It is a form of language learning that is turned towards other people and is dependent on their existence and willingness to communicate.

Of course, few people will get immersed in a language and pick it up entirely by ear or by reading the newspaper without backing up their learning by formal exercises and activities, but we will cover this aspect in the next blog entry.

What about you? Have you ever learned a language by immersion?

Improving your foreign language skills : some tips on how to get from B1 to C1

There’s only so much that a book or a class will teach you. Fluency comes from understanding and using the language you are learning in all kinds of settings, from talking to your doctor to chatting other participants at a meet-up.

First of all, you need to identify which is your preferred way of learning. Personally, I feel more at ease with the written word (learning Norwegian intuitively, in immersion, proved to be a challenge).

Can you learn vocabulary lists by heart and remember them? Or do you need context to fix new words or phrases in your memory? Are you more of a conversationalist who can strike up a chat with the cashier or the bartender, two weeks into learning the language? Do you remember dialogues or could recite back the news report you have just heard?

Most people show a combinaison of these characteristics, but knowing how you function will help you narrow down your options and even learn unconsciously, simply by doing your favourite activity.

Nevertheless, I believe climbing up that extra notch from B1 to nearly fluent proficiency requires an active method:

Read smartly

  • Browse online articles on a theme (let’s say, fjord pollution in Norway) and write down all new words and phrases you meet. Sort them out by category as well: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Do it everyday and after a week, you’ll realise you have assimilated the vocabulary.

  • Read YA literature in your second language. It helps with slang and common vocabulary. I learned a lot about life under Thatcherian rule as well as teenage lingo by reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole!

  • Subscribe to or borrow scientific publications like History magazine or Science Digest. Their articles are well-written in the form of small essays and contain logical operators and stock-phrases as well as technical vocabulary.

Netflix time

Try to log on to an online TV channel (most of them have programmes accessible from abroad) and find something you want to commit to watching every week.

I personally turn subtitles on directly in the foreign language to double the exposure. Although there are slight differences in the transcription, hearing the words while seeing them unconsciously fixes them in your mind.

Radio

Find a news podcast and listen to it daily to build up on your reading efforts. Some of them are accompanied by a detailed article using a lot of the specific vocabulary in use in the report. I use Politisk Kvarter, a 15 min programme showcasing three politicians who are invited to debate a hot topic. I often jot down ideas or phrases that I find interesting.

Get active and produce

This is my weaker point, as I often get stuck for words before I have “gathered” a database of words and phrases that I deem large enough to communicate. But immersion, as well as daily conversation on a broad range of topics, will prove beneficial. Think about getting a tutor who is a native speaker. They are likely to reformulate the same sentences several times and mimicking them will help you get confident.

You could also write small presentations or record yourself telling a story. Create one every second day and you will quickly notice an improvement.
For example, write a small presentation of your favourite TV-show. Challenge yourself, so you will have to search for words you don’t know. Twin Peaks relies on the uncanny, House of Cards, Mad Men or New York: SVU deal with the judicial system and office politics, … Think; would you be able to say: “Mulder and Scully are two special agents who investigate unexplained cases. The show hinges on the dynamics between Scully’s scepticism and Mulder’s need to believe.”

Crosswords

For a bit of fun, I love doing crosswords in English (especially skeleton). Doing them in Norwegian, even if I “cheat” and use a special dictionary, helps me learn synonyms, and this has already improved my linguistic abilities.

Think about playing games with native speakers: Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. My first Chrismas in Norway, we played Kokkelimonke (you have to describe an object). I certainly learned a lot that night!

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