Saturday, 21 March 2015

Going native


When I’m teaching, I always tell my English students that vocabulary (the bricks) and grammar (the mortar) are the building blocks of language learning. A learner of English, or of any other language for that matter, must master these two aspects in order to communicate to a competent level in that language. In fact, the principle applies at whatever level of proficiency you operate: the more creative your communication, the better your command of the language’s vocabulary and grammar must be.

The most effective way to do this is through total immersion, where the learner spends time in an environment operating solely in the target language. But not everyone has this opportunity and even then complete immersion might last several decades before ‘total’ proficiency is attained. This is not to put language learners off of course: by no means do all students of a foreign language aim to achieve the highest possible standards, they may simply wish to use that language in a way which serves their purpose, possibly asking for directions or reading a recipe.

When we consider vocabulary, we immediately think of individual words, but these words by themselves do not unlock the door to successful language learning and usage. If learners and users of a second language wish to express themselves fluently and accurately in speech and writing, they must learn to cope with the vast wealth of word combinations and permutations (for instance, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions) that make up that language. A normal dictionary, an essential tool to learning vocabulary, splits up meaning into separate words. However, words in isolation are much less powerful when we are constructing a text.

A single word may have different meanings, depending on the situation in which it is used, but only becomes clear when set alongside other individual words to make a phrase or sentence. Take the word ‘work’, for example. It is both a noun and a verb. The noun itself has several different dictionary definitions, such as: the product of effort (as in, ‘it was back-breaking work’); a job (‘I do secretarial work’); an artistic creation (‘Beethoven produced some masterly works’); a building programme (‘major restoration work is being carried out’); or (usually in the plural) a factory (‘the works’ canteen’). As these examples show, only when the word is seen as part of a sentence or phrase, can its exact meaning be deduced. Context therefore, is the all important key. 

The examples I give here make the meaning of the words clearer because they ‘collocate’, that is, the words combine to produce natural-sounding speech and writing. So we refer to these word or phrase combinations as ‘collocations’. In English, we say ‘strong wind’ and ‘heavy rain’, not the other way round. For a native speaker ‘heavy wind’ and ‘strong rain’ sound completely unnatural, but early learners of English will not recognise this distinction. So whilst collocations – or chunks of vocabulary – may be highly predictable to native-speakers and used without a second thought, to language learners this is anything but the case. 

Roughly speaking, there are two categories into which collocations can be grouped: grammatical; and lexical.
Typical grammatical collocations in English include prepositional expressions: afraid (of); dependent (on); (on) the bus; (in) hospital. Prepositions are amongst the biggest obstacles to successful language learning because they are language-specific. A Dutch learner, for example, might unwittingly say, ‘afraid for’, ‘dependent of’, ‘in the bus’, and ‘in the hospital’ because they collocate with different, non-corresponding prepositions in their own tongue – and although they would be understood, it would single them out immediately as non-native.
A lexical collocation might be a typical construction such as: ‘to do your homework’; ‘to take a photo; and ‘(her message was) crystal-clear’. Here, even competent Dutch speakers of English might say, ‘make your homework’, ‘make a photo’ and ‘glass clear’, without realising that these are unnatural collocations. 

To illustrate the enormous diversity of collocations that are out there, let’s take a look at the language of work. Language learners and professional linguists beware! 

Often, I’m asked what line of work I’m in. Mostly, I tell people that I make a living as a freelance translator, but I also dabble in teaching. I have been plying my trade in this business ever since I was made compulsorily redundant 20 years ago. 
People who are unlucky enough to have their jobs axed may have to go on the dole for some time while they seek out pastures new, in other words a career change. This will probably involve scouring the classified ads and then writing a letter of application for a suitable position. Potential candidates may be called for interview at which they will be quizzed about their work experience, educational qualifications and personal qualities and perhaps questioned about their burning ambitions. The successful candidate taken on by the company - before being offered a permanent contract - will have to work a probationary period or follow on-the-job training to first earn their spurs. To get on in the world of business you may have to be prepared to assume managerial responsibilities. Rapid promotion may ensue for outstanding work and help you step onto the next rung of the career ladder. Ultimately, you might progress to a position in middle or senior management and perhaps enjoy fringe benefits, such as a company car, an expense account, private health insurance, annual bonuses and other perks. Alternatively, you may end up in a dead-end job doing run-of-the-mill tasks and find yourself having to get out of a rut. Having a job with no career prospects can be demoralising.
I must admit, working as a freelance translator – within reason – it’s possible to organise my work as I wish without having a humdrum nine-to-five existence. Yes, all the red tape involved in being self-employed, for example, sending off VAT-returns every month, can be a bugbear, but the diversity of assignments, the freedom of being able to work almost anywhere, not to mention being my own boss, gives me enormous job satisfaction

Whilst the correct use of collocations is just one way of achieving proficiency in a foreign language, I’m not arguing here that fluency is solely a question of applying grammar and vocabulary appropriately. It is much more than that. For example, pronunciation, proper use of punctuation, recognising the difference in and the correct use of formal and informal register, and apposite use of slang and swear-words - aspects of language that come naturally to a native speaker – all have to be learned as well, usually through trial and error. 

Concluding thoughts of a translator ...
When it comes to collocations, it’s not just beginners who make mistakes. In fact, far from it. However proficient you might think you are at a foreign language, unless you have undergone complete immersion, it is well-nigh impossible to build up the same wealth of collocative vocabulary as a mother-tongue speaker. I know this from experience: even after being in direct contact with the language for 30 years – many would call me fluent – I find myself tripping up over Dutch idioms and expressions. This is where translators who claim they can work ‘professionally’ into a second non-native language – working at the cutting edge of communication - can really get found out. That’s why I don’t do it. 
Indeed, I find it strange that a competent native-speaker translator would want to put their professional credibility at risk by translating into a second language they have not fully mastered, a phenomenon which is flabbergastingly prevalent in the translation industry.
The use of collocations is just one example of why native-speaker translators are invariably better at translating into the target language: they are simply more competent in recognising and using the natural-sounding equivalents of source-language collocations in their mother tongue.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Dutch Mountains

Exploring the wild open spaces has always been something that has come naturally to me. Thrust a camera in my hands and I’m happy as a lark, as I gaily gad about the great outdoors. I might not be the most intrepid walker or the most painstaking photographer on the planet, but when I’m in the mood, I feel on top of the world. At home, to soothe the overwhelming longing for the hills on dark winter evenings, since my childhood I have had the habit of poring over maps, guides and photographs pining for more propitious days ahead.
In contrast to my usual toing and froing, visiting family and friends in various corners of Europe, this winter – for one reason or another - I’ve been leading a fairly sedentary existence, trying to settle down into the humdrum routine of life at home. A torn meniscus has kept my outdoor shenanigans in check. Plans – such as cross-country skiing - have had to be shelved whilst the medics decided on what was best for my knee. My mountain-gazing has been restricted to looking at the photo of the Matterhorn I inherited from my father and which now hangs on my living-room wall. It has not been an easy time and over the past few months, the map-poring has been accompanied by soul-searching.

So, thank goodness for the Dutch Mountain Film Festival.
No, this is not a joke. To resolve any ambiguity it should be stressed that the event is a celebration of mountain films rather than a cinematic fixation on a hillock protruding out of the flatness of the Low Countries. As it happens, the film festival is held every year in my home town of Heerlen, which is located in the southernmost and loftiest region of the Netherlands, close to the border with Germany and Belgium. In fact, it has even been accredited with an ‘international’ status by the umbrella organisation for such things, the International Alliance for Mountain Film(IAMF).
So please, no more laughing.
The Dutch Mountain Film Festival (DMFF), held last weekend, is an annual event that is a miscellany of activities revolving not only around film, but the theme of mountains in general. The festival caters for film fanatics, mountaineers and nature lovers and is the perfect antidote for outdoor types like me who have been confined, albeit temporarily, to the armchair.
There’s a film to suit every taste. If you like the spectacular, such as watching adrenalin junkies jumping of vertical cliff faces or witnessing off-piste skiers tumble downhill through endless mounds of snow, then the DMFF is the place for you. But the festival offers more thought-provoking fodder, stories that tell the tale of simple mountain-folk, and films which recall a historical period or document the trials and tribulations of a mountain adventure.
In addition to the more than 50 films, there is a varied programme of side events featuring music, art, food, sports and - last but not least - photography.

Each year, three photographers are invited to exhibit a selection of photographs at the DMFF. This time, Paul Lahaye – curator of photography - allocated space to Alex Buisse (for his photographs of base-jumpers), Thomas Humpage (trail running) and Sean Vos (mountain photography pur sang). The fourth part of the photography exhibition was set aside for the winning entries for the DMFF photo competition.
For the 2014 event, I had the great honour of being asked to sit on a panel to judge more than a hundred entries for the DMFF photo competition. For this year’s festival, I was flattered to be asked back, this time as chairman of the jury. Entrants were asked to post their photos to the DMFF Facebook page and this time round there were no fewer than 150 submissions, each entry capturing a moment in the mountains that was special to the photographer in question. With my fellow members of the jury, Paul Lahaye, Jac Weerts and Roger Kengen (the winner of last year's competition), it was our difficult job to sift through the photos and decide on a short list of ten. It has to be said that this arduous task was tempered by the final round of judging which had been conveniently arranged in a local hostelry on a wet and windy night in November. It was a long but enjoyable evening. The winning photo was sent in by Ruben Emanuel and his photo can be seen on the DMFF Facebook page along with the other 9 photographs that were given pride of place at the festival.

In view of my personal plight vis-à-vis my ‘wounded knee’ – on a more upbeat note - presiding over the photo competition over the past few months has provided some welcome relief and helped rekindle my interest in landscape photography and my appreciation for mountain photography through the ages.
Among my favourite books I read this winter was a Christmas gift I’d received about the famous explorer Il Ducadegli Abruzzi, the Italian prince who probed unchartered regions as far-flung as Alaska, the North Pole, the Ruwenzori Mountains of East Africa and the high peaks of the Himalayas (long before they had become fashionable targets for mountaineers). To all intents and purposes, his endeavours rank alongside those of his more acclaimed contemporaries, such as Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. In his home country of Italy he enjoys a worthy recognition.
However, it was not the ‘Duke’ who instils in me a wow-factor, but the photographer he took with him on his expeditions: Vittorio Sella - the most accomplished mountain photographer of his age, perhaps of all time. Sella was born into a well-to-do family in Piemonte and he became a proficient mountaineer and mastered the technical skills of photography at a time when both mountain climbing and mountain photography were still in their infancy. His superlative depictions of mountain scenery stand up against anything we are capable of producing with our modern-day technology, yet he was faced with enormous obstacles that we would find unimaginable today. His expeditions would involve meticulous planning with limited resources and he would be faced with the prospect of hauling heavy equipment around over rough terrain day after day. The fact that he was able to achieve his exceptional quality is quite remarkable, but this was largely due to the use of large photographic plates. Special equipment would have to be ingeniously devised to carry its fragile and precious contents. If he were unsatisfied with his results or the conditions had been too inclement on a first climb, he would simply wait for another window in the weather and go back again, often several days later.
How times have changed since Sella. Nowadays, we can climb a hill, stitch together a panoramic photo of the mountains and send it round the world on social media in an instant.
Yes, photography is a fantastic medium for capturing our experiences in the mountains, but it’s worth remembering where it all started.

And thank you Dutch Mountain Film Festival – and its organisers Toon Hezemans and Thijs Horbach - for helping to make my winter bearable.