skimming the surface

Living in Switzerland I’ve become used to not always understanding everything that is being said. Actually, I’ve become very used to it, because with the advent of my Phd candidature any additional studying of German has gone out the window, leaving me with what I’ve managed to accumulate over the last few years. It’s enough to get me by, to have a coffee with someone and not make a complete fool of myself, to make it to the end of a parent-teacher meeting at my daughter’s school, and to even teach a few of my music students in German (although I do have to look up the odd word or wave my arms around just a little bit…). I can even read the notices that come home from school and compose emails and texts. Go me!

I struggle through conversations with complete strangers, but fair much better with people I know, mostly because I usually have a pretty good idea what what it is we will be discussing. Worst case scenario is someone coming up to me on the street and asking me a complicated question; often I think they leave more confused then when they first approached me…

What does this have to do with writing a dissertation, you might well ask?

Despite all the research I’ve done previously, and despite even being employed to teach others how to do it effectively, when it comes to researching and reading for a dissertation of entirely your own making, one that requires the synthesis of so many new ideas (and hopefully the creation of some new ones, too), I can’t help but think that it really is like learning a new language or trying to speak  in a language in which you are not yet fluent.

No, scrap that: I think it’s like learning a whole bunch of new languages.  Each new subject, each new author, each new publication or journal, even, brings new challenges, a new set of rules that you know are there but haven’t quite grasped. Even the vocabulary or the style of language can vary so much that it takes a while just to work out what is being said, let alone understanding what it means.

It’s a challenge, definitely, but having made the connection between the struggles with German that I go through on a daily basis as soon as I step out my front door and the reading and researching I’m doing at my desk, I suddenly feel better about my ability to cope. There’s nothing more satisfying then being able to make yourself understood in another language, and the same goes for realising that you have actually understood something someone has said without having to translate each individual word or just hoping that if you keep listening you’ll hear something you do understand. (As an aside: not too long after my daughter started at the local school here the mother of one of her friends, with whom I had happily bluffed my way through many a conversation, told me I often replied with a ‘yes’ when it should be a ‘no’ or vice versa…)

And so it is with my reading. It might take a while, but with each new author and subject I gradually arrive at a level of understanding that allows me to digest and then hopefully synthesise what I have learnt into what will later become my thesis.

It’s still not easy, and I even find myself thinking at times how easy German is in comparison, until, that is, I hear my daughter chattering away with her friends and I realise I have no idea what they’re actually talking about or I see the look on the face of the man here to fix our boiler when he realises I’ve hardly understood a thing he’s said…



Enid Blyton and the mystery of the big words

A natural consequence of living in a foreign country is that my eight-year old daughter usually only hears English when she speaks with her father and me.

She spends her days in the local Swiss school, speaking only German (and Swiss-German), the language of learning, of play, of pretty much everything, even for the English mother-tongue kids like my daughter; it’s funny to hear two kids who might speak English at home naturally slip into speaking their adopted language with each other.

As a writer I choose my words very carefully, although even with all the care in the world I’m aware that it’s hard to escape my inbuilt vocabulary, my natural tendencies when it comes to phrasing and syntax. I also collect words, writing them down on sticky notes, in my phone and in the special notebooks that lurk in my bag and on every surface, revelling in a word or phrase that I find in a book, despairing when I don’t have a pencil to hand.

If there’s one thing I want my daughter to have it’s that love of words. I want her to look to books for more than just a way to pass the time or a test, to be impatient to get back into a half-read story, to linger over a chapter long after I have issued my final warning about dinner being already on the table, and you better come now!

But living in Switzerland I wondered how this could happen. It seems I needn’t have worried, as she’s turning out to be just like me, something her father finds very amusing. What’s even more amusing is her use of language, although we can’t take all the credit for her burgeoning vocabulary.

For that we must thank…Enid Blyton, and our nightly ritual of reading aloud.

The Faraway Tree, The Magic Wishing Chair, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, Naughty Amelia Jane, plus other classics such as Milly, Molly, Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley.

Words and phrases common seventy years ago trip off her tongue. She tells me how beautifully she and a friend were playing, how something was rather queer, and so on. She dictates stories in which children evade their nanny to go on wonderful adventures, all by themselves, getting into all kinds of scrapes.

It seems to me that a love of reading is essential if you are to write. I have days when finding the words is just too difficult, when all traces of creativity seem to have vanished, never to return. But, thankfully, picking up a book and reading the words that someone else has written is usually enough to get me started again.

I don’t know if my daughter will ever want to write. But if she does, at least I know we will have given her a good start.

stack of books