All posts by Natasha Ryan

Do you have butterflies in your stomach or little deer jumping in your heart?

This post was originally published on the Creative Multilingualism blog, and was written by Dr Marianna Bolgonesi. Here, Marianna talks about the issue of metaphors when it comes to learning a foreign language. A long version of this post is available here.

Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows that some words are more difficult to master than others. This seems to be particularly true for words with multiple meanings, and specifically words that can be used metaphorically.

But why? Metaphoric expressions vary greatly across languages, and they are often soaked in cultural habits and beliefs. For example, while English people may have ‘butterflies in their stomach’, Chinese people will have ‘a little deer jumping in their heart’. Moreover, while some of these expressions trigger images that can help the learners understand the metaphorical meaning, others are less clear, and some seem to have no rational explanation: alarms go off when they actually go on, and houses burn up as they burn down!

Image by Schwoaze on Pixabay

The following questions arise:

  1. Is metaphor, a universal phenomenon across languages, a hallmark of human language?
  2. Is it possible to distinguish what is universal and what is language/culture specific in relation to metaphor?
  3. Why is metaphor a problem for foreign learners and how do language learners understand and use metaphor?
  4. Can metaphor be taught? (And if so, how?)

These questions were explored in a discussion chaired by Dr Marianna Bolognesi with Professor Jeannette Littlemore (University of Birmingham) and Dr Linda Fisher (University of Cambridge) at an event in Oxford in February. During the debate it emerged how metaphors in language influence the way we think, and therefore, metaphoric expressions that we use on a daily basis can indeed be quite tricky for learners that have a different mother tongue, because they might think in different ways. If we look at how language shapes our world view, in particular when it comes to metaphoric expressions, we can see that while some expressions translate directly from one language to another, word by word, others do not.

Consider, for example, ‘the statement it’s raining cats and dogs’, a classic idiomatic expression (a specific type of very conventionalised metaphor in language) that we use to say ‘it’s raining a lot’. In other languages the image of cats and dogs is quite different: in Catalan it rains barrels and casks (Està plovent a bots i barrals), in Dutch pipe stems (Het regent pijpestelen), in Irish Gaelic cobblers’ knives (Tá sé ag caitheamh sceana gréasaí) and in Norwegian female trolls (Det regner trollkjerringer). These various ‘entities falling from the sky’ are probably related to cultural traditions and experiences that are typically shared by the communities that speak these languages. These expressions are therefore very different from one another. However, they share an underlying common trait: all of them are quite unpleasant when falling from the sky, as well as unexpected, and heavier than normal (literal) rain. All of these common traits constitute the core, underlying meaning of these metaphoric expressions, which is related to our bodily experiences with heavy rain. These bodily experiences, at the very basic level of perception, are not that different across languages and cultures, because we are all humans and share similar bodies.

Even within the same language, for example English, it is possible to come up with creative variations of conventional metaphoric expressions. Urban Dictionary, for example, has an extensive list of alternatives to ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’, including ‘it’s raining pitchforks’ and ‘it’s raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock’.

[…]

In the second half of the debate we focused on the problems that metaphors cause for foreign language learners, and the solutions proposed to overcome these problems. On the one hand, metaphors can indeed be problematic for learners, because learners tend to process linguistic input word by word, and translate word by word what they hear in a foreign language. However, metaphors, as already discussed, do not translate word by word, most of the time. Moreover, learners often do not realise that they have not understood the intended meaning, and this can cause additional problems in the classroom, because they give misleadingly positive feedback to the teacher (‘yes, we understood everything!’). It seems therefore crucial for the teacher to be very careful when using metaphors in the target language and to double check with the students how they have interpreted the metaphor.

Metaphors, on the other hand, can also be a very productive tool when used in the classroom to express beliefs and conceptualisations that students may be more willing to share through metaphors than through literal (and often quite abstract and difficult) language. In this sense, metaphors can help the students to embrace a creative way of thinking and talking, putting aside their fear of making mistakes, and conveying messages in a way that better reflects their personal, cultural and social identity.

Careers Profile: Working for a Charity

Adventures on the Bookshelf always tries to engage with languages beyond the curriculum and, if you’re here, you’re probably already a keen linguist. But if you’re thinking of applying for a Modern Languages degree you might be wondering what career options are available to you afterwards. In the coming months, we will be showcasing some of our recent graduates who have written profiles about their careers since leaving Oxford with a Modern Languages degree. First up is Evie Snow, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in French and English. Evie now works as a Schools Programme Coordinator for the Charity  Wings of Hope, which works to provide free education to children in the developing world. Read Evie’s account below…

Evie (right) with her colleagues at Wings of Hope

I graduated from Oxford just two years ago this summer (2016), and went straight into a Masters in Development Studies at SOAS in London. This really cemented my thinking that I wanted to be in International Development or charity work at some level, and my interest in postcolonial and world history/politics/languages/cultures had already been sparked in several of my finals papers* and dissertation. I then came out of my Masters looking for a job in which I could feel that I was making a direct difference, and that’s how I came across my current job. I manage the day to day running of a social enterprise programme for students aged 13-18, who compete to fundraise for the education of children in Malawi and India. This began as an internship, but quickly developed into a permanent position, with the increase in responsibility (and title!) that this entailed. I have learnt an awful lot very fast, and am hoping there is more to come!

Even though I am not directly using my French in my current job, I thoroughly intend to in my next or following role. One of my ambitions is to work in West Africa, where French is essential for most countries in the region. Aside from the technical use of the language, I feel that studying French helped me to spark several strands of learning which have been integral to my professional life so far. One of these was an awareness of other places, other cultures, other ways of thinking; in studying a language you are confronted by a different way of constructing a sentence, and even more so, a different way of constructing the world. Even though you may not realise it at the time, I think that this is vital to broadening horizons in the way people think, not to mention the enormous benefits of being able to have a year abroad! Another of these strands is the ability, and indeed for me now the desire, to compare and contrast situations at each possible stage. When you study a language that is not your native tongue, you are constantly faced with comparison between those, and students who study more than one language are clearly comparing between multiple languages and cultures. Learning languages gives you a mental flexibility which I think is pretty unique amongst the disciplines. This is vital when entering any kind of job, as it allows you to weigh up pros and cons and to balance outcomes efficiently.

Many languages graduates come out of their degrees and feel a sense of failure if they don’t instantly use that language in their everyday lives. I think the skills we have learnt during our degrees are the epitome of transferable skills, so even though each of us may be passionate about our language/languages this doesn’t have to be within the workplace.

I still try to keep with French news, and read French literature. Without having studied French, I couldn’t have spent a month in Italy learning Italian from scratch and pick it up so easily – I may not be fluent, but I can have a decent conversation! Plus, I now have a French housemate, so even though I may not be using my French at the office, I can still come home to chats over du vin et du fromage!

*Finals papers are the exams that undergraduates sit at the end of their degree.

Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?

School’s out for summer and you may be wondering what to do with yourself over the holiday. If you’re looking for ways to broaden your intellectual horizons one great resource is Oxplore, a digital learning experience created by Oxford University for students aged 11-18. Oxplore encourages you to consider ‘Big Questions’, for example, ‘Should you believe the history books?’ or ‘Would you want to live forever?’ The questions explored draw on several subjects and aim to engage with ideas in a way that goes beyond what you’ll cover in the classroom.

One particular question explored, which throws a spotlight on Modern Languages, is ‘Would it be better if we all spoke the same language?’ You can check out this question on the Being Human strand of the website. The exploration of this question included a discussion with Prof. Katrin Kohl and Dr Marianna Bolognesi, researchers on the Creative Multilingualism Project. This discussion, where Katrin and Marianna answer some questions submitted by viewers, is available to view below.

With such a rich topic, it was inevitable that there would be more questions than it was possible to answer during the livestreamed discussion. Therefore, Katrin and Marianna also took the time to answer some of the questions they didn’t cover on the Creative Miultilingualism blog. Click here to see some of their answers.

 

Bringing Kafka’s Castle to Life

To celebrate publication of the new critical edition of Franz Kafka’s final, unfinished novel Das Schloss (The Castle), Carolin Duttlinger and Barry Murnane from the Oxford Kafka Research Centre hosted a day of activities with sixth-form students, two student workshops on editing and adapting Kafka, and a podium discussion to discuss the legacy of the novel. The day-long event brought together specialists from Oxford, Roland Reuß and Peter Staengle, and award-winning playwright Ed Harris, who recently adapted the novel for BBC Radio 4. In this blog post Barry Murnane, Associate Professor in German at St John’s College, introduces Kafka’s novel.

Playwright Ed Harris with the students on the study day

Das Schloss is not exactly the most obvious introduction to Kafka’s works. Written over a period of about seven months in 1922 while Kafka’s health was deteriorating (he had been diagnosed with what was probably tuberculosis several years earlier), Das Schloss is a rambling narrative that tells us how a protagonist known only as K arrives in a snow-covered landscape dominated by a castle and has to find his place in the local community:

“It was late evening when K arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Mount, mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void.” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, transl. Anthea Bell. Oxford: OUP, 2009, p5)

Calling himself a “Landvermesser”, or “surveyor”, K finds himself in the middle of a society that is apparently dominated by a gigantic bureaucracy and he becomes involved in constant conversations with the locals trying to understand how this bureaucracy works.

Kafka in Spindelmühle, the winter resort where he began writing Das Schloss

For one reason or another, K never seems to ‘arrive’, however, and ends up constantly walking and talking in circles. On the one hand, he seems blameless because the castle authorities are not exactly forthcoming with any information. On the other hand, K appears at least partly responsible for his failure in that he treats the locals as little more than stepping stones on his way to the castle, including a potential lover called Frieda. It’s unclear how the novel would have ended: Kafka’s friend and first editor, Max Brod, says that Kafka told him on his deathbed how the novel was meant to finish with K being ‘accepted’ into the Castle and its community, but it seems a long way to go before K. would be accepted anywhere, never mind by the Castle authorities. Instead, we see a novel project trailing off into a “scheinbare Leere”, the seeming void, that K looks into at the start of the novel.

Thanks to the new critical edition of Das Schloss edited by Peter Staengle and Roland Reuß and published by the Stroemfeld-Verlag we now get a real sense of how Kafka actually wrote. Their edition reproduces the exact manuscript alongside an easy-to-read transcription, warts and all. The new edition is ground-breaking, but it puts an emphasis on scholars to make the overload of information it provides accessible. There is no easily consumable narrative of K against the Castle: we see passages where K is a less than positive hero figure, stubbornly refusing to actually listen to what people are telling him and treating women with little respect. One interesting thing is that the material of the manuscript itself shows no real sign of a struggle as Kafka begins to run out of steam with the project: the ductus of his handwriting remains smooth, flowing, perhaps even more so than at the start.

It is astonishing how relevant Kafka’s discussions of bureaucracy and social life in The Castle still are. With Oxford German Studies looking to build up to the centenary of Kafka’s death in 2024, the new edition of the novel is an ideal opportunity to discuss Kafka’s legacy and importance today.

French Film Competition – a winning entry

This week on Adventures on the Bookshelf we are pleased to showcase one of the winning entries from this year’s French film competition. This competition asked pupils to watch a French film and produce an alternative ending. The film selected for the Years 7-11 category was Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Une vie de chat (2010). The point in the film at which the rewriting picked up was the 49:20 minute mark, at the moment when Nico says  ‘Allez, accroche-toi bien Zoë’.

One of the winners in this category was Priya Gurcha, who produced an illustrated storyboard. Here, we see Priya’s brilliant alternative ending, which is full of drama and literal flights of imagination. Félicitations, Priya!

Virtual Book Club: German episode

The Virtual Book Club returns once more, this time with an episode focussing on German. The German episode features a discussion about a short story by Franz Kafka, ‘Der Kaufmann’ [The Tradesman]. Here, Joanna Raisbeck leads the discussion with undergraduates Hannah and Colleen, as they consider the questions: what is the tradesman worried about?; what does he think about in the lift?; and why do you think he has these thoughts in the lift?

If you would like to receive a copy of the text, which will be provided in both the original German and an English translation, or if you would like future Virtual Book Club updates, please email us at schools.liaison@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk

Spanish Flash Fiction Competition – the results are in!

This year’s Spanish Flash Fiction Competition ran from December to March and received almost 400 entries. We were amazed at the entrants’ command of, and enthusiasm for, Spanish, and the imagination and grasp of narrative techniques evident in the submissions. Stories ranged from a tale about a vegetarian lion to one about a zombie Christmas. We would like to thank everyone who submitted an entry.  The judges were throughly entertained, and choosing the winners was no easy task. Congratulations to the winners below and, to everyone who took part – please do continue to use your languages creatively!

Years 7-11 Category

The winner for this category was “Traición?” by Ivo Reeve. Besides the author’s excellent command of Spanish, we were especially impressed by how well wrought the text is: how Ivo managed to balance poetic language with military description. All of that in a piece of veritable historical flash fiction. We also want to commend the two runners-up for this category: “El monstruo brillante” by Chloe Cheng and “No la sorprendió cuando vinieron…” by Elizabeth McDonald, who both showcased excellent command of Spanish and true literary sensitivity. Finally, we want to give an honorary mention to Savannah Culpepper’s piece, “Una noche, Jesús y yo…”, for its deft use of humour and ingenuity.

Years 12-13 Category

The first prize in this category goes to “Las bufandas” by Charlotte Collerton (Year 12), a seemingly simple yet powerful and tender story. We would like to congratulate Charlotte for her excellent command of idiomatic Spanish, but also her poetic sense of rhythm that permeates both the form (vocabulary and sentence structure) and the content of the text (the action of knitting, the rhythm of seasons and sequence of generations). There was one close runner-up: “El día que lo tosió…”  by Hannah Corsini (Year 12), which truly impressed us with her originality and her use of bold yet successful metaphors. The text itself, which describes sickness through literary terms and references, made us think of a Quixotic “literary sickness” or “literatosis”, as it were: seeing everything in the world through the lens of literature (we are afraid to report no cure has been found against this “terrible disease” yet…). Lastly, we would like to give an honorary mention to two entries: “El francotirador” by Jacob Murray (Year 12) and “El estimado rey” by Oliver Pearey (Year 12) for their underlying philosophical message and their successful use of narrative tension in such brief texts, including a final plot twist that leaves readers pondering and quesstioning their own assumptions.

We hope to feature some of the winning entries on this blog in the coming weeks. ¡ Felicidades !

Literature Masterclass: Theatricality

In March, Dr Simon Kemp gave us an introduction to ‘Time and Tense‘ for sixth-formers studying French literature. We return to the literary toolkit today with an introduction to another aspect of literary analysis you might wish to consider, particularly when looking at plays: theatricality.

In this presentation, Dr Jessica Goodman, Tutor in French at St Catherine’s College, gives us an overview of this concept, touching on questions like who is talking and to whom?, what is happening onstage and offstage?, and what difference does the presence of the audience make? Join us for all the ‘drama’ below…

Announcing the 2018 German Classic Prize!

Budding Germanists out there might be interested in delving into a ‘German Classic’: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart. For the second year, the Oxford German Network is running an essay competition for Sixth-Formers who have studied German at GCSE level (you do not need to be studying German at A Level or equivalent). There are prizes of £500, £300, and £100 to be won. The deadline for submissions is noon on Wednesday 12 September 2018. More information is available here or read on to find out more…

The Prize celebrates a classic text of German literature, with resources to make it accessible whether or not you have experience of German literature. This year, the prize focuses on Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart, a fascinating historical drama about how Elizabeth I came to have Mary, Queen of Scots executed. The great centrepiece of the play is a gripping confrontation between Elisabeth and Maria – in fact, it never happened but it makes for electrifying drama.

You will find a rich array of material including podcasts and YouTube links on Maria Stuart: http://www.ogn.ox.ac.uk/content/german-classics-prize. Candidates may also request a special reader with extracts from secondary literature on the work (see contact details on the website).

The task: Write a 2000 to 3000-word essay in English, independently and unsupervised, over the summer holidays between Lower and Upper Sixth/ between Years 12 and 13.

The prize, and funding of the accompanying resources, have been generously donated by Jonathan Gaisman, QC, a highly distinguished commercial barrister who was introduced to German literature at school and still finds German literature and culture the most intellectually rewarding part of his life. He would like to give young people the opportunity to be inspired as he was when he first encountered German literature.

Students willing to have a go at undertaking this challenge have the possibility of winning a glittering cash prize worth £500, £300 or £100. All participants will get a certificate of participation.

The prize is aimed at German learners in the UK. It does not assume that participants will be taking English beyond GCSE or that they have a prior interest in literature. The rationale for asking Modern Languages students to write an essay in English is to give an opportunity for UK learners to engage with a linguistically and intellectually challenging German work in the linguistic medium they are most comfortable with. While participants may want to use a translation to support their understanding, we recommend reading the work in the original to get the most out of it and take advantage of the opportunity it offers for expanding German competence. All quotations must be in German.

Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz

As with all the Oxford German Olympiad competitions, we aim to create a level playing field for students from different backgrounds, schools, and levels of linguistic competence. The submission form must be signed by the participant’s teacher, who is also asked to submit the essay online. All sixth-formers in UK schools with a GCSE or equivalent UK qualification in German are entitled to take part, including students who are not taking a German A-level or equivalent qualification. Native and near-native speakers of German are not excluded but are required to declare their linguistic status on the submission form. Our prime criterion is the quality of intellectual and imaginative engagement with the work evident in the essay while taking account of prior opportunity.

Any questions should be addressed to the German Classic Prize Coordinator: Joanna Raisbeck, joanna.raisbeck@some.ox.ac.uk.

Viel Glück!

How much is too much reality?

In May The Oxford Centre for Comparative Criticism and Translation, and St Anne’s College hosted a discussion between two of the best-known novelists writing in Spanish today, Javier Cercas and Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Beginning as an introduction to their recent publications, the conversation evolved into an exciting reflection on the role of storytelling in a post-truth age…

Javier Cercas at the Gothenburg Book Fair 2014. Photo by Albin Olsson, from Wikimedia Commons

Javier Cercas gave an insight into his 2014 novel, El Impostor (The Impostor), which tells the story of Enric Marco Battle, a trade unionist who became famous in Spain as a survivor of the concentration camps Mauthausen and Flossenbürg. Battle became a spokesperson for Spanish survivors of the Holocaust and was a prominent voice against Fascism. However, in 2005 it was revealed that Battle had deceived the public about his experience of the war and had never been held in a concentration camp. He was, in effect, an impostor.

Vásquez introduced his 2015 novel, La forma de las ruinas (The Shape of the Ruins), which traces two political assassinations in Colombia’s history: that of General Rafael Uribe Uribe, a senator and civil war veteran killed in 1914; and that of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a leader of the Liberal party and presidential candidate at the time of his murder in 1948. Vásquez’s novel includes a character called Carlos Carballo, a conspiracy theorist who believes the two crimes are linked, not only to one another, but also to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez at the Hay Festival 2016. Photo by Andrew Lih (User:Fuzheado), from Wikimedia Commons

Both novels, then, might to some degree be considered historical fiction, taking their storylines from history but marrying this with the imagination to create a version of the past that is closer to what we might expect from fiction. However, the two writers use their novels to problematise this genre, questioning the role fiction can play in an era of alternative facts.

The writers consider the figure of the fantasist, asking what motivates a fantasist to invent alternative scenarios and why such figures are believed. This begs the question, is the novelist a kind of fantasist? And if you can have a factual novel, what is it that makes it a novel, a work of the imagination?

Vásquez suggests that fantasists are fascinated by stories, by creating narrative out of the past as a way to meet their personal objectives. They are detectives of a kind, and the novel is a means of probing reality and humanity. As Ford Madox Ford said, the novel is a ‘medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.’ Cercas, meanwhile, draws a distinction between the different fantasists presented in the two novels: on the one hand, Battle, who distorts history to amplify or falsify his own role within it; on the other, Carballo, who cannot accept that history doesn’t make sense and is ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth), and therefore looks endlessly for connections in an effort to find the meaning in history.

What do both fantasists tell us about our relationship to narratives of the past though? Perhaps that history becomes more palatable when it is presented in the form of a story. Between the lack of a story and a lie, we prefer the lie and, to go a step further, when we are dealing with the worst elements of history, we try to mask it with narrative.It is for this reason, Cercas suggests, that General Charles de Gaulle aimed to convince French people that they had all been ‘résistants’ during the war, for, he said, ‘Les Français n’ont pas besoin de la vérité’ [French people do not need the truth].

In the current climate, we find other words for lying, referring to distortions of the truth as ‘alternative facts’. Social media allows us to create alternative chains of events and, for the first time, we have the impression of being able to choose the version of reality we want to hear. Consequently, people who are adept at manipulating storytelling have power. Vásquez points out that the German writer and philosopher Novalis asserted that ‘novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.’ The novel goes where history cannot, reframing history as a narrative that can be edited, manipulated, and used to dominate the political moment. This is because, in the words of the poet T. S. Eliot, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

It seems, therefore, that our present moment is defined by narratology, by storytelling. What do you think – are we facing a battle for the story?