Sunday, 28 October 2007

Cursa Popular – more popular than ever

One of Vilanova’s best sides are the conditions and facilities for outdoor sports, so it is suitable that we have a local running race through the town. It attracts a lot of people. My only question is where do they all come from?

On Saturday October 21, el Club Esportiu de Vilanova i la Geltrú organised the annual Cursa Popular. The 7 km main race does not require too big an effort of regular joggers and the 1,5 km Minicursa, which parents and children can run together, is also an interesting format. This year, the race had its starting point in Plaça del Mercat. In spite of some quite tasteful public art, this square is an eyesore when it is empty but that was certainly not the case this day. In total, 1.626 had signed up to participate and that exceeded the organisers’ target.

We are not new in Vilanova any longer, so when I learnt that this was the 29th Cursa Popular, I fell a bit ashamed for having taken part for the first time. I can not understand how I have managed to miss it the last two years, not only since I like jogging but also since the route turned out to be a well planned presentation of our town.

On the Rambla we passed by people having a coffee at the outdoor cafes. After that we reached the fresh air, but fortunately enough no strong wind, at the marina, followed by the beach promenade of Ribes-Roges. By the time we turned back towards the centre I must admit to feeling a bit disappointed with the amount of runners who overtook me but then discovered my wife and children who had come to cheer on me. This gave me new forces to run through the old parts of Vilanova and then follow what I assume must have once been the wall street of la Geltrú. My original intention was to start spurting when coming back to the Rambla, but my strengths failed me so I only did so when I saw the beautiful Mercat building in front of me.

My result was far from impressive but I blame that on a nasty cold. The entrepà and sports drink served at the finishing line soon made me forget my suffering. Next year my oldest son will be five years old, so maybe I will be nicer on myself and run the Minicursa together with him instead. Since it goes through streets which he knows well I will be able to challenge him up to the next toy store in case he gets exhausted.

The only thing that puzzles me a bit with the Cursa Popular is where all the participants came from. Vilanova is a small town, and until now I have been under the impression that I start to recognize people here. Faces I spot when walking around in the pedestrian area also turn up during the carnaval and the festa major. However, among my fellow runners I found very few people whom I am sure to have seen before. Are we so divided in our town that we either take part in local street life and culture or do sports? If so, I will have to accept being odd, because I feel connected to both groups.

My first Cursa Popular left me with one special memory. When the start shot went off and the big crowd started to move - everybody dressed in the same green t-shirt - a strong sense of belonging came over me. Was it that emotion that made me feel a tear forming in one of my eyes? Am I really so pathetic or was I just blinded by the bright sunshine?

Monday, 22 October 2007

Adult students depend on volunteers for practice

A popular method for learning a new language is to spend time in a place where it is naturally spoken. There, you usually do not help from the authorities to get verbal practice. In Catalonia, the regional government offers this service for students of Catalan. My own experience reveals that, unfortunately, it is needed.

When checking out the Generalitat’s services related to Catalan studies I was positively surprised to find the program Voluntariat per la llengua. In this, students are offered one-to-one conversation classes with native speakers and since the latter do this on a voluntary basis, the program is free of charge. Your only commitments are to only speak Catalan and to have ten meetings, preferably on a weekly basis. This summer, I finally had the time to join and last week did I have the tenth and last meeting with Ramon, with whom I formed my first, so called, linguistic couple.

Before meeting Ramon for the first time I was very nervous. Up to then, I had learnt Catalan through self-studies and had little experience of speaking the language. I did not need to worry, because he was fast to adapt to my level. Somehow we found ways to have fruitful discussions on everything from Catalan culture to history and local politics. Except for that, we explored Vilanova’s small neighbour town Sant Pere de Ribes, since that was where we used to meet. Looking back, I am very content with Voluntariat per la llengua and wish to extend my thanks to the Servei de Català of Vilanova for the fast processing of my application and, even more so, to Ramon for all his time and energy.

The fact that I have relatively few natural opportunities to practise Catalan frustrates me, and that is why I come back something which I have already commented on in an earlier blog entry. In my local supermarket, where the staff recognise me thanks to my sometimes not so quiet children, I have reached ideal conditions for language learning. The shop assistants answer me in Catalan, unless they see that I do not understand. When that happens, they temporarily recur to Spanish, but then return to Catalan for the rest of the conversation. However, still today this is an exception.

When I moved to Catalonia, my Spanish was poor. More than once did to talk to shop assistants who did not even try to conceal how bored they were to deal with yet another inarticulate foreigner. And I do not blame them. To communicate with people who do not speak properly slows us down and increases the risk for mistakes, neither of which is rewarded in a work situation. Still, since it was these people’s job to deal with my business they never had any alternative but to follow through with the conversation.

My Catalan today is far better than my Spanish was back then, but I meet with little patience when I use it. An incorrectly conjugated verb can be enough to trigger a switch to Spanish, although the people I talk to seem to prefer Catalan not only with other customers but also with their colleagues. This is quite discouraging for a person who tries to learn a new language.

When I bring this up with Catalans, even young people claim to have been taught that it is good manners to speak Spanish to non-Catalans. I question how it can possibly be considered poor manners to answer a person in the same language which he or she uses to address you and think that this is first and foremost a comfortable excuse for an example of the principle of the smallest resistance. My impression is that while many Catalans complain that their language is being threatened, surprisingly few of them take the opportunity to promote it to new speakers. There is no need to be a voluntari per la llengua to do so – all it takes is to answer the few Catalan speaking foreigners one meets in daily life in this language and not in Spanish. Admittedly, the risk for misunderstandings might increase slightly, but is it not worth that?

Returning to the program Voluntariat per la llengua, as of what I have heard, in Barcelona they arrange big get-togethers in order for the linguistic couples to feel that they are a part of a bigger community. Well, I think I got a better deal out here in Garraf, where there was nothing special about Ramon and me. We were another two people chatting in Catalan while enjoying a cup of coffee in the shade. Although I originally met Ramon in a formal way, it felt as if we were just like everybody else. Now, is that not what integration is all about?

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Matthew Tree – writer found niche market

An Englishman who as an adult decides to learn Catalan and reaches such proficiency that he can nowadays earn his living as a writer of his adopted language - that is quite a remarkable personality. However, not all interesting writers write good stories.

In literary theory there are many things which the experts disagree about, but in one aspect there is almost consensus; when analysing a text you are to work with it in its own right while leaving the author and his intentions to the side. If I apply this perspective to the two books which I have recently read by Matthew Tree, I feel that there is not much substance left. At the same time, since Mr Tree rarely describes anything without revealing a firm opinion about it, I believe to have learnt a lot about him as a person. Admittedly, I am not yet the right person to evaluate how well he makes use of the Catalan language, but neither do I feel comfortable with his story-telling technique, nor with is selection of topics and details to comment on. Therefore I am happy to have read the books in Catalan and thus, at least, had a chance to practise my new language.

In CAT – Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix, Mr Tree describes what he experiences during a 30-day roundtrip by public transport in the geographic region of Catalonia. To some places he goes for the first time, while to others he has already been and decides to come back. He meets quite a number of people, a few of them being old friends but the majority being random encounters.

Whether Catalonia exists as a cultural entity is indeed an intriguing question for anyone who arrives here as an immigrant and wants to be integrated into local society. I was hoping that this book would offer Mr Tree’s point of view on which places I ought to go to understand, let us say, the 'soul' of Catalonia. Unfortunately, it does not and I believe the reason for that to be all the time spent on explaining travel itineraries, the author’s mood or the background of his friends. There simply is not enough energy left for telling us about the places the author visits and even less how they contribute to the alleged objective of the book - i.e. to see whether Catalonia exists.

In La puta feina we are being presented examples from Barcelona on how deceitful, lazy or sexist bosses ruin the lives of their employees. Mr Tree repeatedly reinforces his message that we should liberate ourselves from the humiliating jobs where so many of us spend a big share of our time. Only in the very last pages of the book, where he outlines a soluciò final - a realistic alternative to paid work - did I finally find something which I recognized as fresh and original. Many a writer has been inspired by the problematic relationship which exists between employers and their staff. To me, Mr Tree’s stereotypical and superficial reflections on the matter would possibly be enjoyable in a blog, but I can not understand how someone could agree to publish them as a book.

Some people seem to think that Mr Tree would be able to earn more money if he would write in English, but I think that it is the other way around. Like any creative entrepreneur, he has built a niche for himself in being a foreigner but writing in Catalan and that is what makes his books sell. To use myself as an example, if I buy further books by Mr Tree, it will not be for their literary qualities, but only because I am interested in him as a phenomenon. And that special status, I judge, could only ever be achieved in a language like Catalan, with a strong craving for international recognition. I dare to bet that no Swedish publisher would ever treat a foreigner writing in Swedish in this benevolent way and I interpret the fact that Mr Tree’s books have not been translated to other languages as an indication that I am right.

A few days ago, Mr Tree launched a new book where, apparently, he proves that God does not exist – a topic which I am usually easily motivated to read about. However, I want for such delicate a matter to be treated with a level of seriousness that I have not seen in Mr Tree's aforementioned books and I am confident that that he has no intention to change his style. For his skills in Catalan and also for his success in making a living of something he likes to do, Matthew Tree is an inspiring example. Chapeau! Having said that, before I buy his new book I will remind myself to see it as a discussion on the life, needs and body functions of its author - and not at all about the existence of God.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Learning a new language – maintaining motivation

As I see it, time and motivation are the two most important factors for those who want to learn a language, much more important than individual capacity. I have already discussed the importance of creating time for the new language, since it is the aspect that I consider most people to disregard. But time without motivation does not take us anywhere. So what do I do to stay motivated?

I know of many people who have learnt one or several languages so well that they occasionally are taken for native speakers. If asked, all of these people would say that reaching that level of fluency has taken a lot of efforts. New languages can not be learnt without a true commitment, and that is why many adult learners fail. The busier we are, the more difficult is it to be motivated for projects where progress is slow.

Since many adults lament that children learn languages faster than us, let us take a look at how we differ in motivation. Adults analyze and then prioritise needs while children are direct. My sons, who are one and a half and four years old, respectively, learn Catalan by social necessity. Since people they meet in school do not speak Swedish, they adapt without much questioning. For my wife and me, on the other hand, motivation does not come by itself. We know that Catalan is good to know for daily life here, but also that it is far from indispensable. To complicate matters further, we are aware that there is a trade-off, at least short term; should we learn two languages at the same time, with the risk of mixing them up due to similarities, or rather first strive for perfection in Spanish and subsequently let that be our bridge into Catalan? No wonder we are much more likely to lose motivation than our sons are.

As readers of this blog will understand, I have already made up my mind to learn Catalan although I am still far from fluent in Spanish. To succeed as adult learners we must make a firm decision to learn a language and then immediately capitalize as much as possible on the energy of the initial impulse. Learning new words is hardly fun, but is an absolute must in any language. It is therefore my advice to dedicate the first weeks solely to the vocabulary of the target language, and come back to basic grammar or simplified dialogues only later on. Personally, I collect as many ready-made glossaries as I can find and then start to memorize words. To search up additional words by oneself at this stage is a waste of time since all important words sooner or later turn up in the glossaries. It is equally futile to exclude words only because they do not seem important or too difficult. Let us be honest, if our motivation is so weak that we feel relief in removing two words from a list of 100, we will never manage to learn all the words needed to master a language.

Fortunately enough for my Catalan, I have come through the toughest stage, that is achieving basic vocabulary. I will, occasionally, go back to glossaries to learn new words but rarely do so to revise words which I have already learnt once. I simply consider that too boring. My method for maintaining the vocabulary which I have already achieved is to read a lot, newspapers as well as books. Admittedly, this is a low-intensive way to refresh a certain set of words. However, at least for me, it is a kind of quality exposure to the new language, which I am easily motivated for, since the focus switches from learning the language to making use of it. The important thing to remember in order for this method to work is to concentrate on content and not on the individual words. Any text made for native speakers will be full of vocabulary which we do not yet master and we have to force ourselves to accept that. If we do not, but expect to have a perfect vocabulary before we start to read, we extend the time before we can make use of the new language. For an adult learner, that is an unnecessary risk to motivation.

It will sound like heresy to some, but does it really matter if we miss out on some of the meaning in a book we read? My wife and I have both recently read La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. While I stayed with the Spanish original version, she gave up and switched to the Swedish translation. I admit that there are several details and descriptions in the novel which she, most likely, has understood better than I, but I can live with that. After all, none of us will have to pass a test on what we remember from the book. Except for that, because I read at a slower speed, my experience of reading the text lasted longer. This even my wife was jealous about since we both loved the novel.

I prefer reading, since it allows for me to go about at my own pace, but that is purely a matter of taste. For those who do not like books, thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of alternative tools. From our home we today have access to radio, TV and films in virtually all foreign languages. Look back ten years and you will realize what a fantastic development there has been in the conditions for learning a new language without any travelling. The tools are there, however, as before it remains a personal challenge to find our individual ways to create the time and build the motivation to make use of them.

Post scriptum: In spite of my strong drive to learn languages, there have been times in my life when I have been so discouraged that I have temporarily given up. How to gain back motivation in case you lose it, is a topic I will come back to in a later text.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

La Caixa - so great and still late

The savings bank La Caixa is in a class of its own here in Catalonia. No matter how you measure it (capital flows, number of branch offices etc) it is many times bigger than its closest competitor. Its brand name stands for professionalism. Well, at least most of the time.

During the last few months, La Caixa has been preparing for the public offer of Criteria Caixa Corp, an entity which above all will hold and develop the group’s international activities. There has been less media coverage of the event than I expected, but at least all people who watch the nine o’clock news on TVE1 will have seen the classy but abstract advertising. I also assume that most customers of the savings bank, like my own family, will have been approached personally by the staff of the local branch as well as through messages on La Caixa’s web-pages.

In July, when we first heard about the IPO plans, my wife and I decided that we would invest. Then followed the big credit crunch of the summer and our interest faded away. We never doubted about the project as such, but neither did we feel an urge to invest in bank shares while the consequences of the US sub-prime mortgage crash are still unclear. La Caixa is not exactly known for giving away things for free, so we are confident that the initial price for private investors like us will not have much of a discount. “But if we invest we might finally be motivated to follow the stock exchange here”, my wife said and so, in the end, we decided to take a chance. Yesterday, October 2, I signed the power of attorney so that the branch office can subscribe some shares in my name.

All activities a company undertakes can influence its brand name. Today, by ordinary post, I received a standardized letter from La Caixa, reminding me about the IPO and inviting me to invest. The funny detail is that this reached me on October 3, and as far as I have understood it, yesterday was the last day to issue power of attorneys. The fact that the letter is dated “September 2007” does not help me to determine when it was actually sent out. I am prepared to give La Caixa the benefit of the doubt since post here often comes with big delays. But the question remains: Should not a bank, which claims to be great, be able to plan for the fact that post arrives late? Or was the staff not 'under pressure' to get the information out on time?