Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Language Learning Phenomena, with Examples

Allow me to introduce my readers to an item of ESOL jargon: L1 interference. It's an admirably appropriate label: efficiently descriptive. It is the phenomenon where a language learner inappropriately applies principles of his or her own language, such as grammar or syntax, to the production of the language that they are studying.

Some examples of Russian grammar that occasionally produce problems with L1 interference are:

Russian does not include the use of grammatical articles.

Question formation in Russian comes from an alteration of intonation at the sentential level, and not, as is the case in English, by way of a change of word order.

Abstract concepts are typically referred to using a proximate spatial metaphor, whereas, in English, it is far more common to hear a speaker employ a distal spatial metaphor for this purpose.

Additionally, because the Russian language employs roughly half the number of vowels that English does, Russian learners of English do not always appropriately differentiate different vowels in their production of English. For instance, the vowel sounds in hut, hat and heart are often realised in the same way, as something between hut and heart.

All of these examples of L1 interference converging upon a student of mine, as she attempted to ask "Is that a fact?" needless to say, came as a little bit of a shock to me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Talk to Women

As it turns out, malls in Moscow are BIG -- big enough to provoke the use of upper case lettering. I say malls, when, in fact, I've only been to one so far since I arrived in Moscow, but it was BIG. It was so big, in fact, that at least one of the shops had its own cafeteria.

Aside from being big, there was nothing especially surprising about the complex; there were shops, there were travelators, there was a food court, there was a Starbucks. One thing that did induce surprise in this small town foreigner (most people outside of New Zealand don't have a definition of city that extends down to the size of Nelson), was the sight of a man with what may be the least fulfilling job conceivable: his job was to stand at a desk outside one of the larger shops in the mall, put people's bag's inside clear plastic bags, and then seal the plastic bags shut. Only once all of a given customer's bags were individually sealed was said customer permitted to enter the shop with them. This sight got me thinking: I wonder how successful this guy is with women. Granted, I can't claim to have had any admirable success with the fairer sex -- I can't even seem to make the line "I'm a foreigner!" work, in spite of reassurances that it is a gold-plated draw-card -- but at least I would never find myself on the wrong end of the following conversation. I suppose that the bag-bagger has never had this conversation either, but I like to imagine that there exist people who are worse at talking to women than I am:

"So, what do you do?" Asks the woman.

"Me? I put bags inside plastic bags."

She looks at him for a moment, considering what it is she has just heard. "Oh yes," she says. "I went to a big contemporary art museum in Florida last year. I found it really interesting to try and work out what the motivations behind the artists' work were." Here he opens his mouth, intending to respond, but finds himself rapidly cut off. "No, don't tell me what yours is . . . um, bags inside bags . . . right! I think I've figured it out. You're trying to represent the idea that no world view -- which you chose to represent with the internal bag -- can manifest separately from the broader cultural context -- represented by the outer bag -- within which it exists. Am I close?"

"Well, no. People give me their bags, like a purse, or a shopping bag, or sometimes a backpack, and I put their bag inside a big plastic bag, then seal the plastic bag with a special machine that I have, and give it back to them."

She looks at him again, thinking.

"Oh! Performance art! That's cool, I love performance art!" He blinks slowly, this time not even trying to interrupt. "So, what you're trying to say with this piece is that, no matter how different or individual we think we are -- whether we consider ourselves to be a Prada purse, or an Ikea shopping bag, or a hemp ruck-sack, or whatever -- as soon as we allow ourselves to conform to consumer culture, -- which you represent with identical plastic bags, -- and as soon as we seal ourselves within that consumer culture, we close ourselves off from further expansion: no matter how open we consider our minds -- our bags -- to be."

"No. . . No, that's not it."

She looks at him yet again, trying to decode the motivation behind his work. "No, I'm sorry," she says. "I can't figure it out. What's your motivation?"

"Well, mostly because the owners of the shop pay me. I think their main reason has something to do with shoplifting, or, I guess, not shoplifting. Honestly, for minimum wage, it's difficult to make me give a crap."

"Wait. . ." She looks confused. "You're not an artist?"


"And you don't comment on cultural recursivity, or the social homogeneity of consumerism?"

"Well, not deliberately."

"Oh. . . " Here, the girl makes one of those cliché excuses that people make when decide that they don't want to continue talking to this guy, any more, and scurries off to find someone who is worthy of here attention.

And thus he spectacularly fails to impress the lady in question. Man, I'm glad I'm nothing like that guy.

No, my party conversations usually go:

"What did you study at university?" They ask.


"Oh, really. How many languages do you speak?"

". . . Fuck off."

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The History of a Certain Variety of Coffee

A short time ago, I indulged in a cup of kopi-luwak coffee, while sitting in a coffee house in central Moscow. For reasons that will be elaborated upon in due course, kopi-luwak has the notable distinction of being the world’s most expensive coffee. Although, at only 300 Rubles for a coffee plunger of the brew, it was notably less than Wikipedia says the beverage typically costs; ergo, I'm tempted to believe that what I was drinking was, in fact, a blend, intended to simulate the flavour, while only going some way to simulating the price, of the genuine product.

Real kopi-luwak, irrespective of whether or not that was in fact what I drank, is produced with the aid of a creature known as the Asian Palm Civet, which is a relative of the mongoose. The creature, as a component of an reasonably undiscerning diet (one that interestingly enough includes alcohol), eats ripe coffee cherries from coffee plantations around South-East Asia. By way of what I assume is a fairly typical omnivorous mammalian digestive process, the coffee beans emerge, with the cherry-flesh digested away, from much closer to the civet’s tail than from whence it entered. Apparently, the digestive acids of the civet alter the protein structure of the coffee: in a delicious way.

I shall indulge in some more ranting on the topic of "beverages extracted from excrement: a case study" later, but first, I shall recount the origin of the broader category of coffee.

The origins of coffee are, supposedly, as follows. I precursor this by warning that the story is probably-- and here I feel I may be deviating from the writing voice that I have been cultivating with indeterminable success over the course of this blog -- a steaming pile of horse shit. Never the less:

One day an Ethopian man named Kaldi awoke one morning to find that he didn't have any goats. For most people, this is a fairly typical morning; I for one enjoy waking up every morning to find that I don't have any goats. For Kaldi, however, this was a matter of significant professional concern, and thus he went searching.

Eventually, or perhaps immediately (details are naturally clouded in the steam of word-of-mouth history) Kaldi found his goats dancing around a coffee plant. Here is where I became skeptical of the story's authenticity: I have trouble imagining a goat dancing. Loosing control of its faculties, perhaps, but that only really constitutes "dancing" in a club with a name like Shooters, or Propaganda, or anywhere else with a vaguely descriptive one word name. Regardless, Kaldi, evidently lacking in a firm grasp of the risk-consequence relationship, decided to sample the bright red berries growing on the mysterious plant. I shall leave you to extrapolate the remainder of the tale, or, alternatively, read it here. Suffice-to-say, he got tweaked, liked it, coffee entered the Muslim world, then Europe, and is now the world's second most traded commodity.

The origins of kopi-luwak are somewhat less clear, or, maybe, less intuitive. I cannot, in spite of my best efforts, postulate a series of events leading to its discovery that did not, at some stage, include a person digging through civet excrement. Forgive my cynicism, but: What? Additionally, although I cannot find any sourced data to back this claim up, I couldn’t be convinced that a 3 kilogram animal would be remotely likely to pass a full cup-worth of coffee in a single stool. Ergo, the individual who first chose to sift through shit in search of coffee, in spite of, I should like to note, the fact that coffee would necessarily be growing abundantly nearby, did it more than once in a row. The first excavation was apparently not so off-putting as to discourage the individual from doing it again.

Following this, the party in question, I assume, sought to clean the bean, which I suppose is the logical progression; if I had just dug coffee beans out of excrement -- if I had just dug anything out of excrement, I imagine -- I would want to wash it thoroughly. While I can appreciate the imperative to clean the beans, I can only do so on the same level as I appreciate the imperative to remove a self-applied rat-trap from ones genitals.

While a coffee bean, washed of all traces of turd, looks much the same a coffee bean that has never had turd on it, it would be impossible to wash the memory of of the turd-encrusted bean from a sensible person's memory. Yet, those first beans must have been ground, steeped, and the resulting fluid consumed. And all this, despite the fact that whoever did it had no way of knowing that it would taste any good.

Maybe it was a prank.

"Hey [snigger], try this [snigger] special coffee."

"Oh hey, thanks. [Sip]. Hey, this is pretty great!"

"What?! Let me try! [Grab. Heavy sip.] Well, what do you know? We could absolutely sell this for way more than merely the taste would warrant!"

". . . Why is that. . . ?"

Writing this post has made me realise that there is a vast range of synonyms for feces.