Archaology Update

October 2, 2008

The Early Prehistory module I’m doing now as part of my online Archaeology course is absolutely fascinating. It deals with the origins of humans from 5 million-odd years ago. I’m only a few weeks into the module, but it’s the best part – hominids, Lucy, Neanderthals, stone tools, the emergence of cave art… If I had known about this in school, I would have chosen to be a paleoanthropologist. Why don’t they tell you these things in school? The closest we came to it was History, which is about as close as Leo Tolstoy is to J K Rowling (or Anna Karenina to Harry Potter).

According to what I read this week, at one point there might have been as few as 1500 women alive on earth. 1500! The tiniest twist of fate could have made human beings extinct. Then our planet would have remained in its pristine Garden-of-Eden state for god knows how many millennia. Imagine that!

The WOW Factor

August 13, 2007

It feels like a bit of an anticlimax… the German exam is over and I did well. In fact, I – along with another woman – topped the class. Ho hum.

Last time, when I unexpectedly did well, I was thrilled! That time, I took the exam after a four month break from class, so scoring 97% seemed like an impossibility, an absurdity – I hardly believed it. This time, with a mundane 90%, I don’t have the same sense of surprise and exhilaration. Last time, I felt the score was undeserved, unexpected, and a complete bolt from the blue. This time, I worked towards it, I knew from the preparatory model test that I was in the range, and when the marks were announced, it felt rather inevitable, even a bit of a let down, to have got just the score I’d aimed for.

Which leads me to an inescapable conclusion that I have often observed – at least in myself – before: those outcomes in life, whether exam results or office appraisals, raises, and promotions, or anything else – those outcomes that you work for and that you earn, deserve, and expect to achieve don’t give anything like the sense of elation, disbelief, and happiness that accompany the unexpected, the undeserved. Earned rewards lack the “wow” factor.

(On a side note, Amit seems to think that my marks are entirely undeserved. I was out of town for three weeks in the middle, he points out. What business do I have topping the class – the other woman didn’t drop a single class! He’s not unduly impressed with my commitment in getting up early in the morning to study either, even though I missed out on tennis to do so. Why not? “Well, you were going to sleep early every night, weren’t you,” he asks, as though it’s a crime. If I had really been hardworking, I’d’ve been up half the night, studying. He’s particularly unimpressed by my strategy of studying two weeks before the exam and then studying less and less as the exam day approaches. That, according to him, is not the sign of someone who’s slogging. Sigh. You just can’t win ‘em all.)

So anyway, as I was saying, what often accompanies the deserved and expected outcome is not even happiness, more a tired sense of responsibility, or perhaps apprehension for whatever greater responsibility or challenge comes next, or, at best, relief.

This is one of the reasons that I always like to leave large tips in small eateries – the extra ten bucks might not matter so much to me, but the unexpected tip might make someone else quite happy. This is also why I adopt the insane practice of giving my cook a raise before she asks for it – it just feels so much nicer that way. Don’t you think?

Teaching Un-thinking

August 7, 2007

Although it tends to get overshadowed by my German exam, which looms large this weekend and contains horrors such as the spoken part of the test, I have not entirely forgotten that I am also studying Archaeology and that that course is also slowly nearing its end.

This does not flood me with the same kind of relief that the prospect of the end of my German class does. The German class has been great fun: once again I have enjoyed myself quite extraordinarily, despite frequently making an idiot of myself in front of 15 people (and laughing loudly when others do likewise). I liked our teacher quite a lot – she has a good sense of fun, and is quite capable of stepping out of herself and laughing at herself, at India, or at the coming together of the two in the most absurd fashion possible, going by what I understand of the events that she sometimes narrates to us (in her super fast, super fluent German, of course).

But, despite all the fun, it’s quite horrible having to sacrifice 5-6 hours on both Saturday and Sunday every week for 16 weekends! This, my Archaeology course does not demand – an hour or two every weekday evening, four days a week seems to work just fine for that. That’s why I’ve decided to take a break from my German course and continue with Archaeology, when common sense demands that I do it the other way round.

In the approaching German exam, lots of things are quite familiar. The exam consists largely of multiple choice answers, which test your understanding of given text and of the rules of grammar, sentence construction, parts of speech etc. That apart, there’s a letter to be written, which smacks of English classes about 20 years ago. The spoken part is the most nervous-making, but even that reminds me of the viva voce sections of lab exams in school. So, in a sense, nothing is altogether unfamiliar about the entire examination process.

With the Archaeology course, it is a different story. I’m just not used to reading a subject for an exam and not having to memorize anything. I’ve never done this. I keep thinking as I read: how on earth am I going to remember all this? Then I realize: hey, I don’t have to; if I need this, I can open the book and look it up. Then I feel massively guilty, as though that’s cheating. But the way my Archaeology course is structured, it’s just not. The assessment is based on an assignment, and that assignment is your answer to a question. The questions are provided to you along with the course materials, at the start of the course. You are expected to read the questions beforehand, and if you have an idea of which one you’re going to work on, well and good. Then you’re expected to keep your selected question(s) in mind as you read through the course material, so that you can make note of the relevant information as you go. This soooooooooo looks like cheating! I can’t get used to the thought that it is not only ok, but expected and demanded that you should have your text books open as you write your “exam”.

In the Indian education system I’ve been accustomed to, studying means learning what’s in the text books and spewing it out as close to verbatim as possible. Diverging from the printed material is not encouraged and questioning it is tantamount to heresy. To my alarm, I find that in this “new” educations system, far from spewing out verbatim, even merely ingesting an idea and presenting it in your own words is considered plagiarism. To my greater shock, it is considered plagiarism even if you conscientiously and dedicatedly quote your sources from beginning to end. Measured by this yardstick, every exam I’ve ever given in my life, with the possible exception of German, has been based on plagiarism. Not because I wanted to plagiarise, but because I didn’t know any other way. In fact, I didn’t even so much as know that there was another way.

Apparently, there is. The other way, the way that allows you to open as many textbooks as you please while you write your “exam”, tests not your memory or your understanding of what is in the textbooks, but rather, tests what you think about it. This, to me, is extraordinary. Me, think? Who ever allowed me to think? Why, when in school days I tried to think, I always came up with questions; and when I raised questions in class, I was told to shut up, or to go stand outside the class. Nobody wanted me to think, not even in thinking subjects like math, physics and chemistry, which I liked and I was good at. What my teachers couldn’t understand was why on earth I would even need to think when all the thinking had already been done and set out in the textbook for me. In fact, most of the teachers had ceased to think years ago and had forgotten how.

I did try to think a bit, when I did my Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. It was easier then, because I had already switched to distance learning by then, and hence I had no teachers to stop me from thinking. I did an absolutely unheard of thing and actually read all my set texts, straight from Chaucer, through Shakespeare and Milton, and all the way to Eliot. What’s worse, I quite enjoyed it. Then I did the even more unheard of thing and went and read all the best, most famous, and most controversial critics. I even enrolled in the British Council Library just to get access to these books. I can’t say I enjoyed reading the critics, but, perhaps for the first time, I found I had the freedom to think. I realized that I agreed with some of their views, disagreed with other views, and could defend my point of view quite satisfactorily – well, to myself at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why or how, but I passed that degree. Not surprisingly, though, I wouldn’t say I scored very highly in it.

I didn’t know it then, but I had taken a small step towards thinking. Only now do I realize what a tiny little first step that was. When I agreed or disagreed with the critics’ points of view, I was, perhaps, still guilty of plagiarism, because, though I acknowledged that it was someone else’s view, I did not take the next step and state my own view. (Probably just as well, or I might not even have passed!) I think that I sometimes had a view of my own, but it was not clear to me that it ought to be stated.

In this course, Archaeology, the Leicester University guidelines for assessing the assignment clearly state that presenting known views and supporting them with citations is not only not sufficient for a good grade, but is considered rank plagiarism. You have to have your own point of view, you have to present arguments for and against, but ultimately you have to take a stand that is your own. In other words, you have to think.

That’s scary!

Almost Multilingual – 2

May 25, 2007
I had noticed this six months ago when I was yet again submerged in a sea of Bengali, during a trip to Calcutta to meet Amit’s family.

By “this” I mean, I noticed that my language skills in Bengali had suddenly improved in something like a quantum leap. I still made mistakes, but at times entire sentences (mistakes and all) tripped off my tongue without my having consciously thought about them. After struggling sporadically for nine years to become coherent in a language I had acquired only as an adult, it was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately, it didn’t last long and up to the current date I was back to stumbling along minus the quantum leap. I did wonder why it had happened and why it had stopped happening, but I put it down to good mood (we were on holiday), feelings of self-confidence (it was before the infertility business got going), practice (the Aunt had been staying with us briefly) or other such indefinable influences.

Now, I notice it’s happening again.

One of those indefinable influences I had sort of vaguely attributed my improved Bengali language skills to, was my German language skills, which in those days were not too bad, all things considered. Now that I’m back to studying German, could it have again had a positive effect on my Bengali? Sounds strange, but perhaps it is not entirely unbelievable. After all, learning a language means forcing your brain to work in a vocabulary and grammar it is not used to. The way we’re taught German, we’re made to attempt to think in German, as opposed to thinking in English and trying to translate (which never works). So, once the brain is forced out of its comfort zone of English, could it be that it explores impartially pathways in Bengali and German?

(BTW, I don’t think there’s been any impact on my Hindi language skills, probably because I learnt Hindi as a child and have a certain level of fluency and assurance in that language, comparable to my English. I don’t have any difficulty understanding or framing sentences in Hindi; the only thing I need to improve is vocabulary.)

I have read that people who learn languages as adults generally find it easier to pick up successive languages once they have mastered the first few. This is true even of entirely unrelated languages. It seems to work for me as well, because, though I am struggling a bit with German, it is nothing like the enduring battle of nine years that I’ve had with Bengali. It is particularly easy to tell the difference when I listen to native German or Bengali speakers. It’s a bit like listening to the radio softly when you’re driving in heavy traffic… you can hear the voice saying something, but unless you really focus on it, it just washes over you like so much background noise.

For many years, I had to pay 110% concentration to someone addressing me in Bengali, to pick out key words and try to make sense of what they were communicating. The trouble often was, I might catch the key words, but would not be sure about who was doing the action, whom it was done to or on, and other such crucial bits of information. The difference, for instance, between, “Did he tell you everything?” and “Did you tell him everything?” – Even if I catch “he” “you” “tell” and “everything” – which is a lot to catch in such a short sentence – I might still not be clear on what I’m being asked and how I should respond. It has led, times without number, to awkward situations.

In German, I have come to, and largely crossed, the same level of comprehension in a much shorter time. I still have to concentrate like hell when listening to the teacher (who seems to make no allowances for our relatively rudimentary language skills when she addresses us in 100% Deutsch) – but having done so, I do manage to pick out the key words and usually even manage to figure out who did what, and to whom. Sometimes, I end up translating long and complicated instructions for my table-mates – usually capturing the essence more-or-less accurately. Now, if only I could paraphrase in German instead of translating to English… (sigh) That, surprisingly enough, is something I can do in Bengali, even though I usually make a hash of it.

I do wonder sometimes whether my Bengali is better or my German. Right now, it’s a bit of a toss-up – I think my fluency in Bengali is better, and perhaps my vocabulary, but I’ve never had any formal training in Bengali, so definitely my understanding of grammar is stronger in German. Then again, I can’t really read Bengali. Perhaps, someday, I’ll improve at that too. After all, if learning a second language as an adult makes the first language stronger, then learning a third language should make the first two stronger, right? Hmmmm… let’s see – shall it be Spanish? Mandarin?? Greek???

Deutsch Lernen – Again!

May 7, 2007
It was like being thrown into a bucket of cold water. I walked into the room and was greeted by a flood of German. It passed over my head just as smoothly as water too – in all, I comprehended not a single word in the first five minutes.

For the next two hours, I concentrated very, very hard. I found that, by doing this, I could usually catch every fifth word or so, and inspired guesswork did the rest in making sense of the verbal onslaught. Occasionally, I got lucky and would catch an entire phrase.

After two hours, I was tired. It was so much easier to just let the language flow overhead without making any conscious effort and that way only about one word in two hundred would make any impact on the poor, sodden mind.

It’s bad enough that, having spent eight months of weekends attending German class, I took a break of eight months, thus throwing down the drain about 80 % of what I’d spent the first eight months struggling to learn. Language, like any motor skill, once acquired does not really ever go away, though it might get rusty with neglect. But first, you must acquire it, and in eight months of weekend classes, I had only just begun to acquire it.

By the end of class on Saturday, my brain was reeling, spinning, and doing somersaults, all at once.

Sleep helped, as did the fact that Sunday classes are in the morning, as opposed to Saturday classes, which are in the afternoon. On Sunday, I relaxed the concentration effort a little and managed to catch a little more of the flood that assaulted me for four hours. That was good as far as it went, but it really didn’t go very far.

The trouble with language is, it is not enough to understand it – one must be able to speak it as well. This is where I always have the greater difficulty. Inspired guesswork just doesn’t help in stringing a meaningful sentence together. What usually happens is that both inspiration and guesswork fly out the window, leaving you blank and silent and thoroughly embarrassed. That’s what happened to me when I tried to say: “she drinks a cup of coffee and reads the newspaper, as I do every morning.” Perhaps the word for newspaper stuck in my throat because this was such a blatant lie – I never read the newspaper, least of all in the morning, except on a Sunday if I have time, and this Sunday I hadn’t.

There was some small consolation in the fact that most of the others in the class struggled almost as much as I did. But it was small consolation indeed – I rate myself by where I want to be, not by where others are.

The good thing about a class is, it doesn’t really matter how many mistakes you make, because after all you are there to learn. Of course, people will laugh – for instance, we were supposed to be speaking about our partners (I mean life partners, spouses) in class and two guys who were supposed to exchange views on their respective partners ended up inadvertently speaking about themselves as partners (actually a very understandable slip-up), which led to raised eyebrows, pointed questions, and – as the newspapers love to say – uproarious scenes.

So, it’s ok to make mistakes in class, but it’s more difficult when you’re in an actual conversation and you want to say something and you don’t know how. For instance, the teacher was telling me how the woman at the cafeteria was so rude to her and refused to serve her, and I wanted to look sympathetic and say: “ohhhhh – that’s too bad,” but I didn’t, right at that moment, know how to express even this simple sentiment in German.

Oh well, if I keep at it, I might learn, eventually. That’s assuming that I can withstand the continued onslaught of German over the coming weekends. Wish me luck. (In German, if you please!)

Archaeology – At Last!

March 18, 2007
I have lost count of the number of years that I have been fascinated by subjects like the origins of mankind, ancient civilizations, and even – to travel a wee bit further back in time – the origins of the universe.

I do remember that when I was in the VIth standard, we studied the Harappan civilization (way too briefly for my liking) and I was enthralled. It’s sad that after that, I never liked History (or, for that matter Geography) the way it was taught in school. But then again, when you consider that 90% of the History we studied in school had to do with the Indian struggle for freedom, you’ll get some idea of why the subject bored me to tears. Naturally, I never considered studying History in High School or college.

But Archaeology remained an area of interest ever since those days of Harappan studies.

A nagging desire to really study archaeology, whether formally or informally, has followed me around for many years. I remember discussing it with Amit once, must have been more than five years ago; and the number of times I’ve surfed the Net looking for full-time or correspondence courses on the subject doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet, I’ve never gotten around to doing it, partly because I’ve never found a correspondence course that really covered my areas of interest. It never occurred to me to study something “close to” Archaeology, such as Ancient History, or Linguistics, which can easily be done by distance education. So, I did a Masters in Psychology instead, which was never on the radar, but which I enjoyed immensely anyway (one of the few things I’m thankful to my former boss for, as she was the one who suggested it to me).

The other day, killing time in office, I started browsing the web for the nth time, looking for online courses in Archaeology, and this time I got lucky. I found a course that looked extremely interesting, and what’s more, didn’t require any face-to-face attendance whatsoever. What’s more, though it is offered by Leicester University in the UK (Indian Universities are not yet so sophisticated), it didn’t require any of the complicated paperwork like personal statement, letters of reference, TOEFL and all those other deterrents that foreign universities usually require. It is so self paced that you can complete six modules (each of three months’ duration) over a period of five years, and still be eligible for a Certificate; or you can go on to the next level and earn a Diploma. First and Second Levels (that is, Certificate and Diploma courses) are equivalent to first and second year of the undergraduate course, so if you want, you can actually join the final year in college and get a degree. Sounds perfect, and of the modules on offer at the entry level, there are six that look exactly tailor-made to my areas of interest.

Of course, it is expensive… but nothing compared to what going abroad to study costs. So today, I went and began the process of getting a draft to make the first payment. It looks like being an exciting journey. I can hardly wait to get started!

Deutsch Lernen

December 20, 2006
So I gave up eight months of weekends to learn basic German. That was from January through August 2006, with a brief two-weekend break in the middle. The tragedy was that the exam for the second “semester” was scheduled for precisely the weekend we were leaving for Ladakh. Faced with a choice of Himalayas or German exam, the choice (if one can call it that) was obvious.

It was possible to take the exam scheduled for the next semester, I was informed, but I was doubtful whether this would really work out. Four months later, would I remember ANYTHING? Would I even remember that exam time was coming up and that I needed to enroll? Would I even want to?

But I did and I did and I did.

Not that the “anything” I remembered amounted to much, but when I woke up to the fact that enrollment time was rolling around, there were still a good three weeks to go before the exam. So I opened up my textbooks and notebook and though I found I did remember, I was still at first quite doubtful whether I remembered “enough”. Nevertheless, I plodded my way through it, making a proper plan and schedule and failing completely to stick to any part of it the way one does. I had scheduled days for writing sentences, practising adjectives, writing letters (10 marks!) and so on, and 90% of all this never happened. I did get carried away and download a couple of fairy tales from the Internet in German. Hansel and Gretel and Rumpfelstiltzchen (Rumpelstiltskin, I think, in English) – what horrible, sordid, depressing, morbid, grotesque, ghoulish tales! Who on earth ever thought they were fit content for little children?

Anyway, the most difficult part of this exam, as I had found in the first semester, is not the reading, understanding, or writing. It’s the hearing and the speaking. So, I practised diligently, by listening to the audio CDs provided with the course material, and by speaking to myself whenever I could.

And finally, yesterday and today, I went and gave the exam. In the last few days, I had realized that I would pass – even though pass marks were 60% – I would most likely even pass the spoken, provided sheer nervousness didn’t make a mess of me.

I think it all went off ok. There were a few hitches and glitches, here and there, but that’s only to be expected. For someone who’d completely lost touch over four months, I think I did “passably” well.

But I still don’t know. Not only do I not know the result, I don’t even know when I will know the result. Sigh. Life is full of suspense.

Almost Multilingual

June 18, 2006
My mother tells me I was a slow learner. That is, I was slow in learning to read, and for a while they thought I must be dyslexic. To this day, I remember sitting next to my mother in the living room, clutching a book of Noddy and trying to decipher the words and make sense of the sentences. I suppose I must have been pretty old at that time, if I can remember it. My mother was patiently prodding me to spell out the words, work out the pronounciation, skip the meanings of the difficult words till I reached the end of the sentence, then work out the meaning of the whole sentence and come to some conclusion about individual words that I did not understand. This was a pretty complex affair for a child who must have been 4-5 years old (specially considering the screwed-up phonetics of the english language).

I now attribute later reading habits, which were voracious to say the least, to that early struggle for literacy. I think that once I learnt how to read, I was so thrilled (and relieved) that I just had to do it again and again, just to be sure that I still could.

In class, once I was past the dyslexic stage, I always had the upper hand in English. For one reason, we spoke English at home, not Hindi, Punjabi, or Bengali. This, because my father was a Bengali from Allahabad who knew Bengali, Hindi  and Punjabi; and my mother was a UP-ite born in Australia and raised in Canada (don’t ask!) who spoke nothing but English. My mother was happy to know no Bengali and my Father made no attempt to teach it to my sister and me, so until I went to school and encountered Hindi, English was my primary language. So in school, which was dominated by Hindi and Punjabi speaking kids, I consistently flunked in Hindi and I shone in English.

Another surprising outcome of my struggles with literacy was that I mastered spelling in English. Since spelling in English defies all logic (and since I’m now learning German, I can state this with firm authority: Deutsch is so wonderfully consistent about spellings and phonetics) I had come to the conclusion that the only way to get spellings right was to pronounce words they way they looked like they should be pronounced – enunciating each alphabet. This I always did silently, in my mind, as I knew that the “correct” way to pronounce most words was in all likelihood quite different. By this means, my pronounciation was almost impeccable and – showoff that I was in those early days – I loved to read aloud in class and participate in recitation, drama and other such activities. I also loved dictation tests, in which I usually got full marks, or, at worst 19/20.  This helped me overcome the disgrace of getting 3/10 in Hindi in three successive tests and not being able to string a single sentence together in our national language. (The fact that I was brilliant at arithmetic was a bigger help and won me a certain degree of admiration from peers, but that came later.)

In the playground, I picked up enough Hindi and Punjabi to be going along with. And at some point in school, I had a two-year face-off with Sanskrit. Though I subsequently forgot all the Sanskrit and Punjabi I had learnt, Hindi as  a language I continue to use. Hindi as a subject I dreaded and struggled with all the way through school and till the first year of college; after which, thankfully, it fell off the syllabus and never reappeared. Strangely enough, though, in my Xth standard exams, I scored higher in Hindi than I did in English.

After having the misfortune to marry a Bengali, I realized that I really would have to come to grips with my “father-tongue”. I simply could not go through life with a Bengali name and not a word of the lingo to my credit. So I bought some books and a dictionary or two and elected Amit as my primary teacher. Although, over the years, I have acquired a degree of fluency and sufficient vocabulary to muddle along, my grammar is still a mess and I suspect I must sound offensively inarticulate to a native Bengali speaker.

Living in Karnataka, I tried to acquire a working knowledge of Kannada as well. I attended weekend classes for six months, at the end of which my Kannada was far more rudimentary than my Bengali – but at least I can say “where is” and “how much” (though I can’t always follow the reply).

I think my greatest stumbling block with learning languages has always been speaking (what with my battles with shyness and a dash of stage fright). Because it is so difficult to string together a sentence that is meaningful and grammatically correct in anything like the normal span of time required to make a sentence, I have always hesitated to speak in a new language. And so, of course, I have never managed to really get any level of comfort in the acquired language.

So far,  my efforts at learning German are about par for the course. I have as much of a grasp of the concepts of grammar and syntax as anyone in class. That is to say, I am equally befuddled much of the time.  I can’t string together a spoken sentence in any reasonable span of time, but given ten minutes and a sheet of paper I can usually come up with some good stuff (that’s the writer in me).  So far I have committed myself to seven months of weekends, and got through about five months. If I can endure another two semesters (seven months) of this torture, I might be getting somewhere. Some day, I might even get the better of that dyslexia.

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