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Language Hack 4: Use All Your Senses

There are some of us who learn really well directly from books. But most of us are wired to learn experientially: by doing. Although this applies to other spheres, it’s especially true of language learning. Learning a language isn’t just about the words that we’re speaking, but about the whole culture that those words belong to.

For example, an Arabic dessert like Kanafeh.

There’s nothing like it in Britain: a sweet cheese desert with caramelised strings of sugar and pistachio nuts on top.

To learn the word Kanafeh, don’t just look at the word in Arabic.

كنافة

Repeat it out loud.

But don’t just repeat it out loud. Look at a picture of Kanafeh.

Kanafeh

While you’re looking at the picture, with the word written underneath it repeat the word “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh!”

But while I know you’re having a super fun time doing that, even the repetition while looking at a picture, while reading the word isn’t the best you can do.

Go out for a walk. Find a shop that sells Kanafeh (if you’re in Amman, head for Habiba). Stand in the queue and breathe in the sweet smell of kanafeh. While you’re doing this, repeat to yourself “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh”. As you get to the counter, use your words to order yourself a slice.

Walk into the room and hand over your receipt for your order. Look at the trays of sweet, syrupy kanafe just waiting to be eaten. Think “kanafeh”. Say “kanafeh”.

As you put the kanafeh in your mouth, remind yourself what you’re eating. Savour it: think about the flavour, the smell, the feeling against your tongue. You aren’t just imagining Kanafeh, YOU’RE LIVING KANAFEH!

(Image source: hjl and stu_spivack)

Language Hack 3: Telling Stories

Words get caught up in our memory much more easily when they have hooks to hang them on. Stories act as great hooks for these words.

I find this particularly true of stories that I know well in my mother tongue. Movies are great for this. Or if you know a lot of Bible stories or fairytales. Anything that won’t take effort to reconstruct the basic narrative.

Using stories like this means that we can focus on our target language and not on some complicated and unfamiliar narrative.

Once you’ve chosen your story, work through it in your head in your target language, identifying any words that you need to look up or learn.

Make a list of these words and find out what they are in the language you’re learning.

Then tell the story as best you can in your target language.

Write out the story in your target language. Read through it.

Then put away the text and tell it back to yourself without referring to your notes.

Then go back to your notes and re-read the story to see if there’s anything you missed out.

Once you’re confident that you’ve memorised your story, go and tell it to someone else. The pressure of an audience will help you to assess how well you really know the story.

(Image source: Celeste RC)

Language Hack 2: Make It Default

This is where emersion can come in handy, but it’s not essential. The key is to do the ordinary, habitual things that you do, in your target language.

If you watch movies to unwind, switch to movies in your target language.

If you use Twitter, start an account in your target language and follow people in that language.

Like music? Find some artists in your target language. It doesn’t have a lot of words, but I’ve been enjoying this recently:

On Facebook? Add some people who only speak your target language as friends and start messaging them (it turns out this is way more normal and not at all as stalkerish here in Jordan than it is in the UK).

My wife and I have recently started using Arabic when we’re together at home for ordinary conversations. It’s been a challenge, and often frustrating, but the practice has paid off when we’re with our Arabic speaking friends.

For a while one of the things I found hardest to get was Arabic numbers. I just couldn’t seem to convince my brain to recognise a ٥ as a number 5 (not a 0), or a ٦ as a number 6 (and not a 7).

So one day I switched the time on my phone over to Arabic numbers. That way, if I was going to get to appointments on time, I was going to have to master Arabic numbers.

The first week was super frustrating, and I regularly mistook ٦:٥٥ for 7:00 (6:55) but after that, I became faster. With heavy exposure, my brain finally absorbed these new shaped numbers.

(Image source: GotCredit)

Language Hack 1: Carry A Notebook

This might seem super obvious on paper, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to forget to carry around some kind of recording device for the new words you’ll discover in your target language.

I take a belt-and-braces approach with my word collection and carry a paper notebook and have the Anki app on my phone for creating electronic flashcards.

Why the two? Several reasons:

  1. Not everyone is good at spelling. In fact some people I come across can’t read and write. That doesn’t mean that I can’t learn new Arabic words from them, I just need to be cautious about creating a long-term record based on what they tell me. If I put the words straight into my phone, I’ll end up learning an incorrect spelling (and pronunciation) of the word.
  2. There are local variations of how you say everything in Arabic. Even simple things like what people call their parents can be different between towns. I like to record what I’m told while on visits and double check with another person, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a friend, who help me filter what I’m learning.
  3. Repetition. It’s actually really helpful to write the word down, as well as to type it. With Arabic, I’m learning a whole new alphabet, and writing right-to-left, which means that I can use all the practice I can get.

So I usually scribble down my best attempt at a spelling for the word, check it with someone else, add it to my electronic dictionary and regularly revisit my new words until they’re committed to memory.

(Image source: Kevin O’Mara)

My Language Learning Hacks

I write this blog to document and explore change. 

At the moment the biggest change I’ve been going through is the transition from being a mono-and-a-half-lingual to bilingual.

I’ve spent the last year and eight months learning Arabic. Before this point I was a mediocre Swedish speaker. I’d picked up most of my Swedish by osmosis, living in the country, hanging out with my in-laws, watching Scandinavian crime dramas.

Learning Arabic was different. I’ve given it my all and was even able to press pause on my web business to throw everything into it.

Now that I’m approaching the end of my formal schooling in spoken Levantine Arabic (with some Modern Standard thrown in for good measure), I thought it might be nice to blog about things I’ve learned along the way.

Some of my tips will be best-case-scenarios: things I managed to do on the good weeks and might not have been so hot on in the weeks that involved juggling extreme amounts of homework, homesickness, culture shock, guests and more than 15 hours of home visits. 

But they are sure fire ways that I’ve found to learn more.

Before I sign off on this brief intro to the next couple of posts I want you to know something: I’m no language learning whiz. Language learning doesn’t come as second nature to me, and I didn’t grow up in an environment that made it seem normal.

These tips are things that have helped me keep placing one foot consistently in front of the other. They are small, achievable activities that can be integrated into everyday life.

My Language Learning Hacks:

  1. Carry A Notebook
  2. Make it Default
  3. Telling Stories
  4. Use All Your Senses

(Image source: carol and co

What Downton Abbey Can Teach Us About The Future

When my wife told me that she wanted to start watching Downton Abbey, I was a little reluctant. Although I enjoy reading the Brontes and Dickens, I’m not usually enthralled by TV period dramas. That said, after sticking with it for a season, I started to enjoy it for several reasons…

Before I get onto them, I want to talk about StrengthsFinder. When I got my results from Gallup’s personality profiling tool, I learned that Futuristic is one of my strongest themes. This means that I’m always looking ahead, and can picture fairly vividly what it might look to take certain turns in life. I gravitate towards ideas about the future, so am more naturally engaged by Sci-fi than by period dramas.

But there’s something interesting about Downton: it’s all about change.

After a few episodes I began noticing the overarching narrative: a traditional aristocratic family in the first part of the 20th Century coming to terms with a rapid succession of changes.

Transitioning from Honour to Guilt

Right now I live in the Middle East. The dominant culture here leans towards collectivism and honour much more than the individualism and guilt of my birth culture. People recognise themselves first and foremost as members of a particular group – usually a family or tribe. Even in Europe, Middle Easterners can learn a lot about each others’ history by exchanging last names.

Honour is a big part of collectivism. What one person does affects the standing of the group as a whole, so it’s important to make decisions that honour your family.

The family in Downton Abbey are on the knife edge between collectivism and individualism, and this is incredibly interesting. An example of this from season 5 is when Lady Mary decides to stay at a hotel in Liverpool with her potential fiancé in order to decide if she wants to marry him or not.

In the collectivist mind, this is outrageous. Think of the damage she could do to her family! But Mary is making a decision that she believes is in her interest as an individual.

Of course, because she is still living in an honour culture, her grandmother goes to great strains to cover up Mary’s behaviour, in order that the family, and her future prospects, are not harmed.

Embracing The Other

One of the intriguing things about the Crawley family is that they are continuously faced with opportunities to accept or reject people who are outside of their social sphere, and who others would consider outcasts.

One of the first of these is Tom Branson, the socialist chauffer who wins the heart of Lady Sybil. The family are faced with a choice: lose Sybil, or accept Tom. To begin with they reject Tom and push away their daughter, but over time, and with the untimely death of Lady Sybil, they begin to accept Tom as one of them.

As time goes by, the Crawley family become adept at absorbing people from outside into their family, whether it be ex-convicts working as servants, nouveau riche businessmen, or Lady Rose marrying into a Russian Jewish family.

The Best Educated Are Not Always The Best At Embracing Change

It’s easy to think that society’s elite are the best suited for embracing change. They’ve been to the best schools, had access to the most information, and been exposed to the highest standard of art and culture. However the Downton story shows that these things don’t automatically result in people with open minds.

In reality, Lord Grantham has been raised to maintain a system. His goal is to maintain the honour and reputation of his family, and that means stewarding Downton well. He and his butler, Mr Carson, are kindred spirits. They see the world that was as the way it should be. If possible, they must uphold the old ways and traditions.

But the world is changing and the foundations of the old system are beginning to crumble. The finances of the aristocracy are no longer entrenched. The working and middle classes are asking for more opportunities and exerting themselves politically.

For each character in the series who is intent on maintaining the norm, there is another who embraces change. The Dowager Countess has Mrs Isobel Crawley, Lord Grantham has Tom Branson, Mr Carson has Mrs Hughes. Each of these relationships is a mix of polar opposite attitudes to change, and extreme fondness for one another.

Why is this important to the future?

Each of these themes is important to our world at the moment: Exploring honour culture should help us better understand the challenges refugees face when coming to terms with European society.

As our cities and towns become increasingly multicultural, it’s good to ask ourselves if we will open the door to embrace and include the outsider, even if it means that we may be changed in the process. Check out this small town in Finland that did just that.

And when we see the entrenched elite squirming at the rise of new leaders from more ordinary backgrounds, we can remember that they’re not always the best suited for facing change. We mustn’t fear change just because they do.

Who knows, perhaps the trouble Lord Grantham had with accepting the future is the same that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were expressing at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn gaining power 🙂

Inspiration: Top 10 of 2015

Before we’re finished with January, I thought it’d be fun to present my list of things that inspired me this year. To begin with, I was going to present my “best reads of…” but felt like this would be more interesting…

  1. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 21.09.38Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: the true story of a Syrian man and his family living in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane arrives and the rest of his family leave town, Abdulrahman Zeitoun decides to stay behind to keep an eye on theirs and their neighbours’ homes. This book was produced as part of the Voice of Witness project that seeks to use storytelling to illuminate human rights issues.
  2. To the newcomers from Syria: Welcome to Canada: The Toronto Star’s welcome message to the first wave of Syrian refugees they received in December. After months of unease in the European and American media over the subject of immigration, this stood out as an example of a country wanting to do things right. It felt right on so many levels: a warm hearted welcome to these families, naming the troubles they’ve faced, while at the same time challenging them to embrace life as Canadians. It also set the bar of hospitality for those receiving refugees.

    Canadians have been watching your country being torn apart, and know that you’ve been through a terrifying, heartbreaking nightmare. But that is behind you now. And we’re eager to help you get a fresh start.

  3. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 20.12.41The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee who finds her life intersecting with that of a young widow in Kingston Upon Thames. A beautiful novel that documents the realities of life as a refugee, the effect that embracing people who are different from us can have on our lives, and that reminded me of the power of a story well told.
  4. Manifesto of a Doer: they may be simple or even obvious, but I enjoyed this concise list of challenges for people who want to effect change. Here’s one of my favourites:

    Avoid easy deadlines. Deadlines serve you best when they are short, hard and, at first glance, impossible. Urgency gets things done.

  5. Fluent in 3 Months: a regular newsletter (and blog) that aims to take the fear out of language learning and encourages people to start speaking their target language from day 1. As a full time language learner, I’ve enjoyed getting regular tips on everything from language learning in general, to specific techniques and resources for students of Arabic.
  6. What ISIS Wants by Jon Foreman: a heartfelt appeal not to give in to the fear mongering of the so-called Islamic State.
  7. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 20.42.14Red Moon Rising: the story of the 24-7 prayer movement, which began with a small group of friends with a growing desire to pray, and led to a movement of people praying 24 hours a day, all over the world. At times the story feels like something out of Fight Club, as the movement’s ‘founder’ happens upon groups he never knew existed.
  8. Refugees Welcome and United Invitations: while these projects may not be perfect (what project is?), I’ve taken great delight at seeing the rise of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help refugees.
  9. Jeremy Corbyn breaks with tradition and uses his first Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask David Cameron questions from the general public.
  10. Money is to The West what Witchcraft is to Africa by Liam Byrnes: an interesting perspective on the similarities between how witchcraft is used to allay fear in Africa and how money is used to do the same in the West.

(Image credit: el7bara)

The Psychology of Conflict

It can be so easy to view institutions as unshakeable, fixed perspective, entities. They stand for something that is public and impersonal, something unchangeable.

But what if we looked at organisations more as the sum of their individual parts than as an official whole?

A few weeks ago I was listening to the wonderful Analysis podcast from the BBC. In the podcast they interviewed psychologists who were working with groups long in conflict.

Listen to the episode, “Will They Always Hate Us?” here

They carried out experiments to see if they could increase levels of empathy of one side in a conflict towards those on other side. They showed Palestinians fake news articles of an Israeli leader criticising his own government. After reading this news article, they found that the group had greater empathy towards Israelis. They reversed the test, and found that it had the same effect on Israelis.

By observing self criticism, the readers started to see that the unified group that they were used to thinking of a single identity was actually made up of people with many different perspectives. They began seeing people as people, not just a category.

The researchers also questioned the leaders of these conflicting groups about what it would take for them to begin discussing solutions for peace in their region, and the answers they received were fascinating.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of The Israeli Government said,

I have nothing to discuss with Hamas until recognise the right of the Jewish people to be here. If they’re ready to recognise that right, then anything is on the table to discuss.

Khaled Mashal, of Hamas asked researchers,

Will they ever apologise for the harm they did our people in 1948, for their dislocation and dispossession?

Many of the answers surprised researchers because they weren’t based on monetary or material restitution, but on showing recognition and respect for the other’s story.

Each side in a conflict has a different history on which their worldview leans. In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, the other side needs to recognise this alternative history.

As I listened to it, rather than hearing an institution at odds with another institution, I heard the voices of people who have been wronged and who need their pain legitimised, recognised, owned up to, so they might move forward into something constructive.

Essentially they were saying time and again something akin to “we need forgiveness.”

Too often in popular society forgiveness is seen as either something easy and insincere or too costly (the Husband forgiving his wife’s murderers the day after she’s killed). But at the core of it there’s something essential to forgiveness that frees both parties to move forward into the present. It’s something divine, the effects of which have the potential to unstick centuries of misunderstanding.

But it also takes daring. It takes leaders who won’t let pride stop them taking the first step.

(Image credit: hjl)

Eating Our Way To A More Inclusive Society: An Interview With Beatrice Eriksson

Beatrice ErikssonEvery day we hear stories about the overwhelming number of refugees arriving in Europe from Syria (and elsewhere) seeking to start a new life away from the disarray of their homelands. Much of what we hear is bad news. In the midst of all the negativity, I thought it’d be fun to hear some of the good news coming out of Europe…

I spoke to Beatrice Eriksson, a social worker, activist and musician based in Malmö, in the south of Sweden. She’s passionate about social justice, and together with some friends has started the Malmö branch of Invitationsdepartmentet (The Invitation Department), a project to encourage better integration in the city.

Tell us a little about yourself and your city.
I moved to Malmö when I was 18 and have now been living here for more than ten years. Malmö is a multicultural city with over 300,000 residents from 177 different countries. At least 150 different languages are spoken here. I have watched the city develop over time and seen the many ways it has improved for the people living here, but also how segregation has increased.

How’s Malmö coping with all the refugees that it’s receiving?
Malmö is a municipality located close to the border to Europe, so many refugees have been arriving here lately. Since the police started to work with border control a few weeks ago, almost 100% of those wanting to seek asylum in Sweden arrive in Malmö and are being registered here. It presents a big challenge for the authorities and NGOs in Malmö who work with refugees. Though I must say I feel very proud about how people have mobilized to cope with this challenge and are trying their best to make the new arrivals to Sweden as feel as welcome as possible.

We live in a segregated society where people do not meet or talk with each other.

What inspired you to start Invitationsdepartementet in Malmö?
More than 30% of Malmö’s population are foreign-born. Many of them live in parts of the city where people born in Sweden almost never visit. Other parts of Malmö have areas where almost everyone is born in Sweden. We live in a segregated society where people do not meet or talk with each other. The best way to learn a new language is by speaking it, but many SFI (Swedish For Immigrants, the state-funded language school) students don’t know any Swedes. At the same time, many Swedes don’t know anyone who moved here later in life. Invitationsdepartementet steps into that gap, and provides an opportunity for these two groups to meet over dinner.

How does it work?
The concept is very simple. We match up the people from each group who sign up to participate. Then it is just like any dinner evening. A person knocks on the door, they sit down together and eat food. The guests can be really funny or boring, timid or confident, similar to or very different from you. We try to prepare people not to have any major expectations but to take it as it comes, with an open mind. The idea behind Invitationsdepartementet is to create an inclusive and trusting society. We bring together people who want to get better at Swedish with people who are fluent, over a home-cooked dinner. Everyone involved in the project is doing it because they’ve chosen to get involved. That’s what makes it so fun.

Can anyone host a meal?
Definitely. Anybody can register their interest in inviting or being invited for dinner. When you sign up, you tell us if: 1) you want to get better at Swedish or, 2)  you are fluent in Swedish. Everyone who signs up tells us who they are and why they want to have dinner with someone new. The dinner is always free, at someone’s home and the evening is just a one time commitment. If both parties enjoy it, they can decide to meet again.

What do you hope will come out of it?
By saying, “welcome, dinner is served!” You can provide the opportunity for someone who has already been invited into our country to enter our society as well. We believe in a society where we meet people, talk, and build relationships. A society where exclusion and xenophobia are prevented by being welcoming and inclusive. I think meetings between people are the most beautiful thing in the world. I also think meetings between people are absolutely necessary for integration to take place. Invitationsdepartementet is one way we’ve found to make it happen.

How’s it going so far? 
Since Invitationsdepartementet started in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2014 there have been hundreds of dinners and meetings between people. Many of the participants tell of one dinner leading to another, and another, and friendship that is starting to grow. Others talk about one good evening that was the first opportunity they got to sit down and practice the new language they are trying so hard to learn in school. These are really amazing stories!

How can those of us reading this get involved?
Invitationsdepartementet / United Invitations is already spreading around the world. Google it to see if there is an organization where you live, and if not, please feel free to start your own department. The concept already exists, someone just has to organize it in each locality.

If you don’t speak Swedish, check out the English language site here.
If you speak Swedish, read more here.

And, if you live in Malmö and want to host a dinner, sign up here.

“Building trust is what we need in society. Sharing a meal is food culture at it’s finest. And having fun is never a bad idea.”

When Values Trump Profits

Like many aspiring writers out there, I’ve read my fair share of “How To Grow Your Readership, Publish A Book, Make A Six Figure Salary And Get Voted President In Just One Year” posts. I’ve done my best to understand how people build platforms and tribes. I’ve memorised mantras like “don’t guest post without making sure there’s a link to your email sign up form.”

But a few days ago I went against all that advice and published an article that was heart felt and values based, anonymously.

There were a variety of reasons that I published it anonymously, and I knew in doing it that I would lose the opportunity to create a “call to action” that would gain me readers.

But the piece just didn’t belong here on changewriter.net, and I had to get the message out.

So I did. And with a lump in my throat I hit publish.

Over the last 72 hours, I’ve watched it become the most widely read piece I’ve ever written.

Even though I haven’t grown my personal empire through it, I’m still happy that I chose this way to get my message out. Because sometimes the value of what we have to say outweighs the gains we can make by saying it.

Two examples

Several years ago the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia made a plea to their customers that surprised them: Don’t Buy This Jacket. Their message was that if they had the choice between buying a new jacket and a recycled one, they should take the option that causes the least damage to the environment: the recycled one.

Patagonia: Don't Buy This Jacket

They released their campaign during Black Friday. The day in America when many people go out of their way to shop the latest products at discount prices.

They told people:

“The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing…Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”

Their message made one thing clear: here’s a company that puts their values before their profit margins. These are people who care about the environment, and taking care of their planet is a higher value for them than selling jackets.

On their company website they explained:

“It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy. To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways. It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption. On the other hand, it’s folly to assume that a healthy economy can be based on buying and selling more and more things people don’t need – and it’s time for people who believe that’s folly to say so.”

Fairphone are another company that have impressed me with similar commitment to values over profit.

This summer the company tweeted a link to an article entitled “Why I Love The Fairphone — And Why I Won’t Buy One”

The article explained that the best way to take care of the environment and the supply chain of electronic devices is to buy less of them. The best way to serve the core values of Fairphone is not to buy their phone, but to continue using your old one. Until it wears out.

Of course Fairphone didn’t go as far as to launch a campaign to stop people buying their phones. After all, they don’t yet have the committed consumer base of Patagonia, but in promoting this tweet I caught a glimpse of a company that puts their values before their profits.

So, with that said, who wants to sign up to my email list? 😉