Midwinter Cricket

The dead of winter is an odd time to be playing cricket, the summer sport in England. But it is, for serious players,  necessary. The cricket season is short, May to September, and the off-season correspondingly long.

So through the winter, indoor nets are taken. In sports halls up and down the country, cricketers are secretly busy, honing their skills.

Thus I found myself, between Christmas and New Year, in a net with a friend and his cricket-mad son. I had not played cricket for 25 years, nearly, but it turns out that certain aspects of the skill are conserved in muscle memory, in some deep untouchable place in the brain. There is no time to think when batting; the ball comes down fast; and so the body just reacts much as it would have done half a lifetime ago.


…half a lifetime ago. Cricket on Hampton Court Green, 1836

Other aspects of the skill, it should be noted for balance, are clearly not stored in muscle memory and will have to be relearnt, or reactivated, more slowly.

Languages are similar. My mother, schooled in Irish Gaelic but never a fluent speaker, will, more than sixty years on, occasionally break into something incomprehensible which has been summoned from the deep; and I watch my own Italian return slowly when I visit the country, noticing words I had forgotten pass by in speech. It does not take long.


Natural Language Processing

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving 
*24 x 18.8 cm

Albrecht Durer, Melencolia I

I used to know someone who managed to confuse German with machine code. He was at Cambridge, at Trinity College, studying modern languages, for which he had much aptitude but little interest. He was studying German and Russian, but could not generate the enthusiasm to do any reading. He spent the last term of his second year playing cricket (he was an excellent fast bowler) and sunbathing, and in his exams made anagrams of the questions, and then got sent down without a degree.

He now works in computer systems, and has come to the conclusion that the reason he excelled at German and, less so, Russian, was that he had unwittingly treated it as an artificial language. Verbs were so many logic gates, nouns so many classes, syntax so many algorithms which could be called as required. To repeat, he mistook German, if not for machine code, then for some programming language or other – Java, or C++.

You could not do the same with English. English has lapses in logic, requires an exercise of judgement. It is, technically speaking, a highly idiomatic language, adaptable in the hands of individual speakers. Parts of speech identify themselves not by their form but by their position in the sentence, and that positioning can be a source of ambiguity. A little interpretation is necessary.

The same is of course true of all natural languages, including German, but to varying degrees. Computer scientists like to scoff at the fallibility of natural language processing as against artificial language processing; but if there is a European language which comes close to artificial languages for rule-heavy determination, that language is German. No wonder my friend spent his early years in a state of confusion.

Get That

I am half-delighted to read of a bookshop in Japan which stocks only one book at a time. Delighted, because it conforms to my stereotypes of Japanese minimalist aesthetics; only half-delighted, because it also conforms to stereotypes of elitist shopping experiences.

There is, or was, a three-star Michelin sushi restaurant in Tokyo which has, or had, only nine seats. The proprietor, a sushi-chef of something like seventy years experience, would prepare the sushi behind the counter, set it in front of the customer, then stand watching, expressionless, while the customer ate it. It must have been an intimidating experience, I think, just as going into that bookshop with the single book must be an intimidating experience. You would not want to walk out without a copy of whatever the book happened to be.


Intimidating experience… El Greco, St. Jerome

The owner of the bookshop said that in his previous shop people would frequently come just for the launch of one particular book, so he was moved to carry that idea to its logical conclusion. I would like to do something similar with, if not a language school, then perhaps a language lesson. Each lesson would be devoted to the study of a single word in all its forms, ramifications, collocations and implications. Students would come away from the lesson properly expert in that one word.

Perhaps one lesson would not be enough. You could devote an entire course of study to words such as get or set; or – an interesting one – that. Perhaps ninja-level mastery of that can only be achieved through seventy years of sacrifice and self-discipline and experience and rigorous experimentation. Perhaps not even then.

International Haircuts

I have posted before on the terrors of the foreign-language haircut, and have always regarded it as one of the rites of passage of the language learner. There are not many contexts in which failure successfully to negotiate meaning is so immediately and cruelly rewarded.


…cruelly rewarded – Rubens, Portrait of a Monk

I was delighted to find therefore that one of our longer-termers, Salim, had got himself a new pristine look. But it turned out he had cheated a little. He had been telling me that he was a regular at Merhaba, a Turkish restaurant on East Road which he rates as very good. It turns out that his barber is the son of the owner of Merhaba (or perhaps it was the other way around, I forget).

This is at once resourceful on the part of Salim, and an eye-opener for me. It had never occurred to me, although it is obvious, that students would avail themselves of the multi-national make-up of Cambridge. Of course a long-term Turkish student would seek out Turkish restaurants and the Turkish community in general. I did the same sort of thing when I was first in Italy, frequenting English bookshops and Irish pubs. If you hang around long enough you get a bit fed up with the Fiddler’s Elbow, and perhaps with Efe’s or Merhaba. But in those first months they represent a toehold in the place, if only marginally in the culture.

And, in Salim’s case, it was a way to navigate the rapids of the haircut. And I should perhaps point out for balance that my barber in Cambridge is Italian.

Chopping Wood

Yesterday I managed to get a forty foot ash tree from outside my house to the inside of my shed, in the course of one rather energetic hour.


some of the wood in transit to my shed

I am quite pleased with myself. I noticed that two workmen were taking the tree down at about ten in the morning, one of them hoisted up among the branches and wielding a chainsaw, the other feeding fallen branches into an implacable grinding machine. I ran out and asked them if there was any chance I could have some of the wood for my fire, and they very cheerfully obliged. They chopped the whole tree into more or less manageable chunks, and stacked it for me to take away in a wheelbarrow. It was a bit overwhelming, but I took the view that I should take what I could get now, and worry about how to manage the vast quantities of wood a bit later. I paid them with a few bottles of beer. It was, all round, a very manly trade.

It struck me, plying my wheelbarrow, that students at OISE do something similar each week. Each week they are given large and slightly intimidating chunks of language, which they store somewhere or other; and which, in theory at some point, they chop into smaller manageable bits which can be used to fuel the fire of their language.

However, unlike my students (I very sincerely hope), I am now going to have to buy myself a large axe.

Pre-Christmas Energy

I would say that I am an individual of average energy, which means that I occasionally get things done and at other times can barely prize myself from a chair. And so I find that working in the last week before Christmas always demands a special summoning of resources, a furious paddling against the currents of the world, which are steadily draining out of the bottom of the year.


I am humbled to read, therefore, of Göran Kropp, a Swedish man who in 1996 cycled from Stockholm to Mount Everest, walked up the mountain with neither oxygen nor Sherpa support, walked back down again, and cycled home.

Some expenditures of energy are so startling they verge on insanity. Steve Jobs always springs to mind in these contexts. Then there was Franz Berwald, the noted Swedish composer, recipient of the Order of the Polar Star, who was simultaneously an orthopaedic surgeon and the manager of a sawmill; or Johannes Zukertort, leading chess master of the 1870s and 1880s (he twice played Wilhelm Steinitz for the world championship), who also found the time to master nine languages, become an expert swordsman, pistol shot, whist and dominoes-player; was wounded seven times in battle and decorated for valour; and designed a trench mortar.

Zukertort died at the age of forty-six, no doubt of exhaustion (and perhaps despairing, in the manner of Alexander, of finding new parlour games to master); but I bet even he put his feet up and had a glass of sherry at Christmas.

‘Tis the Season

It is the last day of the year with a fully-crewed school. From next week we will run with a skeleton staff of students and teachers, and the atmosphere will change.

Marley's_Ghost_-_A_Christmas_Carol_(1843),_opposite_25_-_BLThis is fitting for a mid-winter language school, which needs quietly to regrow itself from tubers in the dead of the year, like anything other institution. This, after all, is the True Meaning of Christmas™.


In keeping with the spirit of the season, one of our students will today hunker himself in seclusion in front of one of the computers in a quarantined room and compete a BULATS level test.

Computerised testing is the future, and to a great extent the present also. Students already have the option to complete Cambridge exams by computer, and BULATS will be going entirely computer from 2017. Many students are anyway more comfortable with a mouse and a keyboard than they are with a pen and paper, and papers can be marked more swiftly and accurately, and results delivered more quickly.

But there is also something telling about the fact that a skill so fundamental to and characteristic of human interaction is now judged with no humans present. BULATS is a listening and reading test, admittedly, but these are also, in life and to varying degrees, social skills.

Perhaps it is not language which is at issue, but the whole business – and it is a big business – of level-testing. The idea of a ‘level’ of English, rather than a highly variegated range of competences, and the idea that this needs ‘testing’ is one promulgated in the main by universities (who are eager to admit non-native speakers, but also to protect their reputations) and HR departments, who like their people to be measured and measurable. The language competence of a business can thus be reduced to a single number, a number derived from many unproductive hours interfacing with computers.