Everywhere …


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I know you already have at least an inkling that wherever you are, independent of the country, things are bound to go wrong even after they look like going well. In this post, I only want to add to that roster of experience about the fickleness of life in various countries. I’ll start with the country that may be my favourite. Actually, I don’t have much to add after the Chinese Language Blog of Transparent Language has posted a discussion of bad things, and also of good things about China.

This is the correct attitude, but these post are general, whereas my examples are concrete, something that could happen to anyone on floor level. Although I could obviously add items to the negative list like there’s no real nature in China, all parks are fake, trees are mishandled, environmental pollution is rampant and growing faster than economic development, I’d like to tell you about an issue that a local leader I worked for experienced.

He was the Department Leader at the Economics Department of the university where I worked back in those days. He decided that at the rate of 16 hours of teaching a week, the ‘foreign experts’ cannot do enough preparation and provide enough quality for the students that he required, so he hired one more foreign teacher and unofficially reduced the number of hours allocated for each of us.

Actually, his plan worked well for me as I felt obliged to satisfy my students’ need and request for some extra activities, so we enjoyed watching and discussing several films over several weeks.

However, the Dean of the university found out about it in the middle of the second half-year, reprimanded the department head, and radically reduced the number of foreign teachers the following year. It didn’t have much impact on me as I was moving on, but it impacted the following year’s students substantially. Quality-wise, which is difficult to assess of course. I wholly enjoyed my following year at another branch of the same uni, but this case left a warning impression on me. Besides the lack of internet freedom.

In the Netherlands, I’ve been enjoying my life quite freely. A quiet country (if you forget about the rampage they go on on Queen’s (now King’s) Day, or at a football match, or about the sense of proprietorship concerning their own property even without fences), they smile at you a lot in the street except in Amsterdam, where people behave just like everywhere else on fashionable territory, well-organized, people behave, offices work efficiently, provide social security benefits for the needy … Fine, ain’t it?

It took some time for me to discover, through a friend, that I’m entitled for help for the money I pay for my rent and social security costs. I applied, got it and was happy. Ever after, right?

Not exactly. At the beginning of this year (2014), I was informed that I had to repay almost a thousand euros (the whole amount) that I was given for 2011, because I had lived at the same address as some other people: the person whose room I was renting back then, and his adult daughter, and another person who also rented a room there. So the office reckoned we were all the same happy family, our incomes were put together and, as a result, I had had no right for housing allowance. I should pay back. For those not really aware of the weight of money, this is an amount to the value of a teacher’s three months’ net monthly salary in Hungary.

This is insane enough, since I’ve been renting another room for more than two years now, I’m a man of Hungarian origin with my own son back in Budapest, not with a Dutch daughter of 22, who is from the owner’s deceased wife who had died a year before. Not to mention that I had no income during the period in question due to severe illness. And not to mention the fact that I never married that man after his wife had died …

But no data had been checked except the address. I was allowed to apply for redress. We had to explain the whole situation with a lot of documents about the family situation and the situation of the house. On top of this, although they wrote to me that, until the case is decided, I don’t have to pay, I haven’t received a decision until now – instead, I received another order to pay up two weeks ago. No reply yet to my second protest.

If this is not enough, my last case involves Hungary. Nobody may be surprised that when I had graduated and then applied to be trained as a Geologist, I was told I should be happy to have been educated enough at the cost of the working people and now I should be happy with it and work myself. No further education in the socialist system for me.

What did I have to do? I did what I had room for and became a teacher trainer, and a project member with the British Council, with a lot of excellent students in my schools along the way, quite a number of whom became English teachers themselves a couple of decades ago.

After three decades, however, the appeal I used to have for my students, and also the interests of students, have changed dramatically, and I have ended up with the same work I started to do more than two decades ago: I became a translator. I can’t complain about it, but I still don’t have the education about it, no degree, only experience, but with very little feedback, which I had very much rather get.

So I entered a university course in Budapest this autumn. I began the course, but before that, I had talked to the department head in July, who encouraged me to apply for an individual course of studies, practically doing the course over the internet. I live in the Netherlands, and I would like to stay here among my best friends instead of paying for my room and health insurance while living elsewhere. I was told to collect the signatures of my teachers allowing me to do it over the net, so I reckoned I should first go to lessons, then ask them to sign.

At that point, the head told me I should ask for a form to be filled in from the Students’ Office, where, however, I was informed that the application deadline had expired – at the end of the first week! I am still flabbergasted! At the best university of Hungary, one is expected to apply, as an unknown person to them, for special treatment by unknown teachers, who may even be absent in the first week, thus unavailable (one was in fact absent for two weeks).

Now it is my fault not to have checked upon the deadlines, but when you go to buy a chair at IKEA, do you check if they had packed all the screws and screwdrivers in the package right after you’ve bought it? I had been told by the department head that it’s alright, go for it, and when the deadline had passed, she told me I should just go ahead, she would help me with my application with the university leaders, I can quietly leave. Case closed with success.

After all this, she went to the deputy dean for students’ affairs and wrote a letter to all my teachers to scrap me from the roster because I “hadn’t even paid the fee”. Which I had paid two weeks before her letter. When she talked to the deputy dean, she didn’t even check whether I had paid my dues. I may even not get back the fee I had paid, let alone successfully finish my studies. I’ve been in limbo and in a lot of doubts ever since.

Up to this point, I didn’t have time to think about my application for writing my thesis. The rule is that this must be submitted before half-time of the last-but-one semester when the thesis is to be submitted, in our case, one-and-a-half months after we started the one-year course. Then I realize now that with the same sweep of her mind, thinking I hadn’t paid, the department head refused to sign my application earlier this week, so by now, I have also missed this deadline. Even if the dean consents to my request to carry on with my studies after all, it does not seem feasible for me to finish it on time.

This is not a system geared to work badly – this is only a system of formalities, keeping to deadlines no matter what. I can only personally re-claim the fee that I don’t need any more, and only a part of it. I’ve been told to behave like an adult by a clerk in the Students’ Affairs department, whereas it is the Department Head who has behaved like a child to me. I’ve been acting in good faith and am looking to loose almost as much as by the Dutch department for housing allowances. If only the department head had the guts to go ahead with what she told everyone, her teachers included, to do.

All in all, it’s usually not the system, but the participants in the system who make it feel …

by P.S.

Chinglish, or Dunglish?


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Various places on the web and elsewhere expose the terrible mauling of the English language in China, one of the latest editions coming on the Chinese language blog here. Although this last one is called ‘tasty Chinglish’ on account of the fact that the examples come from food names in restaurants, this whole development of the ‘fan-club’ is beginning to become rather tasteless to me. After a visit to Madame Tussauds in Amsterdam, I thought, why not start looking at other ‘…lishes’?

‘Dunglish’ seems to be quite over the top, but let’s consider the distances, geographically, historically and linguistically, between English and those two countries. China used to be one of the doormats on the way to riches the imperialist mighty cleaned their feet on a hundred years ago. China got into such a terrible state of affairs as a result partly of this that they chose to follow the Chairman, who, alongside guiding the country out of the deepest doldrums and almost led it into just another one, kept grounding salt into the already bleeding wounds. He also cut the Chinese away from any foreign influence, umpteenth time in the country’s history. This also meant that practically no English-speaking people got into contact with any ordinary Chinese between 1949 and 1976.

This was easily a full generation, if not more, who were not only unable to learn languages but who also grew up loathing any foreigner. Coupled with long and repeated historical maltreatment before, no wonder a ‘foreigner’ is still mostly called a ‘laowei’ (老为), meaning ‘foreign devil’ by Chinese people in the street. Add the distance of kind between this Asian type of language and Germanic English, and the thousands of miles to English-speaking countries, hardly balanced by a few thousand native English people, or highly qualified non-native teachers teaching English as a first foreign language to an ocean of 1.3 billion natives, and you’ll see the enormity of the task. The enthusiasm leading up to the Beijing Olympics helped several thousands to master English, but the ratio is still tiny. And to critics from the West, may I ask which of you learned writing the Chinese sign system besides the Latin ABC? They do both en masse.

Considering that Dutch is a young Germanic language, in close proximity of kind to English and to the Islands themselves geographically, what extent of mistakes, if any, would be allowed for Dutch texts? Obviously, there aren’t enough English speakers to translate or correct all public signs and restaurant menus in Beijing, let alone around China. On the other hand, the Dutch are one of the nations that stand out in foreign language skills in Europe. Whereas there is one English-speaking television channel in China, whose text is locally made, English-speaking channels are easily available for and popular among youth in the Netherlands. The historical opposition between the two countries hundreds of years ago long forgotten, the linguistic kinship also adds to the expectation that here in the Netherlands all public texts in English are excellent. The testing methods in schools that I exposed earlier in this blog somewhat dampens this, still, what I’ve recently found in one of the most widely visited museums in Amsterdam, in Madame Tussauds, is nearing the level of shamefulness.


As I see it, it can hardly be argued that the third sentence explaining Stuyvesant’s importance is a quote from the man himself. He probably didn’t speak English, the ultimate foe for his country then. This is the work of a Dutch translator who translated this text from the original Dutch for the sake of English visitors. Still, he failed to change the sentence structure from Dutch into English.

This was perhaps the greatest blunder I found, but there are number of other, smaller ones that should be improved by the museum. This one, for example, is a close contender.


Not only do we not address him ‘in’ as we prefer, he was also not crowned ‘as’ king (see the example here, he was still a prince when he was crowned king of the Netherlands, although “Today, only the British Monarchy continues this tradition as the sole remaining anointed and crowned monarch, 

though many monarchies retain a crown as a national symbol in heraldry” according to this source. However, it is simply hilarious to believe that his ‘mother officially abdicated … and was then crowned’. This would mean that his mother is still the sovereign following an anointment for the second time after her abdication. The writer simply forgot to include ‘he’ to signal a change of the subject. 

In the following example of manhandling English, ‘june’ spelt with a small letter, like ‘april’ in the one above, is a minor issue following the Dutch vernacular.


Unfortunately, “The” following a “:” should not be capitalized, but the ‘sentence’ afterwards is meaningless simply because the “Artist, also known as TAFKAP and, was christened Prince Rogers Nelson after his father’s jazz band” is not a sentence. It’s not the senseless inclusion of a comma before ‘was’, but the inclusion of “and” that makes it so, making the following into a clause that would need another subject, or an object, before going on with the predicate. Then, “Besides the more than thirty albums he released, Prince is the charismatic owner …” is also not exactly the paragon of the correct subject co-ordination, making Prince another version of, or name for, the thirty albums he released. A little bit massed up, for my taste.

Then let’s consider another nice one, which also misses the capital on “may 5″.


A couple of blunders here. The smallest of them is that it’s a normal text, so “Debut album” badly needs an article in front of it, on account of ‘album’ being a countable singular noun. Further, in a text in the past tense, we suddenly encounter “leads” and “breaks”. Yes, historic present, but then what about the rest of the text? All of it should either be in this historic present, or the writer should have kept the past, where he returns in the third part after all. But funniest of all the mistakes here is in the first and second line – “and that friend out her song …”. Fried out, friended out, ousted? That friend outed? What’s going on here? Would ‘published’ or ‘brought out’ have been so difficult? “amoungst” in the last part is only the icing on the cake here.

Perhaps we could only find the usual non-capitalized name of a month and the inconsistent use of the comma in the following …


but this also allows one to see that the writer can’t differentiate between defining- and non-defining clauses, making it seem as if there had been at least two “Idols 2″ competitions. Besides, “recordcompany” is a non-existent word, the idea must have been either a recording company, or a record label, or perhaps a record-company like here. I also suspect that they actually have a recording deal, not a record deal, which would perhaps mean a record amount of money for the deal; however, this seems far exaggerated, without real international fame for the said duo. I can simply accept the missing question mark after “Do you know what I mean’ … it may have been missing from the original as well.


The usual ‘july’ and ‘october’ aside, I have a certain measure of doubt as to whether Rembrandt could have painted anything not “in his life”, but I’m certain that even he could not paint etchings and drawings, not even with his outstanding talent, and not in the hundreds and thousands. Further, if the writer knew that the Saxon genitive could be used in the case of “Amsterdam’s “Rijksmuseum””, how could he have not known it with “Rembrandts work”? Or did he get enlightened between the two sentences? The missing commas in the last sentence are a completely minor issue after this.


In this last example of Dunglish, the second question is a fine piece. Not only because, in English, the what he received comes before the where from, but also because, sadly, oevreprice is not English. Oeuvre is the legitimate word in English for the work of an artist over his lifetime, but a prize for this work is called a ‘life achievement award‘, or ‘lifetime achievement award‘. It’s a small matter that, by the third question, the writer forgot that he had started to list questions after the original “Did you know that …” piece, otherwise he wouldn’t have started the third dependent question with a capitalized “He”. But he certainly never forgot to write all names of months without the English capital, so why so forgetful otherwise?

P1090720Well, I know a writer/translator can’t be perfect. That’s why translations are proof-read afterwards, before the texts are handed out, as done and dusted, to be presented to the original client. Obviously, at this very exposed museum, somebody forgot to care about this, and nobody else cared to notice. I hope that somebody does after this. But I have become a bit uncertain as to the seriousness of mistakes on English-language signs and texts in China. In which country of these two are mistakes relatively more serious? Besides the need for Mme Tussauds Amsterdam to check and exchange their notices, perhaps the image of the Dutch being excellent about their English also needs a revision. And berating the Chinese for their public English texts could also be done a bit more kindly. To ease the stern expression on Mme’s face.

by P. S.

English testing issue in Hungary


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Last week, students sitting for the school-leaving exams in Hungary were up against the English test on the higher level. This test is something the results of which count towards university entrance exams, so naturally, perceived or real trouble about it counts a lot more than that on the normal level tests. Internet news about the issue with the listening part can be read in Hungarian here. I hope that my interpretation of the situation may be useful for English teachers in other countries as well and may help students understand some features of the situation.

In short, of the 9809 exam takers, in one day, more than 2500 joined a facebook group (though this could be misleading, seeing that parents also joined the group) and submitted a petition to the relevant government agency against the quality of the listening material as they thought the material couldn’t be heard properly because of distortions of sound in classrooms. Some actually claimed the original sound already had echos. We can also listen to it in the middle section of the article, right next to the link to the pdf of the task sheet involved. As my listening to the published material reveals no distortion problems to me on my computer, the story reveals a lot of problems in the Hungarian education system.

Admitting that the inclusion of several French and Spanish words was not exactly fair, I still wonder if that may have disturbed takers. Not only in my teaching practice but also in all teaching materials, there are lots of names from other languages recurring all the time. How can one learn a language without mentioning outstanding people from history, science, the arts etc.? English doesn’t distort foreign names like Chinese does, so this can’t really have been a problem for trained examinees. Trained, I’m saying, and I’m returning to this a bit later.

Another problem claimed was the extreme distortion. The article claims many schools use ancient portable tape-recorders to play … what exactly? The listening material was issued to schools in two copies of the relevant CDs, so no tape-recorders could have been involved. Such a distortion is, to my mind, indicative of the quality of … the Hungarian media. Other than that, CD players may have been of dubious quality, in bad repair, I had already met a number of such equipment 10 years ago. However, if a CD player doesn’t work, it is taken away to be repaired or thrown away and is exchanged to a better one. Some people actually claimed that they didn’t hear the sound sitting in the second row and they have good listening abilities. To my mind, it is doubtful that the teacher administering the test purposefully brought in a bad player with bad loudspeakers to disturb her/his own students. Claiming that the loudspeaker had to be turned up too strongly in the big rooms is also strange: the same students had been sitting in the same rooms for four years listening to the same players at similar intensity. What may have been new, pray?

However, this point only in itself brings the technical background for schools in Hungary in the limelight, and probably deservedly. This in turn underlines the poor financials of the same for extended years. While in my study years we only had really ancient big tape-recorders to listen to the one set of intermittent pre-recorded (that is, unnatural, carefully read-out) listening material, the 21st century makes it necessary to expose students to realistic listening in countries, like Hungary, where English-language TV-programs are practically unavailable and dubbed films prevail in the cinemas. This practice is also in need of changing, but the poor general financial situation makes it very difficult for any broadcaster to buy the rights of contemporary TV programs and air them as they are. And what would be their incentive? That change nowhere to be seen in the pipeline, it is the schools’ duty to provide ample practice for listening. If they can. But that is only one side of the equation.

And that brings me up to my next point. As I said, it is up to schools. But schools consist of not only teachers, there are, in the majority, students as well. Meaning, the vast majority of people in a classroom are the students. Have you ever stood in front of a large group of people who resist all your efforts to bring them together and make them quietly learn something instead of their own will? It’s a lot easier for a party leader to speak to a huge crowd from their own party – they want to hear what he wants to say. Try doing it in front of the opposition. And that is still only speaking, not making them practice performing skills. My experience shows that during the last 15 years the willingness of most students in Hungarian schools to learn has been nose-diving. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, as the proverb goes. More and more students do not want to drink from the fountain of knowledge, so to speak, but weep and wail each time listening is brought in – I faced this reluctance increasingly myself.

I’m not saying it happens everywhere, but that it has been increasing dangerously. Now, if the teacher doesn’t want to antagonize her/his students all the time, she/he yields and there goes the listening practice. This may turn into a general tendency because it is easy to neglect something once again what we’ve already neglected a couple of times and yes, listening is not easy and also not easy to teach. With a decrease of quality students, teachers’ average levels of quality and professionalism may also decline, and in a culture growing towards accommodating the perceived ‘needs’ of the customer (the students), teachers get used to catering to what students ‘want’. And that can be dangerously close to very little. This based on the majority will. And the majority is always right, right? At least before Copernicus …

That said, I’m not saying those students hadn’t practiced listening – I’m saying, what they had done was far from satisfactory, far from enough.

Learning a language has nothing near to the logic of developing mathematical or historical knowledge. It is not even only knowledge, it is rather a huge set of skills. It is a lot more complex than other subjects except for learning a musical instrument, and contrary to beliefs, but due to the complexity as well, there are very big differences in learning abilities, especially if we consider the time constraints. Hence the complaints in the complaining group on facebook, demanding logical, rational answers. No, there may not be logical, rational answers. No, the way we learn languages is next to impossible to follow with logic. Yes, intelligence may have a limited part in it. Yes, it may also be due to psychological barriers, individual learning styles, short- and long-term memory differences, methodological differences on the part of the teacher as well as on the students, to name a few problems. And listening is an area where a lot of those factors converge for many as there is no possibility for individual speed, time to stop to consider and the like. It is thus very tiring and also difficult to really assess. I am next to stating that teaching a language is an instinctive art, with an instinct not easy to develop. So many colleagues in the classroom may give up on trying and practicing listening. It is easier to resort to a dry, seemingly logical structure of what happens easily each time: turn to page … read and answer the questions. Choose … fill in … let me see … correct … incorrect because … (grammar explanation following). Satisfaction – duties have been fulfilled.

Of course, students wanting to take the higher-level test are the cream of the classes. Why couldn’t they perform at the test without problems? Well, it’s because they are a minority of the communities they had been brought up in to be the best. To be the best among a general decline may mean very different from what it meant for us 40 years ago, or for my first groups 30-or-so years ago. Those communities are the real initiators of this protest and the real cause of the problem. They may be the reason why the best may think they are good listeners. Among whom?

Parents seem to subscribe to the general mood of protest. I have seen and felt this too. Parents have become more and more defensive of their children based on the perception that they know their kids better. Parents’ perceptions have been shifting towards seeing, if not the school, then at least the ‘problem’ teacher as the enemy instead of the ally in improving their children’s capabilities and thus future chances. Unfortunately, this perception has been spreading among the student community as well. And this has been happening in a country and culture where parents are more and more inundated with their own work. Before I forget, there is also the other side, the group of parents who can provide their kids with everything they wish for. As one student explained to me a few years ago, “I don’t need to speak English, I’ll have my father’s business and I’ll employ interpreters.” Well, yes, that seems easy for some. If that’s the image they make fashionable, what are the chances for the meek not to follow in laziness? However, that’s already a social problem that I can’t address here. But that’s another reason for the students to consider the teacher the enemy – she/he, the ‘loser’, seems to be powerless against the ‘mighty’ parents, so what do they want? Reminiscent of the situation in Chinese private schools. Does it also remind you of “another brick in the wall”?

I see one positive. And that is that the tasks are still given in English at an English test, something that may often not be the case in the Netherlands, or Italy, or China, for example. I can feel, however, that this may also change as so many other things have changed in the course of the last couple of years in the Hungarian education system. It is always easy to take the easier path. But that is going to be the subject of another article next time.

A few days after I posted this article, on 14th May, what do I see on Dutch TV? Mass protests on the net by Dutch takers of their respective school-leaving exams against the time constraints they thought was too short … while in Nigeria, where more than 270 girls were earlier kidnapped to prevent them from going to school and punish them, people are still hoping that there may still be a future for girls’ getting a profession.

by P. S.

Effect of Grammar Teaching on Learners and Translators


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I have been relatively new to translators’ sites, but on a discussion forum, I’ve already come across a lot of very professional explanations of problems in English. Translators are language experts after all.

However, I’ve recently seen a question that, surprisingly, at first sight, veiled the sight of professionals as well. The question was about how to translate the following part of a test into another language:

“Q X. The School of Art is
a. moving to a new site in the near future
b. lifting to a new site in the near future
c. sending to a new site in the near future”

The asker (somewhat grammatically incorrectly) said “I think that answers B and C are not grammatically corrects” but asked for other people’s opinion.

My feeling is that the foreign language teaching which we all underwent at a young age left an indelible mark on us to an extent that most of the best language professionals still think in terms of grammar when faced with wrong language items. They clearly identify what is wrong language, but when the question referred to wrong grammar, they left it at that and were mostly busy discussing how strange the idea is to translate a language test into another language. That is also a very valid question, but at the same time, of the 5 or 6 people involved in the discussion, only one pointed out that it is not the grammar which is wrong, but “it’s a problem of vocabulary — simply the incorrect choice of verb”. And this amazed me.

I suspect that language teaching that focuses on grammar leads to a tunnel vision of languages with most of us, and we accept all, or most, language mistakes to be those of grammar, the rest being allowed for spelling and punctuation, but which are almost never pointed out to fellow professionals for fear of being called impolite.

In this particular case, what was really important was indeed the incorrect two choices. But, though asked about grammar, some people may have also been afraid to correct the conceptual mistake. Yes, grammar is usually to blame. To a language teacher, this indicates that treating vocabulary, or lexis, as increasingly referred to at least since Michael Lewis’ ‘lexical approach’ appeared in ELT, is still the basic concept we deal with about language. His work has apparently not gained enough kudos to counteract the good old reference to ‘grammar’, whatever is understood under this umbrella term.

Besides, one other very valid point was also raised, namely, to what extent wrong language can be called incorrect. It often happens in language classes that teachers (or native voluntary helpers here in the Netherlands) jump on any mistake learners make. Besides possibly intimidating most learners, this also overshadows the fact that language is for communicating ideas even through mistakes. Haven’t we all, as babies, started out making millions of mistakes, and yet, our families understood us the way we intended? There was correction, too, but it was not only patient, it also accepted the extent the faulty language was still communicative enough.

Besides, it was all done without reference to ‘grammar’. I increasingly suspect that the concept itself is to blame for the mere question. If it is enough for language professionals, and indeed all native and high, or even mid-level speakers of the language to identify a mistake as wrong, is it necessary to call it a name and thereby fall back on falsely trained concepts? If we have to teach along lines of concepts at all, then teachers and learners should learn to call a spade a spade and call a wrong word a mistake of lexis, and not grammar. Or abandon ‘grammar’ almost completely.

It is also time to point out to language learners that when they make lexical mistakes, they may be grammatically correct, but most lexical mistakes are completely wrong because of the meaning, and often simply because of general usage. In schools, the stress is on grammar, whereas the most urgently necessary material to be learned is vocabulary, and in the proper usage. Without lexis, grammar is dead, but proper words have a meaning even when ungrammatically used. “Papa, rug pein?” with good intonation is completely understandable from the toddler, although an applicant at a Dutch language exam would fail. “Kici, nagyi?” is completely wrong Hungarian even on pronunciation level, yet all Hungarians in Chinese take-aways understand this in Budapest and react without problems. This importance of lexis is perhaps most apparent using Chinese, a language rather void of grammar, when, for example, politely asking someone to “Qing zuo ba” would become wrong if we changed the declining voice pattern on ‘zuò’ to ‘zuǒ’ (as in 坐 v. 左). Of course, the context helps, and in the case of Chinese, due to the characteristics of the language, phrases with wrong tones are still understood. But a mistake is a mistake, but it is almost never one of grammar, especially in writing.

This all shows as well how mistaken language testing itself could be, and that language tests should not be translated. Language tests are to measure the level of use of language of learners based on the characteristics of the given language, not of another one. Also, tests do not provide context, even for grammatical correctness. Thus teachers and then tests end up having to transcribe active sentences to passive “equivalents”, which, in the vast majority of cases, cannot sensibly be done. What would be the active version of “The last member of the family could not be rescued from the burning house”? An accusation against whom? The normal British press item “Our government has failed to realize the threat involved in allowing hedge funds to ….” would be completely unheard-of if translated into Hungarian without using an impersonalized kind of language reminiscent of passive voice, but such a Hungarian item would lose all its usual critical edge translated into English in the passive, as a result of the fact that no acting party would be mentioned as subject. Languages have their internal characteristics besides and above mere ‘grammar’. But when the question turns to ‘correct grammar’, even a native language professional suggests, however tentatively, that in sentence C above, the passive would be more correct. Except for the meaning involved.

by P. S.

Neurobiologist on the brain development of children – part 3


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This is the third, last part of the interview I’ve translated from Hungarian about children’s development and the role of the media that was made with Gerald Hüther and published in Hungarian here. This part is mainly about what parents should notice, how they could help their children grow up healthily and what long-term changes are to be expected.

“From what signs are parents able to recognize that the virtual world has sucked their children in? And how can they protect their children from the threatening deprivation?”

Hüther,Gerald_08.jpg.5154300“If a child prefers sitting in front of the computer instead of running about outside and playing with others, that is, if he/she does not satisfy his/her natural needs, then the situation is worrying, parents already have to respond to this. But not by formulating prohibitions. Instead, they would have to try to present their children with challenges that correspond to the real world, and which can also be met. With adventures, unexpected incidents, surprising, or even dangerous situations that the child can overcome, so that then he become hardened through these.

Therefore, beside the wide computer highways, parents should plant something else in the heads of their descendants. Lots of parent enter their offspring for Asian fighting sports, holidays with camping out, or ask them to look after smaller children.

Some of them may be helped if they can teach old people how to use the computer and the internet. These children will later be able to talk to others and solve problems together. This is because they are provided with a broad spectrum of the real, empirical world by their parents during the years decisive for the maturing of the brain.

On the other hand, children who get immersed in computer worlds will learn too soon that for everything there, all it takes is to press the correct button. They no longer tolerate any mistake, no longer bear frustration, and are not able to maintain control over their impulses. They are no longer able to navigate in the real world.

P1000416If, on the other hand, your children are parts of a living community, and they experience adventures like the boy scouts, they will be lured under the spell of virtual worlds much more rarely: they will play with the computer a lot less often and watch far less television. During their subsequent lives they will experience far less disturbance from anxiety, and will not become so uncertain. They will grow into really healthy personalities.

“Let us suppose that such a personality has emerged. As all youngsters, this child will still try out computer games and the Internet. Similarly to others, he will also want to create a chat profile. What dangers arise from this?”

“No child is born computer-dependent. And it is never the strong, lively, open-minded, curious and creative children with good interpersonal skills who are charmed by the electronic media. I can’t see threats for them. They will consider the computer to be what it sould be considered: an excellent tool to serve the efficient use of the brain. They will discover the internet as a gigantic source of knowledge for themselves, which allows them to answer questions about the real life.

“But what happens in the mind of a child of ten when he/she accidentally hits upon a page with pornographic or horrifying content? Does not he/she get too great a shock?”

“Not necessarily. It depends on what the family environment is like, and what role the media play at home. Some content that for us adults appears to be signs of horrible brutality, for a lot of kids appears as one of many possible forms of approaching each other. A child whose mind has already been blunted by passive consuming of the media will not be able to form an opinion on what he can see there. Experience has taught him/her that everything can happen on the screen.

One minute he/she can see that the fox is chasing the bunny, in another that people are laughing when Donald Duck and Pluto are flattening each other, and then, as if nothing had happened, they rise again. Muscle-headed wrestlers smash each other’s skulls on the screen before a yelling crowd, and then the child can see that two people are making love, or, for example, cut off each other’s heads.

The parents have weaned them off the natural feeling of being horrified. The child has already found out that it is pointless to ponder all this. He has learned that he/she is not necessarily able to understand what is happening on the screen.

“But what happens to children who have hardly gained experience yet with the passive media?”

“The child’s brain will be trying to fit this new image, no matter how disturbing, to that already existing, so that he/she can understand it. His/Her impression will be stored as one of the forms of communication among people. It is very important that the parents then clearly explain that this is not a desirable form of co-existence with others. If someone did this to you in the real world, it would be terribly painful for you.

“Children, therefore, need not only tasks which help their development, but also people who give them direction.”

“Yes, they urgently need role models who help them avoid doubtful communities and questionable tasks. Things always go wrong if the children are not able to fully expand their skills.

For this, adults are needed again. The computer industry only satisfies the demand. And as long as there are enough parents who do not understand that children have needs which are best met in the real world, the supply in digital media will increase. And if children grow up among such circumstances, they will seek tasks necessary for their development there.

It is worth stopping to contemplate what may become of a society whose children take leave of the real world. The result of which is a brain that has perfectly adapted to a virtual world of the Internet and to PC games.

“Can you justify this idea neurologically?”

JJ_published“We already have studies which demonstrate that nowhere else can a man learn better hand skills, or, more precisely, better finger technique than when practicing on a keyboard or writing an SMS (my remark: this is true except in comparison with playing musical instruments, which gives really complete finger control together with aesthetic satisfaction in the long run).This leaves its mark on the brain. Thus, during the last ten years, the region in young people’s brain that directs the thumbs has grown considerably larger.

There have developed finer and finer, denser and denser networks, which allows them to make amazingly fast thumb movements. Young people develop their brains so as to optimally adapt to these requirements. Now the only remaining question is if it is going to be important in the society of the future that man can move his thumb as quickly as possible. Children cannot answer this question yet – it is up to adults to anwer it.

by P. S.

Neurobiologist on the brain development of children – part 2


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This is the second part of the interview I’ve translated from Hungarian about children’s development and the role of the media that was made with Gerald Hüther and published in Hungarian here. This part is mainly directly about the effect of the media on the brain.

“So do you think children need tasks?”

For the brain the real challenges and adventures are of decisive importance. Going fishing with uncle, building a house into a tree, or climbing a mountain. The adventures have made us all strong. Nerve scientists can now prove the connection: children have to overcome as many challenges as possible during their lives so that the most important networks can be created. Therefore, children need a world in which interactivity plays a very large role. And that not in the context of virtuality, but of real life.

“Can children later develop this neuronal network in their brains?”

“If the critical period is over and the networks important for the regulation of the body are sparsely developed, the child does not have a good feeling about his/her body. However, the brain remains malleable throughout our whole life. An 8-, or 10-year-old child shall also benefit later from all the experience of his/her body that he/she acquires nowadays. However, the child will be differently motivated to train his/her body. The learning process no longer takes place intuitively and automatically. Children are ashamed of themselves, they are mocked at – and they learn with fear, which is not a good basis.

“Provided that at age 6 the important neuronal networks in the brain have already been established, are children protected by this time against all danger from the media?”

“Not necessarily, because many children are in the danger that they will get lost in the virtual worlds.”

“Are you referring to computer games?”

“Yes, among others. It is because it becomes dangerous if children use the digital media to meet their essential needs. Each person has two of those.

One is to belong somewhere. The other is to want to perform. The first need is expressed in the need for bonding, the second in the desire for freedom. Kids suffer in our society first of all from the fact that they only rarely have the opportunity to achieve something. They find no real tasks which may strengthen them in their development. That is because those would precisely be the tools to be used to build up children’s self-image, their identity.

It is obvious that a lot of parents have already forgotten what such a task would be like, the kind helping the development of a child. The child himself has to find this task nowadays, and it should indeed be challenging and long.

At the end of it, we will feel like when climbing a mountain: we only sit up there, and simply feel happy. This is a sign that the child has solved a real task, that in this case, there is no need for outside praise, he is happy with it on his own.

Today, primarily the boys find it to be their task to develop their proficiency to absolute perfection in computer games. In such competitions, they can show others how good they are. But those tasks are not suitable to assist them to find their way in real life.

“What kind of children are especially vulnerable?”

“Precisely 40% of German schoolchildren go to school feeling stressed. In particular, the boys are those who sit down in front of the computers immediately after school. They need at least one hour’s shooting games. The computer is, for them, a means of getting rid of their frustration. By doing a great job holding their ground among the adventures of the virtual worlds, butchering monsters and becoming victorious, they find a way out of their powerlessness and the mounting agression. They reduce their frustration with a peculiar achievement.

“So then, again, the system of rewards comes in action.”

“Exactly. As if the children had come by a wonderful life experience. This experience, however, applies to a world which does not exist in reality. Neurobiologically speaking, this is fatal: the child trains his mind for situations that only occur on screen. What is more, computers create the illusion of controllability too. When a child plays with another one, his experience is that, in reality, not everything can be controlled. Another person is not always doing what we want.

Besides, a lot of kids can no longer sense their bodies during a game. They no longer need sleep, they do not respond to signals of hunger or thirst. In South-Eastern Asia, the first cases have already appeared where computer-dependent youngsters starved to death or dried out sitting in front of the computer.

“You are talking about boys basically. But what do girls do with the computer?”

“They chat. Girls feel more need to belong somewhere and to build up relationships. And then, if this is not really successful, chatting can become a compensating substitute to some extent for the missing proximity and bonding. I do not have to prattle every five minutes with a friend in whom I can trust. That girls talk so much is rather a sign that they have in fact become uncertain, and they cannot trust the durability and strength of the connection. It is like when chicks call their mother.

“And do the real social relations wither away?”

“This must necessarily happen so. They can only keep real relationships with another if they are really together. All else is only virtual connections. Because in the virtual spaces, people are not present in their full reality. They have no fragrance, no smell, their movement and other manifestations are not life-like. In virtuality, features of encounters prevalent to life do not occur. While chatting, they only communicate in writing.

To be continued soon …

by P. S.

Neurobiologist on the brain development of children


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My dear reader, I read a fascinating article (in Hungarian) a few weeks ago (which can be accessed here in Hungarian) that I found so interesting that I’d like to make it accessible for a different community here in my English translation as well.

Hüther,Gerald_08.jpg.5154300It is an interview with leading German neuropsychologist Gerald Hüther (some more information and another interview with him in English here). The original interview may have been in German, so apologies for perhaps deviating from the original meanings at points. It is also long, so I’m going to deliver it in three parts over the next couple of weeks. I’m going to insert my own ideas at places where I find it appropriate as I’m not only interested in, but also involved with young children’s development, especially as regards their language, social and creative development, being closely involved in my co-author’s children’s lives.

What goes on in children’s brains when they are watching television?

In the latest edition of GEOkompakt, devoted to child-development psychology, professor Gerald Hüther, one of the best-known German brain researchers and neuropsychologists explains what goes on in the minds of children who watch television or play with the computer very much.

“Professor, as a neurobiologist, you research how the media affect human brain development. Could you recommend to us a good TV program or a computer game for Children?

“No, and such recommendations would not help us any further. This is because in that way we would only get mired in a superficial conversation about the content quality of the supply; however, it is better to avoid that. On the other hand, you do not need to look for very long: you can quickly find five studies which show you how good watching television is for children, allegedly.

In contrast to this, however, another five studies will prove that TV is bad. This discussion is completely useless for parents. I do not talk about content, I approach the question from much further away.

A few years ago, we neurobiologists still thought that the genetic programs automatically set up all connections in the brain. Therefore, the complex neuronal networks, which direct the ways we think, feel, act, were thought to be genetically programmed. It is now known, however, that in the long run, only those relationships are created in the child’s mind which are regularly activated in real life. What is not used, withers away. (me: And so it is with adults too.) The genetic programs ensure that at first large surpluses of neuron-links get created.

For the creation of the most important neuronal circuits in the brain, children need to experience their own bodies first of all. And this is not acquired sitting before the screen independently of what goes on on TV.

“Why are bodily experiences so definitive?”

“Only those can fully develop their cognitive abilities in whom the appropriate feelings of their own bodies mature. There already exist studies which prove that those young children who are good at mathematics are especially capable of balancing too. One obtains the capabilities necessary for three-dimensional and abstract thinking and for mathematics that he learns to keep his body in balance. As a child is sitting in front of the TV, he no longer feels his body. He does not climb, does not jump, does not balance, or does not climb a tree, i.e. he does not pass the time by learning his body.

“So children should keep moving as much as possible?”

“Yes, but they do not necessarily have to climb mountains. Singing is one of the most extraordinary practices to learn our bodies. In doing this, in fact, the child’s mind has to direct  his vocal chords in such a virtuosic manner as to bring out the very exactly appropriate sound. This is the best fine motorneuoronic practice and, at the same time, this is the condition of all future, very differentiated  manners of thinking.

On top of this, we can speak of a very complex creative performance with singing. This is because the child has to bear in his mind the whole song so as to be able to hit the correct sound at the correct time. Besides, he also learns to adapt to the others in the chorus, which is one of the conditions of social competence.

Without fear

Without fear

Moreover, children also experience something wonderful, namely that we are not able to be afraid when we are singing. Neurobiologists now know that during free singing, the brain is not able to mobilise the feeling of fear. This is why, going down to the cellar, man has been singing for thousands of years  and not because he wants to scare the mice away.

“Where do such experiences condense, where are the neuronal circuits formed?”

Trying to find out how it works/1

Trying to find out how it works/1

“In the most complicated part of our brains, in the so-called pre-frontal lobe. It is located right behind the forehead. That is where our idea of ourselves evolves. And at the same time, this is also where the urge to turn to the world also evolves, the urge to plan actions, to control impulses and to bear frustration.

This has to be formed in early childhood, until around the age of 6. The networks in the frontal lobe responsible for all this, however, will only evolve if the child acquires this experience. Such experience, in its turn, results primarily from dealing with things that he can make sense of and is able to manipulate. This, however, is more and more difficult today.

“What is the cause of this?”

Trying to find out how it works/2

Trying to find out how it works/2

“The children’s world has changed just as much as that of adults. We are not able to understand any more how our household articles actually work. Formerly this was otherwise. Each object was understandable, the bicycle, the steam engine, even the car. A child could take the clock to pieces, he could study the cogwheels on the inside, and in this way he could uncover the mechanism behind it. Today, in the days of the information society, things may be so complex that very often we fint it hard, or impossible, to understand the cause and the effect.

“How does it all affect the child’s mind?”

“Our brain always adapts to what we do enthusiastically. In the previous century, people felt enthusiastic about machines, and that was what they identified themselves with. In fact, they even applied this machine-like way of thinking to themselves. This then affects the language: we call our hearts pumps, and we talk about run-down joints, which we then replace.

But now suddenly there is this new era. It will be more and more difficult to comprehend the causes and the effects. For example, why the arrow on the screen moves to the right when the mouse is moved. The lack of this mental connection will lead to children not being interested in causality any more. This is the simple result of human brain development. They seem to learn that they have to accept things without capturing the inherent sense behind them.

It is not only that lots of digital media are not understandable, but in addition, there are very few possibilities for us to get involved in current events actively. A very simple example for this is that we cannot change anything else about a television than choose the program. The first time we put a young child in front of the telly, they even talk to the set. They tell the bunny where the fox is lurking. This means they try to participate actively in the events.

This has been taught to them by their experience so far, without virtual media. After a few weeks of watching TV, however, most kids resign to the fact that they cannot actively get involved in the development of things on-screen and give up, that is, they query a part of their own efficacy.

“This is, however, an important element in the development of a child.”

The strength of our inside urge - a toddler choses his own activity against looking at the TV

The strength of our inside urge – a toddler choses his own activity against looking at the TV

“Yes, and this only develops by its own experience in the frontal lobe – as a very complex neuronal network. To expand their knowledge horizon, children have to place their new experiences in a mental context. This is because our brain is only able to learn something if the new impressions are linked to an existing pattern which originate in previous experience. This is an exceptionally creative process.

Therefore, the child will try to suit the new to the existing, older patterns. But to do this, he/she will first start looking for things in his/her mind, so to speak. A stage of productive anxiety emerges, until the pattern of stimuli falls in place. And then the chaos is converted into harmony in the brain. This is that particular ‘I see’ experience.

In the meantime, the bonus system is activated. Nerve cells emit “hormones of happiness”. All little experience of our own achievement causes happiness comparable to taking a little cocain and heroin at the same time. In contrast, it is terribly difficult to be actively, creatively involved in watching films. Therefore, it would be preferable if kids did not get into contact with the television or the computer before schooling.

“But we also receive the action in a book ready-made. Reading is also a passive activity.”

“When a child reads, a lot of things go on in the meantime in the brain technically. It puts the letters together into words. The words and sentences are converted into worlds of phantasy. What the child’s brain has read appears before his mind’s eye.

Little Red Riding Hood is walking in the forest. No child sees the letters here. This is an incredible achievement of the brain: to create a picture from black and white. In contrast, a Harry Potter movie is worth nothing. Before you can turn on your imagination, the following image is already there. In fact you are only developed by what you have worked for yourself.”

(me: A proof of this can be considered in the fact that most people watch films to relax, to get out of their own reality, to stop worrying. We may laugh or cry over a film, but we do that because we copy, we are moved at best, not because we take their happiness or sorrows on ourselves. The rare film which is so good that we feel involved is not only rare, but soon becomes obsolete – people get fed up with them; just watch Lars von Trier, or Mike Leigh films – most of them exceptionally good and disturbing films, but never successes at the box office.)

To be followed soon …

by P.S.

The extent translation is ‘correct’


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I’m going to write again about the special field of translation, and only about a small section thereof, so my topic should actually be read as “What does the percentage score of agreement mean when using machine translation as basis?” I would like to invite fellow translators to comment on the issue. However, I also hope to provide further proof against the validity of using the ‘grammar-translation method’ in language teaching. Or at least further warning about it.

The main reason for me to write today, plainly put, is that I’m not very experienced in translating based on CAT tools and machine supported translation tools. I’ve received one agreement so far that included percentages of my full price if there was a partial agreement between the pre-translated (by Google, for example) version and my corrected version. I haven’t actually received any jobs yet from this client, but I keep wondering about what it means in practice. I can imagine % of agreement between Dutch and German, or English, or Swedish, but my feeling is that there may be very rough estimations and even wrong ones between languages of very different nature. To be explained later below.

Another reason is that I must prepare a long list of my own so that I can convert the whole thing into an auto-suggest dictionary or term base. I use a translation tool for it, and a global service helps me, but one feature of the software helps me identify and apply translations that I’ve already done through the translation memory I’m creating along the way. There’s the rub. After I translated “take note”, I wasn’t offered automatic similar answer when the next phrase to be translated was “take note of”. However, when the following item was “taken notes of” (I’d originally made a typo using the -n), I was given a 71% score relative to the previous one, and a possible translation based on mine with that one. On the other hand, after I did “throw (threw, thrown), hurl, fling”, I was given 85% when I tried to translate “throw (threw, thrown), yield”. I wonder how – ‘yield’ has nothing to do with hurling or flinging, yet, the similarity was found higher here than when I accidentally added the third form of ‘take’ with the plural of ‘note’.

On the text level, I don’t think anyone could come up with anything better than the famous Karinthy story with the cross-translations between Hungarian and German. On a lower level, I have an idea to show what I mean by asking about this problem. Here is goes.

Let’s suppose there is a situation when someone was murdered, there was a knife found next to a pool, the identity of the victim not yet revealed at the beginning of the news. In Hungarian, the text could go like this,

“Az áldozatot valószínűleg késsel ölték meg. A dikicset közvetlenül a medence mellett találta meg a rendőrség. Az elkövetés időpontja még bizonytalan, de a száraz vér okán a dikics már napok óta ott fekhetett.”

Well, because the target language is English, the native English translator may not directly remember what a ‘dikics’ is, he may be a tennis fan and may fail to look up the Hungarian word because he remembers Ms Dokic, former tennis player’s name. There is really not a lot of difference, so he may easily come up with the following translation of the second sentence,

“Dokic was found dead right next to the pool by police.” Deepest apologies to the living person, but the translation tool could well find a 90% or 95% similarity between this and my correction, based on which I would have to give up quite a lot of my earnings on this sentence. However, the meanings of the two sentences couldn’t be greater. The corrector would have to recreate the sentence and give it a completely different meaning, revealing that it was not a person and not dead that was found next to the pool. Not to mention the problem of defamation to the person very much alive. And not to mention that if it were really Ms Dokic, the Hungarian text would read ‘Dokic-ot’, not ‘A dikicset’. Very different, but no MT would understand the difference. I would venture to add that anyone checking my translation with a CAT-tool would also overlook the difference. I would deem the original translation almost worthless, but for the correction, the corrector would receive perhaps only 10% or 20% of his full fee.

Working on my own word list, I am also continually perturbed by the fact that verb forms of English words are identified as nouns, like “bark” as a verb comes in invariably as “kéreg”, and, what’s more, mostly suffixed, like “snore” becomes “horkolással”, while “blare” becomes “Katonazenét hallottunk”. Boggles the mind.

It is also nice when a simple list of verbs is turned into a completely wrong sentence, like from “spot, catch sight of, descry”, I get the result as “Helyszíni, mikor a pusztaságot,” In this way, with a comma at the end. Similarly, when I use the tool for texts, it regularly up-end the translation by adding a negative in Hungarian to the originally positive sentence. Why, one wonders incessantly.

For more fun for Hungarian speakers, let me quote here two machine-translated Hungarian terms from TermWiki, the aspiring definition-provider,

fűszer (egészben vagy őrölve) leírás: a szerecsendió fa szürkésbarna, ovális magot. Buzogány a spice, nyert a magokat a membrán. Diós, meleg, fűszeres, édes. Felhasználás: Italok (esp. tojás nog), sütemények, cookie-kat, szószok, édes burgonya, tejsodó és kenyerek”
Folyó Georgina

Georgina folyó ez Észak-három fő folyók, a csatorna ország nyugati Queensland áramlását rendkívül nedves években, hogy a Eyre-tó.”

No comment. But if someone got such texts to be corrected, based on the similarity of many of the original words to the correction, I am afraid that the fee would not reflect the fact that the whole text would have to be re-done.

Aspiring translators of unrelated languages: beware! Students swotting words of a foreign language: beware!

On the other hand, I would gladly receive any kind of feed-back from En-Hun or Hun-En translators, or any other, even if there’s a great disagreement with the above.

by P. S.

Translating using translation software


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Perhaps a few of my readers are thinking sometimes of trying to do translation, perhaps seriously despite the difficulties. As I read more and more opinions and information about this profession on the various sites, I can see that some people have achieved very high fee levels compared to others. Of course, we have to develop a lot professionally before we can also achieve something comparable, and, in spite of what I wrote in my previous post, translation software does play a role in this nowadays.

As my former Chinese students used always to say, “With the development of modern technology …”, and I can add that we can’t avoid software for long. But we have to be careful which software to buy first. If we get more income, we will surely expand our business towards various other kinds, but the first one is the big risk as far as I can see. So here are my discoveries and ideas about the choice, without mentioning names, which you will have to find out for yourself.

First of all, almost all software ads will state in one form or another that theirs is a market leader, or the best, or most widely used, or most complete or most useful one. Sometimes there is some partial truth in these statements, sometimes a bit less is true.

Most software, as you probably know, is expensive. No wonder, as there’s been a lot of work and know-how invested in creating them. Although sometimes a software can be cracket, this road is not only against the law and thus may prove dangerous, but also of partial use, simply because most software uses internet sources, and if we somehow enter those common sites and resources, we will probably be discovered as hackers. If we don’t use them, the software is of very limited use.

Most software has been made for Windows systems. There is only one for Mac systems, though some people claim to have found some others, but later these have proved otherwise. Mac users have to install some software that allows them to also run Windows, and then they can install anything they want.

And here comes the snag: which are good ones that we can afford? As I haven’t got much capital, I’ve only invested in one. Fortunately, some other programs run in limited  mode as well, with limited TM (translation memory) allowed. Translation memory is one thing that we use while translating, so it is important, but if 500 items are allowed, it will be enough first, to find out how well the program works. Every software saves our solutions as TM while working. If we run out of further possibility to build our TM, we can still use the advantages of accessing internet sources for our translation work. Be aware, however, that most such sources come with paid membership. Even use of GoogleTranslate costs in such cases, which suggests to me that the service I’d get if I paid would be far better than the public source as we know it.

Some software allow us to use various global servers and services, only that most of them cost an additional amount of investment. Sometimes we are offered a free server, but then suddenly we have to discover not only that our program has a few bugs, but also that this free server suddenly disappears, ‘the link is down’, ‘the address cannot be resolved’, and the like. The original provider usually may be willing to help if you have also paid for their support services, apart from the price of the product, of course. If we are fortunate, we may be a member of a translator community where somebody could have an explanation or a solution. Or not.

Another source we can use is our term base that we are supposed to build up using our work. However, that’s something we have to build up, and with a limited edition, that is also limited. With a fully registered software, we may be allowed to pay for use of an on-line term-base. But a bigger surprise is when we realize that an apparently market leader software does not in itself make it possible for us to build our term base. They graciously forget to mention that we would have to buy another – not very cheap – software that does it for us if, also only if, we buy yet another kind which first converts our own file built up for this purpose (for example, as an Excel file) to enable the second software to transfer it to the main translation program. Brilliant. I would already be at twice the original – and quite hefty – investment. Other software may call this term-base a glossary, but not all software allows you to create this either.

Then there is the promise of an auto-suggest dictionary. Only that you need to have a ridiculously large TM that you can convert into such a base, or you need paid membership of an internet source. Costs may keep rising towards the sky. Let’s not forget that some clients would demand a translator to work for $1 per 300 or 500 words. Add to it that we would have to pay tax after that. But the software has already cost us perhaps $800, or more. How many hundreds of pages of documents do you have to translate and how many hours only for this to return? So you’ll have to be careful about what kind of work and terms you accept if you are intent on becoming a good, professional translator.

When you work with software, the problems mentioned in my earlier posts will still come up, but probably less and less frequently if you manage to build up your own resources. Then the only problem that may remain for you is the quality of the source. While most is probably of good quality, sometimes you have to face texts (for examples notes, or minutes of meetings, or translated material from a relatively exotic language) which are hard to understand than normal. You have to be prepared to face the situation and use your most intelligent guess.

At the moment I’m not absolutely sure if complaining is against any ethical rules, or not. But because I enjoy exposing problems, let me quote a few things I’ve encountered. First this one:

“Getting to understand the supplier needs to make profit to run the business.”

This is often a typical ambiguous sentence, and only context can help to understand. If my software gives me this, for example, in Hungarian, “Már ha érted a nyertes ajánlattevőnek kell azért, hogy hasznot futni az üzleti,” well, I’m in dire straights.

Just to pay tribute to software makers, let me quote another glitch here. The original was also not unambiguous, “It’s all about a change of mind-set,” but after reading through a large part of the text, I definitely understood it better than the software, which came up with “Ez az egész a szem előtt tartva.” A nice one. But if I want to add more humour, very few examples beat the translation of this famous fable character, “Little Red Riding Hood”, which happens to become “Kis piros motoros ernyő” in Hungarian. No chance of recognizing the whole for the parts.

Two more examples of sheer bad English:

“600K will we pay longer charge more?” and “They are the people spend the money and sign the invoices.” No comment. However, for the end, I have a more complex example, full with machine translation for fun. The set of text:

“Eight stories have been created with 6 story owners. Depending on which BU identified the story owners were used as a vehicle to communicate. It scrolls down and if the visitor scrolls up the story starts to unfold.”

To my unhampered amusement, this was translated by my software as follows:

“Nyolc történet tulajdonosok hozták létre a 6. Attól függően, hogy melyik BU a történet tulajdonosok használták a járművet. Az Szkrollozzon lefelé görgeti fel és ha a látogató a történet kezd kibontakozni.”

Horror. So be careful with GoogleTranslate – that’s even worse than this!

Good luck to your translations!

by P. S.

Translation problems with machine translation



In my previous post I included an example to what kinds of mistakes may come up when we use translation software, or machine translation. A problem for the translator is that without using a software, translation is more difficult and time-consuming, whereas some clients expressly warn the potential translators of their originals against using machine translation. Of course, they have a reason: a lot of self-proclaimed ‘translators’ possibly use GoogleTranslate and submit their cheap work as a copy of the result there.

By showing the results provided by a professional translation software, I would like to warn anyone and everyone who uses this or other software means to carefully go through their result received from the software and weed out silly mistakes before they submit anything to a client.

First, let us see the original sentence again:

“On behalf of the EWC Mr. Born requested XXX management to provide full openness, to correct the current situation urgently and to keep the EWC informed.”

Let me show you first again what kind of a Hungarian answer the program provided me with. I believe you will agree (if you understand some Hungarian) that this is a hilarious solution for my investment in buying the software:

“Az Úr nevében született EWC kért az XXX a teljes körű nyilvánosság, az aktuális helyzet és sürgősen tájékoztatni az EWC.”

Let us see now some other languages for the sake of people from all over the world. I’d like to start with the German version because it may serve as a counter-example to the Hungarian one: because German is similar to English, the translation of the same sentence may provide a much better result. Here it is:

“Im Namen des Betriebsrats Herr geboren hat XXX-Management um eine vollständige Offenheit, Korrekturen an der aktuellen Situation dringend geboten und die EAK informiert.”

Once again, it is obvious that the software is at least guilty of not being able to differentiate between names and ordinary words despite the fact that they have Mr (or Ms, of Mrs) before them and are spelt with a capital. Too bad.

Here comes the Spanish (international) version (the program could differentiate among Latin-American, Argentine, Salvadoran, or many other versions of Spanish), for the sake of people from Latin-America or the Philippines:

“En nombre del Comité el Sr. Nacido pidió XXX management para proporcionar una completa transparencia, para corregir la situación actual con urgencia y para mantener el CER.”

As I speak Dutch and sometimes also translate from it, I’m interested how the program handles this language (not the Belgian version):

“Namens de EAC Mr. Geboren gevraagd XXX management om volledige openheid, om de huidige situatie dringend en houd de EAC geïnformeerd.”

It is clear that the name is considered to be a name, but is still translated (in the Hungarian version, sometimes this also led to exceptionally hillarious distortions of other names, sometimes in several words), however, here the infinitives of purpose are neglected save for the insertion of ‘om’, but without following verbs, just like in the Hungarian version. Nice.

Now let’s see the French version (France):

“Au nom de l’EWC M. né prié XXX gestion de lui fournir une totale transparence, de corriger la situation actuelle d’urgence et de garder le CED a informé.”

Looks a lot better with the verbs and all. Perhaps it may be similar with Italian, so I don’t look into that. Let us see the Russian solution instead:

“От имени EWC г-н родился просил управления XXX для обеспечения полной открытости, для текущей ситуации и в срочном порядке информировать EWC.”

And for the sake of one sixth of the world, let’s look into Chinese (simplified, PRC):


Actually, EWC and the very well-known company name in Latin letters doesn’t look very Chinese, I don’t believe there isn’t a proper set of characters for those – they have characters for everything, even for ‘Karakószörcsög’, if I search carefully enough. But for fun, I’ve put this sentence into GoogleTranslate to see what I get back for English:

“On behalf of Mr. XXX born EWC requires management to provide full disclosure to rectify the current emergency situation and to keep informed EWC.”

Only the urgency is forgotten, and the names are jumbled a bit. Other than that, English seems to be a lot closer to Chinese than Hungarian. But from all the above, my warning that use of softwares depend heavily on the pairs of languages required seems to be relevant.

Well, this is it about translation softwares now. I’m really looking forward to your opinion, people.

by P. S.


Translation difficulties


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I’m seriously in arrears about this blog, I have to admit. However, for a meaningful blog entry, one has to have not only something relevant to say, but also time, and I’ve been short of either or both during the last couple of months.

The title of this article, as a lot of items of language in general, is very ambiguous, as befits my tendency to criticize translation methods in learning/teaching foreign languages. So I am going to speak first shortly about job problems and associated problems of translation methods, then about finding work as a translator and finally about a few examples of the impossibility to translate clearly.

Now things seem to have changed a bit after my previous post. The place where I used to teach from October made a lot of trouble first, then people there seemed to be ignorant of how language learning works, and then stopped asking me to teach without giving any reason. It seems that it is not only Chinese people who are guilty of failing to dare to come out with explanations, or simply saying no, it more and more seems to be the practice in the Netherlands too.

As an earlier example, about two years ago I went for summer holidays from a job agency canvassing for Hungarian workers with the explicit understanding that I would go back to work after the month expires. Afterwards, they told me there was not enough demand from factories for Hungarian workers at the end of the summer so I was not needed at the moment, but promised to contact me as soon as the situation changed. I called them a couple of months later and they told me they’d keep in contact. They did so so well that I haven’t heard from them since then although they keep advertising for a Hungarian contact person as I used to be even now. I almost jokingly sent them a second application, but they kindly ignored it. They may have been a bit unhappy about my level of Dutch then, but besides perhaps telling me so, they could also have considered that I could have developed considerably afterwards. Which I did, but to no avail. I find lack of communication not only impolite, but also counterproductive, as in this case: they are still looking for someone, while I could do the job a lot better now than years ago. Are Dutch people so inconsiderate?

Since then, I’ve been to a job interview where we hazily saw eye to eye in that I may not be exactly the right person for them (as I’ve never taught in primary schools), but I was told to send along all of my remaining relevant documents to the interviewer. His boss wrote to me the following afternoon that my experience was not relevant for them and they’re rejecting my application. I understand, but I don’t understand why the interviewer could not tell me that when I was there?

This last school where I eventually worked is just another example. My contract actually hasn’t been finished, but one knows when one is not needed. My only problem is that I didn’t have the opportunity to explain to them about their shortcomings in supporting me as a teacher, which may explain some of their criticism possibly levelled against me. In actual fact, they had given me classes where I had to teach irrelevant material to people who mostly do not need any more formal teaching, they only needed an examination. On the other hand, the groups included a few guys whose level of English was far below the level of the material and who had a snowball’s chance in hell to follow the lessons, let alone take the exam. Of course, these persons asked me to explain everything in Dutch, while the majority would be sitting there doing … I don’t know what. Which is not impossible, but how did they expect to learn to speak English (within two months) on the basis of my Dutch explanations (which was totally outside my job)? Whereas those who were good, had only learned English through their work in English!

Following these experiences, I’ve decided to resort to an earlier job: translation. Sounds fine, I already worked part-time as a translator in Hungary when there wasn’t even proper internet and PC’s ran at 25KHz. Problem seems to be, I never received formal training so I do not have a certificate. If you think of doing translating work, you may want to get that first.

I slowly discovered where translators can get translation work internationally. Well, there are good and bad sites for it, but because my language is a rarely needed one, I’m not going to give away the site names, I created enough competition for myself when I had been training teachers back then. Enough to say, if someone is thinking of doing this, I have a number of good advice to them to consider, and then let us see who can prosper or survive.

Actually, you have to experience the discovery of what suits you and what doesn’t for yourself. You may live in a country where price levels are so low that you can afford to do translation for $1 for 500 words. Or you have no ideas of what translation involves and so think that you can do so much for so little that it will do.

The problem is that many people are crowded to certain sites who think that if one speaks two languages, one can translate between them no problem. On such sites, there is lots of competition from cheap countries and from all kinds of students who have no more than a few years of experience using the language involved. And almost everybody says they have good English. Well, for one thing, you can take language tests on most sites, and everybody can see the results, so we can also see how bad results some such youngsters have produced. But they may get the job from you because they bid so low.

Another factor is the dictionaries on the internet and the translation softwares, which did not exist back then. Now one does enough copying the source into a few such devices and copy the result out into the target translation file. Simple, right? Well, try it with inflecting languages, or among those with seriously differring word orders.

Further problem comes with some sites which collect all kinds of freelance jobs mingled with translation as well. They are places where it is very difficult to differentiate among your relevant task. But at least you can get regular mail about the latest jobs.

Most sites require some membership fees and charge you some percentage of your earnings if you get paid. You have to be aware, however, that you are also required to pay tax in your country of residence. Perhaps those offering their services at cheap prices avoid doing so. Besides, you have to fill out a profile of yourself, complete with lots of personal details and probably a photo. It is best if you have some documented degrees or certificates and a couple of examples of your work as samples. On a few sites, you also have to take a basic test of your understanding of how the site works.

As to language, some sites offer the possibility to take language (mostly English) and translation tests, but this latter kind is usually very limited to a few languages. Hungarian is not among them, Dutch sometimes is. On some sites the tests are free, elsewhere you have to pay a small amount for the tests too, but some people say the clients do not care about that, they rather go for the cheapest offer.

One almost basic rule is that you can mostly only get a job translating into your own mother tongue. Most clients looking for translators explicitly make it impossible for non-natives to apply. Which is often justifiable, but sometimes utter nonsense. As an example, I did one piece of archaic Hungarian lyrics that I’m sure even serious learners of ESL cannot really understand at places. If someone knows the original text of “Lengyel László”, with all the original lettering and words, like in “Hun vönnétök sáraranyat, kódus magyar népe?”, then he knows the difficulties. Fortunately, I was not required to give a poetic translation and the client was very satisfied with my English. One example of a case when a speaker of the original with a similarly high level of the target language is preferred.

Another such example came my way in the form of a set of certificates about somebody’s work, tax and pension scheme situation. Pension scheme, or pension contribution is actually called insurance in Hungarian, which is preposterous, especially because it is mainly handled as a kind of tax and insures nothing for later years. Even worse is the situation with acronyms and abbreviations, though most of them can be found on the net if one knows where to look, but then again, even I lack the faintest idea of what such monsters like “TEÁOR” means, in Hungarian, let alone possibly in English. Here the problem is that most of the related terminology and system is non-existent in the other language, and probably the native speakers using the terminology also do not know what is abbreviated, they can use the terms without analysis. I may not see the day when somebody coming from abroad understands this terminology from learning or dictionaries. One needs to live and work in the country for many years to come close. Of course, it is also true that I may find heaps of such English terminology without ever standing a chance of understanding if I don’t work in GB or the USA, preferably both, and also in Canada and Australia, not to mention South-Africa and India and the like.

For general understanding, I am pleased to declare that Dutch is also full of acronyms and abbreviations. A nightmare, actually, for survival, but at least the inland revenue is called ‘belastingdienst’, not something like NAV, or APEH, until a couple of years ago, in Hungary.

Finally, I’m happy to let you know that there are a few, very few web-sites where only professional translators can be found and jobs at appropriate prices can be won after proper bidding. An indication from one such site came my way when one job offer came in at €0.07 per word. Besides this indication, there appeared a message by the system warning the prospective applicants that 80% of translators on the site work for higher remuneration.

At this site, however, there is also a system whereby translators can, among others, ask each other about terminology they are not sure of. Oh yes, there is such a thing as something one does not know. What is more interesting is that it is not only difficult, rare vocabulary which is asked for. Quite a lot of the terms requested for help are simple words, like the Hungarian “javítás”, which has turned out to be not only reparation in English, but also improvement, or invention.

To provide more example, I’d like to put here another simple, but tricky word, ‘privacy’. I’m going to quote what the asker put in as explanation.

At its core, privacy is very simple.1. The right to be left alone
2. The right to associate with whom you choose
3. The right to have your own information kept confidential
4. The right to choose how your information is usedIn some countries, such as members of the European Union, it is a human rights.

According to the first two definitions, it means a “magánélet (védelme)” (defence of private life), the other two, “titoktartást” (keeping secrets). As an illustration of how difficult it is to translate, most people giving answers were only aware of the sense of something which means keeping or defending secrects or privacy in Hungarian, but not the fact that, contrary to English, there is no word that means all of these. Of course, with a little bit of investigation, one could find that very many common words in all languages are like this: they can’t be unambiguously translated with one word.

To finish, I’d like to warn would-be translators and their clients as well about relying heavily on translation software, although many clients require the translator to use one or the other kind. These are almost always expensive from the average user’s point of view, for example, they often cost one or two months’ salary of an East-European teacher and young professional, not to speak about people in even poorer countries. Although they are very widely used, however, their value is heavily dependent on the language pair one would like to use them for.

I recently bought the newest version of the perhaps most widely used program and have managed to find out quite a lot of the ins and outs. I have been practicing and translating on it for quite a lot. I have built up some own TM (translation memory) and been using the internet source freely available with it (some other sources require hefty membership fees, even GoogleTranslate, though I suspect it would be better than the free public version, which is crap for work). Sometimes I find this program helpful, but sometimes I get really useless translations. For Hungarian speakers, let me quote an example. The original is as follows:

“On behalf of the EWC Mr. Born requested XXX management to provide full openness, to correct the current situation urgently and to keep the EWC informed.”

To this, the program provided me with the following, hilarious solution for my investment in it:

“Az Úr nevében született EWC kért az XXX a teljes körű nyilvánosság, az aktuális helyzet és sürgősen tájékoztatni az EWC.”

Thank you! So much about machine translation and programs …

As soon as I have finished this project, I’m going to find out how the program translates the original into some other languages, like Dutch, or French, or some other. If my kind reader is interested in a specific language, please let me know in a remark below. Chinese, Arabic or Pashto is also possible, but only one language at a time with a project.

by P.S.

Translation in the extreme


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Baybayin: The Vowels

Baybayin: The Vowels (Photo credit: anetz)

This blog seems to be becoming something more about translation than about teaching, but I can’t resist sharing some of my most interesting experience as a translator with whoever is interested. I hope it proves the futility of trying to translate literally well enough, and thereby can serve as a means of stopping teachers from demanding too much translation from their students. It is hopefully also a proof that at least as far as grammar is concerned, terminology of a target language can under no circumstances be explained in terms of the mother tongue.

Not long ago I was asked to translate an introductory text to a book of anagrams from English into Hungarian. After explaining the benefits of unjumbling the puzzles, the text turned to giving advice on how to best solve them. And here I met some advice that I considered best not to translate. I suspect that speakers and translators of most other languages would also find it absurd to try to do so, not only word for word, but even the most general terms. Actually, as far as this text is concerned, there’re no general terms. Let’s see the original.

Vowel FTW

Vowel FTW (Photo credit: timbrauhn)

“You can use the following methods if you find the solution not readily available.

Work with Vowels

  1. If there are many vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) in the word, there is a possibility one of them might be the first letter of the unscrambled word.
  2. Next, try putting one of the vowels in the second place with a consonant in the first position. Try this with each vowel and consonant pair. Sound out different possibilities. Rearrange your word scramble so you create several different versions of the scramble, each with a vowel as the second letter. This may be enough of a hint to trigger the correct word.
  3. Remember that vowels often appear in combination like au or ea in many unscrambled words. Try combining vowels, again placing a consonant in front of each vowel pair.

Work with Consonants

  1. If you have an r, try it as the second letter.
  2. If you have two consonants the same, such as s or l, try putting the two consonants together. Try the double s at the end of a word, and the double l in the middle.

Try Blends

  1. If you have blends like st, br, or ch, try words starting with those consonant blends.
  2. If your Scramblex contains an e  and a r, r”, think of words that have er as the last two letters and a vowel as the second letter.
  3. Try different letter combinations as the beginning and end of an unscrambled word. Sometimes the beginning and ending letters are enough to trigger recognition of the correct word.

Veteran word puzzle solvers also use some other skills to provide success.

  • Prefixes and Suffixes

Search the letters you are trying to unscramble for common prefixes (beginning sections) and suffixes (ending sections). Look for common prefixes such as un, up, and re within your Scramblex word. Also, look for suffixes such as ed, ion, and ing to find possible word endings.

  • Alphagrams

An alphagram is a word arranged in alphabetical order. For instance, the word tar as an alphagram is art. Learning and applying alphagrams of words can act as a key for a Scramblex puzzle. The longer the alphagram, the more likely it will be useful in solving the puzzles in this book.

Becoming familiar with lists of common words by word length can assist you, as many longer words begin, contain, or end with smaller words. For instance, betrayal, contains the words be and tray. Also, read lists of uncommon words, such as those beginning with q or z.

If you still cannot solve the Scramblex, you can take the sets of letters arranged with a consonant as the first letter and a vowel as the second letter and look in the dictionary for words that have each of your first two letter combinations. Simply scan the page to find words that begin with a selected two letter combination and use the remainder (and the same number) of your scrambled letters.”

For a start, I don’t know much about other cultures, but in the Hungarian culture, it is not usual for families to have a dictionary even if somebody is an addicted puzzle solver, so the first thing I added to my version it to tell the user of this game to buy one, otherwise no reference to “the dictionary” would make any sense.

After carefully reading the various pieces of advice, we can find that most of them only work in English, and not in any other language. For example, the advice to start working with the five vowels letters should completely be scraped – in the case of Hungarian, there are fourteen of them, “y” discounted, as it is never used to start a word. But some others are also very rare in initial position, so I would have to list those that can be starters, otherwise, everything is useless.

Well, lists of common words grouped according to word length is no way of finding out anything about Hungarian words. As a general rule, they are often a lot longer than English words, just like in Italian, though there are similarly short ones as well. It stands to logic, too that consonant or vowel clusters are absolutely different in different languages. The rules governing grammatical forms are also a lot more complicated in Hungarian than in English, just like, for example, in Slavic languages or Finnish. We don’t have prefixes, but what we have instead, at the beginning of verbs, are equivalents of phrasal verbs and very similar to what German or Dutch has, as in ‘aankomen’, ‘voorkomen’, ‘uitkomen’, ‘bekomen’, etc. On the other hand, we have various types of suffix-like additions to all sorts of words, but there can be several of them together, quite unlike in English, some expressing what English prepositions do, others, expressing cases and aspects and other qualities of words. It wouldn’t be as simple as the advice above describes to find a pattern to a word from its elements. Translation of such original material would be useless. It would also be completely impossible to explain in English what those parts of words are in the Hungarian language. They simply do not exist in English.

So what can the translator do? He/she can leave out most of the text and start doing phonological research, or make up some of his own based on his/her general knowledge of his/her own language. The first option is very time-consuming and thus expensive for the client, so I was told to stick to the second option myself.

The point of the matter is that if we translate such text, the result will be completely embarrassing in the new language for whoever needs it. The other solution is to do something about it in the direction the original text was aiming at, far beyond the field of translation, even further than usual adaptation. A very special case indeed.

by P.S.

p.s. For those interested in my translation to Hungarian, here is my version:


             Amint az a borítón látható, ez a könyv ötezer Scramblex-rejtvényt tartalmaz. A Scramblex-rejtvények olyan szórejtvények, amelyekben szavak összekevert betűit, anagrammákat kell szavakká visszaalakítani. Az egyes szavak összes betűjét megadjuk, de összekeverve. A cél, hogy visszarendezzék a betűket és kitalálják az elrejtett szavakat. A Scramblex-rejtvények könnyű, közepesen nehéz és nehéz rejtvénykönyvekben növekvő számú betűket tartalmaznak. Minden oldalon húsz rejtvény található, a megfejtéseket az oldalak alján fordított sorrendben és hátulról betűzve lehet megtalálni.

Szórejtvények megoldásának általános haszna

Javuló hatékony IQ

            A cím jelzi, hogy ezeket a Scramblex-rejtvényeket úgy terveztük, „hogy fejlesszék az ön IQ-ját”. Az intelligencia-hányados – IQ – az intelligencia tudományos mérésére szolgáló eszköz. Az ön IQ-ját úgy állapítják meg, hogy mérik problémamegoldó képességét, memóriáját, általános ismereteit és térbeli tájékozódó képességét. Egy felnőtt ember átlagos isten-adta IQ-ja 150. Ezt az agy mikrobiológiája miatt az orvostudomány nem tudja javítani. Fejleszteni azonban lehet. Az átlagos hatásos (naponta használatos) IQ csak 100-110, aminek leginkább az elhanyagoltság az oka – az agy-gyakorlatok hiánya. Ezért, ha gyakorlatoztatja agyát, emelheti hatásos IQ-ját. Szójátékokkal, mint amilyen a Scramblex, elérhetjük a szükséges szellemi aktivitást.

Szellemi gyakorlat

            A szójátékok segítenek gyarapítani szókincsünket, megerősítik a szavak felidézésének folyamatát és javítják a memóriát. Nem érzékeljük, hogy amikor rejtvényeket oldunk meg, a gondolkodási képességünket használjuk. Agyunk egész életünkben új készségeket tanul. A rejtvénymegoldó készségek elsajátítása fejleszti a gondolkodásunkat.

            A Scramblex rejtvényei javítják koncentrációs készségét és figyelmét. Amikor ön egy rejtvényen dolgozik, olyan környezetre van szüksége, ahol viszonylag kevés a figyelemelterelő körülmény. A rejtvényfejtés magányos tevékenység. A Scramblex rejtvényeihez szükséges koncentrált figyelem kiváló készség, amely életének számos területén segítheti önt.

            A következtetések levonása fontos kritikai gondolkodásbeli készség. A Scramblex rejtvényei lehetőséget nyújtanak arra, hogy szervezési készségeket tanuljon, amikor különféle megoldási módszereket alkalmaz. Amikor a lehetséges válaszok keresése és megtalálása során kizárásos megoldásokat alkalmaz, az szintén a következtetések levonását teszi szükségessé.

            A Scramblex rejtvényei olyan tevékenységet nyújtanak önnek, amely nem csak élvezetes, hanem szellemi kihívást is jelent. Agyunknak szüksége van a rendszeres játékidőre ahhoz, hogy új gondolkodási mintákat és összetett idegkapcsolati szerkezeteket természetes módon alakítson ki. Az ön elméje ugyanúgy megkívánja a rendszeres karbantartást, mint a teste. Végül is, az edzés nem csak bakugrásról és szabademelésről szól. Mind a testnek, mind a szellemnek szüksége van ingerekre és gyakorlatozásra. A rejtvények remekül megfelelnek arra, hogy ön karbantartsa elméjét és stimulálja szellemét.

Szórejtvények megoldásának haszna


            A Scramblex rejtvényei fejleszthetik szókincsét. Mindig vannak új, megtanulandó szavak, miközben szellemi erőfeszítést tesz arra, hogy kibogozza az összekevert betűrejtvényeket.

Szellemi ösztönző

            Az Alzheimer Társaság szerint “. . . a jelek szerint a magasabb szintű neveltetésben részesült emberek némileg védettebbek az Alzheimer-kórral szemben, valószínűleg azért, mert agysejtjeik és az azok közti kapcsolatok erősebbek.”  A Scramblex rejtvényei éberen és aktívan tarthatják az agyat.


            Egy kellemetlen helyzetben a Scramblex rejtvényei kellően elterelhetik a figyelmét, ami segít az idegesség elkerülésében. Ezért van az, hogy gyakran láthatunk embereket repülőtereken, orvosi várókban és kórházakban (betegeket és látogatókat is), amint rejtvényt fejtenek.


            A Scramblex rejtvényei szórakoztatóak. Könnyen találja majd magát a szórejtvényekbe belefeledkezve, amint keresi a lehetőségeket és igyekszik minden rejtvényt gyorsabban megfejteni, mint az előzőt.

Hogyan oldjuk meg a Scramblex rejtvényeket

            Elméje mintákat keres. Amikor ön egy Scramblex-rejtvénnyel szembesül, elméje azonnal megpróbálja a betűket ismert szavakká rendezni. Próbálja a betűk hangja alapján rendezve megoldani a szavakat; ez gyorsabb módszer, mint ha leírná a betűket.

A következő módszereket használhatja, ha a válaszok nem adódnak könnyen.

Szerezzen be szótárt

Dolgozzon a magánhangzókkal

1.     Ha sok egy szóban a magánhangzó (a, á, e, é, i, í, o, ó, ö, ő, u, ú, ü és ű), valószínű, hogy egyikük a megfejtendő szó első betűje, és gyakran ez egyben egy igekötő része. Azonban nagyon ritka az ö, ő, ü és ű szó elején.

2.     Ha ez nem vezet eredményre, próbálja az egyik magánhangzót egy mássalhangzó után a második helyre tenni. Próbálja ezt végigvinni minden magánhagzó-mássalhangzó párral és figyeljen, hogy a különböző lehetőségek hogyan hangzanak. Rendezze újra az összekevert betűket, hogy a keverés különböző változatait hozhassa létre, mindig úgy, hogy a második betű magánhangzó legyen. Ez elég kulcsot adhat ahhoz, hogy rávezesse a helyes szóra.

3.     A magas, vagy mély hangrendű magánhangzók hosszabb együttese valószínűleg toldalékolt szót rejt, és a toldalékhoz már nem is kell a maradék betűket figyelnie, azok szinte már csak az ellenőrzéshez kellenek.

4.     Ha szerepel s és z, vagy s és c is a rejtvényszóban, azok nagy valószínűséggel együtt fognak előfordulni (sz, zs, cs alakban).

Dolgozon a mássalhangzókkal

1.     Két azonos mássalhangzó, általában a t, n, d, de gyakran mások is párban fordulnak elő, de ez a három általában közvetlenül a szavak vége előtt.

2.     A dupla vagy szimpla n, a g, t és az l valószínűleg együtt fordul elő az y-al, ha az is szerepel.

3.     Próbáljon ki a kitalálandó szó elején és végén különböző kombinációkat. Néha elég egy szókezdet, vagy szóvég ahhoz, hogy rátaláljon a megfelelő szóra.

4.     X-el, ty-vel, ly-vel, q-val, w-vel és y-al csak nagyon kevés szó kezdődik, és elég ritka a j is.

Tapasztalt megfejtők néhány más módszert is sikeresen alkalmaznak.

  • Igekötők és toldalékok

            Az összekevert betűk közt próbáljon igekötőt, vagy toldalékokat találni. Előbbit megtalálva igét kell utána keresnie, és ha ragot talál, az biztosan a szó vége. Bár sok igekötő létezik, a messze a leggyakoribb a meg-.  

  • Alfagrammok

            Az alfagram olyan szó, amelyben a betűket abc-sorrendben kapjuk. Például az apám szó alfagrammja aámp. Alfagrammok megtanulása és használata segítheti a Scramblex-feladványok megfejtésében. Minél hosszabb egy alfagram, annál valószínűbb, hogy hasznos lesz az ebben a könyvben található rejtvények megfejtéséhez.

  • Szólisták

Azonos hosszúságú gyakori szavak listájának alaposabb megismerése sokat segíthet. Érdemes ritka szavakból is listát összeállítania.

             Ha még így sem tudja megoldani a Scramblex-rejtvényt, próbálja a betűsort úgy elrendezni, hogy első betűje mássalhangzó legyen, a második pedig magánhangzó, és így keressen olyan szavakat a szótárban, amelyek hasonló betűkombinációkkal kezdődnek. Nézze végig a szótár oldalát, hogy olyan szavakat találjon, amelyek a a választott két betűvel kezdődnek, és használja a maradék betűket hozzájuk.

            Gyakorlatot igényel annak megtanulása, hogyan találjuk meg az összekevert betűkből az eredeti szavakat. Ne adja föl, mert gyakorlattal már könnyen meg tudja majd oldani a Scramblex rejtvényeit. Ha nehézségei vannak, használja a fentebbi ötleteket, hogy újratréningezze elméjét arra, hogy felismerje a gyakori mintákat, és azokat már ismert szavakkal társítsa.

Hogyan használja ezt a könyvet

            Ezt a Scramblex rejtvénykönyvet azért készítettük, hogy felnőttek számára anagramma feladványokat nyújtsunk az elme élénkítésére és szórakozásképpen. A feladványok nem nehezek, nincs szükség hosszú, bonyolult szabályokra sok példával. Arra sincs szükség, hogy a rejtvényeket bármilyen megadott sorrendben oldja meg. Tökéletesen megfelel az is, ha bizonyos szavakat, vagy akár lapokat is kihagy.

            Ne feledje, hogy a Scramblex-rejtvények haszna leginkább a szórakoztatásban rejlik. Tehát próbálja az általunk javasolt eljárásokat kihasználni, vagy alkosson magának saját módszereket. Bárhogyan is használja, az itt közölt ötezer rejtvény bizonyára sok órányi értelmes szórakozást nyújt majd önnek.

Life is looking up at long last


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For the sake of those friends who have been following my blog regularly and may be in the same shoes, I’d like to let known that I suddenly got a freelancer’s job to teach for money. It is adult teaching, which suits me really fine.

I have also got into a fruitful relationship with a translation agency outside the Netherlands, and the two kinds of work combined give me enough to do, enough to live on and stop me feeling frustrated. With the teaching I also hope that, whatever happens, next time nobody comes back to me saying that I have no experience in this country and I haven’t been teaching for a long time. I’m doing it, and it’s good.

by P.S.

Summer disappointment on the Dutch job market


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Netherlands (Photo credit: Vicki Devine)

I already described elsewhere how the Dutch job market is organized and what web-sites you can link to and search if you want to find a teaching job (in most cases other jobs as well) in the Netherlands. But what I have just found in some cases is worth complaining about. Not all is a bed of … well, tulips in the Netherlands.

Anyone can run into such disheartening experience any time from now, I thought, when I got my regular daily message from one of the biggest sites scraping the Dutch job market, Trovit. A click on the ‘Docent Engels (op Speurders)’ button, I did get to a place under Speurders, but inside, it appeared to be an ad placed there by Banenmatch. Because it concerned a vacancy in my area, I clicked on the link below on Banenmatch, which promised to give me more information.

When I did so, it gave me no more information (actually, being a very small text in the first place, it still did not give me anything particular about any details and circumstances concerning the job other than the area), but at least there was a button which said ‘Solliciteren’. This means ‘to apply’, so I hoped to get somewhere important by hitting this button, but I was only led to a page of another agency, Multilingual careers, which still gave me the exact same text as the one three clicks before.

There was then a button called ‘Apply at external website’, so I happily clicked on this. Then it appeared that the job should be on the site of DPA DetacheringIf you look at this page, you’ll agree with me that this doesn’t get me to a description of the job concerned, only to their home-page. I have tried to find the job using the categories in their search window, but I failed to see the ‘Docent Engels’ ad anywhere. It just does not exist!

Reacting to another job ad, I came duly to one of the organizations where I am also already a member, also the above-mentioned Multilingual careers. Here, I had to find out that my personal info was not yet full because I should still upload my CV. I saved my CV in several formats and tried to upload them in turns, but none worked, my CV could not be uploaded. There’s no button to upload it in the first place, but I hoped that the Save button does the trick. Well, no, it doesn’t. The page offers a possibility instead to create my CV according to the formula of the EU system. The only problem is that getting to ‘Former employers’, one is required to give each and every detail about all my previous employers, which, after I have had about twenty former employers over about thirty-five years, takes a bit of time to fill in; even more dauntingly, I long ago lost addresses, names, or the then bosses and contacts leading to them, especially because more than one are already dead, and most of the others were probably replaced long ago. Important requirements I admit, but people with a longer career abroad behind them find it next to impossible to fulfill. One more reason why young people get the chances.

I tried to react to a third advertisement as well, but when I got to the site in question, Metafoor personeelsbank, where I am also logged in, it told me that I could raise the completeness of my personal page by adding information about my education. Well, there are details about that, and many more, on the personal page, but there is no place or button leading to a separate ‘Education’ page, so I can’t add anything new. Unfortunately, though the info is there in separate lines, to an employer looking at my description, it appears that I haven’t got any education, so he’ll abandon my page. And I am not given a chance to improve the situation. There is no category on the page to give info about the required category!

English: Different types of Dutch cheese

English: Different types of Dutch cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So much about the famous Dutch organizational skills. Looks rather cheesy. The thing actually looks pathetic, but in my situation, I can’t really choose if I should laugh hard or cry hard … Any preference, anyone?

by P.S.

Send Dutch applicants abroad back home!


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I’m afraid I have to add some bile to my writing today. I’ve just read a long article called “Ze schreeuwen hier om Nederlanders” in the on-line “Intermediair Weekblad” about what jobless Dutch, or those threatened by losing their jobs, could do to try to find a career abroad. With the third lowest jobless rate in the EU, no wonder most of the advice talks about opportunities far out in the world, although Sweden also comes into the picture. It may be true that Dutch people can learn Swedish fast, but jobless rates are higher there than in the Netherlands. So I, a desperate Middle-European job-seeker here, may ask, how dare they think about invading a country with even higher jobless rates than the Netherlands?

English: The logo of Dutch magazine Intermediair.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regrettably, writing an answer to the article is not possible, but some of the ideas expressed therein blow the fuse in the mind, and the Swedish possibility is only a smaller one. The reason is that the advice goes directly against their own well-hidden discriminating practices.

A large part of the posts in this blog explain in quite a detail why an English teacher from abroad, at least those not from English-speaking countries, are regularly pushed down the line of applicants for teaching jobs. The main reasons, as already described, are mainly a lack of knowledge of the local language, a lack of experience in the local educational context, and then, by the time one learns the language, the time-gap one has accumulated without teaching. Never mind that English is taught in English everywhere in the world, the Dutch teach English in Dutch. Never mind that, bar one or the other of these factors, the foreigner may be far better at doing the real job. And that may be dangerous.

Oh, no, they do not answer so. What they nicely say is,

Er heeft een selcetie plaatsgevonden onder alle kandidaten, daarbij is gelet op de gestelde functie-eisen, de opleiding en ervaring. We hebben een keuze gemaakt tussen de kandidaten die aan het gestelde profiel voldoen. Met die groep van kandidaten zullen wij een oriënterend gesprek voeren.

If this were only the fifth, or tenth, or tentieth answer to this effect, I may be inclined to believe. But I am not the only one who has already been trying in vain to get even to an interview. For me, this just the other day was at least the one-hundred-and-fiftieth, but I haven’t been counting, it may be far more. At the same time, I seem to be able to get a job teaching English at a company in the early afternoons a few days a week. How does it happen that I get such a job? I’ll tell you how: there are not many more Dutch who can and dare, and who have the time for it. Most already sit in jobs at schools and are busy staying there in the afternoons. There are not so many, definitely not 70 applicants per vacancy as the refusals sometimes claim. Besides, I doubt that many teacher-trainers with 30 years of experience and some at university level who have also taken part in course-book writing are looking for a new workplace in this country. The only problem this school could have against me was that I am too experienced, or old, or foreig. Which is discrimination. Despite the regular well-wishing at the end of each and every refusal. Which, in this way, has already become farcical and mocking for me.

Dutch people

Dutch people (Photo credit: Nikola Nikolski)

Against this background, my question is: how dare somebody even vaguely suggest that the poor Dutch should try and work in China, Vietnam, Cambodia, or the like? Do they already speak Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Khmer, or Thai for that matter? Have they already got experience in those educational systems? Do they want to get Eastern-European levels of income? Does it suffice? The article does mention that employment requirements have become stricter in China lately, meaning they want only native speakers. Fair. But the Dutch are not native speakers, and they have no knowledge of the local language and system, so please, forget about it. They should stay here and go on stopping Eastern-Europeans or South-Europeans from using their considerable, often better, skills in the English classrooms and let them take those Asian jobs. If Dutch people are so adventurous as the article describes them, why don’t they sometimes switch to delivering letters, or scrubbing floors here if there is no school job, as Eastern-European teachers are forced to?

I encourage institutions around the world to send back the applications of Dutch applicants to English-teaching jobs out there. Treat them to the same medicine they offer us here. I know from experience that some of us Eastern-Europeans have already worked there, we know the ways, we deserve getting those jobs. We don’t get our chances here, so we deserve them there better and we need them more. The Dutch would only be able to teach English in Asia using Dutch anyway. They are trained to do so, they have no experience explaining difficult stuff in English! 

The Dutch Empire during the 17th and 18th cent...

The Dutch Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries: in light green the Dutch East India Company, in dark green is the Dutch West India Company. In yellow the territories occupied later, during the 19th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do not let them go on and enjoy their geographical and historical advantages. Treat them fairly: based on their skills and knowledge. They are helpful, friendly and cheerful people on the streets and in offices, but not creative in the classroom. They mostly got as far as the ‘grammar-translation method.’ Just look at some of their language tests …

Fortunately for some, I have to admit that language institutions providing language development courses at in-company training use material published by large British/American publishers. They order directly from publishers, that’s why ordinary people can’t get them in book-stores. However, teachers teaching in-company may be well-trained in giving lessons exclusively in English.

by P.S.

What Teacher Education Programs Don’t Tell You


I have just found a very interesting article about what teacher education does not do well enough in the USA. As I have similar experience from other countries, especially from my own, I recommend reading it. I hope some of my international readers will add a few remarks below about the situation in their own countries. The article, from Education Week, “What Teacher Education Programs Don’t Tell You” can be accessed here.

by P.S.

Werkloos = waardeloos, i.e., jobless = worthless?


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In connection with most recent developments in my teaching career in the Netherlands, I’d like to muse over a couple of disturbing questions that relate to wishful colleagues, and perhaps practically everybody who has been out of jobs for a while, especially those who are a bit advanced in age.

First, let’s see a recent letter I’ve received, in my translation. The original, in Dutch, can be read here: afwijzing.

Dear Sir,

Thank you very much for your application. Unfortunately, we can’t work with your application any further. We have rules regarding applications, and the focusing on further handling of applications and enrolling in connection with the huge numbers of people looking for work. From your CV I can see that your most recent experience finished in 2009, and you don’t have recent experience with teaching in the Dutch public education system. Therefore we can’t use your application any further in the selection procedure for this vacancy. Afterwards, we can’t use you actively now for other vacancies because of your recently broken work experience.

If you don’t want your data to stay registered with us, we ask you to make this known to us by e-mail. Then we shall erase your data.

I hope to have given you proper information. Should you have any more questions, we kindly ask you to contact us.

We wish you a lot of success finding a proper job.

Best regards

Well, this is not a typical refusal. I have amassed more than a hundred, perhaps two hundred rejections by now (I’ve been trying to get a teaching job for four years), but this is only the third one that explains the decision of the school.

I would like to draw the attention of my readers first to the fact that, this one excepting, we almost never receive reasons why our application is refused. This is perhaps usual in other countries and in other professions as well, especially with the popular places where hundreds of applicants litter the way of the one and only successful applicant. But I don’t live in Amsterdam, not even in one of the ten biggest cities, and most of my applications have been sent to small towns around here. Although a couple of rejections mention a very large number of applicants (one international school replied with these very words: “We received a very large response to our advertisement and have employed someone who particularly fits our profile,” (my italics) – they use English like this but I am not suitable for them!) one school in a small place mentioned 75. Well, in the four or five cases when I actually got to the selection procedure or was given an interview, I had one or two competitors – Dutch ones, of course. At one well-known school, there were of course a lot more, but I am beginning to doubt the honesty of some places about this. This is not Spain. Jobless figures stand around 4.5% in the Netherlands after all, there can’t be dozens of applicants for each teaching job in small places in such a country. I find it hard to believe.

But my main, and possibly most general, problem with this answer is the one which is probably the most honest reason: the one about the broken experience. I know that joblessness is a huge problem at these times in Europe and hardest hit are the young generations. Among young adults in most countries, jobless rates are double (or nearly treble) that of the average. Yet, there are lots of middle-aged people with degrees between jobs not only in Spain, or France, or Greece, but also in Hungary, or Bulgaria and the like. This is a trend which firms dealing in the career advice business attest to. Who cares about us? What can we expect if we get such an answer?

Age in itself is a problem when you have to look for a new workplace. For a while you can see that experience is required, but after that while you are soon found too old. Not officially. But, if advice bureaus are to be believed, do not lose your job and get on the dole over 40. My question is, how can you stay in your job until you get 65 years old. Because that is the target according to most governments in Europe. And then you see university professors, teachers, doctors and judges thrown out of job at 62, at least in Hungary. What is going on?

Once you are out of your job, you have to get back into another very-very quickly. Otherwise, expect to get into the situation in this letter, which suggests that anyone a few years out has to hang himself.

Because following this logic, you can never get back into work. The writer of that letter supposes that I have forgotten my skills within a few years. I haven’t driven a car for a number of years now, third time in my life – does the writer suppose I can never drive again? Does he/she think that once you don’t use your bicycle for a while, you can never get on it again? Does he/she honestly think that after 30 years and more than 3000 students, many of which I brought up to university from zero, I have forgotten how to teach? That I have forgotten the skills?  Or I can’t adapt to a third culture after the other two where I have given classes? I have actually given a couple of lessons at my Dutch language course, so those skills are transferable to a new language as well. To give some more examples, I have not played the piano for 30 years, but now I can accompany my singer friend and can play my own pieces at small concerts, and that requires a thousand times faster reactions than teaching. Or does the writer think that I’m too old a dog to be taught new tricks? Haven’t I learnt Dutch over 50?

Obviously, the answer to all, or most, of these questions seems to be unfavourable to us in most workplaces, by most bosses. Has the writer ever thought about these questions? He/she should know that a teacher always stays a teacher. It has become second nature at least. It is in our blood. Perhaps that person is too young to understand this, or has only met bad Dutch English teachers.

Last, but not least, a few pieces of advice to you people. Do no stay at home with your kids, especially not with several, because you will never get back on the job market. If you think that it is not necessary to consider this because your partner has a stable and well-earning job, think twice: can’t your partner ever lose his/her position? Even secure Dutch families should be aware that nothing lasts forever in this world.

Young people in cultures where wandering a bit around the world before starting work should think twice. By the time they return, they may be deemed too old for a starter on a market where experience, or a very young age with high qualifications are favoured.

Next, do not leave your job if you already have one, except if you are directly invited to another place. Even with a good history of achievements and recommendations, you may not be able to get to a new job from the market. Except, of course, if you are aiming to become a postman, or the like.

Last, do not leave your country if you are not a hundred percent sure that your experience and expertise is welcome in the new place without further requirements, and it does not break your career in any way. It has happened to me, not only self-inflicted, or by the pressure to speak Dutch for an English-teaching job, but also through illness, which can break anybody’s career at any time. Don’t challenge Lady Luck. Except if you are young, adventurous and fortunate with some excellent background, and you don’t want, or have to work anyway.

Other than these, as my uncle would say, don’t get old. (But he was 25 years older than me when I last heard him say it. So how old is old?) For that, as the letter originally suggests, I’d better go hang myself.

by. P.S.

Grammar of the ‘grammar-translation’ method


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It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about the ‘grammar-translation method’, and I’ve had to realize that I’ve neglected the first part of the equation: I haven’t tackled the way grammar plays a part in this approach to teaching a foreign language.

For those who need some brush-up on the most famous language teaching approaches, I’m providing a link here to the same material that I linked to my first post about the matter in January. In that post, and in a few more later, we have seen that this method has several shortcomings mainly attributable to differences of meaning of words and phrases, and cultural differences among languages, shortcomings of dictionaries that are sometimes also a consequence of those differences, and the fact that concentrating our methods on translation, we slow down cognitive processes of the learner. But if the overwhelming use of translation is detrimental or at least very problematic for learning, what is the value of concentrating on grammar at the same time, or perhaps at different times?

The first further problem with the method is that classes are taught in the students’ mother tongue, with little active use of the target language. How can proponents of the method justify this? How is it possible for the learner to speak the foreign language without speaking it? First hearing it, and then trying it, that is. As I have pointed out earlier, this method harks back to early times of the school system, in most parts of Europe no later than the 1930’s, when Latin, and to a lesser extent, classical Greek, was widely taught without a view to speaking it. The aim was to understand the wisdom of the thinkers of old, not to converse with them, not even about them. Students had to take the wisdom as it was.

Is this possible in today’s world? Obviously, language teachers in the Netherlands and in China still think so. In the Netherlands, learning Latin and ancient Greek is a tenet of the best education, and modern languages are sometimes still taught with similar approaches, as I pointed out earlier. In China, the approach is still prevalent in English teaching due to a lack of sufficient exposure to native speakers and media, which are in abundance in the Netherlands, which in the latter accounts for acquisition of English after and outside school.

The main problem with mother-tongue instruction and omission of the target language is that without sufficient oral input, and then practice, no language habit can be formed properly. The development of understanding written texts and writing skills are hindered by the lack of general language skills and are thus unduly slow, and without a sizeable oral pattern to follow, speech production becomes distorted and often very different from native patterns. This is coupled with a lack of attention to pronunciation practice. In short, the learner becomes, or stays for a long time, incapable of taking part in conversation with skilled speakers of the target language, let alone native speakers.

Sadly, this is coupled with little attention paid to the meaning and content of texts. This seems to be nonsense, because the application of this method concentrates on texts. However, as the focus is on translation, discussion is beyond this approach. No wonder – discussion is next to impossible in the target language, and why should the students discuss a text the understanding of which they already proved by translating it? The purpose has been reached, and it was not internalizing, or evaluating the meaning: it was translation.

Of course, translation is not bad per se, but in a modern language class, it could still be followed by discussions, couldn’t it? This depends on who applies the method, but whoever it is, s/he has to speak himself/herself and make the learner speak too. Not within the proper tenets of this approach.

On the other hand, elaborate grammar explanation, providing rules for putting words together, emphasizing the correct forms and inflection of words can be considered a clear strength of this method. Indeed, learners usually demand for more, or clearer grammar, parents ditto, and if something is unclear about what they consider grammar, there is trouble for the teacher responsible. And with good reason.

One reason is that most learners have to sit for a language examination sooner, or later, and such an exam consists to a large part of manipulating sentence patterns. How can the learner do that properly if s/he does not receive proper grammar explanation? On the other hand, proponents should be warned that a number of international tests for English, for example the TOEFL test, cannot be taken on grammar – these tests try the candidate on their oral skills. The oral part of the Dutch test for foreigners is another such example. However, the grammar-translation method does not per se deal with oral skills, and not at all with listening, originally.

The trouble is that teachers applying this method rarely go further than explaining grammar extensively. Grammar input is fine, but being satisfied with grammar is not enough at all. Grammar explanations are followed, therefore, with pattern practice if the teacher is somewhat familiar with the somewhat later audio-lingual approach and behaviourism, probably concentrating only on writing tasks, as it lends itself most easily to correction.

A teacher applying this approach tends to believe in the importance of his/her authority and his own knowledge of the language, and feel safe when s/he can come up to all students to point out problems. It may sometimes be a result of his own educational background, but as a result in his turn, he may find it difficult to face students with their own opinions, which he would have to, should he apply parts of other approaches and allow for discussions, or even oral practice.

The great problem is that most teachers applying this method attack the first, and then every grammatical mistake committed by the learner. A lengthy revision of the rules may follow, perhaps not in order to drive home the notion that the faulty student was lazy, or inattentive, or, god forbid, stupid when s/he did not follow and apply the original rules, but it may all lead to this feeling. Besides, there is little time for follow-up activities, with which the teacher would feel uncomfortable anyway, but s/he can finish the lesson with a good feeling of accomplishment because he can’t be accused of not properly explaining the grammar points of the day. But his approach severely hinders practice vital in approaching the desired skills, behaviours, listening and understanding, pronunciation, thinking, evaluating, debating, and fluency in general.

Compared to this, where do we stand with respect to accuracy, which adherents to this method strive for?

When it is time for some practice, the method originally allows for drills which are exercises in translating disconnected sentences from the target language into the mother tongue, and vice versa. I believe that most teachers of today are beyond using this approach, though it can’t be discounted. But most are already tainted with behaviourism well enough to apply pieces of the later audio-lingual method. This is where the four skills have originally become well-known from, and this is where habit-formation really began.

Well, teachers of this mixed kind have no problem with audio-lingualism as that method also emphasizes minimalizing errors, disregards content which the grammar-translation teacher is uncomfortable with, and emphasizes structural practice on a determined sequence based on reading texts, all of which bodes well with him. What does not, viz. pronunciation and use of target language, is conveniently overlooked in preference to first giving detailed grammar explanations, which the audio-lingual method overlooks, but has still become the buzz-word since. I advocate a mixed approach, so why cannot grammar-translation teachers do so?

Because one-sided use of the familiar and prevalent grammar practice books is boring, time-consuming and superfluous. However, testing even today often makes it the only valuable option for teaching. The only problem is, the learner is cheated of his/her time, even if s/he plays along.

As to drilling, if we come to think about it, a 20-item oral drill takes about a tenth of the time required to write the same amount of fill-in sentences and checking them with everybody around class. Yes, the teacher should have good ears to follow most sentences pronounced, but everybody has the chance of uttering target-language sentences and still practicing grammar. To achieve that, though, we have to start practicing. Don’t overdo explanations, but go over to practice quickly even if you consider yourself a conservative. Written fill-ins can easily be done at home and be checked only if necessary, but after ample oral practice, it won’t often be.

Naturally, this can only be done after we have started to speak the target language in our instructions and expect same from the learner, helped with occasional pronunciation practice if necessary. After several rounds of oral manipulation and similar exercises aimed first at accuracy and grammar, students will achieve bouts of enhanced fluency with certain structures they have practiced. With more confidence and different grammar points following, the range will widen.

Of course, grammar and practice of grammatical differences between the given languages is important. Unfortunately, several dozens of authors have long inundated the international market with hundreds of grammar guides and grammar practice books, thereby reinforcing the importance of this trait in language classes.  This overshadows the fact that, even done in the very best ways, sheer grammar practice is utterly boring in itself and is met with hostile resistance in the class sooner or later. It can only form the basis of some degree of accuracy. Today’s learner does not care very much about that, however. Most people find it sufficient if they are understood and they understand others, even if they can’t recognize when this urge leads them to misunderstandings. Fluency is far more important than accuracy, and grammar practice itself can’t yield good listening and understanding, and can’t lead to successfully expressing ourselves. This, on the one hand, may force changes in the language. It may still, on the other, lead to good levels of language use. There are several ways leading to heaven – accuracy can also be achieved by exposure to good language use. And because oral language use leaves room for far quicker exchanges and far more exchanges of ideas among people than grammatization, it can lead to the same level of language use in a couple of years as grammar practice in a decade, while far more ideas and a wider understanding of the world are used than with grammar.

It is thus the communicative approach which the teacher should embrace more. Not exclusively, but if he/she pays attention to oral patterns, meaning, task-based practice aimed at achieving certain results in discussion, culturally defined differences of meaning, and to thinking in the target language with a view to exposing various opinions of the students about the world, foreign language production will speed up enormously. This will lead to more confidence in the learner’s own language use, faster development and to better overall language levels.

Now, if this has not been convincing enough for the conventional teacher, let me add that usual grammar practice does not cover what is most important in many languages, and that is vocabulary. It does not explain why certain words are used in certain contexts and exchanges, but others are not, why certain words are used together, while others are not. Only precious few course-books make it possible for learners of English, for example, to understand and practice in which order adjectives can be used, which emphasizers can be used with which which adjectives, what is the system of and how we can use phrasal verbs, just to mention a few problems which remain outside the scope of most grammars and course material. But word partnerships remain seriously outside most course materials even in the British publishing industry, not to mention ways of making the learner think about other cultures, other learners and the world in terms which they understand and find interesting.

Such materials, kinds that ask the proper questions, make the necessary challenges suitable to our times, use authentic materials in an effort to enhance native-like understanding and cross-cultural understanding, are very hard to come by. Authentic listening materials, kinds that the Dutch can come across every day on television, cannot be used in international publishing, because copyrighted material costs would drive prices to near Dutch levels, which only the Dutch can afford to pay. This way, most of the world can only buy cheap, commercialized material which make twelve to the dozen, in which the listening material is read out by actors, and the teacher can only dream of and strive for providing suitable pattern for his/her students with that.

But then he/she had better use better and faster approaches than the grammar-translation method on his/her own. Unduly concentrating on grammatical correctness, neglecting oral communication and interaction may lead the learner to a prolonged period of fumbling uncertainty in the language class, and could ultimately lead him/her to completely losing interest in the target language, unless he/she otherwise finds interest from elsewhere. Grammatical accuracy practice is a necessary part of language development, but if it overwrites oral communicative competency, it takes time away from fluency practice, often completely, and that is detrimental. On the other hand, developing fluency fosters confidence, and provides opportunity to recycle and strengthen the old and newer language patterns, grammar among them. Who would like to overlook this chance? It is also a lot more interesting.

Beware – in the American system of education, there have already huge paradigm shifts taken place towards i-learning, which almost only the most adventurous are ready for in other parts of the world. But it is coming, and you may not be willing to be left behind. How is a teacher prepared to take that step, and to what use, if he/she still bases his/her instruction and methods on age-old, more-or-less discredited paradigms?

My readers may find that my opinion is not based on research. Agreed. I am not a linguist myself. The opinions expressed above, however, are based on my long professional experience. Never being very communicative as a youngster but brought up on grammar, translation and grammar tests, I found my way to university easily based on the written entrance examination at a time when about one fifteenth of the numbers of today made it to higher education in my country. However, I then struggled for a couple of years in surroundings where translation was not used at all; instead, we had to discuss loads of literature orally, for which I was not really prepared enough.

My co-author on this web-site, Ms. Shen has received very little English and Dutch grammar, never learned a foreign language at school in China, yet, she is quite fluent in oral interaction in both languages through her communicative efforts after a few years. Far from being among the best writers, but that aspect is also improving for her.

As a teacher, I have used various materials in increasingly communicative ways and I have always found that those who only concentrate – insist on concentrating – on grammar practice, are soon left lagging behind more adventurous types, those who try to creatively and bravely use even the little that they already have up their sleeves from the beginning. For the latter kind, accuracy has come a bit later, but it comes much earlier than fluency for the grammatically oriented. It may be almost unnecessary to add that when my students were later asked to translate, their production did not depend much on their grammatical, or often not even on their communicative competency – it depended largely also on their native language competencies, the students making all kinds of mistakes in their mother tongue that showed understanding, but an incorrect use of their vernacular.

by P.S.

The System of the Dutch State Language Examination – part 2


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At an average NT2 Staatsexamen, the second part of the first day is the speaking test. The listening test itself takes about 30 minutes, but it is perhaps the most precarious of the four parts. After the one-hour break following the writing part, sitting through registration and the identity check again takes enough time for our blood pressure to seriously drop to near zero, which is anything but what we need for this part.

The speaking test on Level 1 has about 20 questions in two parts, consisting of 20-second and then 30-second answer intervals, whereas on Level 2, the 20 or so questions are grouped into 20-second, 30-second answers with a third part requiring two two-minute answers. As to topics, what we have said about level differences in general holds here too, with Level 2 requiring more professional answers.

The questions in the first part require fairly simple, short, one- or two-sentence reactions within 20 seconds. Time before the following situation is short, the candidate has to put themself into new shoes rather fast and then respond very quickly again. This is fairly do-able due to the relatively simple situations, but if the candidate’s blood pressure has already fallen, it is difficult enough to suddenly speed up.

The questions in the second part tend to be a lot more complex, and the changes in topic follow each other similarly fast. We noted that the 30 seconds allowed for response prove too often to be rather short. Chatty types could do it better, but the questions require anything but a chat. With the frequent demand for the explanation of two or three different aspects of the problem, illustrated in three drawings, or sentences, a decision supported with minimum two reasons often proves too much for 30 seconds.

What a prospective candidate needs to bear in mind is that preparation for those two parts of the speaking test mainly requires preparation on their own in the most unnatural circumstances. We have to get used to communicating our fast shifting personality to someone who never reacts to us. This is as far from normal human interaction as can be, but this is the basis for the examiners to assess our speaking skills. No matter how appropriately we can communicate in real life, here we have only 20 or 30 seconds to say something, and properly at that, otherwise we lose valuable points and may fail easily.

Computerization is inevitable, we all know, but my personal opinion as an experienced oral examiner in Hungary is that a 15-minute personal dialogue about three various topic areas provides a far more reliable impression of the candidate’s language skills (and overall communication abilities as well, as human interaction is far more than speech) than such lightning-quick, impersonal attempts at reaction. Even with  secondary impressions sometimes at play. IELTS, Cambridge First Certificate English (FCE), or Cambridge Advanced English (CAE) tests provide similar examples of well-documented dialogues as speaking tests. There, there is possibility to bring out what the candidate is capable of, here, the candidate’s shortcomings are mercilessly brought to light under unnaturally intense circumstances. Here, momentarily forgetting just one key-word is enough to ring alarm bells in the mind and to lose half the time for a response, not to mention a potential to lose quality through embarrassment to oneself. Besides, I am not sure there is less time needed for evaluation here. The two evaluators have to listen carefully for 30 minutes of recording from each candidate and then decide. In the classical oral format, the two examiners rarely need more than 15 minutes per person to come to a decision, and in a much more relaxed atmosphere. Of course, we can say that, due to the standardized format, evaluation based on computerized answers here may happen extremely easily, almost automatically. But is it not this that allows for the complete loss of the individual?

Under the circumstances, this sort of testing requires rigorous preparation. The candidate has to get used to what he or she never faces in real life, after all. Alas, such training is often missing at courses. Most teachers preparing you for the exams feel the need to control the language use of the students, the need to correct if something is not completely good. But such approach demands far too much time, and does not make it possible for the students to get accustomed to the demand that they need to give rapid reactions for anything that gets thrown at them appropriately and sometimes even with mistakes. The stress involved is the most demanding, most important to be used to, but that seems to be least practiced. At the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, the necessary first step was taken, with recording the speaker and the output analysed afterwards, but then again, it happened only once or twice to a few people for 20 or 30 seconds. Hardly anything in terms of training for the stress involved in keeping it up for half an hour and taking turns of personalities about 18 or 20 times. So a prospective examinee must do the whole thing on his/her own, with his/her own recorder at home. It’s only that he/she needs to make up the questions themself too, because the one or two practice sets used at courses are far from enough, and they are usually not to be taken home either. How realistic does all this sound?

I have to add that the last two questions of the Level 2 exam are much more complex than those before, but there are two minutes of preparation time and two minutes of answer time provided, so the stress is far less. Also, these questions do not require four times as complex and detailed answers as the 30-second ones, and the candidate  has enough time to accommodate themself to the new circumstances and roles. Almost a cinch, compared to the previous 15-or-so questions.

On the second day of a full state examination, the candidates face a two-hour reading test followed by a long break, and then a somewhat shorter listening test of around 70 minutes answer-time. In both parts, 40 questions have to be answered.

In the reading part, you have to read six different texts on paper, but that number may sometimes vary, and one can wonder what it will look like if they completely computerize the texts as well. The questions have to be answered on the computer screen, usually out of three possibilities, occasionally out of four. The candidate can follow his/her own speed and rhythm, which seems to make this part relatively easy, but mind you, the texts and answers tend to grow in complexity towards the end, so the two hours provided are normally just enough. To divide your time in two hours is also a lot more difficult than within one hour, not everybody finds it comfortable, so do not make the mistake of thinking that this part is easy, all the less so because the vocabulary and complexity of text is here on the highest level of all the four parts, coupled with the necessity to have good analytical skills. However, on courses, this type of work is the most frequent, so you are already well used to such tests. That said, this part is not very stressful, but, due to the language level and complexity, tiring enough so that we need the break afterwards.

The listening part could again prove quite stressful. At courses, listening tests are sometimes done, but very rarely discussed, so I would say that the logic of choosing answers and the language points involved are not properly trained beforehand. In my own experience, at a summer school provided for hard money at the James Boswel Institute at the University of Utrecht, listening tasks were not covered at all.

The test itself, consisting of the usual 40 questions, is a continuous fight for fast understanding. Before each question, there is the same time provided to read the question and the three alternative answers, whether the answers are short and simple, or consist of longer and more complex sentences, so very often, you do not have enough time to read through the questions properly before the relevant snippet of one of the five or six dialogues already begins. Even if you can easily follow the dialogue, which may or may not be the case, if you need more time afterwards to browse through the options again and choose, you lose your time to properly read through the following question and answers. And that is where you may get stressed and frustrated again. You can later go back to a previous question, but only in your own time for another answer and also without the possibility to listen to the relevant part again, so it is strongly advised not to do this. What I deem necessary is to fully understand the question and the options as well, and then to memorize the gist of all the options. With that in mind, we can choose the correct option while we keep listening, then check ourselves at the very end of the snippet and click. Not always easy, but must be done. That having said, I can say this part is do-able, especially if one already has some practice through frequent talks to people in real life, or watching television, or doing the listening tasks most likely coming with a course book.

Candidates get the official result by post six weeks after the exam, but it is already available to be seen on the DUO web-site with your registration number after five weeks. It is possible to get diplomas about each successful part if you do not succeed overall. One re-take per year is possible, and if fully successful in all parts after that, DUO  is ready to issue a full diploma if requested.

With these explanations, I hope we have provided prospective students of Dutch a useful overview of what can be expected at preparatory courses and at the exams themselves. We wish you good luck and success.

by Z.J.Shen and P.S.

The System of the Dutch State Language Examination – part 1


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In this post, we’d like to shed some light on this system for the sake of those only considering taking to studying the language at the time of reading and later planning to take an exam. The system is described in detail on the English version of the DUO web-site, but instead of repeating some tedious details, we’d like to outline some of the facts more from the perspective of the student and his/her needs.

There are three kinds of exams in the system. The first is the so-called “inburghering” exam, which, from the language point of view, corresponds to level A2 of the Common European Framework. Above this is the NT2 Staatsexamen Niveau 1, which corresponds to B1 level, and then the same at Niveau 2, which corresponds, on paper, to the higher B2 level.

The first sort is actually necessary for those from outside the EU wishing to stay in the Netherlands for a longer period and get Dutch nationality, that is, “inburghering”, to become Dutch citizens. Until now, in order to pass, the candidate has had to, among others, choose the correct response in various more-or-less official situations, which necessitates knowledge of some laws and a lot of customs in the country. Another part involved choosing the correct responses in small everyday situation. Sadly, preparatory courses to prepare for such tasks take the form of rote-learning contests and the winners remember the most of the necessary reactions well to be able to make the correct choices on screen. From the student’s point of view, teaching is a nightmare.

Another part of the exam has been to record the opposites of words read out in the head-phone on the computer. We consider this to be very far from language use as well, still, it demands a bit more active participation than clicking choices. Preparation for such tasks is also a nightmare. Not very much better was a part where the candidate was required to re-tell and record a small story read out to him/her by the computer. This task seems to require active participation, but actually, its point is to instantly memorize and regurgitate things heard. Tiring and very testing on concentration, but not very realistic either.

Besides three central parts, this exam included a practical portfolio as well, which the candidate had to fill in with the results of actual conversations with people, often at offices of the police, or a lawyer, or in a shop, and this is where it made sense. This was the only really valuable part, except that it was sometimes possible to cheat, and preparation for it was rather half-hearted.

This system has now been changed into a five-part central test. Besides the usual four basic skills, knowledge of the Dutch society still forms a part. We must point out that preparatory courses on this level teach very little of the language, there is little language practice during lessons, so there is very little room even to understand basic Dutch grammar there. Hopefully, the new, more skill-based exam engenders more language teaching instead of rote-learning, yet, at least until this becomes the norm, perhaps within a number of years, those starting to learn Dutch from scraps are well advised to first follow a good Dutch course in their own country and learn the basic necessities, and then undertake an “inburgheringscursus”. For those with other, deeper interests, understanding and learning from a spouse is always a better option.

For those who do not need to get nationalized, but wish to learn the language and take exams, we strongly advise to avoid such courses here. Instead, they had better bring up their level to A2 in other ways and then follow a B1-level course. After sudden changes and economic downturns in the country, there is now very little state subsidy coming in the way of the participant, so you have to look carefully what you pay for. Besides, the cost of the examinations have doubled for this year, so now expect to have to pay €180 for a full NT2 exam on both levels. And that after a course already cost you a thousand or two. On the other hand, exam courses may sometimes well serve you to get you acquainted with the demands and required techniques of each part of the state exam. After you’ve already learned the language well.

For nationalization, you are not required to raise your language level above A2, that is, after the “inburghering” exam, you can simply stop and become a housewife. NT2 exams are necessary, however, if you want to follow studies. Level 1 is needed for you to follow secondary courses, to become a nurse, or cook, or the like, or to get a simple job; level 2 is necessary if you want to go to university. We are not saying that those exams are enough for those purposes, but that the paper about them are prerequisites. Institutions and work-places retain their rights to individually look at what the applicant’s language is like. But don’t worry – if you are capable of obtaining one or the other diploma, the studies you follow will take care of the further development of your language. Just do not expect anyone to teach you the language when you already follow school or university courses – you have to have a sufficient basis to succeed on your own. We have to add that, on the job market, in certain industries where there is a real shortage of highly skilled manpower, like it is with ICT turners, reasonable levels of speaking English, or German are enough to get a well-paid job.

As our experience with Level 1 is more than a year old, we are not going into details about that. That and Level 2 of NT2 is now renewed and is still in the process in that it is not yet fully computerized, but it is going to be until the end of 2013. Besides, there are only a few small differences between the tests at Level 1 and Level 2, the difference being mostly of quality and level, not of kind. However, more recent experience of others also indicate that there is a thematic difference between the two levels: on Level 1, the candidate has to switch roles or react to situations more in everyday life, simple work tasks and the like, like talk to a neighbour, or give instructions about using office equipment, or give directions somewhere; whereas on Level 2, the candidate has to read, or write about, or react to tasks and roles that require interests in higher education, like work procedures of a physiotherapist, manager of a national park, or an entrepreneur in commerce or art.

At the moment, half of the writing part of NT2 is done on paper, but it will cease to be soon, so the candidate must have ample typing skills. The timing and so the tempo of the test requires more speed than how we can type with two fingers, so be prepared to acquire this skill by all means. In both halves, there are a number of shorter tasks, like one or two sentences to be filled in an e-mail, and a couple of longer texts to be composed. As we are allowed to use dictionaries, the skills for doing that is also of importance for success. The length of each part is about one hour, so it is also a matter of perseverance.

Much more difficult is the speaking part, of which we are going to talk tomorrow along with the listening and reading part. Stay tuned if you have the interest.

By Z.J.Shen and P.S.

Bending immigration statistics – English version


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As I promised yesterday, I am adding my English version of my criticism of a Dutch article from yesterday here. The original of the article,

 Immigratie steeds meer uit Oost- en Zuid-Europa

or “Immigration grows again from East- and South-Europe”, published by NRC Handelsblad on 8th March, can only be accessed digitally by registered users of the NRC Handelsblad. Sorry about that.

The bending of statistics

We already know that demagogy knows no borders. Communism spread from Germans in London on to Russians, Cubans, Indians and North-Koreans, Nazism spread from Germany through Italy and Austria to Finland and Japan. It’s well-known that statistics are an important and good way of describing the world, but also that, in the wrong hands, it can lead to demagogy. I am quite used to it in Hungary, but it surprised me here in the Netherlands the other day.

I always thought NRC a high-quality newspaper, until now. This opinion changed when I read their article of 8th March about immigration. In this article, they distort statistics, not very seriously, but enough so that people do not give it a second thought. If someone seriously distorts the truth, people may also react strongly and fast and think that a refusal is necessary. But a little clouding over easily remains unobserved. Easily creeps into the mind as the truth. And I find that dangerous.

NRC Handelsblad

NRC Handelsblad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What do the writers state? First of all, it is not clear from the article if they use the statistical figures they quote on yearly basis, or as the sum total of immigrants. In most cases it can be said that it is not likely that a country with 17 million inhabitants receives close to 600 thousand people from the EU each year (the population of the Netherlands is still growing, but not that much), but who knows, it may be possible in the case of Bulgarians, whose numbers grew from 6 thousand in 2007 to 18 thousand in 2012. The article does not say at all that that means the whole number of Bulgarians that live in the country. But the article starts by saying that “Most migrants (!?) who come to the Netherlands, … from within the European Union.” (!? is my addition, because I also find it conspicuous that immigrants are usually called migrants in the article, as if they were just shifting like nomads; and the word, in the headline of the attached chart, can be understood as people migrating from the EU, to other countries, that is.) So is it first about the number of migrants who are coming at the moment (in Dutch, the normal present tense is used for general, momentary and even future meaning, so ‘komen’ allows for all interpretations)? Afterwards, the article only uses full data sums of people living here. It becomes thus shifty. Why? Because otherwise, people could clearly see that there are only 18.000 Bulgarians in their country of 17 million, which only means 0.1% of the whole population. People could simply ask, “What’s the problem?”

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second problem with this piece is that it is highly unclear what they mean by East- and Middle-Europe. Added to this, this dubious idea is washed together with East- and South-Europe, which shouts out of the headline as if it were an entity. Completely wrong. What is this article actually about? But it seems to be alright for the masses of Dutch, they should not worry about such small matters, and that is good enough for the editors.

Furthermore, from the chart it seems that about 580 thousand people live in the Netherlands from the EU (and the number is rising). Here, South-, and East- and Middle-Europe are separated. But where do Bulgarians, or Rumanians belong? Alright, it does not matter. According to the text, “the number of migrants from the previously communist (my problem: all those countries were ‘socialist’, not ‘communist’ – we knew our definitions better) EU-countries has risen … to 237 thousand,” and that seems represented in the chart by the ‘Middle- and East-Europe‘ line. Besides that problem of where Bulgaria and Romania belong (politically perhaps East, geographically South!), we have the problem of who are most of the immigrants.

EU and candidates

EU and candidates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the text, we have the following, “Most migrants from inside the EU come from Poland.” Same problem as above: do they mean ‘are coming’? This is important because we get only the percentage of Polish people. What does their 28% really mean (if it means 28% of those now coming, then we have a problem of who constitute the 237 thousand)? If it means the percentage of all present inhabitants from the EU, then it gives 165 thousand Poles who live in the Netherlands. Whether only short-term, or long-term, it does not seem to matter. Well, from the chart we see that the number of EU citizens living here from the EU is 580 thousand. Out of this number, and from the number of Bulgarians and Romanians (only 18.000 and 14.000 respectively) at fourth and fifth place, we can find that the group of Germans and Belgians at second and third place should be really large, but the article does not say anything. Otherwise, however, where do men between 200 thousand (all Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians) and the full 580 thousand from the EU come from? Each other country can send only fewer than 14.000 people, the number of Romanians at fifth place. We can thus only guess that there are also relatively many English (who come to do translation or language teaching), Spanish, Greeks, perhaps also Portuguese and Italians living here. There can’t be many from other countries, so we can guess that there are about 50 thousand from those five countries. Add a number of thousand Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks. After that, it is not likely that many people emigrate from dynamic and very small countries like Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus or Malta, and French and Nordic people also do not do so. This leads me to deduce that we still miss about 300 thousand to make up the 580 thousand. That number can only belong to the Germans and Belgians, who account for the second and third largest group, although not given in numbers.

What does this mean? It means that more Germans and Belgians together live here than those from all other countries of the EU. However, this is not a problem at all in the article. It tells us nothing about the 300 thousand. Also no word about South-Europeans. Only in the headline, further nothing. It tells us only about the 0.1% Bulgarians and Romanians, and of course the Polish people.

Why is it a problem, according to the article? Because “last year there were a good 4 (four!) thousand EU people receiving social security provisions, and that number … is rising.” That is 0.068% of all ‘migrants’. It says nothing about the 17 million (my addition, based on the opinion of friends and facts: for example about the thousands and thousands of Dutch who rarely worked in their lives and receive regular social security support). So what a problem that that number of 4 thousand is rising! Where is it going to lead? “We still don’t know exactly how much of those don’t have a right to those provisions,” they admit, but we should think that a few hundred more illegal receivers of social support will cause a really big problem.

5886859183_6b31c87b95_mSo, “There is fear of a social security migration.” Indeed. According to the newspaper, there is no such problem with the two and a half million people from countries outside the EU, or the 300 thousand Germans and Belgians, only with those 4 thousand on social support. Or with the 165 thousand Polish people, most of whom, by the way, are provisional guest workers and busy working hard in industry. Or with the Rumanians and Bulgarians, who may be more professionally able to work in industry or in language education than some Dutch, but may not get work on account of never being able to speak the language well enough. That is a problem, but not in the article. East- and Middle-Europe is complaining of ‘brain drain’, but at the moment, thousands of people with high levels of education from there have to work as cleaning personnel, postmen, or storage personnel. About which the Dutch do not know. That is a problem. Yet, the writer-editors, and as they say, some ministers do as if the country should quickly stop the influx of East-Europeans.

I think that if that is the message, Western Europe had not thought over the effects of widening the community well enough. And then the Netherlands could shut down their borders in front of all immigrants. Just like some professions are shut down by law.

But then, to lay all fault on the shoulders of “East-Europeans” is demagogy from the cold war.

by P.S.

Only after I added the links below did I realize that such a problem and debate is raging in the UK as well now. My readers are kindly asked to contribute their opinion about it all below in the ‘Reply’ space. Thank you.

Bending immigration statistics


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Dear reader,

I feel I have to turn my attention over to subjects that have little to do with language learning. As I am also a geographer by education, so statistics and politics are not far from me. The topic of migration is also to some extent to do with language knowledge, at least here in the Netherlands I have to find that to my own disadvantage. So what I’m writing about also relates to languages. Or politics. Please don’t be too much taken aback.

Over the last few weeks nothing much has been happening to me, no news on the job front, still lingering health problems, no new experience except at the language course, where we were given an article from NRC Handelsblad of 8th March which discusses immigration from some countries within the EU. It is called

Immigratie steeds meer uit Oost- en Zuid-Europa.

As in my opinion this article distorts truth, I want to react to the editors of the newspaper, so my text is still in Dutch. I still have to work on it to make it shorter so that it falls within their limits, but here I can publish it as it came to me. It’s in Dutch, but for the benefit of those who don’t understand that language, I’ll soon translate it to English. Now it goes like the following.

Het verdraaien van statistiek

We weten al dat demagogie geen grenzen kent. Communisme verspreidde zich van Germanen in London naar de Russen, de Cubanen, de Indiërs en de Noord Koreanen, Nazisme verspreidde zich van Duitsland door Italië en Oostenrijk naar Finland en Japan. Dat statistiek een belangrijke en goeie mannier van het omschrijving van de wereld is, is bekend, maar ook, dat het in slechte handen tot demagogie kan verworden. Ik ben eraan gewend, dat het vaak op zo’n mannier in Hongarije gaat, maar het verbaast me in Nederland.

NRC Handelsblad

NRC Handelsblad (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ik dacht altijd, dat NRC een dagblad met kwaliteit is, tot nu toe. Dit is veranderd toen ik hun artikel op 8 maart over immigratie heb gelezen. Ze verdraaien statistiek, niet serieus, maar genoeg, zodat mensen er eigenlijk niet veel over zouden moeten nadenken. Als iemand de waarheid sterk vervalst, zouden mensen snel reageren en hun afkeuring kenbaar maken. Maar een kleine onduidelijkheid kan niet makkelijk ontdekt geworden. En dat vind ik gevaarlijk.

Wat zeggen de redacteuren? Ten eerste is het in het artikel niet duidelijk of het aantal migranten er eigenlijk per jaar of als het hele aantal gebruikt is. Met de meeste getallen is het niet waarschijnlijk dat in een land van 17 miljoen mensen elk jaar bijna 6oo duizend immigranten uit de EU krijgt, maar wie weet het met het aantal Bulgaren, het aantal waarvan steeg tussen 2007 en 2012 van 6.000 tot 18.000? Het artikel zegt het nergens duidelijk, dat dat het volle aantal is, hoewel het artikel begint met te zeggen, dat “De meeste migranten die naar Nederland komen, … van binnen de Europese Unie.” Dus is het eerst over het aantal migranten die nu aan het komen zijn? Daarna gebruikt het artikel alleen volle bedragen. Dus wordt het niet duidelijk. Waarom niet? Omdat de mensen dan wel zouden zien dat er alleen maar 18.000 Bulgaren in hun land van 17 miljoen blijven, die alleen maar 0.1% van de bevolking uitmaken. Mensen zouden dan makkelijk kunnen vragen, ‘Wat is het probleem?’

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ten tweede is het helemaal niet duidelijk, wat de krant bedoelt met Oost- en Midden-Europa.  Bovendien is die onduidelijk idee “samengespoeld” met Oost- en Zuid-Europa, die in de krantenkop staat alsof het een eenheid zou zijn. Helemaal fout. Waarover gaat het artikel eigenlijk? Maar het blijkt goed voor de meeste Nederlanders, ze kunnen zich over zo’n kleine probleem helemaal niet schelen, en dat is goed voor de redactie.

Verder blijkt uit de grafiek, dat er nu ongeveer 580 duizend mensen uit de EU in Nederland blijven. Hier is Zuid-EU en Midden- en Oost-Europa verschillend. Maar waar horen Bulgaren of Roemenen bij? OK, het maakt niet uit. Volgens de tekst, “het aantal migranten uit de voormalig communistische EU-landen steeg … naar 237 duizend”, en dat blijkt de lijn ‘Midden- en Oost-Europa’ in de grafiek te zijn. Behalve het probleem waar Bulgarije bij hoort (politiek Oost, geografisch Zuid!), krijgen wij het probleem wie het meeste immigranten zijn.

Uit de tekst blijkt het volgende: “De meeste migranten van binnen de EU komen uit Polen”. Bedoelt de redacteuren dat de meeste NU komen uit Polen? Het is belangrijk, omdat wij alleen een procent bij de Polen krijgen. Wat betekent hun 28% eigenlijk? Als het de % van alle hedendaagse bewoners uit EU betekent, dat maakt het 165 duizend Polen uit die in Nederland wonen. Tijdelijk, of lange termijn, dat doet er niet toe. Nou, uit de grafiek blijkt het aantal EU-immigranten 580 duizend te zijn. Uit dit cijfer en het aantal van Bulgaren en Roemenen (alleen 18.000 en 14.000) op de vierde en vijfde plaats lijkt dat de groep mensen uit Duitsland en België op tweede en derde plaats heel groot moet zijn, hoewel het artikel dat niet zegt. Maar anders, waar komen mensen tussen het aantal 200 duizend (alle Polen, Roemenen en Bulgaren) en de EU-totaal van 580 duizend vandaan? Enkele andere landen sturen minder dan 14 duizend, het aantal Roemenen op vijfde plaats. Dus kunnen wij alleen raden, dat er nog veel Engelsen (hier om te vertalen of les te geven), Spanjaarden, Grieken, misschien Portugezen en Italianen hier wonen. Uit andere landen waarschijnlijk niet veel, dus kunnen wij raden dat er hier ongeveer 50 duizend meer uit die vijf landen wonen. Wij kunnen nog een paar duizend uit Hongarije, Tsjechië of Slovakië toevoegen. Verder is het helemaal niet waarschijnlijk dat vele duizenden uit de dynamische een heel kleine landen als Estonië, Slovenië, Cyprus of Malta emigreren, ook doen Fransen en Noordelijke mensen dat niet. Dat lijdt tot een aantal van ruim 300 duizend die wij tot 580 duizend nog missen. Dat aantal kan alleen uit Duitsland en België komen, die op de tweede en derde plaats staan, zonder cijfers.

Wat betekent het? Het betekent dat er nog meer Duitsers en Belgen in het land wonen dan alle andere mensen uit de hele EU. Maar, volgens dit artikel is het helemaal geen probleem. Het praat over 300 duizend met geen woord. Ook geen woord over Zuid-Europeanen. Alleen in de kop, daarna niks. Het praat alleen over de 0.1% Bulgaren en Roemenen, en natuurlijk over de Polen.

Waarom is het een probleem, volgens het artikel? Omdat “er in Nederland vorig jaar ruim vierduizend EU-burgers waren die een bijstandsuitkering kregen en het aantal neemt … toe.” Dat is 0.068% van alle migranten. Die zegt niks over de 17 miljoen bewoners. Jammer dat het aantal stijgt. Waar leidt dat toe? “We weten nog niet precies hoeveel van hen daar geen recht op hebben”, maar wij moeten denken, dat een paar honderd onrechtelijke bijstandsuitkeringtrekkers meer een heel erg groot probleem kunnen veroorzaken.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: bogers)

Dus, “Er is vrees voor ‘uitkeringsmigratie’.” Inderdaad. Volgens de krant is er geen probleem met de ruim twee en half miljoen mensen uit andere landen buiten de EU, alleen maar met de ruim 4 duizend mensen met een bijstandsuitkering. Of met de 165 duizend Polen, de meeste waarvan bezig zijn met het hard werken in de industrie. Of met de Roemenen en Bulgaren, die ook in de industrie of in het onderwijs meer professioneel kunnen zijn dan Nederlanders, maar ze kunnen misschien geen banen krijgen omdat ze nooit goed genoeg Nederlands kunnen praten. Dat is een probleem. Oost- en Midden-Europa klaagt over ‘brain drain’, maar tegelijkertijd moeten duizenden daarvan met hoge opleidingsniveau als schoonmakers, postbezorgers, of magazijn medewerkers werken. Nederland weet niks erover. Dat is een probleem. Toch geeft de schrijvers en sommige ministers in, dat het land snel de instroom van duizenden Oost-Europeanen moet stoppen.

Ik denk, dat als het de bedoeling is, hadden er mensen in West-Europa niet goed nagedacht over de gevolgen van de uitbreiding van de EU. Maar dan kan Nederland alle zijn grenzen voor alle immigranten ook sluiten. Net als dat soort banen die nu al rechtelijk gesloten zijn.

Maar van alles de schuld aan de “Oost-Europeanen” geven is demagogie uit de koude oorlog.

Followed by the translation in the following post.

(After writing the above, I shortened my Dutch text to the requirements and sent it to the paper, but they answered that, due to a huge number of new articles, they cannot publish mine. I have to face it: it would be inconvenient.)

by P.S.

A famous literary mistranslation between Hungarian and German


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Karinthy Frigyes

Karinthy Frigyes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d like to present here an artistic mistranslation from the 1910’s which is very famous in Hungary. It was originally written by F. Karinthy, a famous, witty Hungarian poet and writer of lots of short stories and sketches and a famous novel. He took a stanza by a great poet, E. Ady, and followed the ways of translations through a few rounds of misinterpretation. The English is my explanations to the original poems based on Karinthy’s original explanations. I hope that the full piece can be appreciated by those speaking German even if they don’t understand the Hungarian.

Ady Endre, Hungarian poet

Ady Endre

Jöttem a Gangesz partjairól 
Hol álmodoztam déli verőn
A szivem egy nagy harangvirág
S finom remegések az erőm.

Which means, roughly, the following:

I’ve come from the shores of the Ganges Where I was day-dreaming in the midday sun My heart is a large blue-bell And fine trembles are my strength.

A translator with a flair for beauty read this in an anthology and was deeply moved. He dicided to translate it and send it to the paper called “Dichterstimmen”.

So he translated it thus:

Ich kam von Ufer der Ganges 
Dort traumt ich von südischen Schlager
Main Herz, du Blume, du banges
Du bist so zitternd, so mager.

Well, for the sake of rhymes, one changes a thing or two in such a poetic translation.

At this point, Karinthy does not add explanations for the misinterpretations, because he could be sure that his Hungarian readers at the time all understood the differences. For the sake of my readers here, I venture to add a few points:

Although the word ’verő’ could mean ’Schlager’, yet, the poet meant a shortened and well-known form of ’verőfényes’, which is an adjective meaning something like ’brightly sunny’, and the short form can refer to the time of day characterized as such, as can the noun form ’verőfény’ as well. Further, unfortunately, ‘déli’ here is not supposed to refer to the southerly direction as in ‘südischen’, but to the midday. Thus the ‘bright midday sun’ becomes ‘southern hitter’ in the translation. ’Banges’ is supposed to rhyme with Ganges, unfortunately, the original has nothing to do with being ’anxious’. It spells a bigger problem that, according to the original, the poet’s trembling is his power, just the opposite of any meaning of ’mager’.

Well, so far so good, or not. But the problem got bigger when another translator read the German version without realising that it had been translated from Hungarian. He thought it to be an original poem and so translated it to Hungarian and sent it along to a literary journal like this:

Ufer, a zsidó kupléíró 
Aludt a folyosó mélyén
Barátja, Herz, biztatta
Hogy ne remegjen, ne féljen.

There’s an undoubted misunderstanding here, but who can fully find his way among those strange Gothic letters (at the time still widely used in Germany). So it is no wonder that the otherwise excellent translator misread „südischen” to be „jüdischen” and turned the name of the river Ganges to be a corridor.

There wouldn’t have happened a bigger problem if a third, otherwise excellent, translator didn’t happen to read it, who then translated it and sent it to „Gedicht-Magazin”, in full artistic reformulation:

O, Dichter der alten Juden 
Was schlafst du im FluBsalz so tief?
Hörst du nicht den stolzen Herzog
Der dir in Ohren rief?

Well, as to the corridor, it is true that if one is a German translator, he can’t be fully held accountable for the slight difference in Hungarian between ’folyosó’ and ’folyó só’ – corridor and fluid salt respectively. Besides, the translator supposes the proper name ’Herz’ to be an abbreviation for ’Herczeg’, ’Herzog’ in German, meaning a duke.

The magazine duly accepted the originality of the poem without further investigation and published it. That’s how it got into the hands of the fourth translator, who then published the poem, which rose to world fame in the meantime, as follows:

A Herz-féle szalámiban 
Sokkal sűrűbb a só,
Mint más hasonló terményekben
Hidd el, ó nyájas olvasó!

Which means roughly the following:

In the Herz-salami Salt is a lot denser Than in other produce, Believe me, oh kind reader.

He was right that ’Dichter’ can be translated to be ’denser’ just as ’poet’ from German.

Apart from smaller modifications that duly suit a poetic translation, like calling on the kindly reader in the last line, this translator, otherwise, did not change much of the content of the poem.

… he probably even obliged to gratitude the famous Hungarian manufacturer of salami, who, we hope, duly expressed his gratitude.

Moral: always check the source of the source of the source. If somebody has done it, it doesn’t mean it is good.

I owe my gratitude to the following source for the original work, where those who would like to read Karinthy’s original in the original can do so:

Karinthy Frigyes: Műfordítás

by. P.S.

A criticism of translation methods from the point of view of dictionaries


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In this post I’d like to provide further basis for the discredit of the grammar-translation method through looking at the possibility of misinterpretation based on dictionaries.

Lots of English linguists insist that there are actually no precise synonyms in a language, and I can just copy that in my mother tongue too, but even if we allow for synonyms encompassing words meaning almost the same as another word, no wonder that dictionary translations to another language rarely meet the criteria necessary to achieve successful word-to-word translations. Unfortunately, I’m not skilled enough in Dutch so that I can give you convincing examples in the field of meanings, but I face the problem daily if I get near a Dutch person who I could ask. “Yes, what you say/write is ok, I understand more-or-less what you mean, but this is not exactly how we would put it in Dutch.”

Besides this fact, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of cases when the meaning of a word can be completely misinterpreted using the exact foreign equivalent a dictionary uses. This is simply the result when dictionaries don’t bother to give details for exact meaning of the foreign equivalent, and sometimes even failing to mention which part of speech they are quoting. Often there is a mistake to the extent that the purported foreign equivalent doesn’t even exist.

My examples come from two bilingual dictionaries I have, the ‘Kramers handwoordenboek/Engels-Nederlands/Nederlands-Engels’ and the ‘Van Dale Studiewoordenboek/Nederlands-Engels’. When necessary, I check the real meaning of the words with the help of ‘Kramers woordenboek Nederlands’, where English is not used. I know for a fact that smaller dictionaries in the Netherlands are just as often void and useless as in Hungary – I’ve tried to use one or two, then quickly got rid of them. I don’t suppose that the lot of other two-language dictionaries found in abundance in the country are any better – the small Hungarian dictionary is definitely not better, why should the Farsi-Dutch, or Russian-Dutch dictionary be any better? So, here is a bunch of problems I’ve discovered over the last few months in the two large dictionaries, where Dutch learners of English are also likely to look up meanings of Dutch words.

Het weer is omgeslagenthe weather has broken, or Het weer slaat omthe weather is breaking? The clouds, but not the weather. Medemens is frivolously turned to be a fellow man, which would be a fellow creature if used at all by Englishmen. Handelen over iets is correctly given to mean deal with, but to treat (of)? What were the makers thinking of?

Bonenkruid is given as savoury, which is fine if one notices that it’s a noun. Most learners wouldn’t notice the small ‘o’ after the headword, which means it is a genderless, so-called ‘het-word’, and because ‘savoury’ is very rarely used as a noun in English, an unsuspecting learner-translator would be likely to use ‘bonenkruid’ as an adjective, or ‘savoury’ as a noun after encountering the word.

I owe gratitude to the dual-language ‘Kramers handwoordenboek’ that it doesn’t include ‘beamer’ in either the English, or in the Dutch section. This widely-used Dutch word represents the wide-spread misunderstanding that it is an English word, which the ‘Van Dale’ includes, but which the single-language ‘Kramers Woordenboek Nederlands’ excludes. Rightly so.

It can also happen that after the foreign equivalent is given, the headword is put into phrases as examples of use. This should always be part of a good dictionary, though, sadly, it never makes into smaller dictionaries. However, what can a learner do with entries like the following:

eigen 1 own, private, personal met de hem eigen bescheidenheid with his characteristic modesty; dat is hem eigen that is typical of him, (inf) that’s him all over; zich iets eigen maken (ook m.b.y. taal) make o.s. familiar with sth., (m.b.t. taal ook) master, pick up …

I personally appreciate the effort that the makers of the dictionary took pains in this case as in numerous others to supply an appropriate translation to the whole phrase. But shouldn’t there be at least one example where the translation conforms to the given English headwords? In all the three expressions with ‘eigen’, there’s not one which contains the three originally given translations. How is the student supposed to learn the meaning in English if he is to use the grammar-translation method for his own sake? Besides, I can also call it typical that, for the sake of a foreigner studying Dutch, the necessary preposition in the Dutch phrase equivalent with ‘familiar with’ is blissfully missing: “zich iets eigen maken” – van? met? aan? over?

In some cases the translations in the two dictionaries don’t match enough for a learner. ‘het gedrang’ is correctly interpreted as jostling, pushing from the original meaning of the stem-word, dringen, but it’s very likely that the other dictionary is closer to normal use translating it to be crowd, throng. However, even this second one creates problems with giving crush, which lots of young learners must be all too familiar with here from British soaps. Further, if one needs the meaning of in het gedrang komen in his translation, which meaning shall he/she choose: 1. get in a crowd 2. fig. be hard pressed, suffer from one, or (fig) get into a tight corner or be liable to be pushed aside/to be postponed (???)/to suffer from the other dictionary?

In other cases there is simply the danger that the learner can’t find which meaning quoted under the headword is the one he/she needs at the place and moment required.

Bent is given as set, clique, party, which together may vaguely indicate what the word means. Still, one keeps wondering, what if the meanings are apart? Then which meaning of set, or party is to be understood out of many?

Het voorbehoud is translated as reservation; which meaning of reservation? It is a bit hidden among other information that this is not about booking a flight, but about partial disbelief, a restriction.

Summier is defined as summary, brief , and only bn(=bijvoeglijk naamwoord) shows that these are meant to be adjectives (and summier is also an adverb according to the big ‘Kramers’), although ‘brief’ is often used as a noun or a verb, ‘summary’ is mostly used as a noun in English, and neither can function as adverbs.

Het vermoeden means suspicion, surmise, supposition, presumption, still, this word doesn’t mean mistrust as we could also deduct from suspicion. It’s not really a synonym of argwaan as the synonym section in the big ‘Kramer’ lets us believe.

There are similar problems with words like boorijzer bit (which meaning?), zijgen strain (which sort?), solutie solution (to a problem, or chemical?), soos club (a meeting-place, or a bat?), spaander chip (a piece of wood given for a silicon chip in the computer age?), keuvelaarij and keuvelen given as chat (in the internet age, when the meaning is restricted to broken speech of toddlers?), most given as must (when neither culture is used to what steps grapevine-making goes through until wine, the odd learner may be enticed to take it to be a form of the auxiliary – this translation misleads even a wine-savvy Hungarian where the exact same word must is used, with a difference of pronunciation).

I’m not sure that very many Dutch teachers of English are capable of explaining the subtle differences in the fields of meaning of English words in English – one can’t really suppose they can maintain their level of English high without speaking English in class to their students in the first place. Then, if they manage to maintain their English, they can mostly do it with dictionaries. They don’t have so much time to immerse themselves in life in Britain with all those teaching hours over the year. But they should remain the main source of vocabulary input, what with the quality of dictionaries as we’ve seen it, and the probably short hours students invest in studying outside class.

I’m not saying that all my examples play a big part in learners’ experience either. But there are lots of similar examples wherever I look. One can meet these problems in Hungarian, Sino-English or other dictionaries as well. But to do it only in Dutch seems to be just as weird as it is in Chinese or in Hungarian. Sometimes it may lead to situations similar to having to explain to a Beduin what ‘snow’ is like in Arabic, or to a North-Korean what ‘democracy’ means. Or to explain to a Chinese, or a Dutch, for that matter, what the difference between adjective and adverb is. There’s no distinction between the two in those languages …

by P.S.

Originally posted on harm·less drudg·ery:

Last Thursday was a rare treat in our house: one of those nights where the homework was done early, the dinner was cooked by someone else, and snow was in the forecast. The evening stretched out, molasses-lazy. My eldest daughter sauntered into the kitchen where I was spending some meditative time with the pots and a scrub brush.

“So,” she began lightly, “I wanted to talk to you about your pottymouth.”

I hummed. She does not approve of my penchant for cussing.

“When I came into your office today, you said the s-word. Cursing is evidence of a lack of creativity.” It is always a delight to hear your feeble parenting parroted back at you.

“A guy said something stupid on the radio this morning and then defended it by misquoting the dictionary. I was just frustrated, that’s all.”

She whisked a dishtowel off the shelf and began drying pots…

View original 1,909 more words

Examples for translation difficulties


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As I promised in my previous post, I’m presenting you with a list of examples that is intended to prove how difficult, mostly impossible it is to translate among languages texts which contain idiomatic language. But I’d like to begin on the level of phrases, which is the first level that may present such problems, like with the English phrasal verbs.

Dutch to English

Two of my favourite Dutch verbs are something I find very amusing word-for-word:

‘slagen voor het examen’ and ‘zakken voor het examen’

The first means to pass an exam, the second means to fail an exam. The problem comes with ‘voor’, which means that I can pass or fail before the exam.  Which will happen to me if I don’t go? But I shouldn’t go because I’m going to pass or fail before it anyway – the only question is, which?

One thing the Dutch can’t translate to English is “Eet smakelijk!” or “Smakelijk eten!” simply because the English don’t say much before eating. Some may occasionally wish “bon appétit!” with the French, which is equivalent to the very rarely heard Dutch “Goeie eetlust!” but then again, how to translate the jovial “Tuck in”? The translation of the Dutch phrase to English would be to wish “Eat tasty!”, which sounds completely ungrammatical, and may also question the quality of what we have just received in front of us. Hungarians at least regularly wish “jó étvágyat!” Good men! But to wish for what the reason is for sitting down to eat is also not very logical. Still, there it is.

The Dutch word ‘stom’ has, strangely, two meanings, one being ‘mute’, or ‘dumb’, but the other one seems to associate muteness with stupidity, meaning ‘stupid’. People in the Middle Ages may have considered this correct, thus the word meaning ‘fall silent’ became ‘verstommen’ in Dutch. Not very nice, as if stopping to talk automatically meant a mental disorder. In interesting comparison, the Hungarian word for ‘falling silent’, ‘elhallgat’ associates stopping to speak with listening. It’s a nicer way of looking at it I presume when we suppose that the silent one isn’t speaking because he is listening, that is, paying attention to us. Perhaps Chinese concert audiences fail to fall silent during a classical concert also because they’re afraid of being accused of becoming stupid. Chinese?

The Dutch ‘heeft verkering met dit meisje’, but if they informed their English friend translating this as ‘I have courtship with this girl’, they would get strange eyes. The English ‘go out with a girl’, or ‘pay courtship to a girl’ if they want to be very high-class, which they don’t really. Actually, this Dutch phrase is also going out of use and a teenager would speak about his ‘vriendin’, just like the English about their girlfriends, but then there’s no expression for ‘going out together’ in Dutch.

Other examples of phrases that are directly not translatable are:

‘iemand een optater verkopen’ = to sell a punch to someone (sell?)

‘een knal verkopen’ = to sell a clap on the head (?) = kupán vág valakit (Hongaars: ’kupa’ means a cup)

‘vriendschap sluiten met iemand’ = make friends with sb; what do we want to close in translation? (the Hungarians ‘tie’ a friendship, but the same word – ‘köt’ – is also used for ‘embroider’)

‘zo te zien’ = so to see? no! = evidently, apparently

‘het zwaar te pakken hebben’ = heavily have it to take? = to love s/b badly, or to have big problems

‘het schip ingaan’ = enter a ship? no! = something goes wrong, to have big difficulties

‘iets onder de knie hebben’ = have something under the knee? no! = this idiomatic phrase means ‘to have mastered something’ – the problem with the Hungarian ‘elsajátít’ is that is means ‘making sg his own’, but it also has a very close connotation to sealing

‘een appeltje te schillen hebben met iemand’ = instead of an apple to peel? = to have a bone to pick with s/o – the Hungarian ‘elszámolnivalója van valakivel’ makes it akin to paying the bill but it doesn’t expressly say who has to pay, so it’s also difficult to put in English

‘weten hoe de vork in the steel zit’ = to know how the fork sits in the stalk (of a flower)? handle (of a hammer)?= to know the ins and outs of the matter = ‘ismeri a dörgést’ in Hungarian, but that sounds like ’he knows the sound of lightning’.

On idiomatic levels we can almost always see the problem, usually in all ways.

English to Dutch

To begin this section, phrasal verbs offer themselves the best. We’re not always so fortunate with them, like in the case of ‘to be cut out for’, which is ‘geknipt zijn voor’ in Dutch and is directly translatable. Not so in other languages. Surprisingly, the Chinese ‘当… 能力’ (dāng … nénglì) is simple and only suggests the power to work as someone, or to bear some responsibility for something, so you don’t have to be cut in any shape. The Hungarian ’erre van teremtve’, on the other hand, has a very strong connotation with being created for something by god. But it wouldn’t really be appropriate to translate it back as ’to be created to do s/g.’

We could go on with phrasal verbs infinitely to prove the point. But I deem it unnecessary, as most people learning English find this area very difficult. I’d like to go on with other kinds of differences instead.

When friends are already inside their homes, the English make you ‘feel at home’ or ‘make yourself at home.’ The Dutch invite us with ‘Com even binnen,’ and rarely wish us “Moge het je bekomen”, so it may surprise many Dutch how often they may encounter it in English.

When two people regularly quarrel, the Dutch may say ‘elkaar altijd in de haar ziten/haren zitten’. Try translating it to be ‘to sit each other always in the hair’ or something, and you’ll make people’s eyebrows rise really high. Why would such people ‘sit’, we may ask. The Hungarian ‘marakodnak’ is suggestive of biting each other or burning material in a caustic manner, for which English has no verb.

How does a ‘queer fish’, or a ‘strange customer’ become a French bean? But here it is = ‘een rare snijboon’ (and ‘snij’ is also not French!)

One thing the poor Dutch can’t translate, probably don’t even know exist, is how to ‘go Dutch’ ??? They may sometimes share the bill, but other than ‘verdelen’=’share’, there’s no idiom to this effect. But the phrase and the practice is very popular among Australians and Americans teaching in South China, perhaps an excuse to again exploit the poor Chinese.

It mostly happens with proverbs and proverb-like phrases that translation may become completely funny. Because of the different symbolism and different metaphorical world of each culture, word-for-word translation would often sound stupid. The English ‘don’t count your chickens before they are hatched’, while Hungarians say ‘előre iszik a medve bőrére’, which is not a warning, but a fact, but the Dutch may find it a lot more familiar, except that instead of drinking for its hide, they wouldn’t like to sell the hide of the bear before it is shot in ‘niet de huid verkopen voor de beer geschoten is.’ The reason for the use of the bear in Dutch is very surprising, given that bears may have been last seen in their area some two thousand years ago, unlike in Hungary, but if the Dutch wanted to ‘shoot the chickens’ or ‘hatch the bear’ instead in translation, English people would only scratch their heads bloody in wonderment.

Of course, if the metaphorical viewpoints of different languages are similar, translation becomes a lot easier on the phrasal level. This happens, for example, with relationships viewed as journeys. As a result, two former lovers may ‘go their separate ways,’ which is exactly what two Hungarians may do when ‘elválnak útjaik,’ but the Dutch say ‘ze gaan van elkaar,’ or ‘ze scheiden van elkaar,’ only the second of which is interesting, with reference to being cut away from each other.

Of course, with a lot of interest and also time, good teachers, good dictionaries and interested friends, all of us could make up much longer lists to prove how difficult it is to translate. Unfortunately, most dictionaries have shortcomings on the phrasal and idiomatic level, and smaller ones don’t even deal with such parts of the languages concerned. Besides, they contain the occasional errors, of which I have a gradually lengthening list. One such mistake, only for proof, is that for ‘zij hebben verkering‘ one relatively good dictionary gives ‘they are walking out.’ Out of a shop, may I ask? Are the authors of the dictionary aware that ‘walking out (on somebody)’ is the opposite of expressing love to the other one, or going together? Which, actually, is the meaning of the Dutch phrase …

It is also a matter of fact that highly qualified translators and interpreters of both languages in question are fully capable of doing this correctly. But to learners, these strange differences create a situation in which being asked to translate among languages they don’t possess appropriately may become insurmountable. More dangerously, it becomes a source of failure which impedes the learning process very strongly. Teachers in their right minds wouldn’t like to create failures, would they?

by P.S. and Z.J.S., with help from E. van Rossem

As a refreshing change from my own diction, let me encourage you to click on this link to an article by a teacher in Amsterdam explaining in his own manner why he thinks translation does not work with learning Dutch – with any language if you ask me.

A criticism of the grammar-translation method


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Quite recently, I taught English to a Hungarian born in Slovakia, who also speaks German and some Polish, so when he had told me his level in English was around advanced, I believed him and started to deal with him with that in mind. Well, as it turned out, he was anything but. His grammar had a lot to be wished for, he seemed to lack vocabulary, and often seemed to suddenly become very reluctant to speak. It may have been a case of bad chemistry between us, but because we seemed to hit it off really well in our mother tongue, I lowered my expectations of him and waited for results. Then, in the middle of our short course, he admitted that he had studied English with translation at school a few years before. I was very surprised, because I know a few colleagues from Slovakia who really avoid this method. I tried to give him more help with what to say, but with the short time on our hands, he developed very little in fluency.

Although he knew his profession and the vocabulary for it in English well, he fell short when it came to discussing topics loosely related to it, sometimes even when closely related. His thinking processes were seriously impeded and prevented him from talking about what he knew well. He represented a huge failure of the ‘grammar-translation method‘. It’s because of this experience why I’ve decided to try and summarize some of my ideas about the deficiencies of this method.

Translation Process

Translation Process (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My ideas are not based on research, only on experience and the common sense of a teacher and language learner. I’m unwilling to completely dismiss this method, I was originally brought up into the English world through this method, and I understand the need of learners to resort to ‘what does this word mean’ from time to time. I still use dual-language dictionaries as well as the single-language Dutch dictionary on B2 level. But I’m not as flexible of mind as a young learner either. I believe, as a learner and as a teacher as well, that the sooner someone gets rid of the shackles of translation towards speaking a new foreign language the better. It reduces the time of understanding others and expressing ourselves greatly, and anyway, imagine what level of proficiency it would require to constantly translate while listening to the 200-words-per-minute prattle of some Italians, Chinese or Dutch speakers.

In normal language, on a beginner’s level, where we meet mostly factual vocabulary, translation may be applied. A ‘table’ is ‘tafel’ in Dutch, ‘asztal’ in Hungarian, ‘桌子’ (zhuōzi) in Chinese, just like a ‘man’ is ‘man’ in Dutch, ‘férfi’ in Hungarian, or ‘人’ (rén) in Chinese. These are easily translatable, so my guess is that this is why those insisting on the grammar-translation method may keep using it and honestly believing that this is good basis for its application. However, because this is the case with lots of factual, palpable language, they should be aware that for exactly the same reason, that is, palpability, factual language lends itself most easily for doing exactly the opposite in class: we can avoid translating concrete words simply by pointing at them and forming a new habit in learners of using a new name for familiar objects, thereby saving a lot of precious thinking time on word level. Language, and most notably names of objects are the result of consensus, so the task of the teacher is simply to create a new consensus about the naming of things and stuff. Once the consensus is firmly built, thinking and speaking will speed up considerably. I consider this to be a very important aspect of foreign language teaching because it gives invaluable confidence to the learners and a solid basis for further development.

There are sometimes difficulties even at this level though. Let’s remember the classical example of the forest. Can we all understand what kinds of different perceptions this word evokes in the middle and west of Europe compared to Siberia,  the mangroves of the south of the USA, or the bamboo forests of south Asia? Or in rain forest regions, for which English has the good sense to use ’jungle’. But then again, how can Portuguese learners of English in Brazil really grasp the word ’forest’ if not with a lot of photos? I bet that quite a lot of other object-words carry similar difficulties, some of which are ‘music’ (what differences in the world! compare classical, rock, pop, classical Chinese or Indian, or Arabic or African), ’church’ (try to explain a gothic one in France or England to Latin-Americans or Muslims), ’house’

Houses in Koprivstica, Bulgaria

Houses in Koprivstica, Bulgaria

Houses in Szentendre, Hungary

Houses in Szentendre, Hungary

Historical houses in Riga, Lathvia

Historical houses in Riga, Lathvia

Windows on a Chinese house, Dongshan

Windows on a Chinese house, Dongshan

(compare the differences between mediterranean houses with the upper floors being the widest, a ’normal’ West-European house with several floors and a one-floor building in Eastern-Europe or Africa), ’fireplace’ (made of what? what shape?), ’horse’ (the heavy Irish or middle-European plow-horses, or the race-horses of the Arabs and anything in between), ’telephone’ (which is fast becoming obsolete), or ’window’, which reminds me of the time when a Chinese host suddenly realized in the middle of winter that they had no glass on their windows — glazed windows simply don’t exist like that in that area, there is complicated and carved old latticework instead of the open space in the wall to let in light and air.

Slovakian dumplings

Slovakian dumplings

A special non-translatable category of words consists of nouns denoting things non-existent in the target language culture. A large section of food vocabulary belongs here. You can’t translate the Hungarian ‘pogácsa’, or ‘főzelék’, or the now omnipresent ‘curry’ to other languages as the things don’t exist elsewhere. A favourite with me are ‘饺子‘ (jiǎozi) and ‘包子‘ (bāozi) in China. Before I was given them for the first time (and sometimes even afterwards), people speaking some English tried to convince me that I would be given ‘dumplings’. Being a Hungarian, I have a very strong sense of our ‘dumplings’, which are quite different from the English kind, so I asked if they were sweet, contained milk-curd or something, cooked in boiling water and then covered

Shaomei, a kind of jiaozi in Beijing

Shaomei, a kind of jiaozi in Beijing

with breadcrumbs and sugar, and they were very surprised, saying no, none of those, and especially when I said that then theirs were not dumplings at all, because dumplings are all the above. I call that kind of food ‘jiaozi’ and ‘baozi’ for want of anything better, and especially because they are also very different from each other. At this point we should also remember that there were reasons why lots of languages picked up ‘loan-words’ from other languages, and not only in the field of food. Just a short list in English should include ‘igloo’, ‘wigwam’, ‘mosque’, ‘kangaroo’, ‘cockatoo’ (from Malay through Dutch), ‘tobacco’ (from Spanish), or ‘biro’ and ‘coach’ (the wagon, not the trainer), both, strangely, from Hungarian.

in the Durmitor mountains in Bosnia

in the Durmitor mountains in Bosnia

Some adjectives may also carry the danger of misunderstandings. What I may mean by, for example, ’tall’, ’high’, ’long’, ’wide’, ’fast’, ’big’, or their opposites and the like, may seriously be misunderstood elsewhere, depending on the original surroundings of my listener. Can we always rely on experience from the media for a Dutch child to understand what is meant by high mountains, when the highest point in the Netherlands is around 400 meters above see level? Of course, on beginners’ level, it’s not a source of concern for the teacher – he/she just translates and relies on the original notions of the pupils. Is that always right?

high ground and forest in the Netherlands

high ground and forest in the Netherlands

Abstract nouns obvously have an even greater chance of carrying differring fields of meaning, but also obviously, most teachers of lower levels of a foreign langauge neglect such possibilities simply for the sake of simplicity, and rightly so up to higher levels, when, however, high achievers may suddenly face the strange fact that their mental pictures should often be re-evalutated. But if they have never used methods of understanding other than translation, how can they grasp explanations that also obviously suddenly require explanations in the target language? And this was only the level of words.

The fact that in lots of languages, simple words can also converge to form compound words makes the translation process a lot more complicated, however. How can we understand that if the Dutch speak about ‘doodslag’, they actually mean ‘manslaughter’? Where is ‘man’ in this compound word when ‘dood’ actually means ‘dead’? In the Chinese ‘杀人’ (shārén) the order of the compound is opposite to that in the English compound, ‘man’ being the second member, and the Hungarian ‘gyilkosság’ has nothing to do with the word for a person, but is a reference to the murderous object. Both of the two latter words omit the aspect present in English, that is, that the action was not premeditated. The jargon of law has a word for it, but it’s not used much in ordinary language. It would also be un-expertly overdoing it if one translated ‘szándékos emberölés’ to be ‘premeditated murder’, ‘murder’ being enough to express the intention.

The fact that the English-Chinese dictionary omits the word ‘manslaughter’ may represent a lamentable omission from “The World’s Most Trusted Dictionaries” by Oxford, but I also suspect that the Chinese may not make a difference between pre-meditated and incidental homicide. They may think perpetrators of both deserve to die. Which is already a cultural issue, the enormous impact of which could take up volumes about language use. I guess that in a country where language teaching is still seriously influenced by the teaching of Latin and Ancient Greek as it is in the Netherlands, culture may not be at the forefront of teaching considerations. Who knows exactly what the ordinary culture and language of the Latins or Greeks was, one and a half thousand years after they became extinct, from writings of ancient members of the upper classes? Ask a Hungarian teacher of Latin for comparisons …

All this already illustrates the point well that translation is often difficult directly to be done even on the level of what most people call words, usually from the level of compound words upwards. It regularly happens, however, when we try to translate idiomatic language, or proverbs, so I’m going to present, in my following post, a small collection of such problems, mostly between Dutch and English, as I suppose most of my readers don’t really want comparisons with Hungarian or Chinese, and some of my readers may come from the Netherlands anyway. We may suppose that similar examples may be derived in comparison with German too. My readers who speak German would like to add their own such examples, but I don’t speak German myself.

Before I go on to the list of examples, I’d also like to point to the fact that on the level of sentences and texts even much more difficulties and differences exist. Whoever tries to translate sentences to Russian, French, or Hungarian, for example, or to other languages using inflexion heavily, is up to a very big task, especially if they try to use translation software. In very many cases, the teacher has almost no recourse even for grammatical explanations, mostly to learners of languages, like Chinese, in which even most of the grammatical categories do not exist — a word in Chinese may usually stand in the role of noun, adjective or adverb, often even that of verb. The grammar method also almost breaks down with languages using inflexions heavily, like with Hungarian, that express several dozens of aspects mostly inexpressible in grammatically simple languages like English, Dutch, or Chinese.

Chinese Parliament

Chinese Parliament

And once again, we still haven’t mentioned most differences coming from the cultural point of view, which lead lots of Chinese learners to be non-plussed by the ideas around ’elections’, ’parliament’, ‘representative’, and the like. When they push for a translation (the dictionary contains these words, after all), they don’t realize the world of difference between what is meant by the original and the translation.

British Parliament

British Parliament

With this and the following post I wouldn’t like to redeem the profession of language teaching, or the worlds of language learners. But I do hope that I may cause a shift away from the situation of my sorry student from Slovakia and similar learners who can’t learn to speak a second language well because of the exclusive use of grammar and translation.

There are a lot of different Methods-of-language-teaching (downloadable), like the direct method, the audiolingual method, community learning, total physical response, the communicative method, or the lexical approach, which may be far preferable. Role-play may also be regarded as almost a method, at least an approach to letting learners learn from their own behaviour. I recommend a good article about role-play here.

See my next post with examples if you’re interested. You can read about the grammar side of this approach in a later entry here.

By P.S.


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