When Science meets Languages

We live in a world built on binaries. And one that is seen so frequently at university is the Sciences versus the Arts. Most degrees at a British university are split between BScs and BAs. There are a few others, but the vast majority of students will be getting a qualification in the Sciences or the Arts.

I do German, and in about a month and half they’re going to give me a BA. Languages are an Arts subject and I often feel I can’t argue that. With literature and history often heavily on the menu, it does seem a very Arts end of the spectrum subject. But then there’s linguistics, which feels like a Science. My linguistics essays always had an awful lot of tables in them considering it’s an Arts subject.

In my house, there are three Science students and two Arts students, and when there’s discussion of various degrees in the living room, you would probably agree that the Science people do Science and us language students definitely do Arts. But like I said, linguistics blurs that line a little. And now thanks the American Museum of Natural History that line doesn’t really exist anymore.

Like most museums, the AMNH has lots of stuff in storage that visitors never get to see. I mean, I’ve never been to America so I’ve not seen any of their stuff but that’s besides the point. And to show off their collection to its fullest potential as well as showing off research their scientists have done, they’ve started monthly videos called Shelf Life.

The Shelf Life series trailer

I found out about this because a publicist for the AMNH emailed me (guys, a publicist emailed me! It shouldn’t be as exciting as it is), and I’m really glad did she did. Not just because having a publicist email me makes me feel like my blog is doing okay, but because otherwise I might not have seen this. And it’s really interesting.

This month’s episode is called “The Language Detectives”, and it’s a collaboration between an anthropologist (Peter Whitely) and a computational biologist (Ward Wheeler) in order to study ancient languages. More precisely, they work together to trace the evolution of Native American languages, specifically the Uto-Aztecan languages. I can’t lie – I’m really interested in language change. No matter what the language, I find it ridiculously fascinating. So I was always going to think this video was great.

The super interesting Episode 7.

But the interesting part about it is that they treated language like DNA, drawing a parallel between phonetic sounds and the A C G T building blocks of DNA. Six minute video short, they apply scientific principles to linguistic data in order to create language family trees and then narrow it down to the most likely evolution of the Uto-Aztecan languages and where they probably originated from.

Everything is explained simply though not patronisingly, and there’s some really cool research in the video. It’s subtitled and the choice of pictures and videos are well done, helping to aid understanding. But the video isn’t all there is.

If you go to the web page, rather than Youtube, there’s an article underneath, whose headline “From A(ztec) to Yaqui” had me from the wordplay. Again, I love it. The article briefly outlines the video before going on to talk about 12 objects, picked by Peter Whitely to brush the surface of the cultures who spoke and still do speak Uto-Aztecan languages. From moccasins to medicine bags to a photograph of Chief Severa and his family of the Ute people, the objects are an introduction into the life of the people who used and use these languages. Using the video as a touchstone, the article allows the museum to share objects that may otherwise be buried in storage for decades.

As I said, Shelf Life was brought to my attention by a publicist, but I’m really glad that it was. It was a fascinating ten/fifteen minutes, and now I have six episodes to catch up on. I’m hoping they’ll be just as good.


What do the Magna Carta and the BBC have in common?

Me and Dad visited them both last weekend. While I seem to go to London on a regular basis, that’s mostly because I have friends who live there and normally I’m visiting them. So whatever we do is normally a product of us being bored, rather than having a specific purpose. But me and Dad travelled south with purpose. We were going to see the Magna Carta and the BBC.


The St Pancras hotel is super pretty.

Bright and early on the Saturday we made our way into London, looking at every sign because Google Maps reckoned we were going in the wrong direction. With no thanks to Google, we made it to the British Library, bang on time to go into the exhibition, which was alliteratively called “Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy”.

For a brief history of the Magna Carta, check out Horrible Histories

It started quite well, with a video on how the Magna Carta came to be. And then we queued. And queued. And queued. We may be British but since Germany, I have a lowered tolerance for long queues. As it turns out, there were a ton of manuscripts that were over a thousand years old that everyone was stopping to look at and read about. I guess I can’t blame them. But it was frustrating to queue for a ridiculously long time just to see coins that were like the ones from the time of the Magna Carta but weren’t from the time of the Magna Carta.

What got me most were the languages though. Yes, we all know I’m a language nerd. But there was old English and middle English and then the genealogy of King Richard and John’s family was in French. King Richard’s always held up at this most English of English kings and he spoke French. Also lived in France when he wasn’t off crusading.  But back to the language. It’d be really useful if museums would tell you what language the stuff you’re looking at is in. British Library, if you’re reading this, the books you had out were super interesting, but I also wanted to know what they were written in. Whether it be Old French, Middle English or whatever it may be.

The British Library did not use this in the exhibition.

After explaining the origins of the Magna Carta, supplemented by some seriously cool videos, the exhibition moved on to how it then many years later came to be enshrined in law. And then how it impacted English colonies around the world. Namely that a few of them (looking at you America) based some of their initial laws about democracy vaguely on the Magna Carta. Apparently the Bill of Rights was heavily influenced by it.

By the end of the exhibition, there had been dry videos of historian and newsreels from 50 years ago, and so when the penultimate room was full of pop culture reference, I got quite excited. From political cartoons to a Tony Hancock sketch and to Horrible Histories, there were a ton of things to look at. And then, in the final room, there were two original copies of the Magna Carta. One is pretty much unreadable but still has the original seal, and using infrared and stuff historians can now read more of it than they’ve been able to for about 500 years. Which is quite exciting. The copy that still is legible has the tiniest handwriting you’ve ever seen. And it’s just a sheet of paper, with a huge paragraph on it. I think I was expecting the Domesday book, which a different thing entirely.

This is exactly how the meeting at Runnymede went down.

Afterwards we had a wander through the treasures of the British Library, which is super interesting. They’ve got lyrics by The Beatles scribbled on birthday cards by Lennon and McCartney, they’ve got a copy of Beowulf that’s older than I can really comprehend and an amazing array of sacred texts from different religions. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area. Did I mention it’s free?

Post British Library wanderings, we went to the National Portrait Gallery, where I saw a ton of Tudor paintings that are in every British history textbook ever, modern portraiture that I was and wasn’t a fan of, and many many pictures that I added captions to on Snapchat. My apologies to the friends who had to put up with me thinking I’m funny.


Snapchat: making museums more fun since 2011.

On Sunday we headed back into the capital for a tour around the BBC. I didn’t know you could have tours round the BBC, but you can and we had one. It starts with looking down into the newsroom. About 3000 people – that’s half of all staff at Broadcasting House – work in News, so it’s a pretty huge newsroom. It’s the largest in Europe, but not the world because apparently China’s is bigger. But China won’t show photos of inside it to prove it. Anyway. We started with News and then we made our way to the One Show studio.


I definitely didn’t have the theme tune in my head while I was there.

It’s way smaller than you’d think. And one of tour guides took minor offence that someone said it looked scruffy. But that was pretty cool, and it turns out that to make it look bigger than it is, half of the word one that’s at the back of the studio is actually outside the studio. Who knew?


Arty shot because reasons.

Old Broadcasting House is super art deco inside which is pretty. And we got to go into the radio theatre which is where they record Radio 2 In Concert and comedies and a lot of stuff along those lines. Basically, if I’d been lucky enough to get tickets for the recording of the final episodes of Cabin Pressure, I would have been there a year ago.


So art. Much deco.

After that some people had a go at reading the news and presenting the weather, and then people had a go at a radio drama. The tour was really great, in no small part due to our guides Fiona and Ben. I now know a ton of stuff about the BBC that’s never gonna be useful. Oh, and because Dad asked and you guys might be interested: the TV show W1A? It’s apparently very true to life. And Hugh Bonneville once got locked out because he didn’t take his security pass with him, so the guards wouldn’t let him back in. Despite the fact that he’s Hugh Bonneville.


Casual Strictly Come Dancing trophy in the radio drama room

When we’d toured all that we could, me and Dad headed down Oxford Street, because, well, it was there. We ended up in Liberty so I could show Dad round as he’d never been. (If you want to read about my first time there, you’ll want to read this post. We had afternoon tea and everything.) After spending money on a tin of Mortal Terror and Escalating Panic, we wandered down Carnaby Street and then down to Piccadilly Circus. It was really nice seeing Dad go to these places for the first time, because he was excited as I was. And normally I’m with people who’ve been to central London a billion times because they live there.

But all good things must come to an end and we had to head back to the Midlands. I’m glad we went to the Magna Carta exhibition, but I do think it could have been laid out better. The BBC Tour was excellent and I’ve been recommending it to everyone, so if you’ve ever got the time to spare, go. You do have to book in advance though. Just fyi. And Liberty’s is always good. Even if I always come out poorer than when I went in.


Why I cared about Star Wars for an Hour

4th February 2015 marked the beginning of the popular culture lectures at the University of Nottingham and I went because what else am I gonna do with my spare time other than go to non-compulsory lectures?


Look how pretty the poster is

Open to the public, the physics lecture hall was full, even with some people sitting on the stairs. I’m gonna hazard a guess that the vast majority of people there were students at the university, but one should never underestimate the pull of Star Wars. I feel like I should take a moment to explain that, personally, I am ambivalent towards Star Wars. I’ve seen Episodes I-IV (feel free to rage about how I’ve missed out the best two in the comments) and of course it’s a part of popular culture, so I know a fair bit. Let’s be honest, to not know anything about Star Wars would be impressive. So why did I go? Well, the lecture was entitled “It’s a trope!”: ‘Star Wars’ and/in translation and I’m a sucker for translation, especially when applied to fiction. If anyone wants to link me to articles about how Dothraki and Elvish are constructed, I’d be a very happy Kat. So yes. There I was, in a lecture theatre about to be lectured on the importance of translation in a fictional world I don’t care that much about.

Thankfully, Dr Pierre-Alexis Mével is very engaging and knows his stuff. With an introduction video that was an homage to the opening of A New Hope, the lecture started well and when it became a more standard lecture it was still interesting. Leastways I thought it was. But as previously stated, I am a translation nerd.

Starting with the translation of the films into foreign languages, the problems of translating anything into a foreign language were quickly raised, with Han Solo becoming Yan Solo in French so that it wasn’t pronounced ‘An and thus a girl’s name. Chinese bootleg subtitles were covered, where it was well and truly proven that machines shouldn’t be completely trusted with translation. Then there was a brief discussion on how alien languages are tackled in TV and films, which boils down to either 1) everyone speaks the same language (usually English), 2) there are different languages and it’s subtitled, or 3) there are different language and there is no translation. Fairly standard stuff. Still interesting.

Moving on from general issues of translation, we turned to the topic of translation within the Star Wars films and looked at the various languages spoken within the films, like Galatic Basic, Huttese and Shyriiwook. Which human languages these were based on was covered, including the fact that Shyriiwook is a combination of various animal noises. Then there was discussion on C-3PO’s role as a translator, and whether he is a machine performing what he’s coded for or if he is a self-aware translator. Spoilers: he’s at least semi aware.

All in all it was a good lecture on translation applied to fiction, and I really enjoyed it. Still not racing home to watch Episodes V & VI though. If lectures on popular culture sound like something you’d be interested in and you’re in Notts, the schedule can be found here. There’s vegan ethics in Doctor Who, zombie genomics and even more Star Wars. Happy geeking.


Word Lens: Magic in Action

I am here today to talk to you about magic. Honest to god, modern day sorcery. Well, it’s actually technology but for once, I’m not sure of the difference. So I have a friend who I’m going to call Gask (because that’s his name) and he messaged me saying that there was an app I should try out, and so I did. And I marvelled at it for five minutes. And now I’m going to tell you about it.

Word Lens (click here for the iOS version and here for the Android version) is a mobile phone app that allows you to point your camera at text in a foreign language and have it translated straight away, on the screen. The words literally change from one language to another in front of you. (Check out this promo video for an accurate portrayal of how it works.) You know what that means? No more having to go to online dictionaries to figure out if that sign in a shop window means they’re shut. No wishing Google translate would work quicker when presented with a menu that you don’t understand. No more carrying “pocket” dictionaries around when abroad so you can understand train timetables.

This is magic. This is like a TARDIS translation circuit for your phone. This is having a babelfish in your hands. In my relatively short life there have been many technological advancements and this is the first one that has ever made me speechless.

I mean, it’s not actually witchcraft. Looks like it, but isn’t. According to my technological advisor, (otherwise known as Gask) the Word Lens app uses Optical Character Recognition (OCR) which reads text using your phone’s camera and interprets it. The app then separates each word, translates it and replaces what is already there. Gask could have stopped there in his explanation and I would still have been blown away. But apparently the cleverest part of the app is that the removes the old text, blurs the background and applies the new text in the same size in real time (aka pretty much instantaneously). This means that the coding and graphics rendering must be super efficient.  

It’s not a perfect app. It uses a local translation library, meaning it’s as if the app looks up each word in a dictionary, which does mean that sentences don’t always make sense. Kind of like how if you translate whole paragraphs with Google translate, coherency and some meaning is usually lost. (Don’t use Google translate for coursework, guys. Teachers can tell. Because it’s not good.) The other thing is that the languages (Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Russian) are all translated to or from English. You can’t point it at Spanish and have the Russian translation come up. I mean, that works for me, because English is my native language, but obviously that isn’t the case for everyone.

However, the app is really easy to use and it’s genius. It has a normal dictionary built in as well, and you have the option of putting your flash on, so the words you’re trying to translate are easier to see. It is also free and just for the sheer joy of having magic on your phone, it’s worth downloading. It’d be useful for when you’re abroad as well. But mostly download it because it’s magic. And it is always worth having magic in your life.


Cockadoodledoo vs Üüürüü

At tutoring we’ve been doing about languages and countries, and today we coloured in maps to represent which countries we’ve been to and where we’d like to go. Because I was well aware this was going to result in questions along the lines of “where’s this country?” and because my geography is appalling, I raided the library for atlases. One book I borrowed is called ‘Ich lebe in Europa’ (I live in Europe) which I thought would be perfect seeing as the kids I tutor have never left the continent. What I didn’t bank on was the fact that the book was published in 1998, and a lot has changed since then. For one thing Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore.

But non-existent countries aside, it’s a pretty awesome book. It tells you how big the countries are in km2, the main language of each country, the currency, the main religion, the population and the capital city. There’s also other information but I’m not gonna go into that right now. What this book does tell you though, is what a cockerel says in each language. As in cockadoodledoo in different languages*. Which, personally, I am very excited about. So behold, a list for you to peruse, arranged by language groups, because I am a huge geek.

Germanic Languages

English – Cockadoodledoo

Flemish – Cocoricoo

German  – Kikeriki

Danish –  Kykeliky

Swedish – Kykeliky

Norwegian – Kykeliky

Dutch – Kukeluku

Icelandic – Gagaglagu

Romance Languages

Moldavian (Romanian) – Kukareku

Romanian – Kakareku

French – Cocorico

Spanish – Cocoroco

Portuguese – Cocorocâ

Italian – Chicchirichi

Slavic Languages

Slovakian – Kikiriki

Slovenian – Kikiriki

Serbian – Kukuriku

Croatian – Kukuriku

Polish – Kukuriku

Bulgarian – Kukurigu

Russian – Kukareku

Czech – Kykyryky

Finnic Languages

Finnish – Kukkokiekuu

Estonian – Kukeleegu

Baltic Languages

Latvian – Kikeregu

Lithuaian – Kakarieku

Ugric Languages

Hungarian – Kukuriku

Hellenic Languages

Greek – Kikiriku

Albanian Languages

Albanian – Kikikiii

Turkic Languages

Turkish – Üüürüü

Arabic Languages

Maltese – Iquaqui


* These are taken from a German book (‘Ich lebe in Europa’ by H. Brosche, A. Rösel and C. Ruoß [1998: Ravensburger Verlag, Germany]) so all spellings are German phonetics.


School kids and other animals.

The weather was beautiful on Monday. So I went on a wander round the outskirts of town, which resulted in me wandering along a road in the woods, getting odd looks from passing Germans because I wasn’t dressed for hiking.


In my defence, I didn’t intend to end up walking as far as I did.

When I finally wound up back in town, I had found a bookshop I’d never noticed before and had ice cream, because yes, it was that warm. I then spent the evening watching the entirety of Sherlock series 3, because the lovely Manda lent me the DVDs. So I now understand everyone’s references. Two months later.

Tuesday I was back at work. My timetable has changed, which means instead of starting at 12 on Tuesdays, I now start at 10. It’s a hard life. My first lesson was spent talking about animals. Many of the kids didn’t believe me when I said Panda was panda in English, and then I confused myself between ostrich and Österreich (Austria). I also had to explain that a polar bear was called a polar bear and not an ice bear.

In my second class, we headed to the library to watch a video, but the DVD player was mysteriously missing. This led to one of the girls squaring up to me and yelling at me when I said we had to go back to class. I honestly think the kids think they’re scary. I’m sure I would have been much more scared if I could have understood any of what she was saying… Ah well.

In my third and final class of the day, I did nothing. They were learning about directions, and I sat and observed. But after school, I headed to Subway. If you remember in this blog post, my last visit to Subway didn’t go so well. But this time I was prepared for them to think I was weird and I like to think it went pretty well despite a conversation that went:

Me: I only want cucumber

Subway person: So no tomatoes?

Me: No, I only want cucumber

SP: Should I put the lettuce on first?

Me: No, I only want cucumber

SP: You don’t want any other salad?

Me: No, I just want cucumber

SP: …

Me: …

SP: Sorry, that’s really unusual.

As I said, my timetable’s changed, so first on Wednesday I had English with 1/2a, where I did conversation practice about clothes with the kids. Most notable event was me saying ‘jumper’ and one of the boys thought I said ‘Schlampe’ (whore) which are slightly different words…

Then I had a lesson with 4d/e where I watched them do a play about Snow White for the fifty millionth time. They’re quite good at it now, though they do care more about the acting than saying the English properly.

I then thought I was meant to be with 1/2a during third period and duly went. We did English and the kids fought over who got to sit next to me. Then it turned out that they normally have music in third period and English in fourth, so from next week I’ll have fourth period with them and third period free. Ah confusion, my old friend.

Finally I was with 1/2c where they were drawing pictures of Fasching costumes. As far as I can make out, Fasching is essentially German Halloween, but every adult I ask about it appears to hate Fasching, so my understanding of it is a little patchy.

At tutoring, the kids were super excited that I brought Guess Who with me again. They were less excited about learning about nationalities, and I can’t say I blame them. In English sometimes the same word is used for languages and nationalities but sometimes not. In German there are almost always separate words, and the kids found it very confusing trying to get to grips with the English.

Thursday I still only have two lessons, but they’re now with the infamous 3/4c. That would be the class of terrors I used to be with on Wednesdays, if you’ve forgotten. I was supervising them in the computer room, doing exercises on the Subjekt and Prädikat, which would have been far easier if I knew what the Prädikat was. I also almost got into an argument with the teacher about a maths question. That was odd.

Friday first period I did conversation practice with five kids, four of which are the worst behaved in the school. That was…interesting. They decided they were going to swear and my immediate response was to correct their pronunciation. Don’t worry, I didn’t. Just fixed them with a death glare and moved on.

In the fourth period, I was teaching a class about the different types of houses e.g. detached, bungalow, terraced etc. I also showed them pictures of my living room in England and was asked where the Schrankwand (cupboard wall) was. Apparently, it’s fairly standard to have a huge cupboard in one’s living room with books and ornaments and stuff on it. The most difficult room for them to get their tongues round was ‘dining room’, as it’s typical to eat in the kitchen in Germany, and ‘wardrobe’ was the most difficult piece of furniture for them to remember what it meant.

All hell broke loose in my last class of the day. Well, I say all hell. It wasn’t the worst class I’ve ever been in, but any class where I’m left alone to supervise the kids who then decide they’re not going to do their work isn’t great…

Saturday, I went on a jaunt to the Thuringer Zoopark. I got very over excited because there were a ton of baby animals. I got an owl’s attention by saying Hedwig, quoted the Lion King at hyenas, and ate ice cream while watching the lions being fed, so it was feeding time for all the cats. (Cats? Kats? Yes, terrible pun. Sorry.) I also got many disapproving/disbelieving looks, because I braved the sunshine with bare legs. There was me, in a dress and a leather jacket and there was everyone else, in massive coats and knitwear. Is obviously my northern blood. Although Germans are Vikings so why they thought it was cold I will never know.


Bison are my new favourite animals.

On Sunday I helped tidy up after a brunch at the BC Café and spent a lot of it wishing I spoke Spanish. The three guys I was working with all spoke Spanish. I had no idea what was being said. At all.

A highlight of my Sunday was skyping my grandparents, though they were most disappointed that I hadn’t blogged. So here is my blog of the week. Thank my grandparents. Otherwise I might have forgotten… (Joking, I would never. Mainly because how else would my friends know all about my life while I’m so far away?)


Queen Kat of English.

Welcome back to the usual weekly updates of my life. Let’s begin, as always, at the beginning. Monday was spent wandering round Ilmenau fairly aimlessly, because I had no lessons to plan. The highlight of which was someone talking to me in the café and me having no idea what was being said to me. So I apologised and told him I was English, or apologised for being English, I’m not quite sure which. He asked me if I came from near London, and to my eternal shame I said yes. Don’t revoke my Midlander citizenship. I’m sorry.

Tuesday I was back at school, and two interesting things happened. The first was an English teacher telling me that ‘jumper’ must be a regional word because the textbooks all say ‘pullover’ or sometimes ‘sweater’. Naturally, I took to Facebook to document this and it appears my fellow FSAs have had the same problems. And my American and Canadian friends assure me that no-one across the pond says ‘pullover’ either. Ah well, sometimes it’s nice to sound like you’re in a Famous Five novel. The second thing that happened was I somehow ended up talking about the Royal family. And the kids wanted to know if I was a princess. It was eventually decided that I was the English Queen of the Karl-Zink Schule, and that if I ever marry Prince Harry (George, of course, being too young) I have to invite the kids from school. Though they do seem to be under the impression that it’s more a case of when I marry Harry rather than if. (Though I’d get to play this song constantly. I always did love Calamity Jane.) But if I did marry Harry, my sister in law would be Catherine. Which would make four Catherine/Kathryn/Katherines in my family, and I’m not sure I can cope with that.

Wednesday I emailed in ill. I went to bed at half ten. You know what time I actually fell asleep? Half four. I have to get up at 6.20. Trying to get up after 2 hours of sleep resulted in me nearly throwing up, so I made the executive decision that I wasn’t going to be any good to them. So some time later, after actually getting some sleep, I went on a wander because it was beautiful day.


I’m going to miss the woods when I’m back in England.

Then that evening I went to tutoring. It was Victoria’s birthday, so we did about dates and how to say Happy Birthday. I gave her a birthday card in which I spelt her name wrong, but she gave me a christmas card with my name spelt wrong so I think we’re even. Her and Luka told me how to say Happy Birthday in Serbian and Bulgarian, but I can’t remember it, because they refused to say it more than once. They told me not to be too upset that my pronunciation was horrendous, because they’re difficult languages. At which point I told them I’ve studied Japanese, Russian and Arabic. Cue wide eyes and demands to know how to say ‘hello’ in the different languages. We also had cake because it Victoria’s birthday and we played Uno. Sadly I had to leave halfway through a game otherwise I would have had to walk home. And seeing as it takes about an hour to walk whilst the bus takes 20 minutes, that wasn’t something I wanted to do.

Thursday I really wasn’t needed at the school. I watched the kids do a maths test and then helped them with normal maths work and then the teacher said I could go. So that was a grand total of 25 minutes work on Thursday.  However, I had a doctor’s appointment at 1pm, so despite being finished by quarter to nine, I stayed in school till 12. When I finally got home, because I still had no laptop cable, I ended up reading more of Game of Thrones. Or A Song of Ice and Fire, I suppose I should call it. I read two and half of the books in four days. Have you seen those books? They’re huge. That’s what happens when you don’t have a functioning laptop. You get all productive.

Friday I talked about London and breakfast in England. This included me trying to explain to eight year olds why I’m not a huge fan of David Cameron and yes, there are different types of eggs. That was really it on Friday. I came home and crashed out for the rest of the evening. I know, I lead such an exciting life.

Oh wait, no, one more thing I did on Friday. I bought a ticket to see Eddie Izzard in Berlin next Sunday. I’m a huge Eddie Izzard fan and I saw his current tour last year in Birmingham. So Kat, I hear you cry, why are you going again? Because, dear reader, he’s doing it in German. Oftentimes he tours in France in French, but never have I heard of him doing other languages. So to Berlin I am going. (If you’ve never heard his comedy, I would like to recommend The Death Star Canteen, his thoughts on empires, dictators and cake or death; and Robin Hood. Though I probably should point out there is liberal swearing in most of it.)

So Saturday I was on a cleaning up shift at the BC Café, which involved much washing up and talking about TV shows with Kim. It also involved a guy who looks like Daniel Brühl’s younger brother and Kim insisting that I speak fluent German. And free food. Can’t forget the free food. And then Saturday evening I went to hang out with Ausama, who lives on my corridor and plied me with cake and tea. Was a very pleasant way to spend an evening, and I got a crash course on variations within Islam, the geography of Syria and Syrian etiquette.


The phonetic spelling of what this is called is Kneffi (according to me).

Sunday I was at the BC café again, helping to pack away after the Spanish brunch. Every month the café puts on a themed brunch and you should care because Therese, my flatmate, helps organise them. Again, this involved much washing up. Pretty sure my hands are just going to remain prunes forever at this rate. And I thought Queens had people to do their washing up for them. Hmm… Might have to work on marrying Harry quickly.


Living in a Fairytale.

This week began as every week does. With Monday and lesson planning. However, it was only lesson planning for tutoring. This week we were doing about describing people, and this obviously meant I had to draw out people. Yes, I cut everyone off at the shoulders, and yes, some boys have long hair and yes, some girls have short hair. Welcome to tutoring with Kat.


Yay for my terrible drawing skills. My attempt at a mohican for Gregg is particularly spectacular.

The other thing I did on Monday was an ARD shift at the BC-café. The ARD is the clean-up shift – the one I normally do. This time round it was with Florian who was super lovely, and talked to me in English until he forgot what a mop and bucket was in English. I’ve started to remember what to do – I am a master at tidying up the table decorations now. Though for the first time I had to sort out the aforementioned mop and bucket, which involved kneeling on the floor of the guy’s bathroom. Super not fun. (The cleaning equipment is kept in there, in case you were wondering.)

Tuesday felt like a waste of a day. I only do two hours and I wasn’t needed for either of them. Not that I found that out until I was in school. Ah well. Then when I went to the weekly meeting for the BC Café I ended up rediscovering Twitter, and not paying attention. Although, I was still half listening, and at points properly paying attention, and I would like it on the record that I understood 98% of everything that was said. 98%! I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – maybe a year abroad to improve your language really does work.

[EDIT: Also, if anyone wants to follow me on twitter, you can find me here: https://twitter.com/MasrikaG Though I cannot be held responsible for the drivel I put on there.]

Wednesday was interesting. So I did my first English lesson, like normal, and ended up making friends with the work experience girl which was cool. I’ve been smiling at her in the corridor for the past week but I hadn’t actually met her until Wednesday. They don’t let the work experience kids have keys you see. Or let them be in the staffroom.

But then I headed to the Franz von Assis (That’s St Francis of Assisi to you lot) private school, where I talked about Christmas In England to a group of 11-13 year olds. Meant I spoke more English than usual, cracked a couple of jokes, and made England out to be some kind of godless, obese, obsessed with chocolate nation. Whoops. But the kids seemed to enjoy it. I could do that for the rest of my life I think. Not teach. Stand up and talk about things I know about and make people laugh. It’s a good feeling. Also, the very first question the kids asked me is whether I believe in Santa. Thankfully, as they were all between the ages of 11 and 13, I could go no, I’m twenty, I know he’s not real.


The private school. I could go on and on about it but a picture’s worth a 1000 words, right?

I then got a tour of the school, led by three lads. The school’s got a kitchen, a ceramic workshop, a printing room (as in lino prints and book printing, not reprographics), two wood workshops…The list goes on. And outside they have treehouses and a castle which has a moat, and the school is just spectacular. Their new sports hall is bigger than my secondary school. After the impromptu tour, I headed back to the classroom to await my ride back to my normal school, and was presented with a ceramic leaf dish to say thankyou. I also made an angel ornament, because why not?


The castle. Which had a moat. Why did I not get to go to this school growing up?


The teacher made this for me. Like, actually made it.

When I got back to my normal school, I got given a milk a mug filled with chocolate to say thankyou for doing the lesson at the private school, and a Christmas present from the secretary. Yes, I have opened it (sorry Dad) and it was a teddy bear, so, and I quote, I never have to be alone in Germany. Have I mentioned how awesome and lovely the staff at my school are? They also opened my gift to them on Wednesday – two boxes of Thorntons.

My plan for Thursday was to do my two hours at school, go to Erfurt, go to the Weimar Christmas market. Only one out of those three happened, and that was my two hours at work. I went into German class as usual, and did basically nothing as usual. Except for the part where I made a boy cry. Not deliberately, I hasten to add. He struggles with reading a lot – I suspect he’s dyslexic, so when I’m there the teacher gets him to read to me. But today it was just too much. In the end I put the book away and started asking him questions about what he was excited for about Christmas.

I then headed home because I was so tired I was pretty sure I’d fall asleep on the train and end up in some far flung place not in Thüringen. However, in the evening I went to an event at the BC Café, which was professors from Ilmenau university reading Christmas fairytales. As some of you know, I have an interest in fairytales, and seriously, why do we never get to study the Brothers Grimm at university? *ahem* So tonight I heard Christmas themed Star Trek fanfiction, Rumpelstilksin with focus on him as the good guy, a tale about scandanavian folk lore and the afterlife attached to that folk lore, and a tale about how you should be nice to outsiders and be grateful for what you have. It was interesting, and I’m glad I went.

Friday was mainly characterised by not being needed in English lessons. Though in my second lesson I ended up trying to explain Christmas in England to a class I don’t normally see. They were one of the Klasse 1/2  classes, so it meant speaking in German all the time. I then got involved in a ten minute discussion about Santa, and I have never been so thankful for our time to be up. I don’t have younger brothers or sisters so I’ve never really had to defend the existence of Father Christmas.

The first thing that happened on Saturday was that I actually talked to one of my neighbours rather than just nodding and saying ‘hallo’. He was very lovely and pretty sure we’re now friends. Let’s hope so. I then went into Erfurt to have a wander, maybe have some alcoholic hot chocolate, definitely buy a purple shirt. I ended up bumping into one of the English teachers and meeting her kids. Also, she massively complimented my dress sense which was all kinds of awesome. And I advised her to buy the bright blue jeans because they were fantastic.


Things I have learnt on my year abroad. 1) How to stop apologising so much. 2) The joy of taking selfies.

After the obligatory wander round the Christmas market, I then ran across town to make my train home. Which I did with a minute to spare. I ended up talking to the lads opposite me, as they were super confused as to why the conductor wanted to know where they were headed. The train from Erfurt to Ilmenau is normally made up of three carriages, one of which doesn’t go to Ilmenau, so the conductors check with you that you’re in the right carriage. But I explained this to the two guys and we chatted most of the way back. They’re not German but are studying at the Ilmenau University. One of them doesn’t speak any German, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be to live out here and not speak any German. Then we wandered onto the fact that their native tongue is Urdu, and they said if I can learn Arabic, I can definitely learn Urdu. We’ll see… Once back in Ilmenau, I headed to the Ilmenau Christmas market. I’d already wandered round it during the day, but Christmas markets are so pretty in the dark, I wanted to go again. I’m now the proud owner of a copy of Grimm’s fairy tales in German and a vocab book about pirates. I’m going to know all the useful vocab for fourth year.


Christmas tree in Ilmenau. Look how pretty.

Sunday was a very lazy day that has mostly consisted of tidying my room and wrapping presents. However, I did go on a wander up the hill at the back of my flat. There was a cloud bank coming over the hills and I swear it looked like a wicked witch’s curse rolling out over the town. With only my phone to use, the pictures don’t do it justice, but I’m genuinely worried that we’re going to be put to sleep for a 100 years or something. So if you don’t hear from me again, that’ll be why. And you can tell Prince Charming that if he stops and asks for directions then it won’t take him the full 100 years to get here. Though if it does take him that long then at least the debt from my student loan will have been written off.


Communication, Communication, Communication

During my time there, my high school was a language college. Now it’s a maths and IT specialist school, and how specialist can you really be when all you’re doing is changing your focus based on what subject the government is throwing money at? But that’s a post for another time. While I was there, the focus was on languages, which meant it was compulsory for me to learn 2 languages from Year 7 until Year 11. (That’s first year to fifth year for the older generation. Or the Harry Potter super fans.)  So as an 11 year old, I started learning Japanese and German.

Japanese really wasn’t as bad as you’d expect, especially as it meant we spent the first year learning 2 of the alphabets. This meant we played with flashcards and came up with dumb reasons to remember the characters. For example, the hiragana character for ‘ma’ looks like a person holding a baby. Aka a Mom. Aka Ma.

The thing was, learning German and Japanese didn’t really impact my life. Other than my teachers I didn’t know anyone who spoke these languages. Hindi and French would have served me far better. But then I did a few German exchanges as well as one to Japan and learning these languages suddenly made far more sense. There were whole countries of people that I could now communicate with. In very broken German and horrendous Japanese, but it was a start.

And I know it seems obvious – if you learn languages of course you can communicate with more people, but having grown up in England on a steady diet of “Everyone speaks English”, it wasn’t obvious to me. I mean, when I was 10, I made friends with a French girl in Paris for all of half an hour. When I had to go, I went up to her Mom and very politely asked her to tell her daughter I’d had fun and that I was sorry I didn’t speak French. She laughed at me. She didn’t speak English. It had never occurred to me that there were adults who didn’t speak English. I knew some adults spoke other languages as well, but I had never once considered the possibility that there were people in the world that I couldn’t talk to.

And that’s the beauty of learning a language. When you learn a language swathes of the world open up to you. I mean, there are all sorts of reasons to learn a language. I kept up German because I was good at it. I did beginners Russian because I thought it sounded cool. I did beginners Arabic because I didn’t have to queue to sign up for it. But whatever the reason for beginning a language, you end up being able to talk to people you would never have been able to before.

For a real life example, and indeed the story that inspired this post, I present to you a tale from today. Today one of my neighbours asked me how I was in German. Fifteen minutes later, we were friends. We spoke in German, English and Arabic. Starting in German, he switched to English when I said I was English and when he said he came from Syria, I brought out my (very basic) Arabic. If neither of us had bothered to learn a foreign language, we would have been stuck at nodding to each other in the hallway. Of course, if neither of us had bothered to learn a foreign language, we never would have met. And I shudder to think of the friends I never would have met if I hadn’t bothered to learn a language.