Do what I say, don’t do what I (don’t) do


Now I’m retired, I can officially claim to be ignorant, but there was a time when I laid a somewhat dubious claim to a field of expertise, namely Second Language Acquisition, and more specifically within that, vocabulary learning. I would eagerly give my students a foolproof method of learning new words. Simplifying somewhat, you write them on a slip of paper with the translation, and preferably a context sentence, on the other side. Test yourself regularly, putting the words you don’t know into a pile for testing again a little later. Every so often, test all the words to make sure you haven’t forgotten the ones you know.

This method works. It’s backed up by a body of research, and now there are apps that enable you to do it on your phone, tablet and bathroom mirror. So naturally, when I set out to learn Shimaoré, I did exactly that. Well, the first part anyway, cutting up bits of paper and writing the words. Unfortunately, I then failed to look at them. Research has also shown that doing the first part without the second is roughly as effective as putting clothes into a washing machine and then not switching it on.

The languages of the four islands of Comoros (assuming Mayotte to be one of them, which it was until recently) are all different but mutually comprehensible to a fair extent. The language of Anjouan, the closest island to Mayotte, is Shindzuani. Given my progress in Shimaoré, I think it unlikely that I’ll understand anything in Anjouan, but we’re going there anyway for a long weekend – so no more blog till Tuesday. So kwaheri (goodbye) till then, and have a great weekend!  🙂

Sunday Poem: Seaside

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  • 1. get off the beaten track
  • 2. tiptoe along the basalt cliffs
  • 3. listen to the most invisible bird

Those are the first three lines of a poem by Frédéric G. Martin, over at Poems & Poèmes. It’s actually called Seaside: To Do List – I love the combination of the down-to-earthness of a list and the inspiring nature of the 12 items in the list. Frédéric writes in both French and English – I admire anyone who writes in their second language, let alone with such finesse. As Frédéric puts it, French is my mother tongue, which gives me love and desire. English gives me freedom and inspiration. What greater combination could there be?

Thursday Interview: Nimrod


– Now, Nimrod, we all have a soft spot for your great granddad Noah, who got us out of a spot of bother, but the same can’t be said for you. This Babel thing – what on earth got into your head?

– I’ve never understood why a bit of ambition is equated with arrogance. What’s wrong with building a tower to heaven? OK, so it presented a few technical difficulties, but that’s what architecture’s all about. The Burj Khalifa, the Petronas – you’ve got towers all over the place now and no one bats an eyelid. I was a pioneer.

– But all the way to heaven? Didn’t it occur to you that God wouldn’t like it?

– That’s another thing that’s got around – that I had some sort of plan to chuck Him out, wage war on Him. Not at all, I simply wanted to take a peek at what’s up there. I mean, it’s all very well for Him, all high and mighty and omniscient, I can’t even pick my nose without Him seeing, but we haven’t got the foggiest how He lives or what His tastes are. Scrambled or sunny side up? Apple or Samsung? Beyoncé or Taylor Swift? It’s not as if it would cost Him a lot to tell us.

– I think His point is He likes to be shrouded in mystery. A bit like the royal family. People would lose their awe if they knew all about Him. But tell me about the construction itself. Must have been a huge challenge.

– The difficulty was calculating the height to width ratio. Bear in mind we only had bricks and mortar back then, none of your steel girders or reinforced concrete, so to suppport the weight, it had to taper up to a point at the top. My worry was that we’d reach that point before we got to heaven. I mean, no one could actually tell me how high heaven was, so there was a bit of guesswork involved.  But I think our calculations must have been close, otherwise God would never have freaked the way He did.

– What exactly happened? He saw what you were doing and flew off the handle?

– He totally lost it, man! I mean, talk about overreacting. You’d think He’d caught me peeping through his bathroom window. I though He was going to smite us all dead or something, but He just made everyone jabber away in different languages and it was total pandemonium. You had the foremen squabbling over the plans, bricks going to the wrong place, scaffolding falling apart. In just two days, the whole site ground to a halt. And I was running round giving orders that no one could understand – it was a nightmare!

– Well, it gave a lot of work to teachers and linguists and interpreters, that’s for sure. And you know what? The number of languages in the world today is dwindling rapidly. Barely 7000 left, a quarter of them spoken by fewer than 1000 people. And English looks set to become a global language, not that everyone’s happy about that, mind – ask the French!

– Well, maybe one day you’ll build a tower like mine. All you need is funds, technical savvy and loads of slave labour. So you’ve got it sorted, I’d say – I mean, that’s how it’s done in Qatar, isn’t it?

Book Covers and Monks


A calm, meditative, peace-loving Buddhist monk? Uh, no. Ashin Wiratha, the “Burmese Bin Laden”, preaches hate and discrimination against Muslims, and has now called the UN’s special envoy to Burma a “bitch” and a “whore”. So there you go. As the French saying has it, L’habit ne fait pas le moine. Literally, “the clothes don’t make the monk”, often translated as “you can’t judge a book by its cover”.

You might think I’m now going to analyse religion, discrimination and Burmese politics. Sorry to disappoint – I’m simply going to add a poll to this post. Trivial, I know, but blogging 101 has got me hooked!

It’s just for practice, really, but I’m also genuinely curious: how do you judge a book? Several answers are possible (if I’ve done it right).


What if the proverb is confirmed? Will I be able to go for something that really sucks? Or is totally irrelevant? Hmm…

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What’s a mzungu?


Mama, nisuona nyora. Nisendra bazari. Nisutsaha maji ya baridi.

Now, because I have the book in front of me, I can tell you what that means: Mummy, I’m thirsty. I’m going to the market. I want some cold water. I should be able to tell you without the book, but I haven’t been revising. Well, I can’t do it all: write a bestseller (ahem…), blogging 101 and revise my shimaoré.

Shimaroé is what they speak in Mayotte. ‘They’ being the Mahorais, who were living there when Passot bought it. Ethnically, they’re Mahorais, but their nationality is French. Which means we need a word to distinguish the French French from the Mahorais French. The Mahorais for French is mzungu, which by extension means ‘white’, since the only white people they saw for a long time were French. Strictly speaking, though, a non-white French person isn’t a mzungu (in the restricted sense), and nor is a non-French white person a mzungu (in the extended sense). Are you following?

I am a mzungu, being both white and French (naturalised). However, a Mahorais, on discovering that I’m British by birth, might prefer to say I’m a mungereza, which means English. In which case, I could point out to them that I’m not English but Welsh, but then they might go mad.

Mayotte being French, a mzungu isn’t an expat either, except for those (in the extended sense) who come from somewhere else. Which I do, but being naturalised (French), I’m not an expat any more. Unless there’s a part of you that never quite gets naturalised, in which case I still have some bewildered expat remnants floating about in my brain.

If you happen to be one, a simple solution is to call yourself a métro, short for métropolitain, meaning someone who comes from metropolitan France. Because France isn’t France unless you happen to be in France France, as opposed to one of the colonies departments France has overseas. If you’re in overseas France, then France France is la métropole, and the people who live there are métros (unless they’re Mahorais).

Of course, none of this alters the fact that the Mahorais are in fact Comorian. But that’s another story.

Nuts and bolts and good old words

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Hmm… Which one should I choose?

I always knew there were two things to writing: writing and promoting. But like many who write, I thought if I did the first, the second would take care of itself. Not so – as I’m now discovering. So this blog will cover both aspects, from the point of view of someone learning how it all works. Which means I have no pretensions to offer advice of my own – whatever I know has been learnt from other people. So I’ll always acknowledge my sources, and I apologise in advance if what I say seems obvious to some. If that’s the case, so much the better – it simply means you’ve thought about it already.

The writing first – promoting will be for another post. And because this is a record of my personal journey, I’ll start with what I read years ago, and have tried to follow ever since: George Orwell’s rules for effective writing (from Politics and The English Language, 1946).

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Will Self thinks these rules have resulted in an ‘Orwellian language police’. But compare a text by Self with one by Orwell and make your choice. I know where I stand on the matter.

It’s not always easy to follow the rules, especially in the first draft. Rule (i), for example, refers to figures of speech we’re used to reading, and because we’re used to them, they come to us easily. It’s what linguists call the frequency effect – the more often a word, or combination of words, occurs in the language, the easier it is to access in our minds, both in comprehension and production. And then they become clichés, which no longer amaze the reader the way original word combinations do. Of course, in a novel, not all words can startle – that would be pretty tiring after a while. But in poetry, for example, yes – that ‘Wow!’ effect is part of what makes a great poem great.

But we’re not too worried anyway about the first draft. It’s just a way to get the ideas down. It’s on the second, third and nth drafts that I try to bear the rules in mind. And it’s not just fiction Orwell is talking about, but all written texts. Including blogs? In our 1984, they didn’t exist, and in his 1984, they wouldn’t have been allowed (except for propaganda). But although we don’t have the time to submit our posts to umpteen drafts, even a quick revision, applying those simple rules, can bring about some improvement.

So there you go – my first post on the nuts and bolts of writing. And now you know who you’re dealing with: a highfaluting, grandiloquent, Orwellian bobby on the beat 🙂

Finally, today’s blogging 101 assignment. Naturally I’m attracted to blogs that have similar aims and content, so here are a couple of links to ones I follow, the first having already self-published and the second thinking seriously about it. Two other blogs I like for their content, the first for its original perspective (an Indian in Doha), the second for its humorous, entertaining accounts of daily life. Which isn’t to say there’s not a lot more out there which is interesting and inspiring – there is! And I’ll get round to mentioning others I’ve come across, I promise 🙂