At the end of 2014 I took a beginners statistics course and was introduced to R, which is a programming language and software environment for statistical computing. It was brand new to me, but I picked up the basics fairly quickly. As is my nature, I played around with it a fair bit, trying things out, and eighteen months later, I know enough to have convinced my boss that I am literally a magician based on what I can produce.

To complement, in the last year or so I’ve taught myself the basics (and a bit more) of LaTeX, which is a document preparation system and markup language. Perhaps just the basics, but enough to produce documents that I’m actually proud to present to management as my work, rather than the (especially now) disappointing documents I used to produce using Microsoft Word.

Despite all this, I still feel intimidated by the idea of programming languages that I don’t know. And it’s holding me back. I think it’s probably because I don’t really have any formal background in computing, and everything I’ve ever learnt has been self-taught, but I seem to pick up the basics of anything I try without any issue.

I taught myself enough HTML in 2003 to be able to build the website for the Leeds University LGBT society from scratch – I did the whole thing in Notepad (the ongoing management of the site was another issue, I hasten to add), but I was scared to learn any CSS because it was new.

When I was maybe 12, I wrote some games in BASIC – from memory a slot machine (poker machine, fruit machine, or what you will) that was pretty simple, but functional; and a safari park management sim – all text based (because I’m not artistic enough to do graphics). The object of that game was to balance the antelope and lion populations by culling or inseminating either lions or antelope on each turn – again, a simple game, but proof that I could write programs, and was good at it.

There’s little point to this post, other than for me to combat the impostor syndrome I suffer dreadfully from. I can’t go back to when I was 14 years old, change my mind and decide to do a Computing GCSE instead of Business Studies (even though, with hindsight, I totally should have) – that would probably have taken me somewhere. But perhaps this can be an inspiration to someone who can make that sort of decision.

Hübsch and doch – language breakthroughs

I’m currently into week 4 of my German language course. For background, I learnt German at school, and continued my study of the language for a year and a bit at university before my life took a different direction. Since then, my study of, and exposure to the language has been minimal, but at the beginning of October I started a course at the Goethe Institut in Sydney to get myself back on track.

Language learning as an adult is hard. It really is. It’s tiring, and the process just doesn’t flow quite as well. I speak from experience, especially given that I’m learning the same language for a second time. One thing I have definitely noticed this time around is my brain’s urge to translate. It seems to want to think in English, and it doesn’t seem happy to have learnt a new word or phrase unless it knows that word or phrase’s English translation. This is irritating for a couple of reasons:

  1. I know it’s counter-productive. I know languages are not codes and that fairly often direct translations are not even possible.
  2. There is a guy in the class who does this vocally – he has to know what everything is auf Englisch bitte and it drives me to distraction. I’m there thinking you don’t need to know what it is in English if you understand it! while my brain is doing the same thing his is.

However, this week I had a breakthrough. I learnt two new words. Hübsch and doch.

I’ve been overusing hübsch at a ridiculous rate because I’ve fallen in love with the word. Not really because of the word itself, but because it is the first word in this period of my language learning that I haven’t needed a translation for. My brain is content with the idea that hübsch means, well, hübsch. I won’t say that I understand the contexts it is suited to, or maybe even cultural contexts, but I’m happy just to know the word. I haven’t looked it up and, more importantly, I don’t have the urge to look it up.

Doch is a word that probably has a thousand and one meanings, but it came up by accident in class the other day when it appeared in a text and someone asked what it meant. I can’t remember the exact context, but the teacher explained how it just made the phrase more polite, but it led to her also explaining its use as “a positive answer to a negative question”. And when aforementioned need-to-know guy asked und auf Englisch, bitte? her response was simply, “no idea”. A couple of confused looks and she did go on to explain how the word just doesn’t exist in English:

If we were having a party and everyone had a glass of wine, and I noticed everyone had drunk the wine, but John hadn’t even touched the wine, I might ask him “don’t you like the wine”, and it might be that he’s saving it for later, but he does like the wine. In English he’d reply “yes”, but “ja” would be wrong in German; you’d say, “Doch!”

And it made sense to me – another breakthrough, and another realization that sometimes language can just exist in its own right without reference or translation to another language. Doch might translate to yes  but in order to understand the meaning of it, you really have to tell a story and explain how to use the word, and provide context. And my brain is comfortable with that.

Sometimes language learning is hard, but I mostly really enjoy it. Little breakthroughs like this, though, are when I really love it and I feel like I’m getting somewhere.

In case your brain needs to know, here are a couple of links to for translations: