Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The World Service

The BBC World Service is 80 years old today (Given that it's February 29th, that means it's only had 20 actual birthdays, I presume).  Anyway, in a slight diversion from the usual matter of this blog (ie periods of nothingness interspersed with incoherent rants about stuff that bothers me in small town Romania), I thought I would mark this milestone by saying how great the BBC World Service is, and how many years I spent in which my short wave radio was my most prized possession.  It genuinely was one of the things I had to check anytime I went anywhere - money, ticket, passport, radio - that was the list.

Anyway, I listened for years to the BBC World Service (and the fact that I can download things like Analysis and From Our Own Correspondent on podcasts now is somehow not the same thing. They're still good radio programmes but something about the medium and the vehicle of the radio clutched to the ear, with the elaborate wires and things attached to the aerial to try and enhance reception, is just something that I'll never forget, and I think always miss a little bit).  The fact that I can have news from anywhere in the world at my fingertips at any time in various different formats these days is just ... not the same.  (In other forgotten methods of obtaining news from home, does anyone remember Reuters teleprinters that you could find in the lobbies of expensive hotels?  They were brilliant too, though not quite up to the standards of the BBC World Service)

Anyway, just as with the internet, much of my dedication to my shortwave radio came with the need to keep up with English football.  Every Saturday afternoon (or whatever time of day English Saturday afternoon was in whichever country I was in) you could find me twiddling the dial, fine tuning the signal as I listened to comforting snatches of home telling me about the driving rain at Portman Road or the advertising hoardings at Ibrox.

My most vivid memory though was in a tent just outside the Masai Mara in Kenya listening to the 1994 World Cup Final from California at about 3am. I had headphones so as not to wake my girlfriend, but the signal kept drifting in and out. Despite the fact that the match was terrible (I am told), I could not go to bed - this was the World Cup final after all.  At one point through the crackle I heard this almighty roar, which was clearly not from the crowd, but from outside the tent.  I decided staying put was possibly the best idea (and anyway if I'd gone outside Sod's Law dictates that I'd probably have missed a goal).   In the morning I learned that a lion had wandered through the campsite in the night.

(A much more amusing anecdote about the World Service from my friend Ken Wilson, can be found here)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sign of the times

Over the course of the now 8 years since I've been here (8 years!  Lumme), the state of the economy has been visible from observing the new businesses that have opened in the town centre and around.  Around the time of Romania's accession to the EU, the town hosted an explosion  of banks.  Every building that became free was quickly snapped up and turned into the branch of a bank.  They even started opening branches in an area of the town which is not exactly the centre, just in case people couldn't be bothered to walk 5 minutes to cash their cheques or make their wire transfers.  On one street alone (the one I;m currently on) there are absolutely dozens of them, and even though it's not that long a road, there are actually some which have two branches on the same street.  This for a town of less than 40,000 residents.

Now after a while, this bank building craze plateau-ed out a bit and the new thing was cafes.  Now, obviously, thanks to the growing economy and the fact that presumably now everybody had loans or whatever from the preponderance of banks, we could all live a life of leisure, sitting around drinking coffee and eating elaborate cakes and pastries, while our money just made money or whatever it is that the idle rich do.

Then the crisis hit.  We were no longer hicks-of-leisure, and the cafes dried up. One or two banks closed, but most are surprisingly still here (despite the fact that many of them these days are Greek-owned). The new craze was for the turkáló.  I've mentioned these places a couple of times before - they are basically second hand clothes shops which get their stock (it is claimed) mostly from the UK (where I think people are duped into believing they are giving them to charity). Picture a sort of permanent jumble sale and you get the picture. There are loads of these places now, on every corner. The other thing which appears to be on the rise is the replacement of the sitting around-sitting-espresso-cafe with the stand-around-bet-and-watch-sport-on-TV-cafes.  Desperation chic. Get your second hand t-shirts and socks by the kilo and then with the tiny amount of money you have left go and try and double it through gambling.

What's next, I wonder? Either they will all just be boarded up in silent testimony to the collapse of capitalism, or they will start selling guns so we can all start arming ourselves against the gangs of semi-feral victims of the credit crisis.

Or something happier I suppose.   

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Romanian Education System (3)

Finally, many months after starting this small series, I am ready to get to the third and last part of it - though obviously since I started it the education system here has had loads more crap piled upon it.  As of the day before yesterday there is yet another new education minister, but I'm not hopeful of positive change any time soon.
But I digress.  
The third area in which I encounter a massive problem with the Romanian education system is not an area which affects much of the country.  But it is certainly a huge issue here. 
This is to do with the teaching of Romanian in schools. Specifically the teaching of Romanian to those who don't speak Romanian as a mother tongue.  Which is most kids in Csikszereda, including my own daughter.  
Now before I start on my now customary rant, let me make it totally clear that I believe very strongly that all Romanian citizens should be able to speak Romanian. It seems to me more or less unarguable. But - the current system actually, I believe, makes it harder for people who don't speak Romanian as a first language to learn it than it should do.
First of all, let's clear up a semantic thing, partly because it irritates me, and partly because it will make it much easier to write the rest of this post. That is that kids who, say, speak Hungarian as a mother tongue, need to learn Romanian as a Second Language.  Clearly they are not learning Romanian as a foreign language (because it's obviously not a foreign language).  They are learning it as a second language.  Second, in this context, does not imply second class or second rate, merely a marker of the order in which the languages were learned. Kids in the UK or USA who are not native speakers of English learn English as a Second Language and nobody gets stressed about this terminology.  So, for my own sanity I will call it Romanian as a Second Language (RSL) here, rather than the convoluted phrase that is often used to try and avoid this which is something like Romanian for Romanian children who don't speak Romanian as a first language.  
Now for a large part of my adult life I was a language teacher. In fact at times I still teach English.  I do know a little bit about how language teaching and learning works, so unlike most of my usually ill informed posts this one is coming from a place of some actual knowledge. It may be the last time it happens, but we'll see.
The situation at the minute is that all children in the Romanian state education system study the same subjects to the same curriculum (there are some minor variations in subjects studied, especially in languages, but in general). This means that all children in Romania study Romanian in the same way. That is to say that children who speak Romanian as a first language study the same curriculum as those who study it as a second language. There is a certain desire born of nationalist head-in-the-sand-ism that we should close our eyes to the fact that in fact these two groups of children have different needs and are coming from a very different starting point.  If we treat them exactly the same, the logic seems to go, then they will all be good Romanian children.
But in fact, of course, the opposite happens. Kids who really should be learning RSL, end up finding themselves completely lost in a curriculum which is completely unsuitable for them. My daughter  is expected to read literature, which in many cases is not even modern Romanian, but is an archaic version of the language.  The grammar work she studies is heavy in metalanguage and light in practicality.  In short she is not taught Romanian as a tool  for a communication, but as a literary language to be examined. Which does, obviously, make some sense for most Romanian kids (though I'm not entirely convinced of the value to Romanian kids of reading Ion Creanga at the age of 12, myself, but that's by the by).  I've lost count of the times which I've come upon her crying because she just can't understand what she's supposed to be doing, each page of the novel takes her hours to read, and she beats herself up over the fact that she can't do what she shouldn't be expected to do.  And, she is one of the best in her class.  She is motivated and keen and actually is doing very well in Romanian, despite the system. I'm incredibly proud of her, and her language skills, but at times it's heartbreaking to watch.  
And it of course means that many kids who need RSL, are not learning Romanian well. At best they can learn to struggle through the exam system and not be completely held back by it, but they are not learning to use the language properly.  And surely the goal of this system should be that RSL kids leave school speaking Romanian very well and therefore being able to be full members of society.  This must be what would suit everyone. (Unless of course the goal is to actively disadvantage RSL kids - and it does disadvantage them as they have a much harder time in the national exam in Romanian at the end of the 12th grade for example, which in turn harms their overall grade, quite apart from harming their ability to succeed in one of the primary life skills that they need - the Romanian language)
(Actually at this point I should probably add that I am not alleging some nationalist conspiracy to keep the Hungarians and others back and deliberately make their lives difficult.  I genuinely think it is this way as a result of simple pigheadedness and stupidity)
To give another example of how this plays out: Some while back some friends who are from here but who moved to Hungary returned with their two children aged 11 and 13. Obviously having been brought up in Hungary the boys spoke no Romanian, but back here in Transylvania attending school they are of course studying Romanian. At a party a few months after they came back (at which I was present) the younger boy was asked by his mother to show us what he had learned at school that week. He then proceeded to recite the entirety of a fairly long Octavian Goga poem. He could recite it word for word, quite well, I'm told, but understood barely a word of it. Now it seems fairly clear that this is not good language teaching.
Obviously there are other side effects to this as well.  Not only does it fail to teach RSL kids Romanian successfully (which of course has a knock on effect of making their lives difficult and also failing to develop the potential of everyone), but it leads to a dislike of the language in general (after all it is the school subject which most makes the kids in question suffer). This is - in some cases - exacerbated by the nationalist feelings that they may be getting from their parents or classmates, and in turn exacerbates them.  All in all, the effects go beyond the academic achievement of the child in question, but actually can serve to cause even deeper rifts in society.
It's not that the Romanian education system is not good at teaching languages - these days most young people speak very good English for example, and many also speak French, German, Italian or a number of other languages.  It's just that the approaches and methodologies used in teaching those foreign languages are not allowed to be applied to teaching Romanian as a Second Language.

This change seems like such a no-brainer that one might wonder why it hasn't yet happened.  Indeed so much of a no-brainer is it that even Basescu, a noted no-brainer himself, has mentioned that he thinks it should be changed.  But yet, every year it is still the same. One might even have cause to wonder what the UDMR are actually doing with their time in government if they can't even influence a policy that is so clearly and insanely fucked up.