Learning Russian

Русские книги (Russian books… in Russian)

In spring 1988 I travelled to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for a week with my school. We flew from London to Moscow, stayed in the capital for a few days then took an overnight train to Leningrad (now St Petersburg), not far from the Finnish and Estonian borders.

When in Moscow, always remember when taking photographs to cut off the top of iconic cathedral buildings like St Basil’s in favour of swathes of lovely, grey tarmac.

For a few months before our trip I thought it would be useful to learn some Russian. I used a couple of resources: Russian Made Simple (Heinemann, London, 1982) and Russian Language and People (BBC Publications, London, 1980) with its three accompanying cassettes. (That was hi-tech then.)

I got as far as learning the 32 characters of the Cyrillic alphabet, reading some simple words like ресторан (restaurant), опера (opera) and вода (water), the question что это? (what is it?) and a few pleasantries—спасибо (please) and пожалуйста (thank you / you’re welcome). But that was it.

On our trip we had a government-approved tour-guide, Mikael who spoke excellent English so I had very little use for the smattering of (largely useless) phrases I’d learned, for example:

мой багаж в метро или в такси.

My luggage is on the subway or in a taxi.

I would have done really well if I’d just spent my week losing my luggage on various modes of soviet transport.

Over the years, I’ve had a niggling regret that I never learned more.

I felt sad that I hadn’t learned more before I went (not that I would have had much opportunity to try it out) and that I had simply dropped it after I returned—admittedly to focus on noble pursuits like trying to pass my exams and get into university.

I’ve regretted when hosting Russian choirs in the past that I have not been able to say much more than good morning (Доброе утро), please and thank you.

Unpacking my books a few months ago, after moving to Crail, I once again found myself stacking my few Russian language books onto a shelf and thought to myself, when is a good time to learn a new language? There isn’t one… so, I might as well just start now.

So for the last 60 days I have been using Duolingo on my mobile phone to help me learn what has been described by many linguists as quite literally the language of Russia.

And I’m really enjoying it.

I know that if I really want to do well I am going to have to put in more than just six or seven hours a month, and hit the books to really understand the subtleties of the distinctions between ты (informal ‘you’) and вы (formal ‘you’), tenses, plurals, and all that linguistic jazz. But for now, this is giving me a gentle taster of the language and I’ve been surprised at how much I understand already after only a few minutes each day for a couple of months.

When people have asked, “Russian?! Why on earth are you learning Russian?”

I have enjoyed simply saying, “Well, you’ve seen the current political climate—I thought was probably a wise move to learn to communicate more fluently with our eventual political overlords!”

And on that satirical note I will wish you до свидания!

Pushkin copying what I’m doing, somewhere in Leningrad, 1988.

The importance of failure (and of praising effort not intelligence)

Neon sign reads: People fail forward to success by Ian Kim on Unsplash
Photo by Ian Kim on Unsplash

I’m finally learning Russian (again)

I am currently learning Russian and reminding myself of the integral importance that failure has in the learning process.

I visited the USSR in 1988 as part of a modern studies high school trip to Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg). You can see the photos from my trip on Flickr.

In late 1987 I started a short course to learn some Russian phrases. I didn’t get much further than Что это (what is it?) and это стол и стул (it’s a table and chair) before I gave up. Still, at least learning the Cyrillic alphabet helped me read signs as we travelled around this other-worldly country that was then still behind the Iron Curtain.

Since then, however, I have always wanted to complete the course and learn Russian for nothing other than the academic satisfaction. Plus, obviously, if Russia is to continue to interfere in national politics and influence elections it would be useful to be able to communicate with our eventual overlords in their own tongue.

Thirty years on and I still haven’t learned the language. Which is why, last week I decided that now was the right time. I realised that there would never be a perfect time. I would never have a free six months to devote to the task. If I wanted to do it then I would just have to start now and squeeze it into my daily schedule—five minutes here, ten minutes there.

Why did I give up so easily?

But why did I give up so soon after starting to learn?

There are likely to be a few practical reasons, not least energy levels, volume of school work, and family dynamics (my dad was suffering from brain damage by that point).

Surely, it can’t all have come down to time or motivation. Back in 1987/1988 I had all the time in the world—besides school I had few other commitments. And I had the motivation—I would be visiting Russia during the Easter break in April 1988.

But I still gave up. Why? This puzzled me for a long time, until I found the answer in a couple of books about parenting.

I think the problem was that for as long as I remember I had been told that I was clever, and learning Russian is hard—I gave up, I reckon, because it challenged my self-perception as a clever boy.

This isn’t as daft an idea as it sounds.

The importance of praising effort

In Professor Richard Wiseman’s book 59 seconds: think a little, change a lot (Macmillan, 2009) he explains why “telling a child that they are bright and talented is a terrible thing to do” (p.281).

During the late 1990s a couple of psychologists (Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck) from Columbia University, New York ran a series of experiments with children, during which one group of children were praised for being clever while the other group was praised for the effort they put in (regardless of whether they got the answers right or wrong).

What they discovered was that children who were told they were really bright after completing one set of tasks were then less likely to exert themselves when presented with a choice of further tasks. While the children who had been praised for the effort they put in during the first task were far more likely to opt for a more difficult second task.

Telling a child they are intelligent might make them feel good, but [it] can also induce a fear of failure, causing the child to avoid challenging situations because they might look bad if they are not successful. In addition, telling a child they are intelligent suggests they do not need to work hard to perform well. Because of this, children may be less motivated to make the required effort and be more likely to fail.

Professor Richard Wiseman, ibid, p.283

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman go into more depth about this research in their book Nurture shock: Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong (Ebury Press, 2009).

It turns out that children who are frequently praised tend to become more competitive and more interested in belittling others. Their primary interest becomes image-maintenance—having been told they are clever, they want to continue to be seen to be clever even if that means pulling others down around them.

Looking back at my childhood and teenage years, I don’t recognise that last aspect of tearing others down but I wholeheartedly recognise the image-maintenance part—I would joke years later that I simply dropped those subjects that I didn’t do well in, not realising at the time that I did this because they clashed with the self-image that I had been developing and which was being built-up by folks telling me that I was clever.

I liked being clever. I didn’t like doing things that didn’t make me feel clever. It makes perfect sense. But I wonder what I missed in giving up things too soon. I wonder what would have happened if instead I had been praised for my effort and dug in deep at times.

How can students succeed if they are not taught to fail?

While I was working as the warden in a university halls of residence, I would frequently have conversations with students about the importance of failure.

Here we had, arguably, some of the brightest young people in the country who had progressed from success to success to become, in many cases, the brightest in their school. And then when they arrived at St Andrews among other similar youngsters they found themselves to be decidedly average.

That took them quite by surprise. And coupled with a different style of learning at university and an increased workload many found themselves not hitting their usual 100% expectations.

To many it felt like the sky was falling in: their world was collapsing and their self-image was being shaken at a fundamental level.

In my first year at St Andrews, I would tell them, I failed two-thirds of my course. Two-thirds! I passed divinity but failed Old Testament and ecclesiastical history; I managed to progress to second year by the skin of my teeth. But that experience changed me—it helped me to understand how I work best. It helped me to understand what works for me, and what doesn’t. In the end, I graduated with a 2:1 honours degree that I was delighted with.

It is okay to fail

This paragraph from an article on @TeacherToolkit that I read last year resonated with me:

In recent years there seems to be an accepted fallacy that learning happens in a linear fashion, with educators setting up opportunities for children to jump from success to success without ever encountering failure. However, if this is the case, to what extent are your pupils simply working as opposed to learning?

Teacher Toolkit

They suggest incorporating failure in the learning process. This is their list of suggestions:

  • Provide the children with the toolkit to cope with failure.
  • Praise the children’s best efforts and show them how to move their learning forward.
  • Develop an ethos where the children are not afraid to fail and develop strategies to overcome challenge.
  • Don’t hide mistakes from children. Adults make mistakes all the time, but children seldom are afforded the opportunity of witnessing this.
  • Make teaching points of your mistakes and model how to deal appropriately with failure.
  • Pupils should have the confidence to attempt new activities in a safe and secure environment knowing that failure will be met with encouragement and support. Failure isn’t something to be feared, but rather is part of the learning process which should be embraced.
  • Children need to know that it is okay to fail and it is the trying again that is important, this is how children succeed.

But it’s not just children and university students who need to learn the importance of failure. For the last few years I was working as an agile project manger in a web development team—”fail fast” is something we used to advertise as one of the benefits of working in an agile manner.

I’m delighted to see Karl Scotland (from whose writings I have learned a lot over the years) is running a session at this week’s Lean Agile Scotland event in Edinburgh entitled “Failure is not an option”.

That’s right, failure is not an option—it is a necessity.

For many organisations, failure is something to be avoided. Poor results are frowned upon; people don’t take risks, and they hide undesirable results for fear of being blamed. But it’s these failures that generate new information from which we can learn, and this learning is what leads to organisational improvement and long-term success. This session will explore why failure is not an option, but a necessity, and how we can make failure a friend and not a foe. Karl Scotland  “Don’t bury your failures. Let them inspire you.”

Lean Agile Scotland

Let your failures inspire you

I really like that quotation: don’t bury your failures, let them inspire you.

There is something here to inspire me as I try to remember what этот (this), он (he), она (she) and оно (it) mean in Russian; as I try to encourage Joshua to do his French horn practice—”you’re trying really hard to play the right notes, well done” rather than “you’re so good at that”; and as I reflect on my last twenty years of work and try to make sense of what my strengths are, what weaknesses I need to work on and where I should put my energy next.

A visual history of European borders

I’ve come across this video a number of times, the latest was this morning in an article shared by LinkedIn.

The video shows the borders and populations of each country in Europe for every year between 400 BCE and 2017 CE.

This is one of the things that I think about whenever I hear people arguing about the ‘problems of immigration’. Immigration, my dictionary tells me, is “the action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country.” And a ‘foreign country’ is simply one that is not my own.

But look at this map—look at the boundaries, look how fluid they are. Look how completely and utterly man-made (and it was mostly men) most of these are. Some are dictated by coastlines but the majority are, I’m sure, dictated by ambition and greed.

I think it would do Europe a world of good right now if every citizen had to have their DNA analysed to show us where we have come from. It would show that we are all more connected than we think, and as such we need one another.

No mobile signal on EE? Use EE WiFi Calling

Mobile phone on wooden desk
Photo by Tyler Lastovich (via Pexels)

When I moved to Crail a couple of months ago, I quickly ran into a problem: I don’t have good mobile phone reception in my house. I’m on EE.

After making a couple of calls standing out on the road, I knew that I needed to find a better solution.

While searching online to see if I could buy some kind of mobile signal extender, I discovered that EE offers WiFi Calling.

A bit like Skype Calling, EE WiFi Calling uses your broadband connection to route calls to the EE network. So you can make phone calls or send and receive text messages even if you don’t have a phone signal.

There are a couple of caveats, though:

  • It only works if you are on an EE pay monthly plan (not pay as you go, yet).
  • You need a compatible phone.

Find out more about how to use EE WiFi Calling and which handsets support it.

If you’re on an EE monthly contract and your phone supports it, I wholeheartedly recommend switching on EE WiFi Calling.

When I have a good signal my phone uses the EE network, but as soon as I don’t then my phone automatically switches to using WiFi to route calls and text messages. And as I’m also a BT customer, I can use BT WiFi to use any of the 5 million WiFi hotspots around the UK. Bonus!

I’m taking a short sabbatical

My former desk (on the right) in the digital communications team office

End of the beginning

This week marks the end of an era. On Sunday 5 August, after 4,480 days—12 years, 3 months and 5 days—I ended my employment at the University of St Andrews.

Changes

Over these 147 months, I’ve seen a huge change in the web development landscape. When I joined the team (of one—the perfect introvert’s team size) in May 2006 as assistant web manager/information architect, the second browser war was still going on. Internet Explorer 6 was still the dominant Windows browser, Firefox was a four-year old upstart and Chrome was still two and a half years away. My first proper project—after dabbling with some designs for a Press Office website redesign that didn’t come to anything—was to wrestle with Saulcat, the University’s library catalogue system. Who can fail to be impressed with online documentation for a third-party system that you’ve barely ever used that runs to literally tens of thousands of pages? That was also the first project that ever made me cry. There was an excitement back then. We were on the cutting edge. Pulling an almost all-nighter to get the new site launched in TERMINALFOUR Site Manager v5.0, only to discover that some part of the design didn’t work in IE7 as soon as we went live, and the frantic scramble to get it fixed. Our focus was so much on the technology: the browser wars were still going.
LUKE SKYWALKER No, my father didn’t fight in the Browser Wars. He simply used Netscape Navigator on a spice freighter. OBI-WAN KENOBI That’s what your uncle told you. He didn’t hold with your father’s ideals—an open, accessible and universal web. LUKE SKYWALKER You fought in the Browser Wars? OBI-WAN KENOBI Yes. I was once a Web developer, the same as your father.
When I began, the focus was still very much on how the technology worked, on advocating for web standards and creating workarounds to appease IE6 and IE7. But once these standards started to take hold and level the development playing field, the focus moved to usability, user experience, and content strategy. Server-side PHP gave way to client-side JavaScript as the dominant web development language. And, of course, the mobile web has dominated the conversation, just as it was predicted to.

Walk away

Looking back over 12 years, though, I can clearly see that I’ve been down a hard road. Having come through some pretty hairy health problems (meningitis, anyone?), plus a divorce, wardenning in hall (“I’ll sleep when I’m dead!”), and then a recent bowel cancer health-scare (from January through to April), I realised that I needed to start looking after myself for a while. That’s not something that comes easily to me—I find it more natural to care for others. I have worked pretty much flat out for at least the last 21 years—I’ve poured myself out into each job and given everything that I can. Earlier this year I simply felt broken, burned out with little left to give. The last four months have provided a useful buffer to rest and heal and reflect on my future. When I was going through the pros and cons of leaving the University, the biggest pro of staying was being with people that I’ve been fortunate to call my friends, in some cases, for the last 26.24% of my life. But that wasn’t enough to keep me at St Andrews—I can always keep up with my friends outside of work-hours. I am proud of what I have achieved at St Andrews, and what we as a team have achieved. I have been blessed by the friendships that I have made there. But it is time to change pace for a while and allow myself to heal more fully and gain a little more perspective. One phrase in particular has been going around my head for the last few months as I’ve journeyed towards this decision: “you cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick”, and in the words of Ozzy Osbourne, “I’m sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.”

Solitude

So, I have decided to take a short sabbatical. I will focus on my health, on eating more healthily, on cycling and walking, on resting and focusing on my mental health too. Then I will turn my attention to whatever is next. As far as employment goes, it’s not as though I’ll be falling off the edge of the world. I have a few irons in the fire, as they say—all still in digital/web development. I’m excited about what’s next. All will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, I am simply enjoying life, enjoying being with my children, and with those I love. Feels good to me.
Fun fact: as I’m taking a sabbatical, I decided to use a lot of Black Sabbath (geddit?) song titles in this post. See if you can find them all.