Saturday, November 01, 2014

More technological challenges - The downsides of digital display

These further musings on the challenges of technology have been prompted by a post I put on Facebook last week that got me thinking, so apologies to those of you who've read some of this already, but bear with me…there's more here than there was before.

When I first came to the flatlands, I used to travel round much more for my work than I do now. I often went to The Hague, Breda and even to Tilburg in the south to give lessons. Because of the high traffic congestion on the roads here and the difficulty of getting places by car on time, I used to travel regularly on the trains. But even the trains were often delayed for various reasons and my morning musings on the platforms were punctuated (or punctured was more like it) by the sing-song and dulcet tones of the announcers.

This happened so often it was how I actually managed to start learning Dutch.

The thing is I've never had a proper course of Dutch lessons. I took a few from a teacher friend some years ago, but I think I only had about four full lessons in total. The rest of my Dutch (which is still very much *my* Dutch) has been gleaned from reading, re-playing telephone messages over and over again, and listening to loudspeaker announcements such as those at the station.

I know, I know. You're all thinking that Koos could have taught me. You're right, but for now I won't go down that road. Suffice to say it's a bit like asking your husband to teach you to drive!

So to return to my train travel, I spent many a morning standing on bleak and drafty stations listening to the staff telling us of delays, platform changes and alterations to routes. Now I know they say that conditioning and behaviourist methods of teaching are only any good for Pavlov's dog, but maybe I am more canine than humine because this is a way that I really can learn. Repetition, I find, is a wonderful way of concentrating the mind. The evidence is below:

This sentence was the very first I learnt because it was the one that affected me most.
"Dames en heren, de Intercity trein van Rotterdam Blaak naar Den Haag Centraal heeft een vertraging van ongeveer tien minuten" (the train from x to x will be delayed by about ten minutes)
or then there was...
"Dames en heren, de Intercity naar Delft, Den Haag Hollands Spoor en Den Haag Centraal vertrekt over enkele minuten vanaf spoor 5." (it'll leave in a minute or so from platform 5, not the one I'm standing on! Oh heck! They've changed the platform!)
or simply...
"Dames en heren, de internationale trein naar Brussel Zuid vertrekt over enkele minuten van spoor 1." 
(just an announcement of an imminent departure).

These sentences are imprinted on my brain. I heard them so often I swear I'll never forget them. The sad thing, though, is the first one is no longer used. It has been replaced by an electronic display showing simply "+/- 10 minutes" instead of keeping weary listeners awake with a tonal mantra. And increasingly, the voices we hear are digital recordings and not the sometimes mischievous, sometimes weary tones of real railway staff. 

These days too, we are reminded constantly to "forget not in and out to check with your OV chipcards". Sounds positively Shakespearean, doesn't it? Although of course they say it in Dutch - 'vergeet niet in en uit te checken met uw OV chipkaart'. But,  I think it shows how close 16th century English was to its Dutch origins and I enjoy playing with these direct translations!

Eventually, I suppose, the more we move towards apps, icons and emoticons, everything will be announced by numbers, symbols and smileys and my public broadcast Dutch lessons will disappear forevermore. In linguistic terms, that means I will undoubtedly fossilise - if I haven't already :-)


  1. My mother learnt English by reading a popular women's magazine with a dictionary by her side and with the shopkeeper down the road correcting her pronunciation. It is sad that the human touch is disappearing from your train stations and ours.

  2. Shame that we are losing the spoken word and also handwritten text. I learn for bygone days when you could ring a company and someone real picked up the phone and said "good morning, how can I help you?" :( Still, on the bright side I have met some lovely friends (you especially) through technology xxx

  3. Hi Val - there is so much being done via the dreaded technological stuff - most of which I ignore ...

    Yet Fran points out there advantages to tech things ... and

    I've just thought of something that would help the lady I visit at the Nursing Centre ... who is really struggling to hear - if I talk into Siri (the voice conversion thingy on the ipad) .. she (I believe she's a she!!) will transcribe it for me!!

    So there are advantages ... but the way people go round with a phone glued to their ear defeats me ...

    Cheers and happy days - I never mastered another foreign language .. the only thing that really helped was being able to say the words when I could see them written - because I then had some idea what was going on. We live in interesting times - Hilary

  4. Valerie, that's amazing. Good for your mum! It's taken me years to arrive at some kind of conversational ability in Dutch, but I can do it now :)

    Fran, it is sad, isn't it? I miss the human element too, but you're right, technology has made us friends and that is a wonderful benefit! xxx

  5. Ooh Hilary, you posted your comment when I was typing my reply. Yes, technology has some great benefits, and what a good idea for your friend! That sounds like s marvellous invention - this Siri. I don't have an iPad, but I'm amazed at what they can do! And yes, the phone glued to the ear thing….*shakes head*…or even worse, the constant texting.

  6. Well done for learning Dutch despite only a few formal lessons Val.
    It is interesting that when exposed to another language for a while the ear starts to pick up words and you start to make sense of it. When we visited Italy recently I did find I was beginning to understand at least some of what I heard from announcers, waiters, shop assistants. Then it all vanishes when you leave!

  7. Val, I could have written this post about trying to learn Finnish! ˆTämä on ajuna Helsinkiin¨ I heard a lot, travelling by train. So, one day I asked my students (feeling clever) if the word ajuna meant train. Bewildered glances. ¨No, the Finnish word for 'train' is 'juna'. Turned out that all the commuter trains have different letters, so apparently I spent a lot of time on the A-train!.

  8. I'm a techno geek who loves Google Now and all sorts of gadgets, but there is something comforting in the Finnish state railways announcements of next stations and such, especially as they were done by the same lady from the 80s until earlier this year.

  9. Oh how I know how it feels to try to learn a new language. I'm pressing on with my determination to learn Spanish, after discovering - the hard way - how limiting it can be when you don't in Cuba. But it's hard. I have a course loaded onto my iPod, and walk the Wiltshire Downs talking to myself - now change there, but this time it's in feeble Spanish. Just wish it weren't such a struggle.

  10. On our departure from Amsterdam just a few days ago, we caught the train to Schiphol, having first ascertained from the ticket office that the train would be leaving from platform 14A. As we negotiated the noisy, crowded tunnel, there was an announcement, in Dutch, about Schiphol and mentioned something about the platform. We hurried along and up to a train at 14A and found a board which seemed to indicate that the train was an inter-city to Rotterdam. Being innocents abroad, we thought this seemed very unhelpful, even though we might have enjoyed a quick visit to Rotterdam! So we asked a guard standing by a door to the train. 'Yes,' he said, this is the train to Schiphol.' We pointed out that the digital board did not say that. He was long-suffering but satirical: 'Be patient," he said and pointed to the board, which after several changes came up with Schiphol! Somewhat chastened, but unhappy with technology, we climbed aboard. Humans, please!

  11. What an amazing blog--glad I stumbled onto it (and I even found someone I know: Hilary, hope we don't stop meeting this way!)

    Being interested in anything that floats, I'll be sure to pop in again.

  12. Learning a language can take place almost osmotically ... I have a similar experience. Growing up with 2 German Jewish parents who didn't want me to learn German (the language of persecution) but who used it in everyday conversation,I must have absorbed words without knowing it. Last year, BH and I went to Berlin, for some research...and to my shock, I found I could speak German..not well, but well enough, and without a ''british accent'. Yet I never officially learned a single word. Like you, phrases repeated over and over again, enter the brain and become part of the extended vocabulary.

  13. Val, I enjoyed your post. I guess the bottom line is to learn what we must in order to survive. I learn through repetition as well; plus I am a visual learner. If I see it, it will probably remain longer.

  14. Thanks to all of you for your lovely comments! I've been out this afternoon, so these are lovely to read

    Patricia, I need to be able to see as well as hear most of the time. If I only hear something once, I also won't remember it. It took a while even with all the repetition for me!

    Suzanne, you made my day. I go so wrong at times! I love your story! You should write about your experiences in Finland too!

    Maria, it's nice to know you like the familiar sound of the announcers! Technology is amazing and I like using it too, but this is one development that isn't in my favour :)

    Jo, I love the idea of you pounding the hills, muttering in Spanish. It is a struggle isn't it?

    Christina, thank you for the corroborating story! I love it! Yes…humans please - that's just it!

    Thank you, Inge! Good to see you. I've popped over to yours as well :)

    CarolStar, that's amazing that you could still remember so much German! I'm very impressed. I know that what is learnt young tends to stick longer, but the fact you could reproduce it is fantastic!

    Lynn, thank you! I am also a visual learner, so usually I need to see words to learn them, but this repetition business really works subconsciously :)


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