On Learning Languages (1)


So, I’ve always had a bit of a problem: there are far too many things I want to learn, and far too few hours in the day to actually do so. (See earlier post where someone felt obliged to inform my teenage self that trying to do two doctorates – in theoretical physics and medieval literature – was an exceedingly impractical idea.)

Perhaps this becomes most obvious, however, when we’re talking about foreign languages. A somewhat infamous example from my childhood may illustrate: when I was in Grade 3, my mother asked me what I wanted to study in school the next year. Because of the flexibility that homeschooling allowed, this was a fairly normal occurrence: if there was a topic that I was particularly interested in, it could usually be incorporated into the curriculum somehow. This was, for instance, how I ended up doing Grade 11 Chemistry at age ten: I told my mother I wanted to study chemistry, she found and bought an appropriate textbook, and I studied high school chemistry. (In sufficient depth that I walked straight into Grade 12 gifted chemistry in my first semester of high school, on the strength of work I’d done four years previous.)

When I was in Grade 3, however, my answer was not chemistry. Instead, it was a list of about a dozen languages, including more normal culprits like Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian, but also including a fair number of more obscure languages, like Finnish and Swahili.

(My longsuffering mother, who of course spoke none of the above, resorted to finding all the Berlitz language courses that were available from the library, and acquiring a whole series of books with titles like “First Thousand Words in French/Spanish/German/Latin/Japanese/Hebrew/etc.”)

I really don’t know where this interest came from – I can’t say Tolkien, because I hadn’t read any of The Lord of the Rings books at the time and didn’t know anything about Tolkien the linguist outside of, well, The Hobbit. (Discovering Tolkien admittedly provided much inspiration – but the interest seems to predate my exposure to him.) Certainly I was exposed to other languages from an early age: Latin and Greek show up on my homeschool report cards as early as Grade 1 or 2, and my parents always put a great emphasis on French, despite the fact that neither of them speak it particularly well – we read children’s books in French, my mother organized a French reading group at the local library, she arranged for various exchange students to come and give lessons, we had “French days”, on which no one (other than my father, who couldn’t manage this) was allowed to speak English, and we watched French films.

This latter activity, in fact, was a tried-and-true method that my sister and I used as children if we wanted to watch television – although watching Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in English might be an unprofitable use of time, watching them in French was educational. (I still use the same reasoning to justify to myself the time I spend watching musicals like Roméo et Juliette and Notre Dame de Paris.)

Then I did discover Tolkien, shortly before competing in various spelling competitions, and my interests shifted to the elven languages Quenya and Sindarin, and the real-world languages they were inspired by – Finnish and Welsh. I really liked Finnish, but gave up on it fairly fast, mostly because … well, I have no problems with inflected languages. I’ve spend a lot of time studying them, and they allow for so many rhetorical effects that simply don’t translate into modern English, because our language no longer allows for them. But instead of the entirely reasonable four or five cases for nouns that Old English or Latin might have, Finnish has fifteen – nominative, genitive, accusative, partitive, inessive, elative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, essive, exessive, translative, instructive, abessive, and comitative.

(This is also why, at least in my opinion, Mandarin is a breath of fresh air: sure, the writing system involves a ton of memorization, but there are no inflections!)


The thing about learning languages, of course, is that once you’ve learned one or two, it becomes much easier to learn more. My Spanish, for instance, is really not all that great. But I can nonetheless sit down and make sense of newspaper articles or websites in Spanish, because my knowledge of French and Latin means that if I don’t actually know a vocabulary word in Spanish, the chances are really very high that I do know said vocabulary word’s cognate in French or Latin, and can therefore recognize it anyways.

Similarly, tackling German this summer – and this fall – has been a pretty quick study, if you consider that I compressed what Oxford would consider a year-long introductory course into about five weeks of somewhat sporadic poolside study, and then hopped into the intermediate reading course once I arrived. But the reasons for this are entirely straightforward:

1) if you already know how the nominative/genitive/dative/accusative/etc. work, you don’t have to learn again,

2) English and German (and Old English and Old Norse) are sufficiently closely related that if you understand the sound changes that have divided the two langugaes, figuring out the English equivalents of German words is not terribly complicated,

3) I had learned how to pronounce German as a child (thank the spelling bee!); also, many of the sounds that German has (that do not exist in English) are common to other languages that I’d studied,

4) if you know how all the verb tenses with auxiliaries (perfect, pluperfect, future perfect, the various passives, etc.) work in French and English, the German verb system is straightforward.


Now, popular wisdom would say that one should never learn more than one language at a time. This is one of those rules that I glance at every so often, and then shrug my shoulders as I proceed to flout it completely. Let’s face it: you can’t work with – or study – just one language at a time when dealing with early medieval literature. Reading knowledge of English, French, German, Latin, Old English, Old Norse, and Middle English is not optional for what I’m currently doing – in the last couple months, I’ve had to read and/or translate and/or analyze texts in all of the above. (With varying degrees of facility depending on my experience with the language: everything from “this is a pleasant afternoon’s reading” (French, Old English) to “I require a grammar, a dictionary, and the vast resources of the Internet in order to make sense of this” (scholarly articles in German …).

This is not to mention the other languages that are somewhat less mandatory, but have nonetheless cropped up in the last few weeks: Old French (I was attending a lecture series on Beroul’s Tristan, an Old French romance – and also, a number of the Old Norse riddarasögur were translations or adaptations of Old French texts), Norwegian (Old Norse scholarship, including the only extant translation into any language of an Old Norse mathematical treatise that I have been translating into English), modern Icelandic (again, Old Norse scholarship, including the earliest book I can find on female poets in Old Norse literature) – and, just to make matters more interesting, Quenya (Oxford’s Tolkien society).

Is this potentially confusing? Well, yes – but it is also a large part of why medieval literature is so much fun, and why I’ll (hopefully!) never get bored studying it: there are always going to be more languages to learn.

After all, I would still really like to acquire a more solid working knowledge of Spanish. And be able to speak German, as opposed to just reading it. And learn Italian. And Russian. And Finnish. And Welsh, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Mandarin, Gothic, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, Old East Slavic, Classical Greek …


… and when actually sitting down to work, practicality must return: German. Let’s see how many more vocabulary flashcards we can make today!

(One of my personal projects over the holidays – in addition to the assigned homework for my Oxford course – is to read The Hobbit in German. So far I’ve gotten about halfway through the first chapter, mostly because I keep stopping to look up every vocabulary word that I’m even slightly unsure about. Might have to stop doing that if I intend to get through the whole thing in the next few weeks!)


Theatre in Oxford

(or: Juggling Many Hats)



Evaluating the quality of LED Parcans. Fake blood capsules. Cycloramas. Fabrics-that-look-like-silk-but-cost-less. Lighted candles on stage. Fire regulations. Stage combat workshops. Risk assessments. Hiring thirty square metres of raised staging. The mildly annoying detail that theatres in Canada still do architectural drawings in imperial, necessitating the purchase of a new scale ruler that will do metric (and switching AutoCAD settings!) How to twirl a double-bladed lightsaber 101. Making a 1960s-esque radio in sixty minutes flat, the day a show opens.

These are just a few of the things that have flown by my radar screen in the last few weeks, thanks to the ever-entertaining job that is working on – and training for – theatrical productions. So far, I’ve only finished one show – as ASM (assistant stage manager) for the Sondheim musical Assassins (tech week Nov. 23-30) – but mostly as a result of that production, I also have no shortage of plans in the pipeline for next term.

(And because I don’t believe in leaving things to the last minute … you can guess how much planning is happening/going to happen over the Christmas break!)

Now, as is perhaps evident from the variety of topics touched upon above, my role in theatre tends to be one that involves juggling a lot of hats simultaneously. (To take some non-Oxford examples, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore saw me as stage manager, fight captain, and costume crew/corset creator – in addition to performing in the show itself as a fighter and dancer. For Antony and Cleopatra, last year, I was originally cast as an ordinary actor in a minor role – Octavia – and then ended up doing both fight choreo and costumes.)

Unsurprisingly, while the staging of a production and the composition of a production team don’t differ too much from Canadian theatre, there are, as I have discovered, a few divergences on this side of the pond, and particularly in Oxford. One of which is the amount of work and responsibility foisted upon the stage manager: in Oxford, the workload is considerably lightened!

This has the potential to be a very good thing: on most shows that I’ve worked on before, if the director is absent, the stage manager is basically in charge, and certainly is tasked with being the communications nexus of the show. Making a cast-scene breakdown, making preliminary props, costumes, lighting, and sound plots, distributing scripts, scheduling rehearsals, preparing and distributing daily and weekly schedules, posting same on call boards, creating and keeping the prompt script up to date, attending all rehearsals and keeping a record of the blocking, ensuring that rehearsals run on schedule, passing on notes from the director to the production team, finding rehearsal props and costumes, taking minutes at production meetings and distributing them, running Q2Q, recording and then calling cues, taping the rehearsal floor (and then stage floor), allocating dressing rooms and make-up shifts, managing risk and ensuring that safety regulations are followed … all of these tasks (and quite a few more) appear on the University of Ottawa’s “Technical Task Guidelines” under the heading of “Stage Manager”.

And this makes sense: theoretically, the director and designers may have moved on to other shows after opening night, and it is therefore the responsibility of the stage manager to maintain “to the best of his/her ability, the artistic and technical intention of the Director, Producer, and Designer” (Canadian Theatre Agreement, p. 56).

In practice, that means my pre-show checklist would include a fairly long list of things, some of which are below:

– showing up with the keys and unlocking the building, booth, dressing rooms, etc.

– sweep stage floor; check audience seating & clean if necessary

– verifying that the lighting and sound ops have run their pre-show checks – or doing these myself if this is a student show and the lighting/sound ops don’t know how (and yes, this has absolutely included getting up on a ladder and re-focusing a light if it’s shifted)

– ensuring that all the actors show up, and tracking them down if they’re late

– checking/setting props

– checking costumes, and setting up for any quick changes

– verifying that the paging system is working, and that the program sound system is on

– coordinating watches and communicating with the house manager

– giving 15-minute, 5-minute, and “places” calls to the actors

– dealing with any crises that arise (actor took costume piece home, left it there, and realizes this five minutes before they need it onstage, prop breaks, light burns out, costume tears …)

The result, of course, is that knowing-a-little-bit-about-a-lot-of-things is fairly essential, and that the flexibility that I have tends to come in very handy.


… on the other hand, if this still sounds like an inordinate amount of work for one person, even if aided by an ASM or two, Oxford clearly agrees. The duties above are split up between multiple people – the stage manager, the deputy stage manager (who actually has very little to do with the SM, and is primarily responsible for recording blocking during rehearsals, and calling the show), the production manager, the director, and any assistant stage managers.

So at least on Assassins, that whole long list of things the SM & ASM must do before/during a show was reduced to something like this:

– sweep floor & check audience seating

– check/set props

– run fight calls (the idea of having a separate fight captain/fight director to do this is apparently not usually a thing in Oxford student theatre, ergo this is assigned to the SM)

– ensure that actors get props when needed, and help with quick changes

This has distinct advantages, inasmuch as – hey! less work! less time taken away from studying! – and distinct disadvantages, inasmuch as I didn’t get to know the actors/director very well, and I spent most of tech week feeling as though I really ought to be doing more work – and contributing more – than I was.


The other key differences between Ottawa and Oxford have mostly to do with Oxford not having a theatre/drama program: in Ottawa, there are a bevy of people far more qualified than me to do set design, and everyone in the theatre department – even students focused primarily on acting – would have had to complete a set of core technical theatre courses. This would be even more the case for something like lighting, where I was a fairly competent technician, but was never so much as a lighting crew head, never mind a designer.

Oxford, different scenario: I apparently have more technical training than the majority of Oxford students can easily get. (With some very notable exceptions, many of whom I had the privilege of meeting and working with on Assassins! And no, I am not simply saying that because some of them may read this – my parents and a few close friends could undoubtedly attest to the fact that they’ve had to put up a great deal of me gushing about the general awesomeness of the Assassins production team in the last few weeks!) But, yes, while Oxford’s student productions have more funding and much bigger budgets (and I am in absolute awe of some of the equipment that the theatres here have and take for granted), they also don’t have large numbers of trained students to draft in as lighting crew, set crew, or costume crew – the designers end up doing the work themselves. And getting to the level of competence where one could in fact design a show (if, say, one was a fresher arriving with an interest but no training) seems like it would be a serious hurdle.

The level of professionalism assumed on student productions also differs, and this is one area where Ottawa has a leg up: at least from my observations, there was, and is, a fairly close connection between university theatre productions and professional theatre productions. I could cite a long list of friends and acquaintances who – like me – started out in UOttawa’s theatre department, and then through the resulting connections, experience, and training, ended up working on professional shows in and around the city. Ottawa being Ottawa, the theatre community is sufficiently close-knit that I always assumed that any reputation, whether positive or negative, gained on student productions would inevitably affect the likelihood of getting professional work: Equity actors have performed in university shows, the Drama Guild will bring in professional designers to work alongside students for major productions, and Professor Lockhart prefaced his tech courses with the explicit statement that if you could pass his exams, you ought to be able to pass the exam to become an IATSE apprentice. I’m pretty sure it was the department’s introductory course, THE 1100, when I first heard the saying “If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late, you’re fired.” As a SM, I would be calling an actor and wondering if something had gone wrong if they were so much as five minutes late – because everyone else would be in the rehearsal room, ready to go, and waiting on them.

Oxford has a much more laid-back approach, which is on the one hand more relaxing, and can be on the other hand quite amusing – and though it has not been too frustrating thus far, there are definite drawbacks. A production meeting scheduled for 1:00pm, for instance, does not mean that the meeting starts at 1:00pm and that everyone will be there 5-10 minutes before that – it means that the meeting will actually get started around 1:15, and most people will arrive between 1:05 and 1:15. Rehearsal schedules, same deal: the actors will not be ready to start a tech rehearsal at 9:00am if that is the call time; most of them will show up somewhere between 9:05 and 9:30, probably not having eaten breakfast yet, and therefore not actually ready to work until something like 9:45.


All of which means that I am in the following, rather odd, position: the flexibility and technical training so useful as a stage manager in Ottawa does not actually seem needed, as much, when working as a stage manager in Oxford. The role of an SM here is quite tame, comparatively speaking! But that same technical training and flexibility means that I can take on other positions – set designer, assistant lighting designer – that I would have had much less chance of doing in Ottawa, and consequently (I hope – the next few years will test this) gain a great deal of valuable experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, I am back to juggling multiple hats. Set, costumes, lighting, fight work, and stage management are all on the horizon for the next several months: it should be quite the adventure!


(I swear I am also getting academic work/research done. Truly. In fact, I just received word that an abstract that I finished and submitted in the middle of tech week for Assassins was accepted – so I will be giving my first conference presentation in Denmark in March!)