Monday, February 4, 2008


I spent the weekend on an intensive course in CSS at the Volkhochschule in Alt-Mariendorf. Given a choice I would rather not have learnt CSS, but things kept going wrong with my website. The purpose of the website is to enable professional existence to continue at times when I am lying on the floor staring at the wall, I will not say unable to move but unable to interact with my fellow man without a reenactment of that film with Richard Gere and Edward Norton. When things go wrong with the website, however, it is necessary to interact with my fellow man, or, more specifically, with the friend who set up the website in CSS and is currently the only person capable of setting it to rights. The strain at times (o petty concerns, how can I think of my petty concerns when tomorrow is Super-Tuesday but wotthehell) of being pleasant instead of lying motionless on the floor is such that no excess amiability is available for dealing with possible professional associates. Publishers, producers, potential payers of bills.

Although I would rather have been working on a book than learning CSS it turns out to be profoundly interesting. As you probably know (i.e. the odds are that 90% of you already know more about these things than I do), websites are realised differently on different browsers. So the languages in which you write for the web are forced to confront an issue natural languages ignore: how to allow for, or rather preempt, different interpretations. Any sentence one uses in a natural language is going to undergo distortions depending on the person reading or hearing it; with natural language sentences, however, we can't really adjust for anticipated distortions. Working with CSS shows you the level of analysis that's necessary if a language operates in an environment of guaranteed distortions and wants (OK, I am anthropomorphising shamelessly, tant pis) to ensure that a predeterminated "message" gets through. So it's exceptionally interesting - and it's also extraordinarily reassuring, because one has stepped into a little world where such things are subject to control. Not only has one stepped into a world where such things can be controlled, one has stepped into a world whose natives believe in purifying the language of the tribe and have done something about it.

The course was also a very good thing for an unrelated reason. Last week I managed to register with my language school for the last week of the preparatory course for the TestDAF - the course they refused to let me sign up for at the beginning of term. On Friday we had a model test in Reading Comprehension and another on Hearing Comprehension. The first was straightforward, the second worrying. Luckily I had signed up for the intensive course in CSS, in other words for 2 days of 6 straight hours of German in a natural environment. I wish I'd know earlier how helfpul this would be, total immersion in a context where the speaker is not making allowance for language learners. Not to mention coffee and meal breaks when a wide variety of styles of speech could be heard, and stumbling attempts at speech imposed on innocent native speakers. Fantastic.

This morning I turned up for Axel's course and got the result of our test last week. According to Axel I did not really need to take the course, because I got 12 out of a possible 12 - but this is really just a case of Axel being large-minded about the fleabitten carcase which I send out into the world as German. In the afternoon I turned up for the terrifying TestDAF course, where we did various exercises on grammar and vocabulary. When a word was unfamiliar to the class my fellow-students had a habit of explaining it to other fellow students with the English term (Eindecker = monoplane, Libellen = dragonflies). (Awwww.) After the break we had a written test, an essay to be written with a graph on self-employment as a starting point. I wrote madly, committing grammatical howlers right and left, having failed to wear a watch and so having no idea how much time was available.

I think these activities are not the sort of thing people generally associate with the writing of fiction. It's interesting to see how things actually work.

1 comment:

Lee said...

For exactly the same reason - my eventual website - and with exactly the same reluctance, I'm being forced to confront CSS. So far not much joy, maybe I ought to look into a similar course locally.

All of computer programming is fascinating, I suppose, with regard to language, logic, and their interrelationships.

But don't we - sometimes, at least - adjust for anticipated distortions in natural language. What about instructions to a young child, for example? Or deliberately ambiguous political formulations? Perhaps I don't understand what's meant by distortion ...