Not dead yet (well, perhaps brain dead…)

Beautiful when it’s on a flower. Hell when it’s soaking into your trousers.

I am the sole editor working on a digital publication which is due to go live in June next year. The amount of work that needs to be done between now and then is the work originally destined to be done by two people, one with far more experience than myself. One of the jobs is to sort and edit a list of vocabulary, adding in individual feedback options for specific correct and incorrect answers, totalling roughly 3,000 words. I work in an office, and I have my own cubicle. The result of all this being? Seven hours a day spent glaring at a computer screen. 

Words on a screen have started to decompose into oscillating lines in front of me now. I imagine them warping into surreal dancing figures like some weird 1960s cartoon set to experimental jazz. I have ceased ‘typing’ and have reached the stage where I just flagellate my fingers at the keyboard and whack the letters in like the actions of an octopus suffering a tremendous electric shock. Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts and Alt codes are wired into my tendons. I read newspapers by lifting the page upwards in quick bursts because I can only read now in the jerky up-and-downyness of a scroll button. I am a German editing machine.

This vocab editing is probably the most punishing part of the project so far. The vocab testing component of the publication is vital, mostly because the poor guys in digital spent many hours and cried many tears trying to programme a vocab-testing template that would actually work and take into account all the ridiculous vagaries words necessitate: did you realise how many synonyms there are for full-cream milk, all of which ought to be marked correct if typed in and therefore have to be programmed into the system so that students don’t get penalised for typing ‘whole milk’ when it’s clearly the same thing? Then there are accents, which are their own can of bloodthirsty tapeworms, because they are different for different languages and although it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money to programme the French ‘é’ into the German foreign characters pad we can’t not because ‘café’ is such an important word. 


The important thing is that we end up testing the students on all of the vocab included in at least one exam board core-level specification, because that is the best (least worst?) yardstick there is for finding a base level of the minimum number of words you might need to complete a GCSE in German to a basic degree of competency. The spec we used, Edexcel, is frankly shameful; there is an actual booklet that students are supposed to print out and learn by wrote, and the booklet makes it unequivocally clear that students will be expected to know all of these words to at least scrape a pass. The list has clearly been sellotaped together by a gang of gibbons with some scissors and a dictionary. It is rife with spelling mistakes, genuinely incorrect translations and genders, and a truly inexplicable choice of words (‘banana’ appears in the list no less than ten times, yet the students are never expected to learn the word ‘animal’). Thanks to this mountainous heap of bollocks on which an entire qualification has been based, I have had to meticulously scrape through this selection of thousands of words deleting repetitions, correcting errors, adding in ‘sich’ for reflexive verbs and other silly bits of housekeeping which take hours and make my retinas crumble into something resembling muesli. 

The tragic thing is that I discovered this booklet before I started. My lovely Mexican colleague, who is on Spanish, didn’t know there was an electronic version available, and typed every single word in the Spanish spec in by hand. When I then discovered that the booklet had been extended since her first collation and new essential words had been added, meaning that she would now have to look through the new booklet and check through her whole list to see what had to be added, she looked at me with such heartbreaking sorrow in her eyes that I felt like a war criminal. 

That’s the ‘core’ list. Then, to make the list extend to the kind of vocabulary higher-level students might aim for, I had to compile a list of more advanced words based on the course structure this digital product is built upon. It’s a slightly wild and left-field selection of ideas when you get to the higher-tier stuff in this course, so this means that higher students will be learning basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘youth hostel’ alongside ‘desertification’, ‘individualist’ and ‘ice-blading’, whatever the heck that last one is. It’s not really within my power to add the kind of words I would want to know into the selection, so sadly they will never learn ‘hedgehog’, ‘moustache’ or ‘unbelievable’. 

As I mentioned, each word needs to have the translation added for it and then potential synonyms so that students don’t get told they’re wrong for getting the gist but putting it in different words. This is difficult. There are thousands of ways to say ‘pleasant’, but since they all basically mean ‘pleasant’ if you’re struggling through an oral exam and you just want to say your holiday was nice, you deserve to get a mark for guessing any of them. My job is to look into the future and think of all the different words and variations people might guess. Then, of course, there are potential wrong answers. Thankfully the Company have deemed that it would be insane to have to enter in every single possible wrong answer the student could give, but we do have to have a couple of specific ones for the occasions when the student might have forgotten the right gender and need a useful hint to pop up that says ‘Hey dude. Did you really think that ‘waitress’ was a masculine noun?’ Unfortunately this means these possibilities must be typed in for every. single. noun. Every noun needs a feminine, masculine and neuter entry without a capital letter (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget that German nouns always start with a capital letter’) and the two incorrect gender entries (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget to choose the right gender’). It’s important though, because if you’re miserably ploughing through tons of dry vocab the least you deserve is a bit of feedback reminding you that you were on the right track but you just needed to think a little bit harder. It’s a shame that we can’t also account for morons who spell ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ the wrong way round and that kind of thing, but what do you guys want from me? I’m only one person!

Why am I bothering to spend so much time on this and do it so meticulously? Because I have studied German to the end of degree level and I can say without doubt that the majority of real German-learnin’ time gets spent rattling through vocabulary. It’s monotonous and it’s dry and the genders really get on your biscuit (one of my favourite German expressions). You have to do it for life. And in the end, you have to learn to enjoy it and love packing your mind with hundreds of useful words because grammar is the skeleton of a language and the words are the meaty, juicy bits that flesh it out to make a magnificent body. The more words you have, the more you ‘own’ the language; feeling eloquent is almost a form of power, because eloquence is the power to express what you want to say in exactly the right way so that people know not only what you want to say but how you want it to be heard. And when you’re being asked what you think about ‘drug taking among young people’ it’s great to be able to say what you mean, not just a key phrase about the dangers of parties.  

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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