Translating Cultures and the Mediation of Indigenous Rights in Peru


While we were all busy teaching, marking papers, setting exams, attending conferences and writing papers, Dr Raquel de Pedro Ricoy spent part of the first semester in the jungle. Literally.

Raquel is working on an AHRC-funded project entitled “Translating Cultures and the Mediation of Indigenous Rights in Peru” with Prof. Rosaleen Howard (Newcastle University) and Dr Luis Andrade (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú), in partnership with the Directorate for Indigenous Languages of the Ministry of Culture and the rural development agency SER. The project looks at new state-sponsored initiatives to facilitate better communication between the Spanish-speaking majority and speakers of the many Amerindian languages of the Andean highlands and the Amazon basin. The aim of the project is to research how far translation and interpreting, in contexts of mediation between the Peruvian state and its indigenous populations, can achieve the state legislated goals of upholding indigenous rights, while also sustainably developing the resource-rich territories where the indigenous populations live Ever since the Spanish conquest, Peru’s indigenous languages have lost ground to Spanish, which dominates all fields of formal communication and is seen as having greater prestige than the local Amerindian tongues. Indigenous people often suffer discrimination on linguistic as well as sociocultural grounds. However, this situation is gradually being reversed. Languages such as Quechua and Aymara in the highlands, and Asháninka and Shipibo in the rainforest, are spoken in schools and health centres, and bilingual indigenous people are becoming trained professionals in a variety of fields. Laws passed in 2011 make translation and interpretation a right, and the government is responding by translating the laws into the native languages as well as training bilingual indigenous people to be interpreters.

This is why Raquel spent two weeks in the high jungle town of Quillabamba,where the Ministry of Culture was running a training course for speakers of indigenous languages. As part of the project, Raquel and the rest of the teamobserved the training sessions, contributed to a panel on language rights and ran a workshop with the participants on the experience of translation. The trainees were speakers of: Matsigenga, an Arawak language; Harakbut a highly endangered language spoken by just 2,800 people in Madre de Dios department; and five different varieties of the Andean language Quechua. Raquel subsequently travelled to Pucallpa, in the Peruvian western jungle, where she interviewed community leaders who had used the services of interpreters in a consultation process facilitated by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. During her stay in Lima, Raquel delivered a plenary lecture at the XII International FIT Forum and joined government representatives and legal experts for a round-table discussion on legal translation and interpreting for indigenous languages.

The team is currently working on an article about the indigenous experience of translating indigenous rights law, involving translators in the difficult task of expressing western concepts such as ´rights´ and ´law´ in their own Amazonian and Andean tongues.


EU study on Public Service Translation in Cross-Border Healthcare is out!

After 10 months of non-stop work, we are delighted to announce that an EU study on Public Service Translation in Cross Border Healthcare, led by Prof Claudia V. Angelelli is published. The Report, commissioned by the Directorate-General for Translation, responds to an increasing interest in the role of language provision and information access in cross-border healthcare.

Linguistic diversity permeates every thread of the European Union fabric. Cross-border healthcare is increasing among EU citizens and residents who seek care under Directive 2011/24/EU or Regulation (EC) N° 883/2004.

In a multilingual and intercultural society like the EU, patients and providers may not share a language. If patients cannot access healthcare services in a language they fully understand, equal access to safe and high-quality healthcare is not guaranteed. Through the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods, this exploratory study examines language policies as well as responses provided (or lack thereof) to linguistically diverse patients in areas of Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. The cost of language provision as well as good practices are also studied.

Results show that a variety of responses, ranging from professional translation and interpreting support to informal and unprofessional ad-hoc solutions, are used to address the language needs of patients. In the absence of formal language guidance in EU legislation, in most observed cases appropriate language services are not provided for patients who do not speak the language of the Member State in which they seek healthcare. This study has implications for policy makers, healthcare providers, educators, translators and interpreters serving the needs of linguistically and culturally diverse patients.

The full document of the study is available here

Research Report on New Irish Speakers launched

by Bernie O’Rourke

Irish Speakers Research Cover_Layout 1

On Friday 30th October, the Irish Language Commissioner, Rónán Ó Domhnaill, launched a Research Report on New Speakers of Irish.  The report was prepared by Heriot-Watt LINCS Professor Bernadette O’Rourke and colleagues Dr. John Walsh and Dr. Hugh Rowland of the University of Ireland, Galway.

This joint venture between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Ireland, Galway presents the results of research on the background, practice and ideologies of ‘new speakers’ of Irish. ‘New speakers’ are defined as people who regularly use a language but who are not traditional native speakers of that language. The report is based on research conducted in recent years by a network of European researchers titled New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe: Opportunities and Challenges under the auspices of COST (European Co-operation in Science and Technology). Prof O’Rourke is the Chair of the network which consists of some 400 researchers from 27 European countries.

What the research demonstrates is that anyone can become a new speaker of Irish or any other minority language, regardless of their language background. However, people need more support to become new speakers and the report makes specific policy recommendations which will help people make that transition if implemented.

‘The findings of our research on Irish have many parallels with other languages in Europe including Basque, Catalan, Breton, Galician, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, and this report will provide invaluable insights into the broader opportunities and challenges that new speakers bring to a multilingual Europe. The recommendations we have made in relation to new speakers of Irish will feed into a broader set of recommendations at EU level and help identify a common framework of understanding and policy implications at European level’, said Prof O’Rourke. This report builds on other research conducted in Scotland on new speakers of Gaelic by O’Rourke, Professor Wilson McLeod and Dr Stuart Dunmore of the University of Edinburgh.

Ferdie Mac an Fhailigh, Chief Executive of Foras na Gaeilge (the body responsible for the promotion of the Irish language) welcomed the report and the importance of new speakers. The research will feed into recommendations on how best to support new speakers of the language in the future.

A copy of the report is available on the Foras na Gaeilge website.


Heritage research and practice


Last week saw the launch of A Companion to Heritage Studiesa major reference work for Heritage research and practice, co-edited by Prof Máiréad Nic Craith and Prof Ulli Kockel from the IRC as well as Prof William Logan of Deakin University, Melbourne.

A Companion to Heritage Studies is a comprehensive, state-of-the-art interdisciplinary reference work for the study of cultural heritage, published in Wiley-Blackwell’s prestigious Companion series. It covers the key themes of research and practice, including cultural preservation, environmental protection, world heritage and tourism, ethics, and human rights. Accessibly organized into a substantial framework-setting essay by the editors followed by three sections on expanding, using and abusing, and recasting heritage, it provides a cutting-edge guide to emerging trends in the field that is global in scope, cross-cultural in focus and critical in approach.

The Companion features 37 contributions written by 44 leading scholars from five continents, including some with extensive experience in heritage practice through UNESCO World Heritage Centre, ICOMOS, and national heritage systems.

The book was launched in the course of ‘Our National Future: Creativity & Creative Industries’, an event organised by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) Fellows’ Media, Creative Industries, Culture & Heritage Network on Friday 23 October.

Launching the Companion, RSA Scotland and MCICH Network Founder  Ann Packard, said: “This book is global, diverse in content, easily accessible chapter by chapter, deals with both the tangible and intangible and above all is interdisciplinary, interdisciplinarity being at the heart of the RSA. It should be a welcome resource for all who value culture and heritage, irrespective of their discipline and whether a politician, a policy maker or a planner. It is for the lay reader as much as the heritage professional.”

Speakers at the event included Vikki Heywood CBE, Chairperson of the RSA and the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value, who spoke on the Commission’s 2015 Report Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth; Professor Barbara Townley, Chair of Management and Director, Institute for Capitalising on Creativity (ICC), University of St Andrews School of Management, who discussed the ICC’s ESRC project Creative Industries Scotland: Capitalising on Creativity; and Janet Archer, Chief Executive, Creative Scotland, who presented on the Creative Scotland Creative Industries Draft Strategy, issued for consultation on Friday 16 September.

Signposting Professional Practice: Intercultural Communication and Interpretation

Everyone was there.

LINCS staff from all sections, students, colleagues from universities all over the UK, Heads of Schools, Vice-Principals, technicians, photographers, interpreters, representatives from Deaf organisations, Deaf friends. A little girl with long blonde hair was laughing and signing happily with her grandparents, who were all dressed to the nines for the occasion.

It was the inaugural lecture of Prof Jemina Napier, Head of Department of LINCS, entitled “Signposting Professional Practice: Intercultural Communication and Interpretation”.

Jemina started her lecture in British Sign Language, stating, through the voice of her interpreter, Yvonne Waddell, that she would like to speak in her mother tongue. She not only has Deaf parents and Deaf in-laws (the proud grandparents of the young girl mentioned earlier), but she also comes from a family of 4 generations of Deaf people. She explained how she grew up in a bilingual, bicultural environment (English <> BSL), which led her, among other things, to feature in the Sign and Say books as a child, demonstrating everyday terms such as “doctor”, “teach”, “Australia”, all prophetic with regard to her later career development. This also led to her first BSL interpreting assignment at age 17 (!). She showed footage of her various interpreting jobs, including interpreting during Princess Diana’s funeral and for the Australian Prime Minister in 2011.

But when she was still starting out around 20 years ago, there was no formal training for BSL interpreters. Back then, unfortunately, being bilingual was enough. Later on, as a practising interpreter, she had the opportunity to study for an MA in BSL/ English Interpreting at Durham University. This sparked her interest in research and so she went to Australia to pursue her PhD in Sign Language Interpreting at Macquarie University. Along the way, she also managed to learn Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN), American Sign Language (ASL) and International Sign, which is no mean feat, as Signed Languages are by no means similar, even though some of them belong to language families like spoken languages. For example, American Sign Language and French Sign Language belong to the same language family, which is quite distinct from BSL and AUSLAN, which belong to a different language family.

At this point, Jemina switched from BSL to English. She explained that she learned to tell stories in BSL, her mother tongue, but she learned to talk about research in English. For the hearing members of the audience, it seemed that Jemina learned to tell stories with a thick Scottish accent (Yvonne Waddell!) and to talk about her research with a slight Australian twang (Jemina’s own accent, developed while living in Australia for 15 years). Yvonne was Jemina’s voice for the first half of the lecture and Brenda MacKay was Jemina’s hands for the second half.

So the story moves to research. With a PhD under her belt, Jemina started developing her research profile in intercultural communication. She established the Postgraduate Diploma in Auslan/ English Interpreting in the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University in Sydney in 2002, and became Head of Translation & Interpreting and Director of the Centre for Translation & Interpreting Research at Macquarie University from 2007 until 2012.

She identified policy, practice, pedagogy and provision of interpreting services as her four main areas of interest. All this research focuses on removing the barriers to allow access for and participation in citizenship for the Deaf community. Her sign language interpreting research focuses on medical, legal, education and workplace interpreting settings. Part of her research into legal settings has included running a two-day mock trial with 11 hearing jurors and one Deaf juror.

Jemina finished off by emphasising that being bilingual is not enough to become an interpreter and that interpreter education is vital for professional practice. She ended on a positive note on the potential for research collaborations between signed and spoken languages. BSL is now recognised in Scotland on a par with other minority languages, such as Gaelic, which is a huge achievement both for BSL users and for Scottish society as a whole. Jemina was asked how Heriot-Watt can capitalise on the recent BSL (Scotland) Bill. She replied that “we now have the chance to become the BSL hub for Scotland”.

The best is yet to come.

For a Storify version of the lecture, click here.

For a video of the full lecture, click here.

New PhD research: The commemoration of Ashura in Iraq and its impact on Shia-Sunni dynamics

by Jafar Ahmad 

October 14 is the first day of Muharram (محرم), the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, where most of Iraq is swathed in black as the Shia, members of one of the two main Islamic sects, mark the beginning of the commemoration of Ashura. Ashura itself is the name of the 10th  day of the month of Muharram (derived from the Arabic term a‘shara, meaning 10). On this day, in the seventh century, Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, his family and companions were killed by a Sunni caliph (leader) in Karbala, in modern day Iraq. From a Shia perspective, Husayn acted as an opposition leader and defender of the true tenants of Islam.  Sunnis dismiss this claim.

Millions of Shias from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Syria are expected to take part in the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq. Iraq will essentially come to a halt and massive security measures will be put in place to protect Shia mourners from attacks, particularly from Islamic State (ISIS). Streets in Baghdad, and other areas in Iraq that are predominately Shia, will be adorned with black flags and there will be processions of pilgrims marching on foot from different cities to the holy city of Karbala where Husayn is buried (located about 100 km southwest of Baghdad). Women will be dressed in black and mourners of both sexes will engage in self-flagellation and will congregate in gender-segregated areas for sorrowful, poetic recitations performed in memory of the death of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.  Ashura is also used as an occasion to curse the Sunni perpetrators of Husayn’s death.  While the mourning period spans two months, these rituals are the most intense during the first 10 days of Muharram.

The various traditions commemorating Ashura developed over 12 centuries and have religious, economic, social, and political dimensions. Moreover, these rituals are culturally-bound as they differ in terms of the nature and the intensity from one community to another depending on various socio-political aspects.  For example, whilst banned under Saddam Hussein (1968-2003), who was a Sunni secular leader in Iraq, Ashura commemoration has been thriving in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Since the fall of Hussein in 2003, the commemoration has intensified in Iraq becoming its biggest cultural, social, religious, and political event. It is fascinating to observe, for both Muslims and non-Muslims, how Shia from different backgrounds and different strata of society engage in these rituals. The commemoration raises questions about the nature of these rituals, in particular why they are appealing to so many, including educated, secular Shia who reside not only in Iraq but also in most large western cities such as London, Sydney, and Toronto. Moreover, there remains an overarching question why people still weep and mourn and, in some cases, participate in bloody rituals to commemorate a battle that took place almost 1400 years ago.

All of these are important questions, particularly for those who are trying to understand the nature of Iraqi society and in light of the current threat posed by ISIS, who consider Shia Muslims to be infidels. In this context, the impact of these rituals on Sunni Iraqis warrants exploration in under to understand the Shia-Sunni dynamic in Iraq. This dynamic, consciously or otherwise, was ignored by the US when it invaded Iraq in 2003. That said, the invasion unleased a renaissance of Ashura and introduced a new complexity to Iraqi society. In light of this, it is my aim to explore the commemoration of Ashura in Iraq, and how has Ashura affected, shaped and informed Shia-Sunni relations.

Jafar Ahmad is a 1st-year PhD student in LINCS

Final-year BSL students at the Scottish Parliament

Reflections from a teacher

by Stacey Webb, Assistant Professor in Sign Language Studies

It is not every day you get to bring your classroom to the real world.  So often we try to bring the real world to the classroom and it just never replicates real life!  Recently we listened and practised interpreting a graduation speech given by Steve Jobs to a group of university graduates. Although it was an inspiring speech, can you imagine the energy at the ceremony on the day?  Imagine the excited students, the proud parents and teachers.  Imagine how that energy can influence the overall interpretation. Imagine seeing the actual graduate in the audience.  I believe that the simple fact of knowing the interpretation is real, that it matters to someone, makes an incredible difference in an interpreter’s performance. However, we only have so much time to prepare our students to become interpreters, ultimately leaving much of our work to occur artificially in the classroom.  So when opportunities present themselves to have our students safely work in real settings, we as educators must do what we can to grab those opportunities and provide them to our students.

I know that for our students, week 1 of year 4 may seem a bit too soon to have the complete real life interpreting experience! Yet could it have been more perfect timing that the final stage of the BSL (Scotland) Bill was being debated in the Scottish Parliament on the same day of our first Advanced Interpreting class?  I call that a unique opportunity. With many thanks to Ruth Connelly at Scottish Parliament and our own Fanny Chouc  in LINCS, our students were given the opportunity to be part of one of the most historical days for Scotland’s Deaf Community. We hosted our class in the real world (we hosted our class at the Scottish Parliament!)

Heriot-Watt students were dressed for success when they signed in with security as ‘real’ interpreters, received official Parliament contractor badges, made their way up to the interpreting booths (where so many professional interpreters have worked before) and practised interpreting a session in Parliament (and again.. not just any session but the BSL Bill (Scotland) session). So if you were at Parliament on 17 September 2015 and happened to lookup at the booths to see several bodies signing and began to wonder, “Who are they?” “What are they doing up there?”- I am here to tell you they were Heriot-Watt students busy at work observing the professional interpreters, practising their own interpretations, reflecting on the formal register of the environment and realizing just how difficult interpreting is. One phrase that seemed to be said over and over again after Parliament was, “Wow, the bar has really been set high”.

Sure, I could have played Mark Griffins speech in support of the bill in our classroom, but the energy wouldn’t have been the same, it wouldn’t have been real. We wouldn’t have dressed a bit sharper, we wouldn’t have signed in with security, and we definitely wouldn’t have felt the energy and excitement from the Deaf community. So although our students were still only practising it was so much more real than it ever could have been in a classroom.  And on that note, my heart felt thanks goes out to the Deaf community, working interpreters, and Scottish Parliament staff, who have played a real role in preparing the next generation of Sign Language interpreters.

Reflections from a student

by Marie Elliot, 4th Year LINCS Student (BSL)

If you were anywhere near the bottom of the Royal Mile on September 17th, you may have felt a tremor emanating from the Scottish Parliament Buildings.

And if you have read the previous post from Professor Graham Turner, then you’ll already know the reason why!

On that afternoon, the final Stage 3 reading of the British Sign language (Scotland) Bill took place. The Bill was passed unanimously and the long-awaited decision to give BSL legal recognition was made. This is a historic event in Deaf history, and the result of years of hard work and campaigning by many individuals and organisations. I would like to comment on the personal impact of being present and witnessing that amazing afternoon.

We 4th-years from the Heriot-Watt BSL/English Interpreting course were not only provided with tickets to join the audience, but were given the unique opportunity to view the proceedings from the interpreter booths. As interpreting students, it was valuable experience to see the processes at work, the high standard of interpreting required, and real-life applications of what we had learnt in theory.

There was a real air of excitement and expectation while everyone waited for other business to be concluded in the chamber, before the BSL (Scotland) Bill was reached in the agenda. So many interested parties were represented in the audience: organisation staff; Deaf and Deaf/blind individuals; People with Hearing dogs; interpreters and others with connections to the Deaf community. There were numerous interpreters, using BSL, Manual interpreting, relay interpreting, and all interpreting in their own style, giving us so many opportunities to observe how different interpreters work, the choices they make, and how they work together with other interpreters. As students in our final year, hoping to join the interpreting profession, it was an invaluable experience. There was so much going on that we could learn from, that we had to focus intensely, as we tried to take it all in.

When it came to the moment of announcing the result of the vote, we were not alone in holding our breath. It seemed that everyone in the audience was doing the same, and I’m sure there were countless others watching online who were also leaning forward with bated breath. The actual announcement produced an incredible moment, with cheers, smiles and waves of delight from the audience, and not a few tears of relief and joy. It was a privilege to join the audience in the foyer, where strangers were hugging each other in delight. After such a long history of oppression and exclusion, everyone was talking hopefully after future change, and increased opportunities for future generations of Deaf children.

Scotland has led the way, and Terry Riley of the British Deaf Association (BDA) expressed it perfectly, when he told me he hoped this event would have the effect of ripples growing into a tsunami, spreading their impact on national and international Deaf communities.

This really was an unforgettable event, and we are all very grateful to the staff at the Scottish Parliament and Heriot-Watt staff, who co-operated in allowing us to be so involved in this historic decision. Parliament staff made us very welcome, and we were impressed to see so many staff using some level of signing. This would have been appreciated by BSL-using visitors, as being respectful to them, and also to the importance attached by the Deaf community to this event.

The day was finished in the most marvellous way, celebrating in a nearby pub. Every single person in the room was able to use some level of signing. It was incredible to look around and see a room packed with people all using the language the Deaf community has fought so hard for, and knowing that language had just been shown respect by the Scottish Parliament. We are grateful to have been allowed to join in this unique moment, so thanks are due to the Scottish Council on Deafness (SCoD) who arranged the after-party, for allowing us to slip in and be a part of it, even though we were technically gate-crashing!

Hopefully there will be many more reasons in the future to celebrate with the Deaf community, after this ground-breaking Scottish Parliament decision.

Progression 2015:  A two-day celebration of Deaf Arts

by Michael Richardson

Only ten days into my Ph.D. research programme, exploring the engagement of the Deaf community and the use of British Sign Language (BSL) in theatre, I was fortunate to be able to attend a two day conference in Glasgow celebrating Deaf Arts and the progress made in that arena over the last decade.

The conference was hosted by Solar Bear, a Glasgow-based organisation which among other things runs Deaf Youth Theatre, a group working in BSL with young people from across the Central Belt; and Deaf Theatre Club, which encourages Deaf people to attend theatre performances across Scotland with BSL interpreters provided.  Recently Solar Bear has also been a key contributor to the development of the new B.A. Performance in BSL and English which was launched at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland earlier this month.

Also represented at the conference and giving presentations were Graeae Theatre Company and the Deaf and Hearing Theatre Ensemble from England; Tyst Theater, the National Deaf Theatre of Sweden; ANO Nedoslov, a Russian company using sign language as the basis of its performance practice; and composer Dr. Oliver Searle, who has recently written a piece of music specially for Deaf and hard of hearing children.

The two days of the conference were filled with practical presentations, giving delegates the opportunity to learn by engaging in different processes of theatre making, as well as the presentation of work, both theatre and film, with subsequent question and answer sessions designed to shed further light on different methods of creating accessible work.

The range of material explored at the conference was both exciting and stimulating.  Jenny Sealey, whose company Graeae creates work by and for Deaf, visually impaired and disabled people, advocates a fully accessible approach to theatre making that uses spoken English and BSL as well as sound effects and music.  Their practice aims to bring physical expression and audio description to bear as part of the communication from the stage:  this is accessibility in action, in the context of making great theatre.

In contrast, the Deaf and Hearing Ensemble have developed an approach which could conversely be described as theatre making in action, in the context of providing effective accessibility.  The ensemble is a group of theatre-makers with a range of skills who work in a fully collaborative way to produce theatre which is ripe with symbolism and emotional expression.  They use every possible mode of communication available to them including spoken English, BSL, movement, mime, projections (of text and images) and music and soundscapes to ensure that the meaning they want to put across is conveyed accessibly to Deaf and hearing audiences alike.

Using BSL as a communication tool within the production was central to all the work I saw during the conference, but there was an interesting variety in the ways in which BSL was used as a language within the different performance styles.  The two companies thus far described sat in the middle of the spectrum of techniques employed, as did the performance project created by Tyst Theater during the course of the second day.  But two other presentations sat at opposite extremes of the sign language as performance spectrum.

At one extreme was Deaf Youth Theatre, who had made a film, A Love Divided, with Deaf actors. The result was accessible to Deaf and hearing audiences, as a result of using body language, music and effective moving image story telling techniques to communicate to the audience.  However, almost no signed or spoken language was used, and the former was only intelligible through lip-reading:  no dialogue was heard.

At the other extreme was the Russian company ANO Nedoslov, for whom the use of sign language was a full theatrical statement  in itself.  Using techniques similar to those explored by Pollitt in Signart:  (British) sign language poetry as Gesamtkunstwerk (2014), the energetic physical actors and dancers of this company used the different linguistic components of signing to create a language of performance that was communicative, creative and beautiful.  During their presentation one of the actors signified the sport of skiing using a mix of facial expression, body language, hand shapes,  iconic signs and role shift to stunningly demonstrate to his audience a clear picture of the skis, the act of skiing, the snow, the landscape, the terrain, and finally the sheer emotional joy of completing the run successfully.  It was a perfect introduction to their techniques that set up high expectations for their later performance which were not disappointed.

In summary, the two days were a fantastic introduction to my field of research.  Having already some experience in creating theatre with Deaf people and using different techniques to include BSL in performance, it introduced me to approaches being used in other parts of the UK and further afield; and to the people involved in developing them.  I returned to my desk today energised and eager to explore the topic further over the coming years.

 Michael Richardson is a PhD student in the BSL section in LINCS

De Perdidos, Al Río

by Calum O’Donnell, 4th year student in LINCS

Going to Heriot-Watt University was one of the better decisions I’ve made with regards to my academic career. Perhaps the best decision, however, was choosing Interpretation and Translation, a subject that presented the opportunity to experience life abroad.

In August 2013 I embarked on a journey that would take me to the Spanish capital city of Madrid. I was to spend five months there as an undergraduate exchange student on the Erasmus programme, and it would end up being some of the greatest months of my life. Be it cheering on Cristiano Ronaldo in the world famous Santiago Bernabéu, bustling my way down the Gran Via or the rumbling chaos of the metro system, Madrid was a vibrant city that you can’t help but love. Not to mention, the city of Madrid was so excited about my arrival, they preemptively called a Metro station after me in my honour, ‘Metro O’Donnell’.

My first impressions were the same as every young, naïve student on their year abroad. Excited to be there, but intimidated by the prospect that I had to do everything myself. I’d scoured the internet for weeks before my departure, looking up tips, hints and must-do’s for when I arrived, but nothing can prepare you for stepping off the plane and realising that you’re quite literally thousands of miles outside your comfort zone. ­

I remember my first few days in the city; hurtling by in a blur of broken, nervously spoken Spanish, an astounding ability to seemingly spend money as if it was going out of fashion and an even better ability to find myself lost and sweaty in amongst the locals, even though whatever map I was reading was telling me, quite clearly, that I was in the right place.

Some of the biggest learning curves happened for me during my first month of living abroad. Things that seemed so difficult at the time such as; getting myself a sim card, viewing flats, organising my University enrolment or even ordering at restaurants and shops, are now things that happen naturally when I’m in Spain. I remember vividly stumbling through my personal details and my need for a sim card at the Orange phone shop during one of my first weeks in the country. The rookie mistake of rehearsing conversations in my head before they happened hindered me at the start of my trip, it was difficult for me to just let go and trust my ability to listen and understand in Spanish, even if during the first weeks I had no idea what was being said to me.

Organising myself and being sensible about getting the most out of my year abroad experience was pretty important to me, and this meant meeting as many people as I could and trying to have as much fun with learning the Spanish language and culture as I could.

So before leaving for Spain I’d made a short list of things to do, detailing my need to:

  1. Find a flat.
  2. Enrol in University.
  3. Improve my Spanish.

The first item ticked off of this list, rather unsurprisingly, was Find a flat. I’d met up for some viewings with an older gentleman by the name of Arturo, who said he had a perfect flat for what I was looking for. Situated in the infamous Arguelles, near the heart of the city, with two English boys and a Venezuelan lad who could speak less English than I could Spanish. The flat was on Calle Andres Mellado, and it was as good as home. Later in my stay, the flat would affectionately be referred to as ‘El Palacio’, which, rather obviously, translates as the Palace, but it never seemed to catch on with the locals or my friends… Funny that.

Getting a well-situated flat with three good guys was the best thing I could have done for myself. It meant that missing a metro or coming home when the sun was rising presented little problem. We were a 15-minute walk from the Gran Via (which made life very easy), a 54-second walk to the door of the Metro station (yes, I counted it) and a 10-minute walk from our local gym (which we never used), the Palace was the perfect place for me. Life was good. I’d managed to cross off the first item on my list and I’d barely been there a week. I was good at this Year Abroad stuff.

Enrolling at my chosen Spanish institution however, the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, was something that had to be seen to be believed. A myriad of emails and notices (all in Spanish…of course) were sent to my student account about enrolling on a Tuesday at an obscure building on the University’s campus at Cantoblanco, about 30-minutes north of Madrid. I headed up and tried my best to navigate my way through the sea of bodies chittering Spanish slang and the confusing signage that seemed to dominate the campus, but failed to find the room. I’d asked for directions several times, but the flurry of Spanish that was aimed my way was unintelligible to me at the time. I was slowly discovering that ‘pánico ciego’ was an adequate way to describe my mental state and perhaps my facial expression when attempting to understand the rapid fire of words that the Spaniards said to me, ‘pánico ciego’ in English, by the way, means blind panic.

However, once enrolled (tick no.2 off of that list!) and attending classes, life became considerably easier. The lecturers in each of my classes spoke clearly, concisely and I found myself grinning ear to ear when I understood complex phrases or laughing along with the class. Soon, conversations with other Spaniards become natural and I even started to hum along to Spanish songs when out and about…the same ones I air-guitar’d to back at the Palace. There were several classes I looked forward to each week, ranging from Lenguas en Contextos (Languages in Context) and Literaturas Europeas (European Literature), the one that I liked the most was Traducción General (General Translation). There was a great atmosphere in the class and everyone loved the fact that there were two native English speakers to keep them all right, even if they were from Fife and Glasgow, respectively. The work ethic that I encountered in each of the classes was pretty incredible. Every class had a studious attitude and they focussed a lot on the work they did outside of class. One thing I came to hate, however, was the gentle hum of whispered conversations whenever the lecturers would speak, which appeared to be a done thing in Spain… I can only imagine the look on one of my current lecturer’s faces if I decided it acceptable to conduct a mini-conference during their class.  I’m a stalwart for manners, and this pushed me close to the edge!

Making friends as native English speakers was something that, luckily, came quite easily. People quickly realised that I wasn’t from Madrid (or Spain, for that matter), and after making several guesses at French, English or Irish, they would often remark enthusiastically on how cool it was to have a Scottish person at the University, although pronouncing ‘Callum’ proved to be quite a challenge for most. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) organised many social outings and these really helped me to immerse myself in all aspects of Spanish culture. I feel my year wouldn’t have been quite the same without them all. I found a whole host of people who wanted to do similar things to me, be it heading out into the bright city lights during the day, or braving the crazy Spanish party lifestyle by night. The ESN society was something that I didn’t expect to be so helpful and fun, but not only were they there to help us enjoy ourselves in Madrid but they were there if we ever needed a solution a Spanish problem or a friendly face to chat to. The experience with the ESN in Spain led me to enquire more about the ESN back at Heriot Watt and will be a good break from my fourth year studies this year.

All in all, it was an incredible five months for me in Madrid. I’ve been back several times since, and I’ve yet to spend a penny on accommodation. People are always so warm and welcoming when I go back, and I credit it all to my year abroad. Meeting new people and hearing their stories are one of the reasons I decided to study languages in the first place, and there is truly no better place to do this than on your year abroad. It amazes me how small the world becomes the older I get. Technology and cheap air travel make keeping in touch with friends, old and new, easier than ever. If you’re lucky enough to be sent by your university on a year abroad, make sure you challenge yourself. As they say, if you’re not living life on the edge, you’re probably taking up too much room.

Hasta luego!

17th September 2015: A momentous day for the BSL Community

by Graham Turner
On a most extraordinary afternoon last week (17th September 2015, a date to be remembered), it seemed that half of Heriot-Watt’s Department of Languages & Intercultural Studies re-located to the Scottish Parliament for a few hours. Why? It was the Stage 3 (final) reading in the chamber of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill.
The Bill passed with unanimous support from the assembled Members of the Scottish Parliament, and will be fully ratified following Royal Assent in 4-8 weeks’ time.
We can state it dispassionately in the clear light of a later week, but this was anything but a calm and sober occasion. For evidence, see You can watch the whole debate from about 1:03:00. But you really only need to see the audience reaction to the final vote (from about 2:35:00) to get a feel for the electrifying nature of the moment.
You could ask any one of LINCS’ eight British Sign Language (BSL) staff members, or our six research students, or indeed any of the 60-odd undergraduate students now enrolled in years 1-4 of our honours degree programme, and they would be able to tell you why this was such a momentous day for the BSL community.
You can read, or watch in BSL, a perspective about the thinking behind the Bill from Heriot-Watt’s Professor Graham Turner (published last year to encourage engagement with the first draft of the Bill) here:
There’s an excellent blog summarising what the Bill does (and doesn’t do) here: It is designed to create an ongoing framework for national planning around BSL which will lead to continuous, incremental improvement in the way BSL is protected and, crucially, promoted across Scottish public life. The community’s priorities will need to be elicited and sustainably enacted: some future scenarios are contained in evidence (  sent from Heriot-Watt  to the Parliamentary committee which reviewed the Bill.
You can see from sources like this that Heriot-Watt has championed this cause from the front since at least 2010. In fact, five years’ campaigning doesn’t even scratch the surface of the deep and painful history that underpins last week’s success. Heriot-Watt BSL staff can tell you story after story after story of friends, family and colleagues who have lived and died in pursuit of proper respect and recognition for BSL.
As Avril Hepner, the British Deaf Association’s Community Development Manager in Scotland, told Parliament in her evidence before the Bill passed, this legislation finally enables BSL users to feel that they belong in Scotland, and Scotland belongs to them along with everyone else.
Scotland therefore becomes the only part of the United Kingdom to secure legal recognition of BSL to date. Needless to say, campaigners everywhere will be encouraging Westminster to follow Scotland’s lead, and Heriot-Watt staff will be fully engaged in supporting their efforts.
So if you see a BSL user anywhere in the UK in the next wee while with a huge, undimmable grin on their face – you now know why. This is huge. Shake their hand.