Defining Gender for an Androgynous Future II: The Roles

gender 2 title

What makes a good fireman? Strong, agile, cunning, brave… male? What makes a good nurse? Caring, affectionate, patient, nurturing… female?

Occupational stereotypes expand far beyond the two basic examples I have given. Do they hold any merit? The idea of gender appropriation in employment is slowly being eroded, and yet we still see shocking numbers that demonstrate the difference in gender representation across many classically male or female occupations. Silicon Valley has a well documented gender gap. As USA Today reports in the article Silicon Valley gender gap is widening: “Women made up just 26% of computing professionals in 2013, substantially less than 30 years earlier and about the same percentage as in 1960. In engineering, women are even less well represented, making up just 12% of working engineers in 2013.”

As always, this phenomena flows both ways. Men are historically under-represented in careers such as nursing, primary (or elementary/middle school) teaching, and child care. The stereotypical view, it could be argued, is that these jobs play to women’s ‘strengths’. By acknowledging this mindset however, we are also alienating a whole wave of men in society who may be naturally good carers, educators and compassionate employees, and damning them to work the rest of their lives in a ‘masculine’ career that doesn’t utilise their true talents. Without ever being able to find such a heady outlet for their natural qualities, these men may find that societal pressure leads them to behave in traditionally ‘manly’ ways to compensate for their own insecurities about not fulfilling their gender role. If one were to speculate on this, one could claim that there could be a link with this lack of fulfilment and the culture of drinking and fighting that exists, for example, in England.

“Beer and fighting; it’s what we do” – Men

In fact, this macho culture could work both ways, alienating both women and men from certain jobs. Many men who don’t identify as ‘manly men’ will be put off joining certain career paths as they may not see themselves as ‘man enough’. Take the British Marines for example. Recruitment is closed to women, so you expect that the culture will be predominantly one of masculinity. A study published in the British Journal of Psychology, and reported in the Daily Mail article Men put off by macho culture: Workers avoiding some jobs because they think they are not ‘man enough’ for the role, states that: “Researchers following marine commandos found that new recruits who did not see themselves as meeting masculine stereotypes struggled to motivate themselves.”

We have a clear example here then of gender stereotypes already working to actually alienate men… huh? This could be interpreted in two ways. Option one; you need a certain set of characteristics to succeed in the Marines, such as toughness and a lack of compassion, which are both regarded as typically ‘hyper-macho’.  Or option two; ideas about masculinity refer to a by gone time when men were expected to be different than they are these days, and an organisation or field of employment that tries to keep these expectations alive will find less and less recruits as time passes, as people adjust to shifting ideas of what masculinity means. OK, so nobody wants a war fought by people who cry every time they fire a gun (for starters, the tears will ruin your aim). But isn’t the point that nobody wants a war… full stop? We adjusted society for a utopian future where war and fighting would cease, and we would embrace all cultures, creeds, colours and constructs equally. It appears that while this level of maturity exists, it is far from the norm as society has been slow to catch up with mentality and foresight.

“We need you (so long as you’re not a woman, or a womanly man, or a sissy, or scared, or enjoy romcoms…”

Before we get ahead of ourselves though, let’s take a step back again. In Part I we established that biological sex, gender and gender identity are not all necessarily one and the same. You can be born with male genitalia, be forced to wear baby blue clothes as a baby and only be given guns and footballs to play with, yet still identify as female just as easily as you can be born with both genitalia, wear pink and play with dolls before getting up as an adult and identifying as male. The key point we can’t escape is the gender marking presented to us from youth through observations of men and women actually do will largely influence our expectations of what men and woman actually are. As a child in hospital, I am likely to have seen more female nurses in 1980 than I will now, hence my subconscious view will be that ‘well, I saw mostly women doing it, so it must be a woman’s job’. Ask a current kid the same question and they have a much higher chance of seeing a male nurse, and so they will be more likely to subconsciously tag the nursing profession as one of dual-gender appeal and appropriation.

Equally, we as animals respond to reward too.

As children, we will repeat actions that lead to praise and positive reinforcement, and slowly wean out the actions and behaviours that lead to negative reaction. Hence children will often ‘fall in’ to their gender role by an early age so as to accept the reward of being ‘right’ and ‘normal’. As we saw from Part 1, even parents who are happy to let their children discover their own gender will face complications when that child attends school, as societal norms so deeply embedded can quickly remove any home-based training and priorities shift from pleasing parents to gaining popularity and friendship. Few children under the age of eight are capable of the maturity of character required to wholly rebel against gender conformity and ideologies of gender and correct behaviour, and so often our children will be potentially ‘mis-gendered’ or at least forced to hide their less gender flattering traits. They will instead conform to what is expected by their peers and by their society so as to avoid “shame, ridicule and punishment”, according to Gender and Gender Identity on PlannedParenthood.org

“But I really want to be a Marine Surgeon Pilot Footballer”

Raising this paradox with a rather open-minded friend of mine recently, I met a far from accepting response to some of the ideas I was presenting. ‘Are you saying that all our ideas of gender come from society and that nothing is innate?” was one of his points, and I understand the confusion. What I’m actually trying to do is present information, not necessarily with an overt agenda. Yet, I must say, I do feel that the evidence I am gathering does lead me to believe almost entirely that gender is a construct, and that the perpetuation of it is a human choice, not a human given. After much debate, it turns out the friend in question agreed, at least in part.

As a Jungian, they reminded me of idea of the ‘anima’ and ‘animus’ (read more here). Essentially, in all of us there is an element of our opposite sex, and this informed opposite acts as an archetype, telling us what to expect of our opposite gender, and therefore defining our attractions. By finding the other who fits this archetype means for us to find completion. It could be argued that Jung had actually stumbled upon the blueprints for us to discover our own inner gender fluidity, and that in fact we all contain within us the mask of both masculinity and femininity. One could even claim that we all therefore have the potential to complete ourselves by exploring the inner polarity of our gender.

If your animus or anima is too large, it can in theory lead you to have characteristics that seem to subvert your biologies’ expected mannerisms, or if it is too suppressed you can enter the realm of hyper-femininity or hyper-masculinity. Potentially though, accessing either at a given moment pushes the other into the shadow, and yet leaving it easily available. It appears me and my friend may have been agreeing all along (albeit stubbornly).

“Wait a minute… I know you”

This is a key point though; that we all shift from gender to gender (at least in terms of expected behaviours) based on situation, cultural expectation and life stage. Nobody judges a man caring for his children as too feminine, and yet the classic gender role would be for men to ‘win the bread’ and women ‘to bake said bread’. If a woman fights off a burglar in the night, is she accessing her masculinity? The gender role of protector falling often to the man, as women are normally expected to play the part of protectee; the damsel in distress awaiting her knight. Those who argue against gender marking in society, I must know; how can you explain Disney? It is essentially a company who has ridden the wave of gender roles for the best part of a century. Of course, they throw in the odd character to subvert the norm, but more often than not they revert to type and cough up princess after princess, prince after prince, and reinforce upon us the roles we are expected to play.

Even as the world moves towards the future, embracing equality and understanding the nature of humanity as one soul connected in sameness, can anyone really claim they see a transgender princess in a Disney film happening in the next one hundred years? Scratch that, can you even imagine a gay character? It’s just so far away from the protected and defended idea of societal normalcy, the machine’s answer to what is and what isn’t, what should and what shouldn’t, that we won’t see cracks of true reality in it for a long time.

“Don’t crush my dreams before I have had a chance to form them”

That being said, the fundamentals of what makes gender roles so concrete are being eroded. Just take a look at the last three generations on this planet; X, Y and Z (find an interesting breakdown here). I myself am a millennial, or ‘generation Y’, and I know that my generation are already helping to turn the tide. The current youngsters, known as generation Z, are already being cited as the first generation to be non-gender specific; having a hard time differentiating between the genders and responding negatively to gender specific products and marketing. The worm is turning, bit by bit…

In Part III we will be looking at how the current generations hold the key to gender in the future as we move towards androgyny, and how their expectations will define how society on whole will regard gender identity based on media and advertising’s response to a shifting world view.

Special thanks to David Castillo Dominici, digitalart, imagerymajestic, Phaitoon and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

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Defining Gender for an Androgynous Future I; The Expectations

gender title

I recently read an article in Time magazine titled Meet the New Generation of Gender-Creative Kids. It explores what life is like for a child in a summer camp designed only for children who are growing up in a household that encourages them to find their gender for themselves. I can’t help but think, how can you ‘find’ gender?

I must admit, my view of gender is itself a little skewed. I was raised in a house of women, one woman (my mother) filled the role of a classic matriarchal figure, teaching me love, compassion, care and sensitivity. The other was my older sister, a much more aggressive, dominant, overbearing and yet emotional, delicate and insecure person. Through their eyes, I saw the world around me, and they helped me define a niche of my own.

The classic ‘father’ roles of provider and protector both fell to my mother, and it was with her that I learned hiking, football and writing and countless other hobbies and skills. She encouraged my studies and yet gave me the freedom to be myself and grow on my own too. My sister taught me to shave, badly. But the point is, I was learning how to be a man from two women who had had their fair share of shitty men. They had an opportunity to craft a new man from their own experiences, without the worry of society’s moulds there to constrict me or damage me. I still played army, I still wanted to be a spy and travel, and I still wanted to be a hero. Are they masculine traits? I learned how to be sensitive to other’s emotions, how to talk to anyone for any period of time about anything (especially on the phone), and I was able to show compassion. Are these feminine traits? If I’m honest, I didn’t really notice the difference as a kid, as I was too busy just running around in the mud and trying to be a mad scientist or an astronaut. As an adult, years after I’ve left the company of my mother and sister, I’m in the world and I’ve had to learn certain traits so as to ‘fit in’. I’ve adapted, often unconsciously, only aware of it afterwards when I look back on things and think ‘man, I’ve changed’.

For survival and protection, I assume

For survival and protection, I assume

So, what is a man? After watching the recent Avengers film, The Age of Ultron, it’s tempting to want to say that a real man should be big and strong, and capable of protecting the world from invasion should such a reality take place. Perhaps a man is more than this though. To be honest, maybe the labels themselves are the issue. Let’s zoom out and look down on masculinity from above. Is it a construct or an innate character? Is it an assumed identity taught from birth, or is it the by-product of natural thirsts and impulses that drive most men toward a similar set of priorities?

Ok, so before we get bogged down thinking about the etymology of the words, allow me to define what we are talking about here. Sex is biological, and we are defined ‘biologically’ as boys or girls by the type of body we own. I am not here to discuss this, most often it is straight forward. As an adult, can you cross your legs comfortably? Yes, OK, you’re probably not a bloke.

Gender is how societies expectations of behaviour and action from boys and girls defines what we are able to do. For example, is it a social norm for young men to play with Barbie and not Action Man? No, on the most part this is still seen as a feminine behaviour, and so to play with a Barbie as a girl is adhering to your gender role, but to play with one as a boy is to flout your gender role.

Gender identity is how we feel inside about our role, and how that manifests in our appearance and actions. This is our reaction to gender roles, and often in teenage years you find a chance to experiment with your gender and your place within society. David Bowie was famous for utilising his naturally androgynous look to break down classic gender conformity expectations, especially in his Ziggie Stardust phase. Sometimes, when people feel their gender identity doesn’t fit with their biological sex, they identify as transgender.

Just because you're tall, doesn't mean you're a basketball player

Just because you’re tall, doesn’t mean you’re a basketball player

Gender Tags

So what is feminine, and what is masculine? These are the labels given to certain sets of behaviour that are identified with either being a woman or being a man. It’s important to note here that ItchQuill is not trying to tell you what is masculine and what is feminine, but instead explore what we as societies around the world are told is masculine and feminine.

To help with identifying what is seen as male and female, a quick Google search brings up a list of adjectives on PlannedParenthood.com’s article Gender & Gender Identity. They say that words often ascribed to femininity would be ‘passive, weak, emotional, dependent and nurturing’ to name but a few. For masculinity, some of the words were ‘aggressive, rebellious, hard, competitive and self-confident’. The list goes on, and it is not meant to act as a list of things to look for to describe the next woman or man you see, but more as a reflection of attributes that are often associated, rightly or wrongly, with either gender. Few could argue that these words are used in such a way, however.

“Man stuff”

Let’s look again at that masculinity list. Is it seen as ideal that men behave in these ways, or is it just expected? Let’s not forget, as masculinity and femininity is not defined by our biology but by our mentality, it has the potential to adapt and transform within different nations and cultures. These often get lost in stereotypes and can be part of a confusing and contradictory fabric of identity much larger than gender itself (such as the emotional Irish male stereotype, the dominant Latina female stereotype or the well-groomed and orderly British gent stereotype).

The question is; do we have an innate sense of masculinity, or is it learned? It is inescapable, the gender roles pumped at us from the news, our education, the media, advertising and such. We are constantly bombarded with messages on what we need to be, and how we need to behave to be seen as conforming to our gender roles and therefore ‘fitting in’. This stays with us for our whole lives, often influencing us in ways we are unaware of at the time.

“Lady things”

As Faulkner states in his book Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures,Cultural notions of “feminine” and “masculine” behavior are shaped in part by observations about what women and men do. This kind of “gender marking” tends to discourage women or men from entering “gender-inauthentic” occupations” (Faulkner, 2009).

In the next instalment, we will be looking further at the roles of gender in society, and how this is changing with our younger generations.

Work Cited: Faulkner, W. (2009). Doing Gender in Engineering Workplace Cultures: Part II—Gender In/Authenticity and the In/Visibility Paradox. Engineering Studies, 1 (3), 169-189.

Special thanks to hin255, marin, Praisaeng and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

6 Months Going Strong!

reblog 6 months

It’s been a tough road, but ItchyQuill.com is now 6 months old! We’ve seen so much, and yet there are always more adventures to be had. So, while we scribble away on new content for you to enjoy, below we have uploaded the first ever Itchy post for you to enjoy if you missed it (or re-enjoy 😛 ).

Keep reaching for the sky, keep pushing yourself further than you have before, and keep rushing forward, charging down your future!

Every day’s a school day 😀

Itchy

What Mario Kart Taught Me About Politics

mk64

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Mario series of games, and all the spin offs that came with it. Originally just a platform game, it developed as a franchise into faux-Tetris (Dr Mario), team play (mario bros 3), multiplayer madness (Mario Party) along with many other variations such as my personal favourite, the racing game (Mario Kart).

As a big fan of the Mario Kart series, for me there has never been an addition to the canon of Mario racing games that has topped the wonderment and sheer ecstasy of Mario Kart 64.

I was nine years old when it was released. It was 1996, and I was already giddy from a summer that gave us a UK based international football competition (Euro ’96). My friend Josh was the first to get an N64, so me and my friends would often spend hours at a time at his house sat in front of the screen, racing and re-racing different cups until we reached a point of Mario burnout. I would go to sleep at night after a day of Kart and dream-race each course, again and again, until I would wake from a nightmare screaming “noooooo, not the blue shell!”

See, Mario Kart unlocked a part of my character I’ve not been able to suppress since; the hungry competitor. Dressing up the opportunity for cunning deceit and foul play in a cuddly, hi-res rainbow of child-like curiosity, it was easy, nay encouraged to destroy and undermine your friend’s ambitions of glory. Hiding behind the cutesy design of the characters and the bright palette of primary colours, you were able to unlock the demons of your inner warrior, your comic book villain, and pretend to yourself that outside of this realm you were still a decent human. The question is, if life gave you the power of lightning, temporary invincibility or the tools to slow a rival, would you really be so decent after all?

These questions stayed with me throughout my teens as I grew into myself, the bass line in a evolving mentality of teenage angst, youthful rebellion and my first forays into the world of politics.

I didn’t play Mario Kart again for about ten years. It was when I was at university that a friend of mine told me about a Japanese N64 he had with Mario Kart. He fed me lines about a secret turbo chip that would make the game work up through the gears as you got better, until eventually you were racing some cheating demon that was near impossible to beat. The speed and frame rate would be super charged, fast even for a machine that by that point was flirting with obsolescence. We would play for hours at a time, revisiting this arena of childhood dreams, but dressed in the cape of adulthood. That familiar demon returned, and I felt genuine rushes of adrenaline and got off my nut on endorphins. This, combined with the late nights we were playing through, left me again able to talk you through each step of each track, knowing each turn and where to drift. I knew the best racing lines, the best place to use different weapons and the best short cuts to take at which times.

Mario Kart had become my accidental craft; the hobby within which I had invested so much time and energy, repeating and repeating actions, that my synapses were firing at incredible rates as they churned through track and fact recall to make me a better competitor.

With all this time and energy spent on such an otherwise pointless exercise, it seems only natural that my adult brain would search for some deeper meaning within the context of this, and so that’s what brings me here today (or, perhaps, its a poorly concealed ploy to try and justify the hours I ‘wasted’ playing through a veritable Groundhog Day of Mario tracks and races).

So, with these deeper meanings in mind, here are some key observations Mario Kart taught me about politics…

I'm hunting wabbits

I’m hunting wabbits

The World Needs Bad Guys

Without bad guys, we wouldn’t have common enemies that highlight how we want our world to be (the opposite of the bad guys, right?)

Sometimes, you need to know how bad it can get before you can realise how good it was, and how good it should be. Things that can be taken for granted will only then be remembered.

Anyone else thinking of how nice it was to be in the UK around 2000-2010? Look, I’m not here to preach about voting Labour, but I do think it’s important to gain some perspective here. 5 years of Tories is enough to make anyone hark for what they had before. Perhaps it would work as some form of new age marriage counselling; like wife swap. You exchange your partner for a few weeks and instead live with Cameron, and pretty soon I am almost certain that anyone would be crying out to return to their significant other!

Let’s get one thing straight here though; exercising your diplomatic right to vote is the most important thing. If the nation of the UK is inherently a conservative country, and therefore that representation spills into government and, vis a vie, come May 8th we have a conservative government then, well, I guess I will applaud that. Ultimately, what the people want en masse is what really matters.

“We just wanna P-A-R-T-Y”

Bigger isn’t always better

Wario and Bowser, the two largest characters in Mario Kart, are frequently seen rushing towards the front three places. They are hard to keep back as they have a good top speed, and they are evil enough that they don’t care about who they step on to get to the top. And yet for all their power, they lack flexibility. They are hard to control as they are big, bulky monsters, and their isolation and villainy makes them targets for everyone.

Conservatives are a big party, but are they better? I can’t help but think that such a large and established institution like the conservatives must be out of touch with the people. Their whole upper crust are members of a political elite I will never exist in, and yet these are the people who are supposed to be looking out for my best interests. Do I feel they are capable of this? I have to be honest and say that, no, I don’t think they are. Do I think there are any political parties that can see past their own agendas and into the heads of the electorate? Wow, not sure even Mario Kart can answer that…

For sure, the one thing we must consider is this: in a world of financial uncertainty and slow economic recovery, do you think the great, lumbering Tory machine has the capacity to adapt quickly, fairly and decisively to bring the country back to a period of stability and recovery? I don’t, and here you can find a rather compelling compilation of evidence by political blogger Benjamin Studebaker as to why. Cameron, like Bowser, is driving this great, lumbering tank forward, but one small blip and we’ll be playing catch up again.

Some races you can't afford to lose

Some races you can’t afford to lose

Good doesn’t always mean ‘good’

I have a friend obsessed with racing as Peach. Her character is a princess, the apple of Mario’s eye. She’s the lady who is always getting herself kidnapped in these awfully patriarchal story-lines that accompany many a Mario game. She stands for being sweet, delicate, feminine, pretty and just generally good. Somehow, my friend has managed to destroy this image for me forever. See, he has used her to mete out some horrendously brutal victories on me and some other friends in various Mario games and this cult of Peach has developed to such an extent, I can only ever see her as a bad guy now. I mean, my friend is the villain, and he relishes that role. But by projecting that on to, arguably, the sweetest character in the Mario universe, he has managed to corrupt the values she represents and create this phenomena; the paradox of Peach.

This makes me think of the countless times I’ve seen people use history to undermine their current political choices. In elections gone by people would say that voting for Labour would definitely lead to a repeat of the Winter of Discontent. It’s so easy for reputations to become skewed. Record numbers of UK people are facing unemployment, poverty, and are earning below the living wage, and I can’t help but think ‘how are we, as normal people, even considering voting for the Conservatives?’ Somehow, the conservatives have been pitched as these financial wizards who hold some potion that can magically cure the economy, but only if they are given another five years to do it. Whoever you vote for, do it because of what they are talking about now measured against what they promised last time around. Don’t worry about the Gladstone v Disraeli days, or um and ah over the finer points of whether Labour is a socialist party or not. If these parties claiming to represent you haven’t given you what you voted for them to give you, it’s time to reconsider your options. I’m looking at you, Cleggy…

“Spin, spin, recession, blah, blah, recovery, spin”

Take motivation where you can get it

You’ve monstered ahead on Frappe Snowland, pulling off some tidy racing lines and propelling yourself into a wonderful lead. Feeling comfortable, you start to ponder the finer things in life when bam, you’ve slipped off and are stuck in the icy water. As you watch yourself being pulled back to the track, you see every other racer zip past you. Finally, your engine revs up and you begin your quest to get back to the front from 8th position… each corner gives you a fresh item to give you a better chance of catching up, and as your rise through the rankings you get more and more reward from the computer as it gives you better and better items to use to get back to the front…

It’s easy to become disenfranchised with politics. We’ve all had those times when it has felt a little too absurd to have to even try and fathom how one party could be different from the other when on a day to day vibe the country feels like it is in perpetual decline. In these times, it is important to remember that even though you may feel like politics doesn’t even represent you, it should! Without day to day, grass roots politics, how can a community survive? If everyone decides to no longer vote, the politicians will be laughing! It’s giving them exactly what they want (if you believe they are really self interested Westminster cronies). The way to fight the power is to force them to listen by voting for the fringe parties that represent you better. There is always something for everyone in politics, you just have to look for it. Take motivation from what you can and run with it. Like Chuck D said:

“Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and when people start getting it confused, that means they need to sit down with some real people.”
Literally

Literally

Not all bonuses are benefits

One of the secret items you can get on Mario is the fake item box. It is a trap, designed to be deployed and trick the less experienced racer into thinking they are heading for a bonus, when in actual fact it is going to explode!

This, I can’t help but think, is somehow related to the banking crisis. When I hear facts and figures being tossed around about average UK workers being financially worse of now than they were five years ago (a trend that is continuing) and that millionaires are now on average around £100,000 a year better off due to tax changes, I can’t help but think that these bonus boxes were dressed up to lead us to the logical conclusion that the country was going to benefit, and yet they have blown up in our face as we, in effect, watch our own money dwindle and magically appear in the pockets of the privileged.

Wealth, by and large, is not a right. But utilising corporate, transnational, and quasi-democratic institutions to manipulate, coerce and strong-arm a nation is, to be honest, the actions of bullies and the weak. Competition drives progress, right? The Conservatives, as the flag bearers for Capitalism, say they encourage this competition as it is what generates money for the economy. Yet those at the top, with influence, power and wealth, seem hell bent on stopping anyone else being able to catch them. Whether it’s true or not, it feels like little of this wealth trickles back to the people who help to create it with their work and by spending their hard earned cash, and so I wonder how much longer it can sustain itself this way…

Revolution will come

Careful… revolution is becoming less and less of a dirty word

Ultimately, it’s all about timing… So Stay Calm

Coming up to the final lap on Wario Stadium, I know that if I hit the lightning item at just the right time, everyone except me will be struck, turn small, and not make the big jump across a massive gorge that sits just before the finish line. If they miss this, they will have to repeat the lap, and I can whizz past to claim first place. This is the ultimate trick of this level, and the computer knows it. Only those who truly deserve the lightning will be granted it, for if you act like this is your plan the computer will not reward you. You need to try to win normally, and if this fails then the computer rewards you.

Abstaining from voting is avoiding responsibility, and that is the worst thing you can do. Any vote is better than no vote. You almost remove yourself from the chance to complain later if you see tax hikes that affect you, as you chose not to try to fight against it. If you research each party thoroughly and decide that nothing works for you, then ok, you have clearly made an educated decision and it must be respected that you took the time to do so. But turning around and saying “they’re all the bloody same” and then doing nothing is not democracy in action, it’s darn lazy and disrespectful to the freedom you have as a citizen of a country with elections. Normal people only gained the rights after much campaigning, so that their voices could be heard in the corridors of power. They wanted the chance to influence things with the men at the top, and imagine their horror now as the country, in desperate need of a revamp, has citizens so disenfranchised, that they can’t even bring themselves to vote for a single party? It’s madness.

If you’re truly stuck, and not sure who you should vote for, here are some links to help.

The Telegraph‘s interactive test matches your choices to questions with the relevant party.

The Independent has their own version too.

Chronicle Live has a brief explanation of each parties key points on the hot topics.

You are the people, and the people are the power. Keep your red shells out, aim for the front, and keep a green shell behind you to protect you from those catching up. In the immortal words of Mario:

“Wahoo, I’m-a gonna win”.

Now let’s go out and vote.

start screen

All Mario images are representations of games and images owned by Nintendo, and not by ItchyQuill.com

Special thanks to Ambro, cooldesign, iosphere, pakorn and stockimages @ FreeDigitalPhotos.net for use of their photos in this blog.

© Itchy Quill and ItchyQuill.WordPress.com, 2015

The Best Free Tools for Language Learning

see god

In this day and age, it seems almost impossible to find a good deal. I remember how it used to really annoy me as a child that my parents would complain about how much a chocolate bar would cost. I’d stare at the price tag, and see it as the lowly sum of 20p and be perplexed; how exactly was this expensive? One of them would enjoy my perplexity, before saying “in my day you could get three bars for that price, and still have money left over for a comic”. It used to feel like they were trying to make me feel bad about this imaginary expensive world we lived in, and yet now I find myself thinking the same thing. The same chocolate bars now cost double the price. The horror!

Just because things may be expensive, doesn’t mean there aren’t still deals available however. The internet is a wonderful resource. It’s a place where the creative, the ground-breaking and the educational can all rub shoulders. It’s a place were boundaries are broken down and the trappings of the real world are left behind.

Take language learning. There are some sensational resources such as Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, but both cost a couple of hundred. Other cheaper, but still subscription fee based online only programs like Babbel and Transparent Language Online can dent your wallet over time, too. You can’t fault their quality, but we don’t all have access to the funds required.

There is another way, however. The internet and app market is awash with some fantastic alternative language learning software. And all of it for the grand old price of… uh… free! Value doesn’t have to mean a high price. In fact, it could mean the complete opposite…

Live Mocha

Visit the website here

The world’s largest online language learning community, containing some 16 million members from around 195 countries. It merges a range of different methods, from traditional techniques to more interactive online programs and videos, and live conversations with native speakers. There’s even the possibility to have private lessons through the site! Though not every single part of the website is free, the vast majority is, and there is no reason for you to ever need to spend any cash if you don’t want to.

You learn from native speakers and get your grades from other students who are fluent. Live Mocha also syncs nicely into social media to give you a more diverse and interactive service than many others available.

It has become so successful that Rosetta Stone purchased the website in 2013. So far, none of the fears of new sneaky price rises have been realised, and the quality shows no sign of slowing down either!

Languages covered: Arabic, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, US English, Esperanto, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Marathi, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Ukranian and Urdu.

BBC Languages

Visit the website here

The BBC has a long history of language enabling, and though it’s website may not offer the wealth and variety of training of it’s rivals, it is a great place to find free practice and structured lessons for the long term learner.

You can find crosswords, instructional videos and other vocabulary exercises such as gap fills and comprehension. Especially helpful, there is also an online assessment to help you to figure out what level you are at, be it pre-intermediate or advanced, and then the website can direct you to the level-appropriate material.

Languages covered: Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish.

Memrise

Visit the website here

Combining science, fun and community, Memrise is an extremely useful app that manages to keep you motivated to study regularly, while giving you snap shots of language. In essence it is a memorisation program that helps to keep this interesting by turning it into a game of sorts, complete with competitive rankings against other users and rewards and tokens for reaching different levels of accomplishment.

Not only is it available online, but there is also an app on both Android and iOS. It is largely crowd sourced, so you may have to search for a little while to find the right kind of course for you. But the pay off is worth it, as this can be a fantastic resource, especially when combined with others.

Languages covered: I’m not saying that you can learn every language, but there is definitely the opportunity to learn most languages. See for yourself here.

Busuu

Visit the website here

As their website says:

“We have personally suffered from the traditional way to learn a new language which we always found expensive, difficult and boring.

Therefore, we decided to create a new concept of language learning”.

The founders Adrian and Berhard, other than sounding like 80s action heroes, have constructed a crowd sourced forum for all levels of language learners. In the initial stages you will find yourself learning a lot of flashcards and vocabulary, but as you progress there is more of an opportunity to practice writing and questions. This will be done with native speakers who are either fellow students or contributors to the website.

This can be studied on the internet, or you can download the app for Android or iOS.

Languages covered: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese and Polish.

Duolingo

Visit the website here

This is, arguably, the underground language learners most popular program. This takes the gamification of learning to new, dizzy heights. Each lesson is broken up into short scenes, practising a variety of skills including listening, speaking and translation. You have lives, and when you lose all your lives you must start again (not at the very beginning though). Your progress can be tracked easily, and you gain instant gratification from achievements along the way. In short, this is the Zelda of language learning. It’s an epic journey, and it’s a whole bouncy castle full of fun.

The website claims that a university semester of study (roughly 11 weeks) is given to you in around 34 hours of study. This is based on an independent study, which you can find here. Therefore (claim the creators), 34 hours of Duolingo is more effective than university study.

Either way, you are joining a wonderful community where you can see your skills in language develop in real time as you go from memorising flashcards to translating websites and being graded by native speakers on your quality.

My only criticism would be the lack of languages. As I am studying Chinese (a language not currently supported), I often feel like the poor kid looking through a neighbours window at Christmas and seeing their big tree, infinite presents and warm log fire as I trundle back to my cardboard box and newspaper duvet. I know I am missing out, big time. That said, an affiliate of Duolingo has recently released a Chinese app, Chinese Skill, that harnesses the same, successful methods of Duolingo.

Languages covered: English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish.

So there you have it. Are we claiming these are the only apps and websites to help? No, of course not. Are there possibly better ones out there? Yes. Half the fun of language learning is finding the method that works for you, and then running full speed to try and capitalise on that method and use it for all it’s worth!

A lot of these services run on community, and require the input of the members for the advancement of the quality. If you do decide to use one, please try and be a contributor as well, even if only seldom, as it helps to keep the perpetual free learning going.

Any apps or programs I’ve missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments section below!

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