Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Death and the World Cup

The 2014 FIFA World Cup starts tomorrow.

Marcela Turati in Fuego Cruzado: "El 11 de junio de 2010 no sólo pasó a la historia como el día de la inauguración del Mundial de Futbol en Sudáfrica, en donde el equipo tricolorse batió con el anfitrión; también es recordado como el dí en que hubo más asesinatos en el sexenio. Fueron 89. Tantos, que alguien en su blog ironizó: "Más de 70 ejecutados y un gol". Bajo el imperio de la muerte la sociedad pide su dosis diaria de homicidios. Se acostumbró a desayunar viendo la pira funeraria que muestran las noticias" (46-47).

Monday, May 26, 2014

Today in Language: May 26

The Today in Language feature has always focused on one or two people, but today, because 1) there are a lot of language-related items to talk about, 2)  there are several miscellaneous items I want to mention, and 3) it's my 30th birthday and thus intrinsically an important date, this Today in Language post will break the mold.

Today in Language:
*As far as birthdays go, apart from yours truly, Count Zinzendorf was born on this day in 1700 and the French writer Edmond de Goncourt in 1822.

*As far as random theological events, John Calvin and some of his followers were ran out of Geneva on this day in 1538. That was an unfortunate event in itself, although perhaps just as unfortunate was Calvin's own behavior once he returned to that wonderful city.

*As for hugely significant world events and journalistic malpractice, on this day in 2004 the New York Times admitted that its genuflecting to the government and uncritical coverage of the leadup to the Iraq war contributed to the WMD lie and botched invasion.

In short, this day in history is a day of birth, concrete theological battles, and journalistic confession. Happy May 26th!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Language of the Future . . .

This post is not a poll, though if it were what would you predict as the language of the future?

According to a recent study by a French investment bank, it appears that in a given future (2050) and according to a given (problematic) methodology, French may just be the most up-and-coming language. I have yet to find the actual study by Natixis bank, but I will share it when I do. According to an American news source and a French news source, the study asserts that French will be the fastest-growing and perhaps most widely-spread language in a few decades.

It is important to note, first, that there is a restricted sense to this idea of any "language of the future." French will certainly not be the only language, or even the lingua franca since that will still be English. The most rapidly growing language is the category under discussion, so some of the news headlines are misleading at best (though thereby antidotal to other bad headlines that are negative rather than positive in regard to the French language).

In second place, the biggest problem with the study is its methodology, as the Forbes writer points out. The study lumps together all inhabitants of countries where French is an official language as speakers of French -- and obviously not everybody is francophone in every francophone country. We are not talking about minor percentages either. In some of the African countries that may have the fastest growing populations and economies in 40-50 years, the French-speaking populations are very small.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, I would point out that the biggest category of language on the Forbes' chart, both today and in 2050, is that of "Autres." Now, this requires a bit of explaining. "Autres" is a highly technical, French linguistic term that means "Other." So both today and when I am (God willing) a grandfather in the mid-21st century, the most "important" language will not be French or English or Spanish or Chinese but all other languages. What does this mean? This means that all languages are significant to varying degrees and that legislating language (on which French and most other dominant languages have depended for their advancement) is not advisible, given the swath of humanity that it negatively affects. This also means that "language of the future" may not be a terribly helpful linguistic category.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

An Idea for Smartphone/Tablet Manufacturers

The Caveat: I thought I had this really great technology idea. I know it would be really great for me; I don't know whether it would excite many other people. Upon very brief research, I found out that it is being tried, though it is recent and details were scant (nonetheless, any claim I could have made to originality have been flushed down the toilet).

The Idea: Create a smartphone-tablet duo. It would be a smartphone that could live inside a tablet when not in use. This would not be a dock for a smartphone and a tablet; it would also not be a smartphone-tablet hybrid (although that is what Asus calls theirs; but "hybrid" has been used to refer to tablets like the Samsung Galaxy 10 which is not what I am referring to). The smartphone and tablet would remain two distinct devices but the smartphone would have a dock on the back of the tablet somewhere. Ideally, the smartphone could charge when docked in the tablet and users could move apps and music and other files between the two devices by simply swiping.

The AdvantagesSyncing the two devices would be more streamlined. Most of the time I would have only one device to keep track of instead of two. This would also probably mean that I would have a lot fewer apps on my phone. In addition, when driving I would not be tempted to pick up the phone (a temptation against which I am fairly strong except when on barren, boring interstates) -- assuming of course that I had the self-discipline to always dock the phone in the tablet before driving.

Just an idea. We'll have to see what comes of Asus'.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Non-Language Related Post

Huge news for anyone wanting free photos for a blog: Getty Images has announced that it will make something like 35 million of its photos available for free. On the one hand, it is unfortunate though not unsurprising that in the Internet age it is impossible to keep people from pirating photos, videos, and music. On the other hand, however, the Getty executives' view that they should look for the opportunity in the situation rather than just continue cracking down legally is an intriguing, positive approach.

Note on Articles on French Language Education

I started posting about a couple of articles regarding the French language in American schools, and then the vicissitudes and vagaries of life rudely interrupted what could have been an uninterrupted, seamless series. I do plan to get back to it, probably next week.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Analysis: John McWhorter's 2010 Article on Languages in a Liberal Arts Education

In addition to his recent article against the importance of the French language, the popular linguist John McWhorter wrote a similar article in 2010. Its focus is a bit broader than the recent French-bashing article. I also agree with it a bit more than his more recent one. I agree with his argument that (university) language programs should be about more than just the major European languages.

With the recent recession, language departments have suffered in particular, more than, say, engineering departments. My hunch that there are other factors at play as well, perhaps the lack of relevance of a lot of humanities research and perhaps an undue focus on research to the detriment of teaching. Perhaps. Nonetheless, the challenges of the last five years or so should be regarded as opportunities to improve our language departments, not as reasons to go on the defensive and try to prove that everyone should take this or that language.

McWhorter makes the useful point that if the goal is "'global' competency then we must ask why the languages in question are spoken in Europe, geographically a mere peninsula of Asia which, if the dice were rolled again, might not even be considered a continent." I am not sure about the geopolitical validity of this statement, but he goes on:
Sure, Europe has been the main cradle of Western thought -- but let's face it, you can be richly immersed in that via solid English translations; Nietzsche need not be read in the original. There's an awful lot of world beyond Europe; people speak some languages there too, and in our times, a liberal arts education should focus on them. (Emphasis added.)

That said, McWhorter still has an odd fascination with the Chinese language and an inexplicable disdain for the French language in his 2010 article. He says, for example, that "a Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese." He needs, first, to spend a little more time imagining himself as a Martian. He needs, second, to stop participating in arguments for one language over another.

More than his more recent article, however, I can still agree with his general thrust in this argument. No one could state the parochial defensiveness of language (or other) departments better than this:
Should students be able to take French, German and Italian if they want to? Of course. But should it be expected that any university worth its salt have majors in those languages? I doubt it. A university of limited resources that has majors only in Chinese and Arabic should be a perfectly normal proposition. The only reason it does not seem so now is because of noble but fraying traditions.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Analysis: John McWhorter's Recent Article on French

Linguist John McWhorter's recent article on why he thinks that French is no longer an important language understandably created a bit of a furor within French-teaching circles, not to mention French government circles within the U.S. that are seeking to promote the French language. Several high-profile responses have done a reasonably good job of pointing out the shortcomings of McWhorter's piece (which does not benefit from a sensationalized and thus bad title). Here I would like to examine a few of McWhorter's main points to express some agreement but also general criticism.

Is French a Class Marker?

First, in order to defend McWhorter against ad hominem attacks, it is important to note that he has a bachelor's degree in French and, presumably, still speaks French -- not to mention that he is a respected linguist and so should have something intelligent to say. It is thus baffling to read statements such as the following in his article: "French in educated America is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language." He even asserts that "our little ones must [...] now know some French to qualify as what used to be called 'people of quality.'"

Maybe McWhorter just lives in a very different cross-section of American society than pretty much all French teachers (or French speakers, for that matter). It is conceivable that some parents and students of French have as their primary motive some sort of Victorian-era-style snobbery as one of their ulterior motives. But even in the New York schools that receive French governnment funding for language instruction that apparently ignited McWhorter's knee-jerk reaction, it is highly unlikely that this is in anyone's reasoning, making the linguist's reaction just that, knee-jerk and unfair.

Which Languages Are Useful?
How do you even determine linguistic usefulness, for that matter? Some advocates of French (and other "minority") language programs have, due to budget cuts and reprioritizing largely due to the recession of the past five or so years, resorted to unhelpful attempts to quantify the importance and usefulness of French. McWhorter seems to be bound up in these same misguided metrics of immediately visible "practicality" or "usefulness." He writes, for example, that "one learns French to communicate with ... who, exactly? Some will yearn to read Sartre and Molière; more power to them. But what about languages like Spanish and Chinese, which are useful to learn because we encounter them in everyday life?"

Here is another zinger from the linguist along similar lines: "It's swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film, but unclear why this would be considered a priority of childrearing."

This is, first, shocking coming from someone who knows French. Is he really ignorant of the importance of French in the world? I do not argue that we should ignore population sizes and business/political/cultural applications of languages. And certainly Spanish is more immediately useful in most North American settings as a spoken language. But does McWhorter really think that Chinese is more useful or frequently encountered in "daily life" (not sure who's) than French, or that French is exclusively useful for reading Sartre?

Again, these metrics are not terribly important -- or at least not determinative. What is really important is what people want to learn. Why should we insist that anyone learn French or Spanish or Chinese if they really want to learn, say, Urdu or Breton or Fang? I just do not get this purely quantitative approach to language pedagogy. For practical reasons, I understand that universities, for example, can only offer so many languages, and for the most part those will be the more common ones, one of which is French by any metric.

McWhorter seems furthermore unaware of current scholarship on language pedagogy and neurolinguistics. How else could he baldly assert that Chinese should be taught early, not French, because "with Chinese, beginning to learn the language at 18, in a freshman course, is too late"? This is simply wrong, not to mention insulting to Chinese professors and to the capacity of the human brain for language acquisition.

So, Is French Important?

Well, is language important? Of course it is. The usefulness and importance of a given language depends, again, on the individual. Thus the incomprehensibility of the obtuseness in McWhorter's final paragraph:
What, then, is the benefit of kids internalizing Comment allez-vous? rather than ¿Como estas?Nǐ hǎo?, or even Hindi’s Ap kaise hai? All I know is that if my two-year-old turns out to be the language nerd I was, I will counsel her to think of French as a distinctly low priority. I’m trying to learn some Chinese lately. As I laboriously stuff the characters into my head with flash cards and watch natives sweetly wincing as I mangle the tones, I only wish that even as far back as the Watergate era they had been teaching me Chinese instead of the likes of pomme de terre and je m’appelleHélas.
I can only close by saying that if French is unimportant for McWhorter and his daughter, that is totally fine. That, of course, cannot be generalized to any other American, much less the American population and children as a whole. And also, if he, a linguist, is really struggling that much with learning Chinese, I or myriad others can give him a few pointers on language acquisition. It is not as hard as he would make it out to be. There may be some points to make about language teaching (French in particular), and indeed I have some to make later, but McWhorter wasted an entire article on red herrings and simply unlearned assessments of language and language education.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies Conference

In a brief aside from an ongoing discussion of the role and purpose and importance of French in U.S. language teaching, this weekend is the 23rd Annual British Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies Conference.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I Invite You to Read Two Articles by John McWhorter

I invite you to read the following two articles in the New Republic by the popular linguist John McWhorter chiefly because I am interested to know how my readers (even if they are only figments of my imagination) react. For full disclosure -- as my readers know if they exist -- I am a language teacher, particularly of French but also of Spanish, English, and Japanese. So you can probably guess more or less how I reacted. I will say, however, that I agree with some of McWhorter's points. But what do you think? (Note that the first article is from 2010; the second is quite recent, from this month.)

"Which Languages Should Liberal Arts Be About in 2010?"
"Let's Stop Pretending that french Is an Important Language"