Thursday, March 31, 2011

How Fast Do You Speak?

In her graduate Spanish methodology course that she's taking online this semester, my wife wrote the following on one assignment:
En cuanto a la pronunciación no tengo ningún problema porque me crié en México, pero si debo tener cuidado con mi fluidez y no ir a mil por hora y así dejar a mis estudiantes preguntándose lo que yo dije o mencioné.
Translation: In regard to pronunciation, I don't have any problem because I grew up in Mexico, but I do need to be careful with my speed so I don't leave my students behind wondering what I said.
Her teacher liked the comment and said that it even made him laugh (not quite sure why, unless it reminded him of some classroom situations). What is always interesting to me is that language learners invariably make the statement, "[Insert whatever language] speakers talk SO fast." And yet, the truth is, we all speak fast in languages we know well. Though I will grant that some languages tend to be spoken a bit faster than others, generally I think [ALERT: unproven assertion] it is more the person speaking (personality, speech tendencies, social situation) than the language being spoken that determines speed.

Hidden Fortress

I have watched only three films by Akira Kurosawa, possibly Japan's most well-known film director. And the only three that I've watched, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Hidden Fortress, have made me a fan. I hope to watch a couple more soon, probably Rashomon and Ran.

My wife and I just watched Hidden Fortress this week, and I wanted to share a few thoughts. First, in the interview with George Lucas on the DVD, I found out that this movie provided a bit of inspiration for Star Wars. But it didn't inspire Lucas in what might be the more obvious aspects, such as smuggling a princess through enemy territory. What Lucas said was "the strongest influence" was the telling of the story from the perspective of the "two lowliest characters." In Star Wars, of course, those two are the robots R2-D2 and C-3PO (I'm always catching myself saying "3-CPO" instead of "C-3PO"). In Hidden Fortress, two peasants named Tahei and Matashichi provide the perspective on the whole adventure (and most of the comedy).

The final scene is both inspiring and humorous. Throughout the movie, Tahei and Matashichi are fighting over the gold that belongs to the princess' clan and that is protected by the general taking her to safety (with the help of the peasants). Their friendship is on (when they've temporarily lost the gold or find themselves in a tight spot) and off (when one of them stumbles upon another piece of gold or a plot to run away with it all). At the end (SPOILER ALERT), the princess and General Makabe give Tahei and Matashichi one piece of gold--and tell them to split it. So as they leave the palace, Tahei offers the gold to Matashichi, who tells him to keep it. They agree for Tahei to keep it in the end. But with all the foregoing spats throughout the movie, the viewer knows they'll fight again. Quite human in a lot of ways.


今週初めて黒澤明の『隠し砦の三悪人』という映画を見ました。この三悪人とは、だれですか? 三船敏郎が演じる真壁六郎太(まかべろくたろう)と二人の百姓です。この3人の登場人物の関係はとても面白くて、全ての人間の弱さも愛される性質も示します。


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Today in Language: l'anniversaire de Jean Giono

L'écrivain du jour, c'est Jean Giono, né le 30 mars, 1895. Il faut confesser que je n'ai jamais lu aucun livre de Giono. Mais j'ai suivi un cours avec M. Jacques Noiray sur la crise des idées dans la littérature française des années 1900-1960. Lorsque j'ai demandé à M. Noiray s'il a un livre préféré (question impossible pour un professeur de littérature qui a lu des livres sans nombre), il m'a recommandé un livre de Giono : Un roi sans divertissement. J'espère donc combler cette lacune dans ma connaissance littéraire en lisant cet ouvrage dans les semaines prochaines.

Jean Giono, a French writer born on March 30, 1895, wrote a book based on the title of a famous song, a song I love, a song my wife and I included in our wedding even though one might consider it cliché (there are some songs that are never cliché, regardless of how many times you hear them): Que ma joie demeure. Unfortunately, he totally left off the whole first word of the song title: "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" (emphasis added).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Today in Language: Charles Wesley

I would count Charles Wesley among my top five favorite hymn writers, and he's probably even in the top two or three.

Last week I sung a Wesley hymn I had never heard before (at least as far as I could remember, and my memory is no guarantee). It was a short song titled "A Charge to Keep I Have." One could find things to disagree with theologically in certain verses, but here is one verse in particular that I really like: 
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!
That juxtapositions well with the preceding verse, which is also appropriate in light of the fact that Wesley died on March 29, 1788. He no doubt had death and the next life in mind when he penned these lines:
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Of God, Shells, and Language

Altar Panel with Saint James Major
from Flugelaltar
by Hans Klocker
Sunday evening my pastor was preaching on 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 and the inaccessibility of God's wisdom without God's revelation. He raised the question of why much Christian art displays shells and then went on to recount the famous story of Augustine and the seashell.

Augustine was writing his treatise The Trinity (conveniently available on Amazon centuries later). Any treatise involving the Trinity or the nature of God is arguably a mentally arduous undertaking. So struggling with what to say and how to say it one day, Augustine took a break and went out to the Mediterranean Sea. As he trudged along the shore trying to clear his mind, he saw a boy playing with a seashell. The boy was going back and forth from the sea to a small hole in the sand, filling the shell with water and emptying it into the hole. Augustine asked the child what he was doing. The boy said that he was putting the sea into his hole.

Augustine and the Boy with the Seashell
Thus Augustine's big "duh" moment: he was trying to do to God, with his mind and writing, what the boy was trying to do to the sea, with his hole and seashell. God will never fit in the human mind.

I can't help thinking, of course, that one of the main limitations of the finite human mind is language. Analogous to the boy's seashell, language can be beautiful, even exquisite. It is a gift from God, an amazing tool that enables communication. Yet how do you capture everything about God with language? A very basic example: There is one God, but three persons. Yet what do we mean when we say "persons"? They are not all three human persons. But what other options do we have? "Entities" is definitely way too impersonal. "Beings" sounds too . . . Greek. Or existentialist, if like me you are more familiar with Sartre than Socrates. And that is only one example; what about the word "God" itself?

So ultimately, language does not capture everything about God, thus why we speak of God's incomprehensibility and even unknowability. This does not mean we should not keep trying to understand more about God, however. We should certainly not stop seeking to know him better. Despite the fact that we will never fit the whole ocean into a hole, even with a really, really big shell, we can certainly make progress. We can always find out more about God even if we cannot find out everything.

First-Hand Account of March 11 Earthquake (as felt in Tokyo)

3月11日の地震、津波などの悲劇をテレビと写真で見て、人間の言語で全く表現できないことでしょうが、この天災を経験した方々はその経験をある程度説明してくださいます。ある千葉県に住んでいるアメリカ人の友達の話がサウス.カロライナのGreenville Newsに出ました。

A missionary friend, Martha Cochran, was eating lunch in a restaurant in a Tokyo high-rise when she felt the March 11 earthquake that began the devastation all up and down the northeast coast of Japan. The Greenville News has an article about her experience. (If the link doesn't work, try putting the article title in a search engine: "BJU grad adjusting to new normal in Japan.")

Today in Language: Léon-Gontran Damas

Léon-G. Damas was a French Guyanese poet (from la Guyane Française), born March 28, 1912. He was one of the leading lights of the movement of a loose grouping of French-speaking Caribbean and African writers known as négritude. The movement tried to emphasize and celebrate the African origin and culture of black Frenchmen or blacks colonized by the French. The two biggest names associated with the movement are Aimé Césaire from Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal.

In the middle of the social and political upheaval in French West Africa, a bit more than a decade before most of the countries there were to gain their independence, Senghor published in 1948 an Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of the New Negro and Malagasy Poetry in French).

In his introduction to Damas in the anthology, Senghor writes, "la poésie de Damas est essentiellement non sophistiquée" ("Damas' poetry is essentially non-sophisticated"). Not exactly a compliment, maybe, but Senghor goes on to explain: "[Sa poésie] est faite des mots de tous les jours, . . . le plus souvent des mots les plus simples et des expressions du peuple" ("[His poetry] is made from everyday language, most often the simplest of words and expressions of the people"). That is perhaps the highest compliment possible for a writer (not that "sophisticated" or difficult writing doesn't have its place).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Today in Language: Antoine Court

One of my academic interests is the Huguenots (French Protestants), and in particular the Huguenots who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to settle in North America. Antoine Court, born on March 27, 1696, never made it across the Atlantic as far as I know, but he was a significant Huguenot minister and historiographer in Europe. He fled only as far as Switzerland. 

The Huguenot exodus from France, mainly after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 under Louis XIV, went in every direction. Two amazing features of it are the severe economic impact on France as thousands of Huguenots left and the way in which the French Protestants  usually assimilated quickly and painlessly in the new societies/countries they chose as their homes.

I hope to post much more information on the (North American) Huguenots in the near future. I recently gave a presentation on the topic at the South Carolina Foreign Language Teachers' Association conference in Columbia, S.C., and I will be presenting an expanded version of that same paper at the convention for the American Association of Teachers of French in Montreal, Quebec, this July.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Quotation

A good quote to end the week, perhaps particularly if one is a bit frustrated with lack of progress made in the week, or time spent on unplanned tasks:
Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.”
—C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”

Friday, March 25, 2011


I went to a picnic this Thursday and sitting in one position the whole time, the sun sunburned only one side of my face (the left side, if you must know). On Friday, someone at work noted my slightly odd "tan," and we discussed how I don't really "tan" (I "red"). The person said it is because I am "fair."

My rhetorical question for you: isn't it amazing how we so often understand one another in spite of the seeming complexity and confusion of language? Certainly my friend and I knew that "fair" could mean I'm a just person, or a mediocre person, or a good-looking person, to present a few options. And we actually made jokes along those lines. But we only made jokes because we both knew that in context the word was used to mean that my skin is fair (light). The context (and, granted, our knowledge of the English language) totally guided our understanding (as it did above in the first sentence of the first paragraph where I created a dangling modifier and you nonetheless understood my meaning).

I suppose it comes back down to the Langue/Parole differentiation. My friend's use of the word "fair" was a specific utterance (Parole) based on the underlying language and its structure (Langue) but mediated through a highly specific context.

Today in Language: La mort de l'auteur de "La mort de l'auteur"

Quoi dire du renommé Roland Barthes ? Bien que j'aie lu « La mort de l'auteur » (qui n'est qu'un article tout court, et non pas tout un livre comme j'avais toujours pensé ; l'article se trouve dans l'ouvrage Le bruissement de la langue), je m'intéresse beaucoup plus à l'œuvre d'une ancienne étudiante de Barthes : Nancy Huston. Soit que je m'identifie avec une personne d'entre deux (ou plusieurs) cultures soit qu'elle est vraiment un grand écrivain, j'aime les livres de Nancy Huston et je veux lire prochainement son Dire et interdire, sa thèse de maîtrise avec Barthes. En fait, ce livre a été publié en 1980, la même année que Roland Barthes est mort le 25 mars. 
Roland Barthes authored "The Death of the Author" in 1968 and himself died March 26, 1980. We should probably all read the essay, even though the author of it also died, and even though Barthes' argument is highly suspect. If you take it as so much grandstanding on his part, then the whole idea of the death of the author can at least help to balance a study of author intent with other factors inherent to language and text themselves.

Don't go looking for "The Death of the Author" on Amazon or in your library or through WorldCat. It's not a book (like I always thought it must be before I actually read it; after all, something that so influenced literary criticism and linguistics much surely be more than a mere essay!) but you can find it in the collection Image-Music-Text.

U.S. Demographic and Linguistic Shifts

The Hispanic population of the U.S. has grown by 43%, from 2000-2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported yesterday. Hispanics have largely (but not single-handedly, if you also note the population growth of Asians in the U.S. over the last decade) driven U.S. population growth between the last two censuses.

Hispanics have also, of course, dramatically shifted the linguistic landscape of America. Though Americans have no official language, and though we nonetheless treat English as unofficially official, on my 1) cell phone, 2) baby car seat manual, and 3) can of Pringles, to pick three non-representative items that simply happen to be on hand, Spanish is also becoming unofficially official. Fortunately, though my cell phone does not, my iPod has a French display option (so I listen to "Musique" rather than "Música"). Should I get an iPhone?

I am happy (and fortunate) to say that my wife has contributed in a small way to this demographic/linguistic shift, as she came to the U.S. from México for university and then married me in 2006 and decided to stay. She even became a U.S. citizen last month. I am very confused, however, about our 17-month-old son. He is a U.S. citizen by birth of course, but is he Hispanic? Caucasian/White? Half-and-half? This whole ethnicity/race thing gets me every time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Today in Language: Crosby and Longfellow

Fanny Crosby, known to many Christians as the writer of such songs as "Blessed Assurance" and "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," was born on March 24, 1820.

The New York Institute for Special Education reports that Crosby penned the following lines as part of her first poem (at least it is the first poem we are aware of, I suppose) at the age of eight:
Oh what a happy soul I am,
Although I cannot see;
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, another American known to many as one of America's most-acclaimed poets (though many would regard his verse as trite), died on March 24, 1882. Decidedly more pessimistic, or perhaps some would say simply realistic or practical, than Crosby in his poetry, Longfellow nonetheless wrote the following in his poem "A Psalm of Life," more forward-looking than he tends to be:

Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
    Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
    Heart within, and God o'erhead!

Crosby did, of course, have her share of heartache and personal problems, not the least of which was her oft-troubled marriage. And Wadsworth had his share of joy and success in life. But I can't helping looking at one's poetry as definitely joyful and the other's as decidedly melancholy. And I think this was largely shaped by their views of God and their mindset in regard to the situations and troubles that they found themselves in. How does your personality affect your use of language? Do you identify more with Crosby or Longfellow?

And by the way, on another, entirely coincidental, inconsequential note, the man who wrote the music for "All the Way My Savior Leads Me" was named Robert Wadsworth Lowry.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Translator's Nose

Pithy, creative quotations that summarize abstract concepts are fun. Though certainly at times nothing more than rhinestone phrases, they often provide a good starting point for thinking about an idea and can provoke thought. Here's a slightly extended definition of the idea of a good translator that fits in the latter category:
La traduction, cest une question de nez. Non de flair mais de nez proprement dit. Plus précisément de sa position par rapport à la feuille. On reconnaît un bon traducteur à sa capacité à lâcher le livre, à séloigner de sa table et à respirer un autre air afin de mieux ruminer les phrases quil sapprête à héliporter dune langue dans une autre.
Translation: Translation is a question of the nose. Not of one’s intuition or perception, but of the actual nose. More precisely, it is a question of the nose and its position in relation to the page. You recognize a good translator by his capacity for letting go of the book, getting away from his desk, and breathing air elsewhere in order to better ponder the sentences that he is about to heliport from one language into another.
That comes from an October 2010 post on Pierre Assouline’s interesting literary blog (if you know some French).

So what makes a good translator? And, while we’re at it, how does my translation of the definition measure up based on the standard contained within the definition?

Hello World

This is a blog about language(s) and linguistics. Two or three feeble (and thus understandably unsuccessful) attempts on my part to find good linguistics blogs, combined with inspiration from other well-run blogs, have led me to start my own blog.

My main interests are French and language pedagogy, since I am an aspiring French teacher studying for a doctorate in French, and so strictly speaking not really a linguist. But I thought that a blog about language and linguistics in general might attract a broader “bloggership” who could also expose me to information in other areas of interest beyond my focus on French: linguistics, language acquisition, multilingualism, pragmatics, translation, cultural studies, and, of course, languages beyond just French.

So I hope to use this blog as a forum to discuss current research in languages and linguistics, news and historical background on linguists as well as writers who use language well, and reading suggestions.