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So Why Study French?

In the last post here a topic was taken back up from the spring in regard to the importance or need or usefulness of teaching and learning French. My posts from the spring focused on a couple of John McWhorter’s articles that essentially argue that French is no longer an important language and, therefore, should not be emphasized as much as it is in American schools. So can I, as a French professor, argue for the importance of French and, more specifically, its place in language departments?

For me the essential first step is to pose the right question. I would not want to ask why anyone should study French -- or assert that anyone should either. Thus the title of this post. If someone is interested in learning a new language, and is perhaps considering French, what are potential reasons in French’s favor? That is how I want to approach the matter. Thus, this post is not about its title, or not about answering the question in its title -- but rather calling attention to that question a…

Background to John McWhorter's Recent Article Against French

Eons ago, I started to analyze a couple of articles that had riled about (French) language teachers, one from this year saying that French is not really an important language. The author's main point, writing in the context of New York City, was that French is disproportionately taught, particularly in NYC immersion schools. The best of intentions proved insufficient in finishing my thought process in relation to those articles. So now that I am even busier than I was last academic year, I have decided to revisit and, I hope, close out, the topic.

Just as a refresher, it might be interesting to read the New York Times' article that prompted McWhorter's somewhat unconsidered (and largely discredited) response. In addition, it would probably be helpful to read an attempt at providing not so much a response to McWhorter as positive reasons for learning French. A piece came out on Business Insider that, for me, gives not entirely persuasive reasons to teach/learn French. I woul…

Raymond Chandler on realist fiction

In the classic essay on the genre of the detective novel, "The Simple Art of Murder," Raymond Chandler is keen on distinguishing realist detective fiction from escapist detective fiction. The latter, in its most celebrated manifestations of Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, follows basic formulas of studied improbability and non-realism.

Chandler, on the other hand, wants to write detective fiction that does have something profound to say about reality, and thus, he says, "The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket." The entire paragraph is worth citing or reading, but I want to get to the description of the "world" that grabs my attention in this particular histori…

Jeunes de France, où est votre salut?

Exactly two years ago, three French men (a journalist, a businessman, and a rapper) made a big splash with an article attacking France and saying that French youth would assure themselves a better future by, essentially, ditching their country. They even have their own website to support French youth in this endeavor -- barrez-vous, they encourage them (scram, run off). One of the original authors had an opinion piece on the same theme published by the NY Times' editorial page.

I am not sure whether this was (is) grandstanding, but obviously it's not something that most people, particularly French young people, can or do take too literally. But the socioeconomic causes behind the article are interesting -- a country with fewer and fewer opportunities, a worsening economy, an overregulated job market.

And yet, working in France (or more generally, the E.U.) has distinct advantages to working in the U.S. And some people on this side of the Atlantic, like me, would rather be living…

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).

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 …

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 i…

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 betwee…

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.

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 &qu…

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…

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"

Today in Language: Gananath Obeyesekere

Today, February 2, is the 84th birthday of the Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere. He is best known for his early-1990s dispute with fellow anthropologist Marshall Sahlins over whether or not Captain Cook was actually regarded as a god by the Hawaiians. Whether he was or not totally does not interest me (except maybe at a basic level of mere curiosity). The significant point in their debate was how culture makes humans think -- "How 'Natives' Think," as in the title to Sahlins' main work on the issue, or with a basic, transcultural rationality as Obeyesekere argued.

In honor of Obeyesekere, since it is his birthday, consider this quotation regarding myths from his reply to Sahlins, The Apotheosis Of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking In The Pacific. This is a long excerpt, but repays the effort it takes to read it:
One of my basic assumptions is that mythmaking, which scholars assume to be primarily an activity of non-Western societies, is equally prolif…

Il y a 5 ans aux Antilles...

Il y a exactement 5 ans qu'une grève générale a commencé en Martinique et Guadeloupe, contre les prix en particulier du carburant. Pour un état du 21ème siècle comme la France, une république démocratique et très développée, c'était un événement choquant qui continue à surprendre par l'oubli presque entier de ce qui s'est passé il y a très peu. La grève n'a pas beaucoup accompli malheureusement, peut-être à cause de l'oublie général. En fait, dans un numéro spécial de la revue Les Temps modernes, on a appelé les événements "la révolté méprisée". Comment donc agir dans la société d'une façon efficiente et productive? Aujourd'hui on célèbre aux Etats-Unis l'anniversaire de Martin Luther King, Jr., le leader d'un mouvement pas du tout méprisé et même immortalisé dans la célébration de l'anniversaire de King.

Today in Language: Raphaël Tardon

Raphaël Tardon, écrivain martiniquais, est mort le 16 janvier 1967. Il est l'auteur d'un excellent roman sur l'éruption de la montagne Pelée en 1902 (9 ans avant sa naissance). La Caldeira (1948) est toujours disponible chez Editions Ibis Rouge. Journaliste qui a travaillé à Paris et aussi à l'étranger à l'époque de la deuxième guerre mondiale, il a créé un roman avec des personnages originaux pour démontrer la société martinqiuaise à l'époque de la grande tragédie du 20ème siècle.
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The Martinican writer Raphaël Tardon died on January 16, 1967.