Friday, September 12, 2014

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 as opposed to other similar but, I think, misleading questions (Why should I study French? or, Why should my child study French?).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

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 would be interested in knowing what you think of the reasons given in that article, if you have any more extra time in your life than I do.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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 historical moment. This world is one
where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.
I would not take sides in the debate over what is art or "serious" literature, as I think Chandler mistakenly does (or as does W.H. Auden, in an even more elitist, unfair manner, in his similarly celebrated essay on the detective story), but I would make the observation that escapist detective fiction (or any escapist fiction) does not move me by, say, its accounts of death or injustice. I read it for very different reasons, and a character's death means no more to me, usually, than that of a character in a video game. Realist fiction, by contrast, exists to say something about the reality I live in, not to help me escape it. Thus, a detective story like Crimen en el barrio del once moves, saddens, and angers me as it makes me ponder the themes that Chandler alludes to of state violence and systemic injustice.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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 in France right now (or any francophone country, really) than in the U.S. (but not because of any specific gripe with the U.S., which I also enjoy very much). And ultimately, do people really take other people seriously when they tell them just to leave their own country? Why not at least try to improve it first?


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"

Sunday, February 2, 2014

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 prolific in European thought. A myth, in the loose conventional view of the term, is most often a scared story about gods and founding ancestors or stories about ancestral heroes (legends). According to the first definition, there are not many myths in European thought. […] But I think that both notions of myth have to be stretched to understand mythmaking in Western culture. Myths in the classic sense of sacred stories may be out of fashion, but “myth models” are not. I use “myth model” in two ways: First, an important or paradigmatic myth may serve as a model for other kinds of myth construction. Second and more importantly, a “myth model” refers to an underlying set of ideas (a myth structure or cluster of mythemes) employed in a variety of narrative forms.
This latter understanding of the idea of a "myth model" as an underlying set of (presumably false if not evidently so) ideas is what even contemporary society is prone to. It fits what I have been thinking in regard to myths recently, and it also applies to the broader points that Obeyeskere and Sahlins both tried to make in their argument over the apotheosis of Captain Cook, regardless of which one of them was closer to being right.

Monday, January 20, 2014

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.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Today in Language: Raphaël Tardon

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.
The Martinican writer Raphaël Tardon died on January 16, 1967.