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Showing posts from February, 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 &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…