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.