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?