How Did English Become So…. Unique?

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, John McWhorter

Rarely can I walk through a bookstore without something catching my eye unexpectedly.  I was not looking for this book in particular and had not even known of its existence when I came across it.  It was particularly serendipitous for me as an English teacher to find this book. I dreaded having to answer the question “Why do we have to say it like that?” or “Why like this and not like that?” and those questions often come up.  Hallelujah! This book answered all of those questions for me!

For the language learner, no other language in the world seems like English.  In fact, according to McWhorter, “[T]he pathway from Beowulf to The Economist has involved as much transformation in grammar as in words, more so, in fact than in any of English’s close relatives.  English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary.” (Introduction, p. xii)  If you have ever wondered why English grammar is like it is, this book will help you understand.  What really happened to English along the way?   When did verbs lose all of their endings, except for the third person singular?  Many languages have very complicated verb conjugations and a whole pile of irregular ones, as well.  If it is a Germanic language like German, where are all of the noun declensions, case markers?  Why does it not look German-esque at all?   I studied German, briefly, and can say that it is very, very different. English grammar, McWhorter suggests, is quite easy compared to languages with all those things, at least in the beginning.  In my opinion, it is the massive vocabulary that makes English so challenging, not its grammar.

McWhorter tells a very animated tale of English through the ages, from the Viking invasions to Norman invasions, then Latin.  He can be quite humorous in his retelling of the history of the language, making it a rather enjoyable read. However, it is an academic text in which he explains the grammar and  history, which are at the heart of his study. However, the read is worth it because it is so important to understand why the language is the way it is.  This is especially important for me in teaching and explaining it.   He will show that the evolution of English is more than just the simple borrowing of words.  There was real grammatical evolution happening by the Welsh and Cornish, later the Vikings, who never managed to speak it well and thus how we lost most of the grammar that had remained by that time, and finally, this is what we are left with.  He will also explain that what is considered a grammar mistake by some grammarians is illogical.  His arguments for these are hard to refute.

There is only one part with which I did not quite agree.  He feels that grammar and language do not shape our thoughts or the way we see the world.  I have read other articles to the contrary and have tested this theory on many students in my years teaching.  I still read the chapter to see his arguments, but I have not been convinced by this part.  Maybe you will be, or maybe you will also not be convinced.  If you want to read the other side of the argument, ask me for links to two really well written articles.

One of the most interesting chapters is the last one, discussing what happened to English before it was actually English (Proto-Germanic), the changes to the language as it evolved as spoken by non-native speakers.

This book is cleverly written, entertaining, if not occasionally heavy and thick with grammar and sophisticated vocabulary, a very academic read, but worthwhile indeed.  I would highly recommend this for serious language learners, linguists, English grammar or writing teachers and lovers of historical linguistics. It is definitely a book I plan to review again and again.

Create An Immersion Environment, Wherever You Are…

It is well known that the best way to learn a language is to move overseas and work or study in the country where that language is spoken. To be around a language every day and all day is the best way to learn a language quickly and with possibly much less effort than if you were not there. However, that option is not feasible for most people.  Whether it is an issue of money, time, any other number of possible issues, most people will learn a foreign language at school, with very few opportunities to be around native speakers of that language.  That can pose many problems for people, slowing down the process and making it difficult to stick to it, as well as making fluency very difficult to achieve.  Like most people, I learned French in school, only starting from high school, which is relatively late.  However, I did manage to achieve fluency with a lot of effort, a lot of dedication and many trips abroad.  If you are not studying a language in the country where it is widely spoken, there are ways to create a kind of immersion environment at your home.  To do this though, you will need to really commit to it. Follow these tips and ideas daily or weekly to make the most of your regular practice, as if you were living overseas!

 

Change the language on your devices (iphone, computer) to the language you are studying.  You will not believe all the words you will learn in doing this.  The translation of things we use daily will surprise you.  How is the expression “unlock screen” or “settings” translated into the language you are studying?  It might surprise you. It also might surprise you how quickly you get used to this.  I handed my ipod to a friend to use, and she was so confused by what she was looking at. I had totally forgotten this and had to find for her the thing she was looking for.

Subscribe to newspapers or magazines for home delivery.   It is a wonderful thing to receive newspapers in the language you are studying delivered to your door.  It sometimes makes me feel like I am traveling abroad.  I prefer the printed press to digital media.  It’s easy to carry to a cafe, to read on a bus, train or plane, and it never needs batteries.  Its very presence is a reminder to read it, whereas a newsletter or subscription that arrives in your email box is too easily lost in a deluge of other daily messages and quickly forgotten.  Having an international newspaper is a way to stay informed of the culture and events of the country and at the same time learn new words in the language you are studying.  Languages are always changing and this is one way of staying up to date with new terms and expressions.  It is also really nice to share these newspapers once I am done with them. I receive a newspaper weekly from France. Once I have read it, I usually pass it on to friends and other francophiles who get the chance to enjoy a newspaper in French from time to time.

 

Live stream news on your computer or subscribe to a cable channel in your target language.  There are now so many opportunities to get television programs or news in different languages, especially French, Spanish or even Arabic.  I love France24 because I can live stream the news 24-hours a day on the internet website or even via the app.  This same channel also has an Arabic version.  You can just steam it during the day when you are not working and let yourself get used to hearing the language as if you were living in the country.

There is also, of course, TV5 for French and many Spanish language channels on cable TV.  It can be a good opportunity to see programs or news in the language you are studying.  Additionally there are many TV shows and movies in foreign languages on programs such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.  Just ten years ago, this was not possible, and it used to be very difficult to rent movies in a foreign language.  Now these kinds of programs are widely available.  I don’t recommend using translated subtitles, as they are usually paraphrased, and quite often not what the people actually said word for word.  I do recommend trying it with the subtitles turned off or set the subtitles to the original language of the movie. Just remember that the subtitles and what they actually say may not correspond exactly. This has actually confused me from time to time.   Watching movies or television programs in the language you are studying (with or without subtitles) will give you extra practice in the language.  There is one word of caution: this is extremely difficult.  If you get frustrated, maybe it is too soon for you to be trying this. It has taken me a very long time to be able to watch movies or television in French.  Some programs use more slang and popular expressions than others.  You should be aware that comedies will use slang more than dramas and that maybe you need to start with documentaries or news before moving on to comedies.

Listen to music, radio, podcasts or CDs in the language you are studying. To really expand on your total immersion atmosphere, search for CDs of music in the language you are studying.  If you do not have a CD player, there are programs that have a lot of international music like Pandora, or satellite radio.  I prefer CDs because I can listen to the songs over and over again, learn the words and practice singing along as quickly and fluently as the singer. They may also come with a booklet of lyrics, so it helps to understand and learn the lyrics.  I found that singing along with songs I loved really helped with my ability to speak.  It seemed to help with pronunciation, speaking more quickly, intonation, even sounding more natural.  Remember that just like talking on the phone, radio has no visual clues, so this is going to be a challenge.  Having it on in the background is nice because it will get you used to hearing the language without the pressure of trying to understand.  You may pick up on a thing or two here and there, but eventually get more and more as you do it.  The idea here is just to create that immersion situation, build up your ability and train your ear.

Participate in social groups that share your interest in language. There are groups like Meetup.com and others which gather from time to time just to practice the language and participate in activities related to it.  I had a fun Meetup group in Houston that met at least once a month to dine in a French restaurant and talk in French.  There were quite a number of expats too, so it was really fun for me, since I was no longer a beginner.  The host made sure to seat people according to their language level and ease of speaking, and we all got the chance to practice the language with people who could help. You can search groups meeting in your area, say to speak French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and can limit the travel area to as large or small as you would like. You will very likely find a group, sometimes one that even meets weekly or several that meet on different days of the week, ones that meet for coffee, drinks, dinner, or just to sit in a park and chat. If one does not exist yet, consider starting one. It will probably surprise you the interest people have in things like that.

 

Look for local cultural organizations that have regular events.  Even some culture and language schools have events that they host, inviting students and expats to participate in meetings, presentations, celebrations, holidays and festivals.  You can become a member and then receive notices that announce events in which you can participate. Here we have Deutsches House for German students, which also hosts events; Alliance Francaise and Union Francaise both for French events, and there are probably other cultural centers for Spanish or Chinese that I don’t even know about.  The more often you do these events, the more frequent the chances you have of practicing your language, meeting people in your community who also speak that language and learning more about the culture.

 

Seek out shops and boutiques where the owners are native speakers.  Make a habit of patronizing shops, boutiques or restaurants where the owners speak the language you are studying.  We enjoy a couscous restaurant where the owner is from Tunisia. It feels like we are travelling when we are there.  We can order and chat with the owner in French and enjoy a great meal.  There are other places in town too, like boutiques specializing in French housewares, French bakeries, even bars where we can meet the owners, speak French and get local goods.

 

These are just some of the ways in which I have created immersion at home here. I am lucky that I live in a French city, where so much French culture already exists. My partner is French, and even though we use English at home, I also get to communicate with his family in French at least weekly.  I use French in some way every day, and I think that has helped me enormously.  I recommend that you try some of these tips, and if you think of others, please post them below in the comments.  The key is daily use, even if you do not have the opportunity to live overseas. Especially if that is the case, then you need to replicate that experience as much as possible where you are.

 

Studying from home?  How to make the best of it.

As is the case for many of us, this past year has kept us at home, locked in to our living spaces which have now become at the same time, home, school and office.  How can we make the best of it and still manage to succeed at our work and study while not being distracted by all the things around us? Your situation may differ depending on how comfortable or roomy your space is, but there are still things that you can do to make the best of it.

Have Your Own Work Space

If possible, have a designated space. If you live in a multi-room space, house or apartment, try to designate one room as your office/ study room. Even if it’s the living room, a spare room, small vestibule, or foyer,  make sure that the people that like with you know that certain times during the day, you will need to use this space for work or study. If you don’t have a spare room because you live in a studio or one-room apartment, maybe take a corner of the bedroom, or the kitchen table, and only use that space for work during that time, symbolically making that a work space to contrast with the rest of your free time.  To more clearly define your space, you might like using a paper screen or a curtain to more clearly mark off the space.  This can serve two purposes, first, hiding from sight the rest of the house, thus eliminating visual distractions. Second, if you need to use video conferencing, it can also hide the rest of your house from the caller.  It can make your video conferencing more professional-looking and also give you some privacy.

Block Out Noise

If you live with roommates or family, distractions can be auditory as well as visual. To eliminate noise distractions, try using headphones.  Noise cancelling headphones can be especially helpful, even if you are not trying to listen to something.  They can help block out distractions, allowing you to concentrate on your work.  As stated above, get support from your family or roommates that this time is for your study and ask that interruptions be limited to very important circumstances.  Even here where I work from home, we make sure to not interrupt the other as much as possible. Even if one of us has to walk through the room, we do so quickly and as quietly as possible.  We also use headphones when we are working at the same time, to limit the amount of noise interruption for each other.

Prepare Your Space For Efficiency

If you are working or studying from home, then making that space more efficient is essential to your concentration. If you sit at a desk, or wherever it is that you choose to work, make that space efficient by having what you need at hand, writing utensils, paper, notebooks, textbooks, reference materials, a small desk lamp, even making sure to have a beverage or healthy snack nearby can help save precious minutes. The moment you get up to grab something can cost you an hour, just by getting distracted, thinking you need right now to do the laundry or wash dishes or check messages on your phone.

In addition to having a good space conducive to work, make sure you have a comfortable chair or place to sit and do your work with ample lighting. These things can make all the difference. A good chair will prevent back pain, leg pain and overall make your work more comfortable.  Proper lighting will help you stay alert and awake.  If the lighting is too dim, staring at the computer screen will hurt your eyes, and you will start to feel too tired to concentrate.

Dress for Work or School

Remembering that you are going to school or work, even though you are in actuality just sitting down in front of the computer in your home, is important to your attitude about it.  So my advice is to dress the part.  Put on a good shirt or top, even if the bottom is a comfortable pair of sweatpants.  Even something as simple as putting on “outside” clothes can change your attitude.  You can even change your clothes at the end of the day or when your studying is done, to symbolize that the day is done and you can now relax and play.

Get Organized

Another way to keep you on track is to outline your projects for the day.  Making sure you know what absolutely has to be done today, what your deadlines are, and what can wait for later is key to staying on task. I keep an agenda open on my desk, with all my courses listed for the week. I can easily see what courses are coming up and whether I need to prepare something for them.  I put a check next to each one when I have done my preparation for them. I also have a column down the side of the page where I note some additional projects that I need to remember to do.

Set Alarms

It could also be helpful to set an alarm to warn you about the passing of time. I used to find it very useful to have an alarm going off 30 minutes before my lessons, so that I don’t get carried away with an activity and miss my class. Alarms can be set to remind you of the end of a break, so that you don’t go too long, warn you about upcoming meetings, the end of lunch time, or for project deadlines.  Speaking of breaks, make sure that you do in fact take a break.  It is very important for your brain, for your motivation, even for your creativity that you have a reasonable amount of time for a rest. There is only so much information your brain can absorb in a matter of time. Therefore, it is preferable to stop, have a snack, take a rest, do something enjoyable, go outside and take a walk.  Just be sure to set that alarm to let you know when that break is over.

Hide the Cellphone

However, a word of warning about using cell phone for alarms, silence it for all other alerts. I recommend turning off push notifications. They can be distracting and keep people from concentrating on work.  They encourage users to pick up the phone and look at alerts, read articles, and then they get lured into reading mail and other messages.  Before you realize it, an hour has passed while you are supposed to be studying or working.  It is better to put the phone on a “do not disturb” setting, or even airplane mode.  It is true that this could prevent your phone from ringing, causing you to miss important calls, but there may be a way to have a “breakthrough” message or call from certain selected numbers in your contact list.  That will probably depend on the phone.  I also suggest hiding the phone in a drawer or out of site while you are trying to work or study.

Keep Your Goals In Mind

Finally, I understand that for most people this situation is not ideal. Some workers miss the office camaraderie, interacting with colleagues; students must miss the classroom experience, seeing friends and socializing in between classes.  It is essential that people remind themselves of why they are doing this.  If you are a student, you must have a goal. Maybe you are studying to improve your life, build skills for your professional life, for a better job, college entrance, or for international travel one day.  All of these are really great reasons to continue your study despite the government orders to close schools to on-site courses.  Keep your goals in mind as this is going on. It will keep you motivated. For professionals working from home, remember the above tips and make sure to balance your work and private life.  Make that distinction clear.  Close the door to the office at the end of the day, change your clothes, and turn off the computer.  There are a lot of ways our work can bleed into our home life when working from home. Keeping the balance is important.

 

How to improve skills in your second language… Read!

Many of my students ask me what I think is the best way to improve their speaking skills in their second language.  Of course the simple answer is to practice speaking.  The language student should seek any and all opportunities to speak their target language, even if that means traveling overseas where the language is spoken, joining clubs, language schools, speaking with international tourists that one may encounter, or with friends from school who are also studying the language.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

However, that is not necessarily the best answer, and it is certainly not the only answer. What would a person do if he has only few or no opportunities to speak the target language? This is often the case for a person learning a language in a country where the language is not widely spoken. I lived in Japan for a few years, and very seldom met people with whom I could speak  French. Even when that rare opportunity occurred, we were usually in a mixed group where the common language was English.  Even then, the French speakers were not likely to correct my French or offer assistance.  The only thing I could do to maintain my language skills was to read.

 

Speaking more, practicing conversation, to improve one’s speaking skills can only help if someone corrects the speaker.  Yet the student is not necessarily going to build on skills as much as maintain what he already has. The vocabulary already at his disposal is not likely to be forgotten, but he may not add much to it without the help of a teacher conducting a conversation class dedicated to building vocabulary and editing grammar.

 

Photo by Adrien Aletti on Unsplash

Why Reading Works

If one is living in a rural area without a multicultural population or in a small town without international tourism, expats, or access to conversation classes, then the argument for reading to improve speaking skills is much stronger and the overall benefits are numerous.  When reading, a person is going to see much more than vocabulary.  He is going to build on his understanding of syntax, the use of articles, verb tenses, prepositions, idiomatic expressions, the particular way a language expresses things, the way phrases are built, colorful, descriptive language, and so much more. These benefits don’t just come at the early learning stage, but throughout your language learning journey.  Just the other day, I came across a beautiful phrase in a French novel that I was reading  that I hope to use one day.  The author was describing a friend from her past, and said of her that she was “belle comme le soleil” (beautiful as the sun). I thought that this was such a lovely phrase and wanted so much to remember it for a future time when I can use it that I wrote it down in my notebook.  I also found equivalents to English idioms that I recognized, even though they were phrased somewhat differently. We really do continue to learn at any age, at any stage of our education.

 

Why Not Use a Dictionary?

The way students should deal with new and unfamiliar vocabulary is not to spend hours looking in the dictionary for every new word they come across.  Obviously that is dull, makes reading laborious, and can lead to confusion if they pick the wrong definition or if the word is part of an idiom or used metaphorically. The student should just keep reading.  Does the new word impede the meaning of the passage as a whole?  Is the general idea of what’s being said understood? If so, the student should just make a guess about the word and keep reading. If the word keeps popping up, and the student thinks that maybe it is important to know exactly what the meaning is, only then would I say it is best to look it up.  The student may find himself surprised to realize that he had understood it all along, which will absolutely help with his confidence for the next time.  Eventually this word may become part of this repertoire, adding to his growing vocabulary at his disposal.  I have very distinct memories of what book I was reading when I learned certain words.

 

Other Skills Learned through Reading

While reading, it is not just vocabulary that the student is developing.  He is also being exposed to the usage of prepositions, how and when they are used; articles, which ones are used and in which situations; and common expressions and how they are framed in the language that he is learning. We often make the mistake of simply translating expressions directly from our native language into the language that we are learning, and that often does not work well.  I can honestly say that my full understanding of which articles to use and when did not only come from my grammar classes, but by seeing their usage again and again in books I read. I would sometimes stop and reread a phrase asking myself why one article was used and not another. After some consideration of the meaning of the phrase, it would become clear why it was used. This momentary contemplation cleared up my confusion and has added to my understanding of the grammar.

Final Thoughts…

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

This all can happen quite naturally, without distracting the student from what he is actually reading.  One word of caution, the student should not be translating in his head while reading. If the book is at the right level for the student, the words should be familiar enough for the student to simply read, as it is written, in the language and enjoy what he is reading.  If he is actively trying to translate simultaneously, or pronounce the words in his head, he will get lost in that activity and will lose the meaning in the process.  Therefore, when reading in a foreign language, it is especially important for the chosen book to be at the appropriate level for the student so that the student does not rely too heavily on translation or the dictionary.   Too much can be lost in meaning, and none of the other benefits will be gained from the reading.

So, what are you waiting for?  Pick up a great book and begin today!!

 

** Check out my Book Club courses for suggestions on great books to read for French or English language learners, and contact me for more information***

Uniquely Louisiana French (and English!)

Uniquely Louisiana French, and Part Two of Louisiana English à la française!

In the exciting follow-up to my article from last year, I want to share some of the things that I have recently  learned are “uniquely Louisiana French” expressions.  As may already be evident by now, we speak a bit differently here, even in the way we use English.  However, some of our French expressions are also unique to this area and not used anywhere else in the French-speaking world, which by the way is big, involving over 40 countries!

Français à la Louisianaise

Café du Monde by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

Last time, I mentioned our use of a 19th century word, banquette, which here is the sidewalk, and now the French of L’hexagone use differently (the meaning now refers to a small bench).  Yet another expression that we use, that no one outside of New Orleans uses, is vieux carré, meaning “old square”.  We call the old historical part of our city, the downtown area, this way, even though it is more like a rectangle really, a set of original streets laid out in a grid pattern, 14 by 8 blocks, a configuration which hasn’t changed since 1725.  It is a logical way to call the area, and yet we equate it with meaning “the old city” or “the historical district”.  That does not quite work the same way in Europe, where old, historical cities were built in a different way, with more winding roads and starbursts.  If we were to use this term with French speakers in Europe or elsewhere, they will likely wonder what we mean by it.  

Another (possibly) obvious New Orleaneanism is our motto: Laissez les bons temps rouler.  This is a likely translation, from English into French this time.  We say “let the good times roll” in English, but in fact this is not a sentence one would likely say in French.  For as my dear Philippe says, “good times don’t ‘roll’ in French”.  Refer back to Part One of this series, times “pass” in French.  We can “passer un bon temps”, but not roll it.  It had never occured to me after all these years in Louisiana that this would not be possible to say in French. Imagine my surprise!

English “New Orleans Style”

Moving on to more English expressions that are unique to New Orleans, and possibly with French roots, there is the very colorful way that we order our sandwiches.  Here in New Orleans, we order our sandwiches “dressed”, which means served with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.  I always wondered why non-locals looked perplexed at the question.  Does no one else out there order their sandwiches dressed?  (Please tell me in the comments section below!) If not, what do they say, then, when they want all the usual stuff on it?  After much research and discussion with French speakers, we came to the conclusion that there is a culinary equivalent, “habiller” (to dress), used when preparing poultry or other things, by removing innards, feathers, etc.  It would seem that the idea is to “dress it up”, in other words, “make it pretty”.  It sounds like a logical conclusion to me; although, I doubt that the French order their sandwiches “habillés”.  

A student of mine once asked me if there was some French correlation to the expression used locally for putting away the dishes, which here is “save the dishes”.  I think it is possible that it could have come either from the translation of  “garder” (to keep or save, for example “garder la  maison”, to take care of the house) or from “ménager” (“to keep, save, manage” as in “ménager son bien” manage or conserve one’s fortune”).  Le ménage is the household, and let us not forget that faire le ménage means to clean or sweep or tidy the household.  I can not say for sure where the Louisiana expression came from, but I hope some of my readers can shed some light on this for me.

When we want to say “over there”, in Louisiana we say “up the road” as in “my friend lives up the road a bit.”  It is more or less the same in French, en haut de la rue.  Additionally, when we want to say “that day or week in the past”, we say “that week there” just like in French, ce jour-là, cette semaine-là, (literally that day there, that week there).

There’s one that I cannot determine yet, but may add an update here if I can get some information from those of you who are locals out there.  In French to say the day of the week, it is either aujourd’hui c’est.. (today is..) and the name of the day of the week, or nous sommes… and the day.  This last one translates as “we are… “,  as in “We are Monday.”  Do any Louisiana locals say that?  I have a feeling that it is something that may be said here, but I cannot be sure. 

This last one was recently brought to my attention (Thanks, Faye!).  When we “pass by your house” here in Louisiana, we may also say that we are not “going to get down”. That is our way of saying that we are coming by to see you, but not getting out of the car.  That also comes directly from the French who use the verb descendre (literally: to descend, go down) to say “get out of (a car or bus)”.

I love the charming, colorful way that people speak here.  It is like its own foreign language in America, centered on this little tiny space in the deep South, on this tropical island, the northernmost city of the Caribbean.  French is so integrated into our daily lives here that we are not always even aware of it. When I have pointed out some of the similarities in the way we speak here to the French my students are learning, they are often amazed. It is in our blood, in our lifestyles, and it is a vital part of our identity. 

Vieux Carré street sign
by Naveen Venkatesan on Unsplash

If there is anything to add, please write to me in the comments.  If you have any questions about local Louisiana expressions that you think might be of French origin, also please write me here and I can look into it for you!

I Heard the Owl…

I Heard the Owl Call My Name, but Margaret Craven

This is a classic which I first read during my bachelor’s program in the spring of 1995.  I have since read it several times with some of my ESL students, and each time we did a very close read, discussing themes and topics along the way. With every new reading, I am reminded of how deeply philosophical it is, how it emphasizes the strength and importance of community, and how a village is really like an extended family.  I am moved every time by the reading. This is really the kind of book that a person might reflect upon from time to time for years to come, and a great book to enjoy at a time like this, so isolated and separated from our own communities.

Photo by Keith Lazarus on Unsplash

Based on a true story, it is the life of a priest, Mark, who unbeknownst to him is dying, of what exactly the reader never knows.  Due to this unfortunate news regarding the young vicar, the bishop decides to send him to his most difficult parish, the remote Native American village of Kingcome, in the Pacific Northwest.  The bishop knows that Mark has a lot yet to learn and wants to help him do so as quickly as possible because he does not have a lot of time left.  The post will be a challenging one for Mark, and even the trip to arrive there is arduous. He will have to go from one boat to an even smaller boat upriver, through mountains, not to mention the harsh climate he will have to endure, the isolation, and the task of understanding or getting to know the villagers.  However, Mark is wise and patient.  He knows the value of waiting and keeping silent, listening.  Over time he learns more about them, while never fully understanding them, as even he admits. He does in the end, however, end up being respected and even loved by the villagers who mourn his passing in the traditional ceremonial way.  

Here is a place of myth, of old legends, where the river is life itself, linking all the other villages, the only way in or out, where the boat he drives becomes an extension of himself.  From chapter one we learn the meaning of the title, which also is a legend in which the owl will call the name of the man about to die.  Here nature is One with man, and they are all connected, and even dependent on each other.  We learn of the slow and steady bond growing between him and another Indian named Jim, of how important that bond becomes, of how much he has influenced the villagers and how much they have influenced him.  In fact, their influence on him was so great, Mark could not imagine returning to his world.  He was a changed man.  He would never again belong to the modern world, and worried a lot about when the time would come that he would have to return there.  

This book reminds me of the importance of stillness, or the simpler way of life, of how isolated we have become, in our own worlds separated from society. In the village they suffered together through the rains and the harsh winters, helping each other, sharing food, but in this modern society we have built for ourselves, we suffer alone.  The villagers seek to preserve their traditions and rites through dances and stories, but we throw away the old and replace it with new and shiny.  The only other man in the village not a Native American was the teacher, who stayed apart from the others. At the death of Mark, he was unable to open the door to join the others, thinking that, “To join the others was to care, and to care was to live and to suffer.”  (158)  We shy away from death, hide it behind closed doors because the reality is scary.  We hide from life too often because being a part of it means risking loss, which is scary.  Yet, death is a part of life in the village, and everyone shares in it, takes part in the responsibility of it.  It is the cycle of life and a part of everyone and everything in the village.  

It is on the short list of books that have made me emotional.  I ended up absolutely loving the characters, especially Jim, Mrs. Hudson, Marta, and Keetah.  They are charming and caring and wise. This book is inspiring and philosophical, a truly memorable book to remind us of the essential things of life.  

***** This book is available for English Book Club**** See Courses for details.

Home, Sweet Home…

There’s no place like home.

While we are all sitting at home, confined inside our houses and apartments, it is a good time to think about the meaning of the word “home” and how it differs from “house”.  What does it really mean?  How many definitions are there and which, if any, is most accurate or correct?  Does every language have an equivalent, or even a different designation for house and home?  It was recently brought to my attention that in French this distinction can be made. For house, there is maison (which could also be home) or even domicile; otherwise there is foyer for home, but the usage is very specific and is a word that also refers to the hearth, or fireplace, words often used metaphorically for the warmth of the home.

Home is where the hearth is.
Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Yet my question is really whether people think of the two words, house and home, differently or use them interchangeably without considering even a nuanced difference.  For me, a house is simply where you lay your head at night, but a home is something more abstract.  It is a feeling, or maybe even an ambiance.  For some people it may be where they were born, spent their formative years, where they had their first memories, where their family is now, or anywhere that their family currently is, or even any place that they are currently living.  They may go “home” for the holidays, to their childhood home, for example. However, if their parents moved somewhere, would they then have two homes? If not, would the new house be their new home, or would the old one forever be home and the new one just where their parents are now?  How do they choose? My family has moved 5 times since I was born, and my “home” is none of those places.  I do not have a single memory of the place where I was born, and the place where I spent my first 15 years in school is not special to me.   

How does a person feel when he is home? Does he have a different feeling when he is elsewhere?  If a person goes on vacation or goes to visit friends, does he have a different feeling in those places?  What can a person do to make the place where he lives feel “homey”?  For me, home is a place that I have chosen because it is a place where I have found myself to be most comfortable.  It is a place where I can be myself, where I am free to express myself, where everyone is so open about who they are that no one person stands out. It is a place welcome to all manners of lifestyle, and has been so throughout its entire history, so this welcoming attitude is really built into the fiber of the city, as if part of its “cultural genetics”.

This home of mine is a place that embraces three of the things I value most, food, community, and leisure. Food is celebration, as is evidenced by the fact that all of our festivals here involve, or even feature, food.  There are countless food festivals here, too many to mention, and we have nearly run out of weekends in the year for them.  We have a caring, warm, embracing community here. Neighbors speak to each other, look out for each other, smile sincerely and warmly as if they have known each other all their lives.  Shopkeepers remember their customers, remember their orders, say hi and even learn their names.  I have never felt so important as a customer anywhere else but here.  

As for leisure, it is a way of life, nay, it is an art form in this town.  We must move slowly here, being just too hot and soupy most of the year to bother being in a rush. It feels sometimes like walking through a pool of water thigh-high, my legs heavy and slow.  Yet, what is the rush? Our goal is to enjoy life, to the fullest, and our festivals are evidence of that, not many lasting less than an entire weekend.  Our meal times are an event.  I once spent 3.5 hours at a table in a restaurant.  We had long finished eating, but were too busy enjoying the conversation and finishing wine to realize the time that had passed.  That is the point.  The waiter never pressured us to finish our meal either.  

My porch with a book and coffee!

The pace of life is exceptionally slower here than other places I have been, like Tokyo or Paris, where I often felt pushed along with the current, adrift on a sea of people. The frenetic pace of cities like that was dizzying and left me feeling wind-blown.  Only after leaving Tokyo, 30 minutes into my train ride home and over two rivers, did I feel as if I could breathe again.  Where is everyone going in such a hurry?  For us here in the deep South, here in soulful New Orleans, porch-sitting is a local pastime.  I often sit on my porch, occasionally talk to neighbors walking by, watch the birds, breathe the banana-infused, Magnolia-soaked air, while reading a book with a nice hot cup of coffee next to me, letting the time slip by. I dreamt of that one day.  When I awoke, I smiled and said, “Yes, that is it. That is what I want.”  That is what home feels like to me.


I would love to hear your contributions!  Make a comment below and tell me what home means to you.

New Orleans, my love..

New Orleans Carrollton area

Andrei Codrescu is an essayist, novelist, poet and professor at Louisiana State University.  He is also a regular speaker on National Public Radio, and such a brilliant speaker! I first came to know him from an audio selection in the material used where I was teaching ESL in Houston.  I then discovered this book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, a collection of his essays, at the LSU bookstore. I completely fell in love with his style and his writing. His voice, his humor, his way of seeing things are all completely endearing.

He is Romanian by birth, but moved to America and eventually to New Orleans, his adopted city, around 1985, the year the essays in this collection start.  The essays are grouped by periods, chronologically, except for the first which is a kind of preface. In his essays he talks about everything from his being a newcomer and his amazement of the environment, his fascination with the cuisine, his observations of our festivals, the heat, the humidity, the spices.  He talks about his favorite spots, his corner bar, his first Mardi Gras, the first time he had crawfish. Over time he will even talk about the politics of the city and its corruption, elections, and crime. No stone is left unturned. For me, it is interesting to see my city from an newcomer’s point of view on the inside. 

What I love about his writing is his very poetic way of describing things.  He makes even the most mundane occurrence seem significant and often hilarious. When trying to choose a new book to work with one of my students, I picked this from the shelf for consideration.  I flipped open randomly to the page entitled: Alligators. I read a few lines and immediately began to laugh out loud!  He is languishing in the heat, lying in his hammock “with [his] mouth open, waiting for a ripe fig to fall off the tree into it.” All the while he is looking in the direction of a drainage ditch near LSU, when he observed an alligator, that apparently all the students know.   His description of the scene is absolutely perfect, and anyone who has been here can imagine it.  

New Orleans French Quarter
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

I realized very quickly that this book is perfect for anyone who wants to understand this city, its citizens, the culture and history of New Orleans and even for locals who want to enjoy an outsider’s view on the city.  It allowed me to observe things with fresh eyes, seeing things that I no longer noticed due to familiarity. It is also a perfect book to work with ESL students because it is divided into short essays making it manageable in an hour-long lesson.  Yet at the same time they are still fun to discuss and eloquently written. An English learner will learn culture and history while developing vocabulary and language skills beyond just academic essay style.

It is a wonderful text for any college-age or adult learner of English wishing to improve her reading and comprehension skills.  Even more than that, it is a brilliant book for the lover or New Orleans, anyone who has traveled here, lived here or who has dreamed of visiting one day.

**** Available as a ESL Book Club course**** See my Services page for details!!

Oh! A mystery of Mono no Aware

Oh! A Mystery of Mono No Aware, by Todd Shimoda

Another of the beautifully created books by Chin Music Press.  

Only very rarely have I ever purchased and read a book more than once. The first time I recall doing just that is with Phantom of the Opera.  The second, when my copy of Oh! was damaged in storage. I felt compelled to buy another because it was simply too beautiful a book to keep a damaged copy.  When my new copy arrived, I decided to read it again. It had been years since I had read it the first time. This is a deeply philosophical book involving the journey of a man seeking emotion in his life.  He feels as if he is simply going through the motions in life, in a boring job, in a loveless relationship, devoid of any meaning.  He feels numb, unable to sense strong emotion or to grasp feeling from the things he sees around him.  He drops everything to move to Japan in search of something but he knows not what.  

The narrator starts teaching in a language school but gets laid off because he did not have the proper visas for work.  It was there that he had met professor Imai, one of his students. He learns from the professor about mono no aware, a very complicated Japanese concept mostly applied to poetry and one that most younger Japanese do not understand anymore, involving an emotional response (usually sadness) to things around us.  A classic example of this is the Japanese cherry blossom, very beautiful flowers that bloom and fall in a very short period of time.  We have very little time to appreciate them before they are gone.  Mono no aware makes us respond with Oh!

Cherry blossoms in Japan

When professor Imai learns of the narrator’s search for feeling, he starts a series of tests for the narrator, sending him on little quests to check his responses to things.  This eventually leads the narrator down a very dangerous path where a curiosity of Aokigahara forest grows inside him, thrusting him deeper and deeper into the dark corners of Japan and leading him straight into the arms of Tokyo’s suicide clubs, wherein lies “the ultimate mono no aware experience at the moment before death”.  Little does the narrator know, the professor has some dark corners in his life too. They are both searching for answers and seeking to understand mono no aware.  I developed a real sympathy for the main character, and when I learned more about him, for the professor too.  They are both tragic characters who found each other at an important stage in their lives to help each other.  There is definitely something of a father-son relationship between them that I found touching.  The final chapters reach such an urgent climax that I found myself holding my breath or gasping in shock.  

It is a captivating book that is terribly hard to put down.  Each chapter flowed so smoothly into the next, or left me at such a cliffhanger that I never could quite find a place to put it down, leaving me reading late into the night.  Between chapters are “exhibits”, or explanations of complicated Japanese concepts on poetry and art and culture, mostly dealing with and expanding upon various definitions of mono no aware.  The ten or so pages in front and back have beautiful paper and art from the writer’s wife.  The book is art itself.  It is literature; it is a travel journal; it is philosophy.   It is a thought-provoking and emotional read that reminds us to stop and smell flowers, stop and look at the way the sun filters through the trees, stop to listen to the birds.  

Fabulous the first time, maybe better the second.  5 stars!!

**** Book available as an ESL Book Club course*** See my Services page for details !

Louisiana English à la française!

Here in New Orleans we have a very particular way of life, from our mannerisms, customs to even our way of talking. Some of our expressions may seem bizarre or even foreign to those outside of the city.  Because of my long experience studying French, I have slowly come to realize that the reason for this must be the French influence on the city. Some of these expressions seem to be a direct translation of the French, and the locals using these expressions may not even be aware of it. I have in fact pointed this out to some of my students who seem genuinely surprised that the expression in French is more or less exactly what we say here in English. This could possibly be explained by the fact that generations separate the native French speaking inhabitants from the citizens of Louisiana today. French was officially banned from public schools and government buildings in 1916. It took awhile for English to take over and during that time, many French speakers were probably translating.

Joan of Arc Maid of Orleans in the French Quarter, gift from France
Photo by Morgan Hjelm on Unsplash

In Louisiana, for example, a popular expression is “making groceries”.  It is what we do if we go grocery shopping, yet no one else in America will “make groceries” when going out shopping.  This is easily explained by the fact that faire les courses in French is “to do errands or go shopping” because faire in French is both “make or do”.  

However, there are many more examples than that, especially involving the verb passer, to pass or spend.  Here you will often hear people say they “pass a good time”, not the more common “have a good time”, most probably because the expression in French is almost exactly the same, passer un bon moment.  They might also say variations, like passer un bon week-end, passer une bonne soirée.  People here might also “pass by your house”, meaning to come see you.  This too is a literal translation of the expression passer te voir (come to see you).  In other uses for the verb passer, people in Louisiana will also “pass the vacuum” when cleaning the house, which seems to come directly from the expression in French passer l’aspirateur.

One final “frenchified” way of speaking that is common in Louisiana is the use of pronouns, especially repeated ones for emphasis.  It is very common to hear people say things like “Me, I like it me.” As in, “I like me some gumbo, me”, or even “Him and me, we go there often.”  I suspect that this is a hold-over from French which is a language that uses repeated words, not vocal stress, to emphasize words or to clarify who the subject is. Therefore, the French might say, “Moi, je l’aime bien.” (Me, I like it/him a lot.) Or “Lui et moi, nous y allons souvent.” (Literally “him and me”, in order to say “he and I, we go there often.”)

Finally, a very unique Louisiana term that we use here is banquette, which is used to refer to the sidewalks here, where the French would use the more modern term trottoir, meaning pavement.  This may seem like a uniquely Louisiana French term that the French outside of Louisiana do not use at all.  There are quite a few of those examples as well. However, this is a very different situation, as it is more a case of 19th century French still being used in New Orleans.  In my 1877 edition of a French-English dictionary from Cassell & Co., a banquette was a “footway of a road”.  That would actually make a lot of sense for its day, since sidewalks were not paved in New Orleans at the time. It was more likely a slightly raised side of the road alongside of the houses.  

There may be many more examples of this that I have not yet come across. I do believe that our French roots run deep here, and that while French was almost wiped out here one hundred years ago, it never really went away.  It went underground for a while and has reemerged stronger than ever. French words are a part of our daily lives, in the naming of streets, buildings, magazines, foods, shops, social organizations and so on. Additionally, much of that French-ness is also a part of the way we express ourselves, even while in English.  

This is a work in progress, so stay posted to receive updates to this article. If anyone has more expressions to share, I would love to read your comments below.