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.

 

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***

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.

Vocabulary for Discussing Literature in French

Voici des mots clefs pour parler de la littérature.

Here are some key words for talking about literature.

During my thirty years of speaking French, any time that I had to speak about a topic or subject that was new to me, I would be frustrated to discover all the holes in my vocabulary.  For example, if you have ever had the experience of needing to talk about literature in French, you may have come to realize that you lacked a certain specific vocabulary.

For students wanting to participate in a book club or to study literature to improve their language skills, this list might be of interest to you.  I put together a list of words and expressions that were needed for the conversations I would have during courses in which we discussed books and short stories.  Below are some expressions that you may find handy or essential in order to more easily discuss what you read (or even films you see) in French.

If you are interested in a Book Club course, please see my page on courses offered for details.

Expressions:

Il s’agit de…  = It’s about…

Traiter de = Concerns, deal with, to be about

L’histoire a eu lieu… = The story took place…

Cela m’a fait penser à… = It made me think about..

Ce livre parle de…  = This book talks about..

Tu as raison/ tort… = You are right/ wrong..

Je ne m’y attendais pas… = I did not expect that…

Je me rends compte que… = I realize that…

À mon avis – In my opinion..

Je suis en train de lire… = I am in the middle of reading, I am reading…

Ce livre m’intéresse parce que… = This book interests me because…

Je suis intéressé(e) par ce livre parce que… = I am interested in this book because…

La langue de l’écrivain est (élégante, riche, poétique, …) = The language of the writer is (elegant, rich, poetic…)

Langage haut en couleur, langage imagé = Colorful language

Vocabulary:

Genre = The style, type (of literature)

Roman historique, roman noir, roman d’aventure, une autobiographie = Historical novel, mystery novel, adventure novel, autobiography

Un récit, une histoire = A story

Le personnage principale, le/la protagoniste, le héros du livre = The main character, the protagonist, the hero of the book

Le lecteur = The reader

La lecture = Reading

L’auteur(e), l’écrivain(e) = The author, writer

Le dénouement, la résolution, la révélation ou catastrophe, la conclusion = Falling action

Le conflit, l’apogée, le moment décisif = Climax

La présentation, l’introduction, l’entrée en jeux = Exposition, introduction

Le déroulement, l’enchaînement, la progression de l’action, le développement de l’action, l’évolution du conflit, le point culminant = Rising action

le noeud, la péripétie = The entanglement, twists and turns

Le narrateur, la narratrice (omniscient)= The narrator (omniscient)

L’antagoniste, l’adversaire = The antagonist, the adversary, the enemy

Les personnages secondaires = Supporting characters

Le décor, la scène = The setting, scenery, the scene

L’intrigue = The plot

Le complot = The conspiracy

Une oeuvre = One or several works by an author

Un oeuvre = Describing the ensemble of works for a writer

Un recueil (de nouvelles, de poésie) = A collection (of stories, of poetry)

Le thème =The theme

This New Year’s Resolution… Learn from Making Mistakes

One problem that I often encounter in the many places where I have taught is the fear students have of making mistakes.  I cannot stress to them enough that making mistakes is both inevitable and very helpful as a learning tool. There are many reasons why students should not fear it, but rather try to embrace it.

Fireworks over the river, 2018

First of all, the classroom is the best place for mistakes.  It should be your safe zone. All of the students present in a classroom are in the same proverbial boat.  They are all learning; therefore, no one should tease, criticize or ridicule one another for a simple error. It is your goal to learn, and there will be many things that you will struggle with along the way.  If making a mistake prevents you from speaking up, you will miss the opportunity to practice, and it is only by practicing that you will improve. No one would expect a piano student to learn to play without practicing.  It is unimaginable that simply by listening one could learn to play. In that same way, simply by listening to a language, one will never learn to speak.

Practicing, whether in the classroom or outside of it, is one of the best ways that a student can gain confidence in speaking.  Once a student realizes that he got the question right, was able to answer on his own, or correctly say something in his target language, he is able to build confidence in himself. This will inevitably lead to his feeling more and more comfortable in speaking. It takes making that first step to speaking and responding to questions to reach that point. If he never takes that step, he will hold himself back.  

It is outside the classroom where some students find the most fear of making a mistake when speaking. For some, it is a crippling fear, and it holds them back from even answering the simplest of questions. I will never forget my first experience speaking French with a Frenchman.  My high school teacher invited some of the students from the French 4 class to the Festival International of Lafayette. I was very lucky to get the chance to go, do something cultural with my teacher, but also to speak with someone in French. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment realizing that I could make myself understood after just a few years of studying.  I realized also how useful it was to speak another language. I was, amazingly so at that age, not at all worried about making mistakes, but rather amazed at being able to use something for which I had worked so hard.

There were of course times when my mistakes have caused great embarrassment.  This can happen to any of us, and sometimes make us want to stop trying. Don’t let it stop you! On at least two occasions that I can recall, my mistake caused a friend to quite nearly fall out his chair laughing. Regardless of how embarrassing, those mistakes were undeniably memorable.  In that way, I learned in one single instant the mistake that I made and remembered to never make it again. Fortunately, years later, I was able to laugh at myself and the mistake I made. I now can retell the story, and as a teacher, this has helped me to help my students. In telling my students about these experiences my students can see that everyone makes mistakes, that it is simply part of the learning process.  I can also steer them away from making certain mistakes that may cause serious misunderstandings as well.

The learning process does not end with the classroom door.  I might even say that the best learning happens outside of the classroom.  It is there where students will encounter a variety of accents and speaking styles.  It is a great opportunity to perfect their skills. Getting over their fear is only the first step.  Once they do, the benefits are endless. There is no perfection in language, there is only room for continued improvement.  So, go ahead, make mistakes!

Share your stories in the comments section!

Albert Camus’ The Stranger

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

I recently discovered the book Looking for the Stranger by Alice Kaplan and started reading it at the same time as rereading The Stranger in preparation for a discussion with a student. It was through this combination of books that I was really able to look more deeply at the themes of the book and the personality of the main character. The Stranger, read by so many students in school, has as Kaplan says become a sort of “rite of passage” (Kaplan, 2). It sparks debate on all sides and leaves us wondering why we sympathize with the main character, wondering why he does not fight for his life, or for that matter even defend himself?

The Stranger is a classic and in my opinion a novel that everyone must read. You can read it simply for face-value, as a book about a man who seems disconnected from his world, and as events unfold he is lead closer and closer to the murder of a man on the beach. However, I think questions will come up that will cause the reader to delve more deeply into why. Why do the events unfold in a way that lead him to kill a man on the beach, why in this moment is he prompted to do something so extreme, and yet with such coldness? Why is he so disconnected from everyone and everything, his mother, his job, his friends, even his girlfriend? Why does he not respond to the violence he sees around him, only to then shoot a man completely unprovoked?

Kaplan says something that I have often heard said by another favorite writer of mine, Dany Laferrière,  in a similar way. She says that “books have a life. They come to life as you read them, and they stay alive long after you’ve turned the last page.” Oh, how I know that is true! The Stranger will do just that to you. In fact, the more I read this book, the more I feel it with me every day. Camus’ philosophy, often mislabeled as Existentialist, is in fact Absurdist. He sees men as all being condemned to death, all in their own time, of course. He says that as humans we are somewhat meaningless in the world. Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, says that we cannot change our lives. That basically describes our main character’s attitude before his own life. He is indifferent to his own life, saying, for example, to his girlfriend that he supposes that he does not love her, and that it does not make any difference, that it is all the same to him, but that if she wanted him to marry her, he would. He refuses to give way to the expectations of society, has no ambition to better his job at work, basically refusing a promotion and never justifying himself.

Camus uses the first person singular to tell his story, thus putting the words and thoughts directly into the mouth of his narrator. This gives us a strange feeling of distance between us and the writer, all while creating a strange relationship between us and the character. In my opinion it might be why by the end, we have a kind of sympathy for him, even while we basically know exactly what happened on that beach. By the end of the book, I wanted him to fight for himself, to let his lawyer try to save him. But eventually Meursault more or less condemned himself by saying “the sun made me do it.”

The question remains, of what exactly was Meursault convicted, putting his mother in a nursing home, or killing a man on the beach? At the trial, the victim was never mentioned, and the majority of the questions to him were related to his mother’s placement in a home, his lack of showing sadness, his behavior before the casket (drinking coffee, smoking and sleeping) and the relationship he began with Marie soon after his mother’s burial. Additionally, throughout the days following the death of his mother, he repeats phrases like “it’s not my fault” or that he felt guilty. Guilt over what? Did he feel guilty for abandoning his mother, or did he feel as if her placement in a home was what prompted her death, which of course we know is not true since we know she had a fiancé while there.

If anyone here is dying, it is Meursault, whose life seems empty. We see his slow Sundays where he sits on his balcony watching Life roll by. We know he has no passion about his job, or even for his girlfriend. He has no pets, no hobbies except bathing either at a pool or a beach. He eats at the same restaurant, and when not there will cook something simple like boiled potatoes. There is no spice or joy in his life from what we can see. He is a stranger to his life. Interestingly enough, talking about strangers, most of Camus’ characters are strangers to us, too. We never know Meursault’s first name, nor the name of the Arab that he shoots, nor the name of his neighbor’s girlfriend, la Mauresque. We never even know his mother’s name.
By the time we finish the book, maybe we can come to fully understand Camus’ philosophy, just like Meursault does at the end.
A truly stunning read, thought-provoking and moving. It gets better with age, and with every subsequent read! 5 stars indeed.

**** This title also available as a Book Club selection.  See my Services page for details.****

Le Monde est Son Langage

The newly published book by Alain Mabanckou, Le Monde est Mon Langage, is a tour of the French-speaking world in a series of essays. His travels take him all throughout the world meeting, occasionally by chance, French speakers and writers in the most unlikely of places, discussing literature, politics, francophonie, and the history of French literature as it appears in various places all over the world.

In his captivating introduction he explains how this autobiographie capricieuse came about.  He himself became a writer, not because he had to leave his native country, but because writing helped him to look at his world differently. Having lived on three continents, he says that he discovered this world through this point-of-view français. This is a book about the relationships that he has created with the people that he has met in his travels, calling them “ambassadors”, many of whom write in a language other than their native language, that same language that Mabanckou has adopted for his writing.  French does not belong only to the French, but is spoken the world over.  Many of the writers he will meet and write about are multi-national, multi-lingual and write in search of identity or on the theme of exile.

 

Chapter one begins in Paris where he meets the writer Le Clésio for a conference and remembers his relationship with him over the years.  Le Clésio, whose mother is from France, father from Mauritius but Breton by birth, now lives in New Mexico.  Their philosophical discussions on writing and language are fascinating and inspiring. These discussions set the tone for the book, and I especially enjoyed envisioning these two great men of literature strolling through the gardens of Paris while in deep discussion.   As the first and longest chapter, it seems to me that this one was indeed the most important.  His next stop is to my beloved New Orleans and a meeting with a man who claims to have roots with the Haitian hero Toussaint Louverture!

 

One of the many reasons why I find this book fascinating and captivating is, as I have said above, when he and his friends discuss topics such as the purpose of language, art, writing, poetry, whether poetry is dead, how poets are the guardians of the language and how a single language cannot define the world. These philosophical discussions are for me so thought-provoking and precious.  I read slowly and carefully, taking notes and occasionally putting it down just to contemplate.

 

Quite often the chapters in the book read like a biography with references to the most significant works produced by these writers and the impact their work has had on the literature of the region and the Francophone world. Some people may see them as dry, but to me they are always eye-opening, create great discussions and sometimes have sparked my interest in a certain writer or his work.  There are many chapters in which discussions will range from créolité, antillanité, the créolisation of Europe, to identity and exile, in the works of such authors as Edouard Glissant, Camara Laye, and Gary Victor, just to name a few.

 

Another of my favorite chapters is the one on Montreal with Dany Laferrière and his friend Rodney Saint-Éloi. It is partially a story,  partially an interview.  I have appreciated Dany’s humor and use of metaphor ever since I first discovered his work.  Even in this short chapter, his charm and humor come through.  Mabanckou, a long-time friend of Dany’s, clearly knows how to capture his essence.

 

It is clear through his writing that the French language is precious to him, and that writing this book is like a love letter to les lettres françaises, French literature, all of it from everywhere in the world.  For someone whose exposure to French literature outside of France is limited, this book is a great starting point.  For the great bibliophile, this is also an important work to add to your shelves.  Mabanckou’s defense of poetry, his pure belief in the importance of literature to move and inspire people will resonate with those passionate about language, as it has with me.

 

I have used it with students as a book club selection, with chapter by chapter discussion questions.

***Book available as a French Book Club Course, See my Services page***

Language Learning Opens Doors to the World

A friend of mine in Japan, Toshiro once said to me that speaking French with me in Japan made him feel like a foreigner in his own country. As someone who has never traveled outside of his country, it was like traveling and was a positive experience. This is what studying a foreign language can do for you. It is like traveling without leaving your home. If he had not been able to speak French, we probably would never have become friends, since I did not speak so much Japanese at the time and he, almost no English. French became our common language and our only means of communication. It was French, not Japanese or even English, that brought us together, as we were looking in a box of French books at the only international bookstore in Yokohama, a city of 3.4 million. It was French that assured us a friendship.

[Stephanie and a student in front of a temple in Saitama, Japan]

Knowing a second language opens the doors to the world for you. It is by far not an easy process, requiring years of hard work and practice and many mistakes, but the rewards are worth it. My journey with French began when I was in high school. I had a teacher who made it such a wonderful experience, introducing culture and history in her lessons, playing popular music or French radio, bringing in posters and just generally being enthusiastic about it. It opened up a completely new universe for me, one I had not previously thought about. The idea of visiting this place that I saw in the pictures of my textbook became a new and exciting goal for me. I continued to study French in college, first because of the language requirement, then later because I loved it, was good at it and wanted to major in it. Then the traveling began.

 

The first time I traveled to France I realized that I still had a long way to go before I could be able to communicate easily. I was frustrated that I had already studied 7 years of French but could barely understand what was said to me and hardly put a sentence together myself. After returning home, I decided that I had to get serious, and I put my nose to the books determined to speak more French before the next trip. After every trip, averaging 3 to 4 weeks at a time, I started to notice that I was improving. I felt that my communication was getting easier, more fluent, and I was learning new vocabulary every time. I traveled alone, so I could more easily meet people and make friends and only speak French while there, full immersion!

 

Noticing that I could speak better if I read more in French, I started getting magazine and newspaper subscriptions to my favorites and getting books every time I went to France. While home, I seek every opportunity to speak French, joining conversation groups and events at the local French cultural centers, meeting and talking with tourists, watching French news on the internet, or French movies. There were even French groups which met in Japan to speak French and do some activities together!

 

I am always so amazed to find French speakers in places I never imagined finding them. That is really my point here. Knowing another language does open the doors to the world, and that world is all around us. Whether you are home or abroad, a foreign language may become useful. I was in Florida visiting my family over the holidays. When we stopped into a bakery to get desserts for after dinner, my dad told me the owner was French. He poked me in the ribs and told me to greet the owner in French. Of course I said hello, and then I asked about some of the pastries. We had a lovely conversation for a few minutes. For a moment, I could pretend I was in France, and maybe he did too! I know what it is like to miss home. I also know how good it can feel to hear my native language when I am somewhere else far from home.  It is worth every bit of those years of hard work.