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!!

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.****

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.

 

Language Learning Never Ends

At some point in one’s language learning, it seems as if there is nothing left to learn, yet fluency still has not been attained. However, never forget that there is always more to a language than vocabulary and grammar.  There is the way that it is used everyday in that descriptive, poetic, idiomatic way that just never seems to be taught in school.  I have studied French for thirty years.  Granted, not all of that time has been spent in school.  Many of those years were outside the classroom, in my many travels to France and Francophone countries, through my many subscriptions to magazines and newspapers, in all of my reading and through all of the movies and news programs I have enjoyed since finishing school.  Yet there were times when I still felt my French was grammatically hyper-correct, that kind of “book French” for which my friends mocked me, yet not colloquial. I had never mastered the idiom.

 

Thanks to the Alliance Francaise, I discovered  Claude Duneton’s La puce à l’oreille: anthologie des expressions populaires avec leur origine. Perfect! It was just what I needed. I highly recommend this for the advanced French language student who is looking for a deeper understanding of the language and where certain expressions come from and why the French express things in certain ways.

This is not your typical book of idioms. A typical book of idioms will give a student a list of idioms and the meanings as best translated in English.  On occasion, however, after discussion with a native speaker, I have determined some of the “translations” in such books to be inaccurate, not quite grasping the original meaning, or just not quite the equivalent. Understandably, it is very difficult to translate some popular expressions.  Yet a simple “dictionary” of idioms does not make for easy memorization, either.  This book by Duneton reads like stories.  They are memorable stories, about the history of certain expressions, tracing their origins back to old French words with the occasional or eventual change of meaning that sometimes takes place. It was so memorable that maybe a few months later, at a film showing at the Alliance Francaise, I heard one of the characters using several of these expressions in the movie, and I did not need to make use of the subtitles to catch the meaning.  That might not have happened had I not just recently read this book.

 

A fairly common idiom that a student might even learn at school would be something like tomber en panne.  We learn this to mean “break down”, but what is a panne and why does it have to fall?  We will learn from Duneton that this is a nautical term and the fascinating story of what panne means.  Some of these expressions are very old and rarely used, but not too many.  I regularly come across some of these in books, even in ones that I have read even recently, like tenir le haut du pavé or se mettre sur son trente et un. You will also learn the origin of an expression which is very common even in English, le cordon bleu.  Putting the cart before the horse (which in French comes to: mettre la charrue avant les boeufs) may have its origins in old French labor idioms.  These are clearly explained in this book, and now I know them when I see them.  It makes my reading that much more enjoyable.

Another unexpected outcome and welcome realization is discovering why we say in French grand-mère without the extra e on grand.  Mère is feminine, why is grand not in the feminine form? Grand at the time was invariable and took masculine and feminine nouns.  There are other gems that we will learn here, like why ouvrier means worker, but ouvert means open, literally open for work.  Yet, there are words for work and those are now travail and travailler which used to mean “torture”.  I find this fascinating!

 

I cannot sufficiently sing the praises of this work.  You will simply have to discover it for yourselves. It is most definitely for the very advanced French reader, and you will certainly need a very good dictionary if you want to search for some of the words used that are simply not so common in French today.  Despite the difficulty of the text itself and the sources cited in old French, I do highly recommend it for anyone who wants a more fuller experience and glimpse into the highly colorful colloquial French.  We never stop learning a language.  It is a life-long experience.  I find it very exciting to learn new words or phrases, and common expressions, especially the colorful ones!  Vive le français!

Writing to Improve Language Skills

Many of my students ask me how they can improve their language skills.  My usual answer to them is to write as often as they can and to read as much as they can.  The benefits of these two activities cannot be denied.  Like playing an instrument, one must practice to improve.  In that same way, practicing writing and reading often will inevitably lead to improvement in all areas of language skills, and they can be practiced anytime, anywhere.

I have, throughout my career, worked with many students at various ages and at various levels.  I was first given the idea of encouraging students to write a daily journal when I was working in Japan. It was my mentor’s idea. I was not sure how it would work, but in fact, to my surprise, it yielded incredible results.  Students, even those who had low grades, noticeably improved their grades, even across subject areas.

First, however, I must define what a journal is.  It is not necessarily a diary, which is a private book in which you record intimate details of your life.  It is simply a notebook or document where you write maybe not for the purpose of being corrected but just for the practice of writing.  Of course, you could ask for corrections, and I did correct my students’ journals if they asked me to.  We would sit together while I explained some of the changes I made to their journals and why I made them.  They learned a lot during this process, but they learned a lot simply by writing as well.

In writing daily, even something short, students started to think about how sentences (in their case English sentences) were constructed, how to say certain things that happen in everyday life.  English for them became something real, useful, relevant.  They developed vocabulary, grammar, expression. They learned how to say what they wanted to say.  They developed organizational skills and confidence in writing.

Where should you start?  Decide whether you want to do a journal digitally or keep a notebook. I personally like the idea of keeping a notebook and writing by hand.  Choose a notebook that you like, one that you will carry with you and can write when you feel inspired.  Try for a goal of writing every day for five minutes, or maybe simply writing a few sentences or a paragraph a few times a week.  As long as you are trying on a regular basis to get a few words or sentences down on the page, you will be on the path to improvement.

The subject matter is entirely up to you.  You can write anything at all.  You can write about your daily activities, having tea with a friend, going shopping, cooking dinner.  The important thing is that you are thinking about how to say all these things in your new language.  You may realize that you need a lot of new vocabulary.  The act of searching for these words and recording them will likely help you to remember them for next time.  It may even prove useful once you have a conversation with someone on a similar subject.  The other important aspect of writing about your daily activities, more than just finding the vocabulary, is the process of constructing your phrases, thinking about how things have to be said in the language.  It makes you become aware of which articles to use and when, which verb tenses, even which prepositions and all these little grammar points that we sometimes forget to think about when we are talking.

If you do not want to record personal activities, you could write about your thoughts on things on a more abstract level.  You could record your thoughts about friendship, growing older, the importance of art or literature, something that you heard about in the news.  Once you start writing, you may find that the words flow better, your thoughts come together better, and you may write more, for longer and not want to stop.  I noticed this with my students’ journals, which got longer and more complicated, and sometimes more personal.  The act of writing can really help students organize their thoughts.

One student even came up to me at the end of a session, turning in his last journals for the term, and said that originally he did not like the activity.  He could not at first see the purpose, but by the end of the term he really felt differently about it.  He said he felt his writing had really improved and flowed more easily, after only one month, and that he would likely try to continue the practice.

In conclusion, I feel that a journal is really useful for many reasons.  There is no pressure.  No one has to look at it, grade it, judge it.  It is mostly for you.  With that in mind, writing a journal can be a really beneficial activity for improving writing, especially in a second language.  My first diary was given to me at the age of 10.  I started writing, about everything, on a daily basis.  By the time I was 14 and learning French, I would occasionally write in French too.  I have no doubt in my mind that this helped me in school by improving my writing skills, my ability in French and possibly improving my grades as well.