French Lessons

Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes

I have, in what feels like a harmless way, been enjoying observing passively my wife’s dauntless efforts to learn French, conversational French, on her own, using various brands of the most popular form of self-education tools that exist. I mean, of course, computer-based apps, for smart devices and computers.

They seem mainly to work on the principle of going blah blah blah at you in the language with which you are challenging yourself, and you go blah blah blah back, repeatedly. There are exercises, with recursive quizzes built-in to assess progress, wherein variously you listen to a native speaker (they all claim native speakers, and eavesdropping, sometimes I wonder; I’m not a native speaker so I keep my mouth shut… usually; let’s just say maybe some of them are, like, natives of the docks in the old port of Marseille) and try to decipher what they’ve said, or you try to repeat it, phoneme for phoneme.

Your mastery is measured in various ways, and there is regular, if not altogether constant feedback. You accumulate points, or other rewards, receive praise, and are gently corrected. This is the fundamental paradigm of most of these apps as far as I can tell, regardless of whether they charge you, and most of them try to get you to “subscribe” at some point one way or another. Surprisingly some very good software for picking up the rudiments are completely free – after which, frankly, I would move on to a more efficacious methodology even if it costs a few coins in the currency of your chosen tongue.

What else strikes me about these exercises is that one of the essential requirements of the seemingly universal pedagogy deployed is to come up with a reliable steady stream of stock phrases that somehow simulate (or are meant to) the kind of everyday palaver used by native speakers. The classic example (from my French tutelage back in the junior high school I attended in Providence RI) is the immortal, “La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.” We pre-adolescents of the mid-20th century were supposed to believe this is the way genuine French people addressed one another, impossible as it was on the face of it to imagine that our real aunts and uncles would behave in this way such that we ourselves would have occasion to declare, boldly and with confidence, “The pen of my aunt is on the desk of my uncle.” In case, that is, some interlocutor should inquire of one of us, “Hey kid, where’s your auntie’s fountain pen?”

There was for me the added circumstantial impediment of my having only one aunt, a widow, at best semi-literate, who was, except for the marriage of my father to my mother, not related to my only uncle, a life-long bachelor. Further, given the proclivities, life style, and stated preferences, not to mention a highly introverted nature, of my uncle, I knew it was impossible, should he ever have indulged himself by joining the holy state of matrimony with a literate woman, he nevertheless would never have countenanced his soul mate poking around his stuff, never mind violating the sanctity of his personal desk, which presumably, further, would likely have been in a room, which he would have kept locked, dedicated to the purposes to which one puts a personal desk.

And who used fountain pens any more in that day and age anyway?

Similar antinomies still occur even in the most up-to-date software products it seems. Developers clearly are facing the same struggle to come up with not only credible dialog that is not merely authentic and idiomatic, but similar to real quotidian discourse that might actually occur between real people who find themselves in real situations doing, let’s face it, essentially ordinary things. One of the first revelations of learning a language sufficiently to comprehend most of what’s said within earshot when you happen to be, let’s say, sitting in a café in the south of France next to a married couple from the next town over on what happens to be market day is that, not to put too fine an edge on it, they’re not talking about Proust. Or Mallarmé. They’re not discussing the finer points of Sartre’s thoughts on Nothingness. They’re not amusing themselves exchanging bon mots by way of noting the advances that feminism has made in La Belle France since the days of de Beauvoir. They’re saying the same inconsequential, mundane, homely, and sometimes largely inarticulate things we all do in what passes for conversation about our basically contained, safe lives as we comport ourselves in the unremarkable enclaves of our quotidian wherever we happen to live, and whatever we happen to utter when addressing our intimates.

An additional deficit to these language learning software apps, from my perspective, is, as well, that there’s not much effort given to giving a clear sense except by inference and that blasted continuous repetition of phrases in that stilted scripted language they’re teaching you – which within the specifics of my particular observation is not French, but near-French, Simu-French – about what the cultural norms may be of the societies within which real French is unself-consciously the, pardon the expression, lingua franca of everyone, from the elite to the hoi polloi. Which is to say, there are some ways in which it’s polite to speak to others, especially mere acquaintances and strangers. And let’s face it, there’s no reason to learn French intensively and immersively for casual reasons (though I know there are some otherwise temperate and good-natured souls who pick up other languages as a hobby, with no prospect of ever actually putting them to active use). Not unless you own property in France which you hope to enjoy on a regular schedule of visitation, or you’re ex-patriating yourself for reasons about which it would be certainly a rude and presumptuous intrusion for me to inquire, or you are marrying into a family of exclusively native French speakers and who, your intuition alone so far has told you, are OK kind of people, maybe even your kind, and you’d like to converse in something other than an impromptu sign language plus an awkward mutual but inadequate command of the limited vocabulary of Franglais we all seem to share, plus a lot of smiling while engaged in eye contact of the most earnest sort. Because Franglais is good, maybe, and mainly, to find yourself a toilet in an emergency and for getting ketchup for your frites.

You do want to learn the language so as to reveal some finesse and sensitivity for it, even if your motives are purely touristic however, and intended not only to smoothe your sojourn in a foreign country as a visitor, but to enhance the pleasure of actually being there by having an ability, however limited, to engage with natives in some polite conversation where you might compare views about such matters of universal interest as the weather, or the beauty of the countryside, or the tender yet toothsome je ne sais quoi of the volaille forestiére (chicken breast, hunter style) you ordered with such aplomb and confidence. In short, there are few people insensitive enough or so supremely self-possessed as not to care if they come across as a dork or, worse (though sometimes the sadly stereotypically expected behavior of an American in virtually any EU member country), as an exuberant kind of gorilla with a talent for what resembles the power of intelligible speech.

These thoughts occurred to me today, as I happened to be musing on this on my daily commute to the local bakery, in the context of trying to come up with ways to encourage my wife in her thoroughly successful efforts so far in learning a language using such sometimes tragically impaired tools. Her efforts are heroic and deserve not just encouragement but assistance of a kind based more solidly in the real world of the France and its people with which we have become familiar in an affectionate way through our regular visits.

What I thought, as I encountered, among other things, some of the usual sights along the way, and had to deal on the road with some of the usual impediments one encounters on the highways and byways of rural Provence, was how much deeper would be the experience of gaining mastery of conversational French if it addressed some typical sitations with what someone might actually wish to say to the individuals one encounters randomly, if not serendpitously on such rounds.

So, here are some phrases I came up with, just this morning, that I’d like the neophyte speaker of basic French to tackle. And let them decide how much more fulfilling it is to be challenged by these phrases.

Bicyclists (in summer especially there are many many of them on these country roads and the rules of those roads requires, in fact, that motorized vehicles must honor their right of way – I’ll leave it at that, otherwise my language might get unduly colorful):

“Hey, can’t you and your gang of eight manage to ride single file on this road?”

“I’m not sure you realize this, my friend, but you and your buddy there on the side of the road with no shoulder, having a cool drink of water, are practically invisible in the shade in this blinding sun. I came close to sending you flying.”

“Say, my ancient friend, I know very well you have the right of way, and I must pass on the left at least five feet away from you, but I think if you meander up the hill in the middle of this two-lane road you may be putting yourself in danger. I do worry. So, move over, if you don’t mind.”

Personal Needs (you will quickly note a theme here):

“I am so sorry to disturb you during your cigarette break, especially as you are the only waiter in this restaurant, but I wanted to bring to your attention that your washroom has no toilet paper, or soap. Oh, and you are out of towels.”

“I am sure it is very rude of me to comment, but might you consider putting a sign on your restroom door warning people that there a few centimeters of water on the floor they might wish to avoid?”

Cuisine

“I did want to tell you how fascinated I am to observe that your chef has figured out how to add some crême fraîche to every dish you have on offer.”

“Would it be terribly inconvenient to indicate in the menu – you can even do it only in French – that all of your salads include pork lardons and chicken gizzards? I appreciate these added bits of savory protein, but your portions are so generous, I would be happy to eat only the vegetables.”

Fellow Bewildered Tourists to the Region

“Well now, my good fellow, I see you are a little lost, as you entered the cramped parking area of the bakery in your large luxury car in the wrong direction, and have managed to make it impossible for me, in my little compact rental, and this other stout fellow, a local resident in his tiny van with his dog, to remove our vehicles, even though we have finished our purchases and wish to go home. But I’ll just sit here as I have plenty of time. I am sure you will figure out how to extricate yourself, and good luck my good man, as you do so.”

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What is is—Annals of Rhetoric

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

[The original dateline of this post is August 15, 2007; I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived at the time and had been for 22 years at that point. I have changed only one word, the penultimate one, to bring this up to date.]

It used to be schoolboys, well, my schoolmates—boys and girls—knew. Back in the 50s and 60s, they knew how to understand diplomatic language, as far as the news brought it to our ears. Somehow we had absorbed a lesson in rhetoric for our time.

Between the Cold War—largely pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union—and the war of words that was its chief manifestation, the air (and the newspapers and the broadcast media—no ‘net back then, no Web, no blogosphere) was filled with reports about meetings between diplomats from both camps. Walter Cronkite did not have to catch his breath to explain what “full and frank” discussions meant, as the most high ranking of the government representatives present engaged the press after sessions had ended. It meant long boring talk fests between white men in suits that boiled down in plain language to, “We mainly told each other, ‘You’re basically full of shit.'” After the United States (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and a few other sovereign camp followers) “opened” Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century, these discussions could and did increasingly involve men, also in suits, whose complexions were various shades of what Caucasians took to calling “yellow,” until this became politically untenable.

There were hot components of that odd encompassing state of armed conflict, “Cold War,” an Orwellian oxymoron universally applied wherein men (few women then) actually shot weapons at and bombed and gassed and napalmed each other. In fact, we were at perpetual war—we of course still are, or why would I even mention this? in which we found ourselves with unseen enemies, save for low resolution monochromatic moving images on our primitive tv screens. These episodes, prolonged or sporadic, famously occurred between principals of one side and surrogates of the other, or, at a lower order of implementation of world policy, between surrogates of each side, with no principal involvement. Unless the latter was covert, of course, which meant that the public could not learn of it, by law of the land, until 40 or 50 years had passed after the termination of the specific unpleasantness, or the present presidential regime had ended. Unlike the meaning of “full and frank,” however, we were in the dark on this one. In those days we still believed in rules of engagement—another tortuous linguistic formulation, generally applied when humans were engaged, in fact, in the simple objective of making the other guy dead. And the rules said, we civilized nations would not do nasty things covertly to any other nation, and we trusted in God that such was the case.

We didn’t stop to think about the basic absurdity of agreeing to the limits of the methods we would use when engaged hand-to-hand, sometimes literally, in a fight to the death, assuming one of us captured one of you. There was no Emily Post of the Rules of Engagement, but there were such rules, and in those days, we didn’t think about it either (about the absurdity), and we carried our disgraceful detachment further by putting faith in our government that, when it spoke to us, it told the truth. Sometimes couched in the language of diplomacy, but, as I started to say, we understood what that meant.

Every word was studied, for as much as the English language is capable of nuance, the spare vocabulary of diplomacy, spare because specialized, a language that nations could agree was the appropriate way for all—even enemies—to muffle the truth, without abandoning it altogether. As long as we were talking, we were less likely to bomb the bejesus out of each other wholesale. Sometimes we went retail, but there were always trends, never sustained styles that created a legacy. Somehow, World War II early on became the last good war. Which leaves a lot of bad wars, before and since.

And what Americans came to realize, yet again, is that they don’t like war. It doesn’t matter to which specific realization I may be referring, we came to that conclusion repeatedly for as long as I’ve been alive, which is three-score and ten. Years.

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The New Newspeak

Approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes

more often than not what you read on this blog is inspired, though I tend to think of it as provoked, by something I’ve heard or seen or read, especially on the Internet. the link below is the provocation in this case

http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21661043-langue-de-moli-re-gets-north-african-infusion-arabesque

We had dinner at our house for guests the other night. One couple were 30-somethings, well along in establishing their careers, with graduate school behind them, but not so far that it’s a dim memory. The other couple were 20-something, one of them just 23, and just recently out of college, with the elder of the two about to start law school. My wife teaches at a local university, and just started the new semester’s classes, with students from freshman year through graduate school. At one point, the conversation turned to the volatile nature of the vernacular, especially as used by those even younger than our guests, both in spoken conversations and texting. Even the youngest of our guests said it’s simply impossible to keep up with the vocabulary that is au courant.

It’s clear to me, being a student of language for onto 40 years, and often cited by others for the expansiveness of my vocabulary (which is, alas, wholly deficient in the current slang of the moment, of the locality, of the region, of my country, never mind of France in any part of it, urban or rural), that the agency of all this, if not the enabler, is the Internet. Not because of some innate linguistic voodoo, or because of some social emollient (though it’s easier to say anything even to strangers, because, famously, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog), but because of the rapidity of the spread of anything, be it a meme, or a joke, a cartoon, a photographic image, or a newly coined buzz word.

In the early 90s it was stock brokers who were the medium for the rapid spread of the latest jokes, simply because they were the only workers, cross country, who were interconnected for business reasons, and who universally had computers and email accounts. A joke could make it from New York to LA by lunchtime on the east coast. I suspect the delay is even shorter today for the traffic in what passes for the content of communications, because there are so many more people intereconnected, because connections occur in real time, just like a voice phone call, and the devices are all mobile and wireless.

It’s not prescient in the least to expect that the impact of youth and the ways they use language and the ever shrinking dimensions of the virtual globe on which we all reside is changing how ordinary people convey a message or a greeting. Writers have long anticipated it, and even tried to prefigure how the vernacular might go, getting the flavor of the phenomenon, if not the actual mutations as languages meld. The best example I can think of immediately is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a novel that was published in 1962. And of course, there was George Orwell in the 1940s, with his “discovery” of Newspeak, and the specialized languages he invented in his dystopian novels.

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