Article: Language is Music (from the New Yorker)

I just read a fascinating article posted in the New Yorker, by Mary Hawthorne, entitled LANGUAGE IS MUSIC. Most of the piece is a response (from various translators) regarding an editorial by Lawrence Summers in the NYT, which opined that, ‘English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.

Naturally, there was much disagreement over his points in numbered paragraph 5. Quite honestly, I do think that learning a second (or third) language is something that ought to be done. It needs to be taught properly at the lower grades, when learning of languages has been shown to be easier. There ought to be more opportunities for immersion, as well. Learning another language is learning a different way to think, a different way to view the world. And, as David Bellos states, ‘mastery of a foreign language is a prerequisite for understanding how to use your own.’

Am I biased? Yes, probably. I would have loved to have decent instruction in French when I was younger, but the teachers I had most years barely knew any more than their students, having (I’m guessing) drawn the short straw or had the free period needing filled. (And, alas, my parents chose not to put me in French immersion schooling, though I think I would have done well.) So now I plod along, working haphazardly to learn a bit more French. To be honest, properly learning a foreign language is a lot of work. With everything else that I do, I just don’t have time to devote hours every day to study.

Still, I’ll keep at it, though progress is slow. In the meantime, I’ll continue reading French works in translation, and maybe someday I’ll know enough French to read Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘L’Invitée’. I have a copy, and it’s waiting for that moment.

The Unabashed Francophile Post, Part 10: My Trip to Paris (2)

In re-reading my journal, I’d nearly forgotten that the summer of 2003 was a bad one for Paris. When I was there in June, the temperatures hovered around 30C, but later in the summer, a number of elderly people died from the heat. The heat made it difficult for me. Hard to sleep, hard to walk for long periods without feeling exhausted… but I did it anyway. I only had ten days and I wanted to make the most of it.

During my first full day, we went to Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité, and viewed the Roman ruins under the square, as well as viewing the World War II memorial (of which at that time I knew nothing). I knew Paris had a long history, but somehow seeing the remains of Roman buildings made me realize exactly how long that history has been. There’s nothing here to compare. (As Eddie Izzard says ‘I’m from Europe, that’s where the history’s from.’)

I thought the rose windows at Notre Dame were impressive. Not so impressive were the masses of tourists and their noise. It negated the sense of sacred space. Though I’m not religious, cathedrals like Notre Dame (or Yorkminster, or Notre Dame in Montreal) should be places of awe and meditation. I love old churches for their art, for the stones worn smooth by centuries of use, and the smell of candle wax and incense. So to visit such a grandiose monument and be frustrated… it was a disappointment.

Me outside Notre Dame, in the heat. The bushes behind me were filled with tiny, chirping sparrows.

Another frustration… my poor skill in the French language. If I had a dollar for every person prior to my trip who said ‘Oh, it’ll come back to you!’, I would have had a lot more spending money. I was intimidated. The French I thought I knew had vanished. People spoke so swiftly that I had difficulty catching more than one or two words.

Of course, it didn’t help that I had a massive case of jet lag. Day two ended with a delicious meal – I note in my journal that I had a veal dish with a mushroom and white wine sauce, kir as an apéritif, and a chocolate mousse for dessert. A bit of chocolate always helps… and my third day would be better after a proper sleep.