Tuesday, December 20, 2016

French language – and puff pastry breakfasts

“déclassement”, “le pape”, “bureau de vote”. These are words I learned in my last French course.

Let me tell you something about language learning.
I HATE regular language classes. I accept that they can be necessary, at some point, in developing sufficient skills to either start reading literature (in languages where intercomprehension gives you a leg up) or to start reading the effing grammar book (in languages utterly unrelated to any other language you speak). But, even if I see their necessity, I hate their predictable, boring topics. “My family”, “my vacation plans”, “my home town”. Yuck! Yes, I’m happy to discuss my family – once I’m on B2/C1 level and can talk about what really matters. Being able to say “I have one older sister” is not anything I really want to spend a long evening lesson on!
My last-but-one French course was a private, 1-on-1 class, specifically to prepare me for the DELF B2. It did exactly that. I got prepared for DELF B2, and I got prepared so well that I passed with flying colours  - which is impressive, considering that I dropped out of regular French classes after completing the A1 level, and 99% of my French study after that considered of reading stuff and taking DELF exams.  Before this, 10 session à 90 minutes, course, I was barely able to say “Bonjour! Je m’appelle Judith.” After it, I could discuss the hyperdiversity of eating habits and how it relates to globalization in the production oral section of my DELF B2 exam.
Still, all I really talked about was mostly shit. Shit that is important to pass the DELF B2 exam. Textbook content shit.
In the middle of my B2 exam prep, I was invited to a conference in Luxembourg. During a pre-conference dinner, with a German, a Korean and a Romanian, where French was lingua franca (as English wasn’t a strong language for most participants), I finally got to do something with my French that went beyond textbook-related insert-noun-with-negative-connotation-here. I used French to talk about things that interested me - for the first time ever. And I saw that I had a long way to go. I could express myself – but barely so, and I had to select what I could say, rather than what I wanted to say.
After passing DELF B2 (Thanks to all that boring exam prep! Grateful to my teacher, who forced me to make progress every single week!), I knew I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be. I can speak some French, but not to the level I want to speak it. At the moment, I speak it as a FOREIGN language. And I want to move to the point where I speak it just as A LANGUAGE. As one of my languages. As a language I think in. As a language I dream in. I also want to pass the DALF C1 and C2 exams – but this, really, is the same thing. I don’t think you can pass a C2 exam without first falling in love with a language, and then accepting it as part of your daily life. [OK, technically, for sure, you can, by investing enormous amounts of study time. Let’s just say that I couldn’t – I’m too lazy. I will never invest the amount of study time it takes to reach C2 level – I’d rather live my life in this language for a couple of years, and then suddenly realize I’ve reached C2 level.]
After passing my B2 exam, I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew that I still had a long way to go to actually integrate French as one of my languages into my daily life. I had started to read French research literature, but I was a long way from using it productively in my professional life. [With one notable exception: In the MElang-E game, there is a dialogue the main character has with a small child who speaks French. I wrote most of that dialogue. But this was really easy, as the main character was defined as speaking French at A1 level, so that is what I did write.]

So, how to continue after this? I know I have massive grammar deficits – but I can just sit down with the Bescherelle or the the Nouvelle Grammaire du Français and do the work on my own. That’s the good thing about having doctorate in English linguistics – I can read the effing grammar book myself. 
In the end, what I did was to take a “News & Breakfast” class, a morning class, where learners would read French newspapers and discuss the articles while munching croissants. It fitted well into my weekly schedule, and I happen to have a weakness for croissants. Also, current news sounded much more interesting than “mes vacances”.
This course turned out as a tiny little mini class. We were two students, and the other student missed most of the classes. Also, the croissants were fantastic, and since I’m a quick reader, after a few sessions (after the courses’ teacher realized that yes, it didn’t take me half the session to scan a newspaper and read a page-long article), we ended up just discussing news most of the time.
I loved it! This course really really really forced me to use everything I ever learned about the French language. At the beginning, I often used pseudo-French – English with a bit of a French veneer (I have much more interference from English than from German, at least on the level of vocabulary, because 1066. Darned Normans!). Over time, I think, my French got more French, and the tiresome French pronunciation drills from my DELF B2 prep course also started to pay off. I explained how the notion of “filter bubble” pertained to the US election. I discussed religion in the context of the Pope’s participation in reformation day celebrations. I argued in how far French labels for specific racist perspectives did or did not apply to Trump voters. I got to the point where onely once or twice in a session LANGUAGE moved into focus. Generally, the content of the discussion, of the article, of the background stories the teacher told, were more interesting than the way I phrased something.

I also learned much more about France. Learning where Calvados is produced (the extent of my exposure to French culture at school), memorizing charts representing the educational system and  reading contemporary literature (my autodidactic exposure to culture) only takes you so far. During this course, France got a face. This wasn’t the first French language course I took that was taught by a French national, but in all previous courses I didn’t really get to know the teacher. This, of course, is perfectly ok. It is a way for language teachers to protect their private lives, and also a way to ensure all learners, whatever their own beliefs and preferences, enjoy the class. In this course, though, I learned a lot about my teacher: His political beliefs. His family history. His trials and tribulations navigating an expat life. He didn’t teach me to love France, but he shared his own love-hatred (or, let’s say, critical appreciation) of a complex, difficult, wonderful, diverse country with me. For me, French was always more interesting then France, and “visiting Toulouse” units in my Textbooks never changed this. But if France includes people like him, I think France might actually be an interesting country. Regardless of where Calvados is produced or how long primary school lasts.

Friday, October 7, 2016

CALL: Etymology is not destiny

CALL – as any CALL book, paper, essay and blog post will tell you – is computer-assisted language learning. Yeah, right. Bollocks.
CALL may have been computer-assisted language learning at some point in time, but today, it is more. It is learning and teaching of languages through digital media, usually with a focus on computers, mobile devices, and anything that has internet access and is smaller than a fridge (intelligent toasters included).
Time and again, you will find people who argue we need a new label, as the old one doesn’t seem to fit anymore. This, I think, misses the point.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the label "CALL". It has a nice ring to it. It is well-established within the community. It’s short! And – most importantly – it offers rich opportunities for puns, for the authors so inclined (CALLme? CALL center? ReCALL? CALLous? Get it? *haha*)
There is nothing wrong with the word. Except its etymology.
CALL isn’t a teenager anymore. The word has been hanging around, trying to look cool, for quite some time now: Since the late 1980ies. The word has stayed the same, even though the thing it denotes has changed. It’s like light bulbs. Light bulbs used to look like bulbs. Today, they come in all kinds of shapes, some looking more like melons, others more like match sticks. Still, we call all of them light bulbs - and we don’t think too much about the underlying metaphor anymore.
Etymology is not destiny. Nor should a changed world force our hand in discarding well-loved words, just because the historical meaning of the word components does not fit the current reality anymore*.
Let’s stop treating CALL as an acronym. Let’s stop saying: „CALL means….“, „CALL is….“, just to finish the sentence with an etymological statement. Let’s say, if we must, „CALL, historically, meant…“ or „CALL’s etymology can be traced to…“. But let’s stop reducing CALL to its historical meaning. 

*I am very happy to make an exception here in the case of words denoting groups of people that may be well-loved by some, and perceived as hateful by others. 

Life, Language and E-Verything

So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.