Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book notes: The Story of French by Jean Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow

Quite a while ago I read The Story of Spanish by the same husband/wife author duo, and it was one of the best popular linguistic books I’ve ever read.  It was great to get a history of Spanish and all of its origins.  These books go very deep into the history, cultures, personalities, and events that influence the development of language.   I need to read The Story of Spanish again and write a review, but for now here are some notes from another one of their works, The Story of French.  
French, a Romantic language just like Spanish, seems so different.  I learned Spanish prior to starting to study French, and found Spanish, for lack of a better word, was easier.  It was much easier to learn.  Spanish was phonetic, French is not.  Spanish pronunciation is pretty straightforward, French has tricky nasal and guttural sounds.  Spanish sounds like other Latin based languages, such as Portuguese and Italian, French much less so.  So what’s going on?  Why is French so different from Spanish and all of the other Romance languages for that matter?
The answers to these questions start to become clear in the early chapters of this book.  The authors claim “while English is the most Latin of the Germanic languages, French is the most Germanic of the Romance Languages”.  Gaul, or what is modern day France was part of the Roman empire, and many languages in this region came from Latin there were significant influences from other languages, both from within the territory and from Germanic invaders from the east.  “French” as we know it today is really one of the hundreds of local dialects that used to exist in France/Gaul.  French would also end up significantly impacting one particular Germanic language, the one in which your humble author is currently writing.  The Norman invasion and occupation of England made quite an impression in English, and is responsible for many of the English words of Latin origin today.
The French language and its development is chronicled through time; from the dark ages and into the enlightenment.  French philosophers prospered during the enlightenment, and gave French an international appeal in fields where Latin had been dominant before.  French salons where influential philosophers like Voltaire  and Rousseau gathered made French a language of noble minds and artists.       

Nadeau and Barlow have a great knack for including great trivial knowledge.  An example of this is the origin of the word restaurant, which originally meant “restore-ant”, named after a beef broth that was thought to have tonic qualities.  Restaurants started in France.  Prior to the French revolution, chefs worked in Chateaus for the nobility.  During the revolution, many of these elite either went to the guillotine or sought refuge outside of France.  With their traditional income gone these food professionals needed to find another outlet to utilize their talent, and the restaurant was born.    

The authors do an excellent job of describing the whole francophone world, visiting old colonies and enclaves of French speakers throughout the world.  Nadeau and Barlow, being French Canadian, pay special tribute to Quebecois, the Acadians, and the history of French speaking people in all of Canada’s provinces.  History is given from Colonial times of New France all the way through Quebec's independence movement.  They also visit Louisiana and document a disappearing Cajun French culture, which gives us one of my favorite quotes of the book: “Every time we’ve tried to close the coffin on the Cajuns, the body’s sprung up and called for beer”.  I feel like I’ve walked away from this book with a much more complete knowledge of both the francophonie (countries with large number of French speakers) and the Francophonie (political union of voluntary member-states where French is an influential language).  It is great to see that French remains an important international language, and even in countries where English is gaining traction, these gains are not at the expense of French (the authors cite Egypt and Algeria as prominent examples).      

This title touches on many topics and closes strong with what the future holds for French.  Although this book is about a language and includes lots of linguistic information, it reads like a popular biography.  The authors do an excellent job of bringing the history of French alive with vivid history, thorough research, and personal interactions that they had with French experts from all around the world.  If you’ve read and enjoyed The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, you’ll love this book.   

Monday, November 9, 2015

The American Dream

My blog is not a place where I want to discuss politics or controversial issues.  Political writing is too hard, too stressful, and too alienating.  I want to be able to discuss learning Spanish, raising bilingual kids, Latin American culture, and a variety of other topics without venturing into controversy.  I going to try to follow that philosophy, while at the same time talking about a few things that have been on my mind lately, and that I’ve had some conversations about that I’d like to address.

My job in the public library affords me the opportunity to talk to people from very diverse backgrounds.  A few weeks ago, my boss met the manager of a local Mexican restaurant who was very interested in his employees benefiting from the services the library offers (ESL, GED, etc.) and he started sending a few of his employees down to see us.  My boss asked me to help these folks since I speak Spanish.  One of the employees comes down and we’ve been working together the past few weeks on ESL and computer lessons.  He’s a very recent arrival from Guatemala.

Yesterday we were having a conversation, and he has told me in the past that he has two children that are right around the same age as my kids.  So I ask “did your kids go out for Halloween this year?” to which he replied “no”.  I didn’t think anything of it, I knew he would have been at work at that time and that Halloween isn’t really a Guatemalan tradition.  So, the main thrust of our conversation went back to making an ESL study plan.  I asked him if his kids helped him at all with his English and he said “no, they don’t speak it”.  Unknowingly, I replied “they’ll learn fast, kids always learn faster than us”.  Then he said “They’re not here, they are in Guatemala”.  I was shocked, and I could see the pained look in his face.  I asked if they would come to join him someday, the answer was no.  I asked if he could go back and visit someday, and likewise the answer was negative.  I could not believe it, and my friend could just say “it’s hard, it’s hard”.  I know it would have to be.  I can’t imagine not being able to see my kids, they’re my life.  And his kids are his life too, that’s why he’s here, to work hard to send money back home.  I can’t even fathom the pain of making the decision to leave everybody behind, out of love for them.  Now our friend is washing dishes at a restaurant, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  It’s so sad.  I sincerely hope our friend finds success here in the United States and can provide his children with a great education and upbringing with the money he is sending back.  That would be the American dream.  For too many, the American dream doesn’t become the reality that it could or should be.  

When I hear things like Ann Coulter talking about how immigrants are “importing peasant cultures” or Donald Trump saying that Mexico is sending us “rapists and murderers”, it makes me cringe inside.  For one thing, I’ve had the incredible privilege of being able to meet, work with, and get to know many immigrants from all over the world.  This has made my life so much richer.  I think it goes without saying that the Trumps and Coulters of the world are xenophobic hate mongers, but it does need repeating.  One voice that has countered the unrealistic hateful rhetoric of the aforementioned individuals is Anthony Bourdain, please see the link for more on his comments in support of immigrants.  There are immigrants who bring drugs and violence into our country (because our country has a huge demand for drugs), but they are absolutely the exception and not even close to the rule.  Most of our immigrant friends from Mexico and Central America are hard working people just trying to improve the chances of theirs and their children’s success.  All too often when they get here our country’s promise isn’t there for them.  

Immigrants, especially undocumented ones are a vulnerable population that are often abused, overworked, and taken advantage of.  My friend, as I mentioned earlier, works 12 hour days, 6 days a week.  This is not as bad as it gets.  Another friend told me that when he first came to the United States he worked in a candy factory, staffed exclusively by immigrants.  The managers were all Americans, and during their 12-14 hour days of putting candy by hand into boxes the foreman would scream “hurry up” and step on the gas pedal to speed up the conveyer belt.  The people would be working at their maximum speed for all of those hours.  This individual eventually found better work, but that’s not easy.  When you’re doing back-breaking work for many hours a day, a lot of times you can’t or are too tired to be looking for better opportunity.  Long hours for little pay are not the only disappointments that await many immigrants and it’s not only adults who end up being treated poorly and exploited.    

Child labor is something that happens in the United States, especially in agriculture.  Children over 12 are legally allowed to work in agriculture in our country, a policy that goes back to the days of small family farms.  Nowadays, kids often work in mega farms.  Working in agriculture often results in kids dropping out of school.  Agriculture, and cheap food prices, very often leads to exploitation and working in slave like conditions.  One of the biggest problems with our agricultural workers is that they’re invisible.  It’s unfortunate to think that the apple I’m eating right now may have been picked by a child laborer, or a person who is paid less than minimum wage and forced to live in a migrant camp, but that’s the reality of much of the agriculture produced in the United States.  Other than low wages, child labor, and poor living conditions, there are other things that go against migrant laborers.   

Very often a person’s status is used to coerce them, and undocumented people who are fearful of authority often don’t report crimes and threats against them to the police.  Frontline produced an enlightening (and award winning) documentary called Rape in the Fields that addresses this issue.  Many mega farms in the United States use workers’ immigration status to blackmail them to not go to the authorities after sexual assaults.  This same kind of coercion can happen to people without papers in other industries, and even outside of the job context.  Many illegal immigrants don’t report crimes against them because they fear what will happen if authorities get involved.  

Other than Native and African Americans, the majority of our ancestors were immigrants.  Immigrants contributed to making our country what it is today.  Throughout our history, there has always been xenophobic backlash against immigrants from all sorts of places.  From the Chinese Exclusion Act to discrimination against Irish, Italian, Jewish, and other immigrants, hate and fear have unfortunately been common responses.  It’s easy now to look back and see the contributions of these groups to our collective culture, identity, industry, and life.  Our current immigrants and their families can and most certainly will shape our future and our identity as well.  Let’s do our part to make sure that the American Dream is there for them, and that they have the support, friendship, and tools to make it here and build a better life.  

I am proud to work for an institution that focuses on educating the community at large, including immigrants.  We have programs available to help people learn English, make resumes and cover letters, do mock job interviews, and introduce their children to the early literacy skills that will help them succeed later in life.  Pittsburgh is very lucky to have many organizations that help recent arrivals adjust to and thrive in the United States.  We are home to Casa San Jose, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council and many more.  When we rally around our neighbors and give them the support they need, we can ensure that the American Dream is available to them and that they don’t become victims of some of the people, businesses, and situations that would take advantage of them.  Plus you might just make some great new friends!        

I’m going to leave you with a quote from Pope Francis’s recent address to congress:  

“In recent centuries, millions of people came to this land to pursue their dream of building a future in freedom. We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners. I say this to you as the son of immigrants, knowing that so many of you are also descended from immigrants. Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past. We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible, as we educate new generations not to turn their back on our “neighbors” and everything around us. Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. I am confident that we can do this.”  

See the Popes full remarks here

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Michel Thomas - The story of more than just a language teacher

One of my favorite products for language learning is the Michel Thomas method cds, which I’ve used for Spanish and French (and which I’ve wrote about in this blog before).  This post is less about the product or the method, but about the man behind the method.  Michel Thomas, besides being an amazing language teacher, lived a truly heroic, tragic, and amazing life.

Documented in the book Test of Courage:  The Michel Thomas Story by Christopher Robbins, Michel’s biography is an action packed account, worthy of the most suspenseful Hollywood movie.  In the 1930s Michel and his family, growing up Jewish in Poland, decided to flee anti-semitism there.  The only problem was they fled from Poland to Austria, the Austria of Hitler and the Nazis.  Necessity required another escape from persecution, and Michel ended up a refugee in France prior to the Nazi occupation.  After the invasion of France, Thomas was eventually captured by the Nazis for his activities in the resistance and imprisoned in a concentration camp.  Thomas escaped and re-joined the French resistance.  After the allied invasion, Thomas would gain employment in the U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), the precursor to the CIA.  Thomas was present at the liberation of Dachau, and the photos he took at the liberation are now a part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  He stayed with the CIC for several years, helping to bring several Nazi war criminals to justice.    

After the war, Thomas would eventually migrate to the United States.  He opened a language school in Los Angeles and taught many Hollywood stars a variety of languages (French, German, Spanish, Italian, English).  His clients included notables like Woody Allen, Sofia Loren, and many other celebrities.  Thomas also became the subject of the BBC documentary, the language master, linked below, in which he teaches students who have trouble with languages in the past French in 5 days.  
In 2004 Thomas was awarded the Silver Star for his heroic work in World War II.  He died a year later at age 90.  His audio courses are a great place to start when learning a language.  I personally used the advanced Spanish course, which took my Spanish to the next level, and have done the complete French course and am waiting for the opportunity to be able to use my French.  If you would like to learn more about Michel and his incredible life, please check out the resources listed below.                

BBC documentary about Michel Thomas:  The Language Master

Audio History of Holocaust: Here is a link to an interview of Michel Thomas being interviewed for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Excellent, in-depth, emotional, and the interviewers do a really good job of just letting Michel tell his story.  The other histories in this collection are done with the same quality and respect, it puts real human faces with the Holocaust, an event that it’s easy to think about in large numbers and forget about the individuals affected.   

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Learning - transferable skills

Do the methods that I used to learn Spanish as an adult apply to other things I want to learn?  What did I do to be successful as an adult learner of Spanish?  I’m trying to learn some new skills right now that are not related to languages (I am also working on French and Mandarin too), and I would like to emulate what worked when I was on the road to learning Spanish.  I love learning lots of things, but I’m just going to focus on two for now, photography and guitar.  

I started “learning” guitar as a kid, but really just wanted to play rock songs, be a rock star, and not learn anything about real music.  I practiced and went to lessons, but my heart wasn’t really in it.  Now I’d like to learn guitar for a couple reasons.  First of all, I want my daughters to grow up around music, and I’m trying to teach my older daughter as I learn (we’re working on Jingle Bells right now).  Second, learning an instrument is great for brain health, don’t believe me then check this out. I can’t help but think I’d benefit from more rhythm, coordination, and concentration.  (A bonus to this skill is that I can learn great Spanish songs, which will help my Spanish as well).  So now I’m ready to be a little more serious about playing the guitar. I think I have okay motivation for guitar, yet I have very different reasons for learning photography.

Other than taking pictures with an old point-and-shoot, I’ve never had much interest in photography, well, at least not in taking pictures.  Looking at them was always fun.  My wife, on the other hand, has always loved photography and taking pictures, so a couple of years ago I bought her a DSLR camera for Christmas.  Great gift, right?  Well, actually for the past couple of years we’ve been using the thing in auto-mode the whole time, making it in effect one great big point-and-shoot.  Recently, I’ve taken interest in getting more out of our camera for several reasons.  First, I became the default photographer at a wedding that my wife was in when the photographer didn’t show, and got some okay shots, but nothing spectacular.  Second, I’d really love to get the most out of the camera that we have, as it is a pretty good one.  Third, I’d love to capture our life in a more artistic and meaningful way.  Fourth, who knows, maybe eventually photography could become a side gig.  So these are my “whys” about what I want to learn, but the “hows” are what can come from my experience with learning Spanish.  

What did I do when learning Spanish that can be applied to learning these other skills?

Habits -  This was probably the key to my success in learning Spanish.  I made many habits that I lived daily, like listening to Spanish learning mp3s anytime that I got a chance.  So, what habits will I make with the new skills I want to learn.  For the guitar, practice every day, and make it easy to do so.  I have a mini-goal to practice at least 5 minutes a day.  Some days it has been more, but the point is that even with 5 minutes I’m keeping up with the practice.  I’m also trying to practice in a better way, using a metronome, well, a metronome app to make sure I’m getting my rhythm down, but not all the time, sometimes I’m just having fun with it.  For photography I have a couple of habits I want to follow.  One is to take some pictures every day.  They can be anything, pics of the kids, food, flowers, anything.  Oh, and there’s a catch, this habit must be accompanied by this condition.  I must always use at least a semi-manual mode (like aperture priority or shutter priority) or better yet full-on manual.  If I’m taking pictures, but just using auto mode, then I’m not really learning anything.  This goes back to another habit from when I was learning Spanish, one that I still follow today, if it can be done in Spanish, don’t do it in English!  

Use multiple resources - I feel so fortunate to live in an age where information is at our fingertips and easy to access.  Learning Spanish, I used many resources, and each helped in its own unique way.  I used mp3s and cds, I took two semesters in college, I read Spanish learning books and books in Spanish, I watched Spanish tv and listened to Spanish radio (long before I could understand anything), I talked to people, and tried anything else I could find that I thought could be of value to learning.  While I may not be quite as exhaustive in my new endeavors, I still plan on using several resources.  For learning guitar, there are books, youtube videos, and friends to jam with. I’m working out of two very different books right now, and getting something very different from each one!  For photography I’m starting with books too, well I do work in a library after all.  I’m also taking a photography class on The online class is great, because I get to see the photographer in action and making the adjustments to his camera, but the book slows things down and helps me to internalize the content so that I can recall it later.  There are also plenty of pins on pinterest that have great photography tips!  

Don’t do too much -  Maybe it’s just my short attention span, but I’ve always had success with learning doing little bursts, 10-15 minutes vs. hours of studying.  With Spanish it was often listening to podcasts that were about that length, or looking at a book for a few minutes.  With guitar, no grueling practice sessions until the fingers bleed. With photography likewise, there won’t be any need to take hundreds of photos a day, 2 or 3 will do.  Timing of these activities can be crucial too, the closer to bedtime, the better of a chance the brain will transfer these activities to long term memory.  I’m not saying don’t learn at other times of day, but reviewing a little before bed could most certainly be beneficial.  

Persist - Learning Spanish I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time we traveled to Panama.  My wife had to translate probably 95% of the time.  I didn’t let it get me discouraged, by the next year I spoke some more, and in a couple more years wouldn’t need any translation.  I already feel overwhelmed like this with photography, so many new terms, new concepts, and so many buttons!  From learning Spanish I’ve learned that learning comes with patience, practice, and good habits.   

Oh, and after I get more experienced with the camera expect to see some photography on this blog, as adding photos that I've taken will also be one of my new learning habits.

What about you?  What have you learned in the past, and how will that help you to learn new things in the future?  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Two resources for cultura latina ... Black in Latin America and Afrolatinos

These titles are useful for anyone who wants to understand Latin American culture, specifically African heritage in the Americas.  Just as the United States wouldn’t be the United States culturally without African Americans and their contributions, Latin America wouldn’t be Latin America without the ethnic and cultural heritage of Afro descendants. To me, the cultural melting of Latin America is what makes it so interesting and beautiful.  I love that you can take African, Indigenous, and European and make something completely unique, yet with elements of all three original cultures.  This is evident in the music, dance, art, food, and about every other aspect of life in most Latin American countries.   

Black in Latin America is a book and documentary (aired on PBS) by Henry Louis Gates.  It chronicles the history and current state of African affairs in Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.  Gates travels to all of these countries and interviews local experts, scholars, and regular folks alike to get a unique perspective on the similarities and differences of the Afro-descendant people.  Gates paints a complete picture covering topics like music, dance, art, and heavier topics like social conditions racism, and discrimination.   

AfroLatinos is a documentary project that goes to every country in Latin America “From the United States to Argentina”, and also spends time in Haiti and Brazil. You can watch all of the different parts of this film on Youtube, and it is well worth your time to do so.  You’ll gain key insights into the dance, art, food, history, culture, and social conditions of Afrodescendientes all throughout Latin America.

Latin America and Latin Americans are a beautiful mix of the heritage and culture passed down from African, Indigenous, European, and even Asian roots.  Mixing among these ethnic groups started early in the Spanish colonies, the Spanish crown sent mostly men, in contrast to England who sent families to their colonies, which resulted in less racial mixing in the English colonies.  This early mixing, often a result of rape and force, created the multi-ethnic society that we see in Latin America today. If you are interested in heritage in Latin America, please check out the movies and book listed above.  They are amazing resources that give a cultural window into the whole region!

My post on blog where I work: Connecting Kids With Culture

Please see my entry in Eleventh Stack, the blog of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.