Pardon My French

Despite the fact that my daughter is a high school Spanish teacher, it has long been a personal prejudice of mine that for most Americans it's a waste of time to learn a foreign language even though, if the Northwest is typical, it may be wise to learn Spanish in order to be able to communicate with the people doing much of the real work in our society.

Perhaps this prejudice against taking foreign languages merely stems from unpleasant personal experiences. Despite the fact that I put more effort into my French class than any other class I took in college, I received my only "D" in college in a second quarter French class. Ironically, my pre-college tests showed I would earn one of my highest gpa's in foreign languages. After all, I had straight A's in three years of high school Latin, a class that has left me with little more than the arcane ability to actually read and understand slogans on the back of coins.

Some blame for this poor showing must reside with a university that failed 50% of their freshman class in the first year and employed far too many graduate students to teach undergraduate classes that lacked enough prestige to justify a real professor. Somehow I managed to get a Canadian graduate from Toronto in my first quarter class and earned a "B" largely because he spoke slowly and emphasized reading, not speaking, French.

The second quarter, however, was taught by a very pretty graduate student from Paris who shifted the emphasis almost entirely to spoken French. To complicate matters, I was taking ROTC at the time and was required to wear my uniform and name tag once or twice a week so I was one of the few students whose name she ever knew. And for better or WORSE, A LOT WORSE, the instructor flirted with/teased me and called on me time and time again.

Now if I'd been a junior, I would have had sense enough to just skip class and show up on exam days. As a freshmen, though, I actually thought you had to attend class, so I returned daily, only to be embarassed one more time. It's tough going from "class genius" to "village idiot." The only thing I learned from this class, a powerful lesson I don't regret learning, is never to call on a student to purposely embarass them in class. I never ignored them, but I only called on some students when I was pretty sure they would know the answer.

Now I wouldn't be purposely revealing my most embarassing academic moment if I didn't have a point in mind. Recently while checking out my referrer logs I discoved that a French site, Kill Me Again, had linked to my site's Kerouac essay. When I went to the site there was a line saying "this page in bad english," in other words a google translation. While it was obviously poorly translated, it did give me an idea of what he had to say, and it didn't hurt that part of it was already English quotations.

First, this has got me to wondering if there are any decent Macintosh French-to-English translating programs out there that I'm not aware of, and, if so, what they are. I'd be in the market for one, at least until I'm able to brush up on my French skills to the point that I can actually read the pages by myself.

Coincidentally, today, I read Themes as recommended by The Obvious, via Woods Lot, which states:

This is an attempt with an open end ? an attempt to openness. It is an attempt to cross boundaries, to provide space for exchange and contact, space for a philosophical polylogue .

Doubter that I am, I think that the internet might actually help us as individuals to see beyond boundaries, something America, now more than ever, needs to do. My attempts to read Kill Me Again every day, while still refusing to eat "Freedom Fries" when French Fries are still available is just my personal attempt to open my mind to new possibilities.

If I were to advise high school students today, I would probably urge them to really learn a foreign language and spend time on the internet actually using the skills they have learned.

One thought on “Pardon My French

  1. What a surprise this morning when I saw that you were talking a little about me, and a great honour too.

    The problem of the foreign languages is probably a little bit different for french people. French is not spoken in a lot of countries (Canada, some places in Africa, Belgium, Switzerland…) and if we want to travel round the world, we have to speak english at less a little, and it became necessary in business too. It becames obvious for my generation and the following, that we need to learn english even if our level is not very good.

    I discover recently that there are a lot of spanish blogs. They would be probably very interesting but I doesn’t understand a Spanih word and it was very frustrated. I complain about my spanish lessons, abandoned because of lack of interest.

    For a couple of years, I try to read books directly in english. The pleasure is different and I probably don’t understand all the words, but it’s the only way to find the original rhythm of the words.

    I’ve made a post recently on this subject, illustrated by the translation of the first sentence of Nabokov’s Lolita.
    In english, as it was written by Nabokov, it goes like that :

    “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul Lo-lee-ta : the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    And in french :

    “Lolita, lumière de ma vie, feu de mes reins. Mon péché, mon âme. Lo-lii-ta: le bout de la langue fait trois petits pas le long du palais pour taper, à trois, contre les dents. Lo. Lii. Ta.”

    Despite the efforts of the translator, and even if you don’t speak french, you will easily see that in french the alliterations have disappeared. It’s just an example.

    And as you said, Internet is a fantastic way to cross boundaries and discover new cultures.

    So I would like to thank you for your links and congratulate you for your great job on Kerouac, and apologize for the only poor google translation on my page (I tried it, it’s really terrific I don’t recognize my words 🙂 ) and for my (not so) bad english.

    Have a good day, and it’s a great pleasure for me to read your page every day.

What do you think?