Whatever Happened to the Rude French?

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Disneyland Paris

Disneyland Paris is not really in Paris. In fact, it’s not really in France at all. Like the U.S. Embassy, Disneyland Paris is a little piece of America in the centre of Europe (Val d’Europe to be precise). And it is populated by a kind of Euromerican, typical American suburban families, except that they hail from the Netherlands, or Germany or Italy or England.

And the most frustrating thing about Disneyland Paris is that it’s almost impossible to speak French there. Unless that is, you speak very fast and very fluently, or unless someone is trying to rip you off. The worst people there are the smug service staff who work at hotel receptions, McDonald’s counters and other places never frequented by le vrai français. These are people who can speak 5 different languages with varying degrees of fluency and they take delight in correcting your broken French and then proceeding to talk down to you in English. And if you’ve ever been talked down to by someone serving you French fries at McDonalds you’ll know it’s not a fantastic feeling.

In fact, if you wish to maintain your dignity with these smug gits the best thing to do is to begin in English from the get go – without so much as a “parlez-vous anglais?” or even a “do you speak English?” – and simply expect them to know what you’re talking about. But, having some small proficiency in French I can never bring myself to take this philistine route. So I begin in French and feel under intense pressure not to give myself away as a native English speaker – even if this means nodding in agreement and replying “oui, d’accord” when in fact I have no idea what the other person has just said to me. Because just a single “pardon?” will straight-away give me away – upon hearing this word, the smug-git-member-of-staff will immediately narrow his or her eyes at me and re-evaluate his or her initial impression:

« Hmm, ceci n’est pas un vrai français – il est un anglais, en déguisement d’un français – ceci est un imposteur ! »

And so inevitably the smug git’s next response will be “Ingleesh? Yass?” and he or she will say so with a decidedly superior tone.

At times I wish I could wear a shirt or carry a sign that read:

« Je suis un idiot. Parlez-moi lentement – pas en anglais ! »

I would actually be grateful if people would speak to me slowly like an idiot and not immediately switch to English for my benefit. Because the thing is I can speak French, having been learning on-and-off for the better part of five years I have by now a decent working vocabulary, I just find it difficult to hear the words when native French speakers speak so fast. If only French people came with subtitles below them that would be the ideal solution – unfortunately this isn't the case.

The last thing is, often-times, the smug-git-member-of-staff’s English won’t be near as much cause for feeling superior as he or she might think it is. And this sometimes causes problems, as I remember upon seeing a member of staff yelling “French fries, you want French fries” at a poor customer once, when from my position back in the queue I could see that wasn’t what she wanted at all.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Does this monument not posses a certain...
Whatever happened to the good old-fashioned rude Frenchman of the type you are still likely to find in an SNCF office when your ticket has been cancelled? You know, the type who will suddenly turn cold and unhelpful even after the meekest and most humble of “parlez-vous anglais?”. Or who will pretend not to know English out of spite if he or she doesn’t like your attitude. Whatever happened to that famous French arrogance which made the country great. Because, whilst these service assistants can be smug and pretentious and even sometimes snobbish and cliqueish it takes real arrogance to know how to speak English perfectly and yet not do so just because you'd rather speak French. And a whole sort of "je ne sais quoi" or "savoir vivre" or "jeu d'esprit" accompanies that kind of arrogance.

It's in fact not altogether unlike the arrogance of those writers who refuse to translate quotations from foreign languages!

American Fatso Voyeurism

TomatoImage via Wikipedia
A tomato: in puris naturalibus
Watching tonight’s episode of “Jamie Oliver’s American Food Revolution” it occurred to me that there exists a kind of voyeurism that people get in seeing the extremes of people that exist in the United States, particularly in that sea of ignorance which in the media is referred to as “Middle America”. Of course it’s not just the fatties that people enjoy watching and Americans get a the same sort of kick out of watching the bizarre specimens of humanity that their country is capable of producing as well – just think of the success of Jerry Springer – but when it comes to food, I can’t help getting the impression that the rest of world watches in a sort of stupefied awe and wonder at how people can actually live off of the food that so many Americans eat.

It seems incredible to me that people can actually eat junk food as if it were everyday food. But on Jamie’s show, it seemed common at the school he was visiting. For example Jamie showed a bunch of tomatoes to a class of 5 and 6 year olds and incredibly not a single one of them knew what they were, the closest guess from the class was “potato”. For reference, Jamie explained that tomatoes are what ketchup is made from and a student immediately chimed “oh tomato ketchup I know what that is.”

Another voyeuristic highlight from the show was the incredulity Jamie received from the “lunch lady Doris” types who ran the school canteen when he tried supply knives and forks with his meal. These ladies wouldn’t believe that in England primary school kids were allowed to eat with knives and forks. Even more incredibly, when given knives and forks these kids didn’t know how to use them!

A few months back, I wrote a post entitled “English Food Deserves its Reputation”. I was quite critical of the stodgy and boring “meat and two veg” type food typical of an English kitchen. But to think that there exist in America, entire communities of fatties, who live off of McDonalds food and the like and never have to eat with knives and forks or have fresh vegetables at home is almost unbelievable – in fact, how can you not watch, transfixed to the screen?
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The Problem with English

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...Image via Wikipedia
Medieval illustration of a scribe writing
Or “Why I Wish I Were a Maths Teacher

The problem with teaching English, as a subject, not as a second language, is that ability in English is nearly impossible to quantify and grade.

Take this example of “Assessment Focuses” that English teachers should use in assessing pupil’s progress in writing ability in the UK: “Assessment Focus 5: vary sentences for clarity, purpose and effect”, a level 8 (quite a high level) is:

Across a range of writing... variety of sentences deployed judiciously across the text to achieve purpose and overall effect”.

A level 7 in the same Assessment Focus:

Across a range of writing... sentence structure is imaginative, precise and accurate, matched to writer’s purpose and intended effect on the reader...

Do these focuses mean anything? How do you measure “sentences deployed judiciously”? If anything I would have imagined sentence structure that is “imaginative, precise and accurate” to beat sentences that are just “deployed judiciously” whatever the hell that means.To be fair though, I didn’t quote the entirety of the level 7 “descriptor” - tacked on to the end of the descriptor, as if with a Post-It note, is the qualifying condition “with rare loss of control”. But to my mind this last caveat exists solely to differentiate level 7 as a lower level than level 8 - when your sentences aren’t being “deployed judiciously” they’re being deployed [obviously] with “rare loss of control”

As an aside, how do you lose control of a sentence anyway? It’s not like it’s a tiger or snake or some sort of sentient being that wants to take control of your words and force you to do horrible things with them! Whilst admittedly my teaching career is only just taking-off, I’m yet to hear the excuse, “sorry Sir, I just lost control of my sentence there”.

But the question that ought to be asked is: are those people who create “education-ese”, that horrible pseudo language known only to pedagogues, to be trusted with dictating how English should be taught? I say “those people” but in reality I haven’t the foggiest who they actually are - academics? politicians? bureaucrats? teachers? or more specifically careerist teachers? who knows? Some combination of all of the above most likely. Whoever they are, can they really be trusted with the language in general when they blight the teaching profession with ugly words like “descriptors” and “focusses” and acronyms like AfL, APP and PPA.

The rule of thumb that the creators of education-speak follow when mangling English into their bastard jargon seems to be: “Express simple ideas as awkwardly as possible in order to obscure their meaning”. Because of course an idea which is hard to understand must obviously be an intelligent one. How else can you explain school libraries’ transformation into “Learning Resource Centres” and then transforming again into LRCs? An honest English word with a distinguished Latin pedigree, which everyone understands and has pleasant connotations becomes the bland acronym LRC which no-one but those “in the know” understand. Following this rule of obfuscation, verbs are replaced with phrases and sentences are padded-out with redundant adjectives and adverbs that don’t really add anything to their meaning.

For example Assessment Focus 1 in reading: “use a range of strategies, including accurate decoding of text, to read for meaning”. Is “accurate decoding of text” not the same thing as reading. And if you’re not “reading for meaning” then what the hell are you reading for? In fact, we get a long-winded “descriptor” which sounds vaguely technical but really just means “uses a range of strategies for reading”. If you were expecting the strategies such as use of context clues or use of semantic cues for example to be described or outlined somehow in the level descriptors then you’d be wrong - level descriptors are far too abstract to provide anything so useful as that.

I could of course indulge myself picking apart the whole English framework document for similar examples, but the real point is how do you quantify something as subjective as “good writing”? At the moment there exists a framework which gives the illusion of rigourous assessment and standards that are applied across the board. However, as the example quoted above illustrates, the different levels amount to little more than a subjective opinion of the degree of hyperbole appropriate in describing any given piece of writing (for example “judicious” vs “precise and accurate”).

My own feeling is that the key to this question has something to do with the practical applications of writing and less to do with subjective definitions. My own rough guesses on student ability is usually more based on concepts to do with clarity and understanding. How well a student understands the difference between “quoting” and paraphrasing and how carefully a student uses the two with an eye to exactness of meaning. Or how well a student understands the fundamental difference between factual statements which can be checked for veracity and subjective statements which can be neither proved nor disproved.

I would one day like to see a set of assessment criteria for English that were focussed above all on clarity and made no attempt to pass a grade on subjective or abstract notions such as how “imaginative”, “thoughtful” or “judiciously chosen” words might be. To this end we could do a lot worse than to follow Orwell’s instruction for the “defence of the English language” as prescribed in his essay “Politics and the English Language

The defence of the English language ... is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear ... or with having what is called a "good prose style." ... [It] is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one's meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.
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