Sunday, May 10, 2009

The pearls of literature.

If you like to read and have already understood that reading is an excellent way to learn languages, then classics are really good choices. They needn't necessarily be classics of your target language, in case they are hard to find (or if you haven’t got a clue about Slovak literature); you can just as well read Jane Austen in Hungarian. Since it's a classic you can probably count on the translation being decent. If it was poor, someone else would probably have re-translated it. There are a couple of other advantages with classics:

  • You may already know the story (if not from reading the book, then at least from having seen the movie/tv series)
  • If you want to find a copy of it in your own language it shouldn't be very hard
  • There is certainly an audio book available for it
  • The text itself is most likely untouched by copyright
  • They are easy to get your hands on in any major language and are often cheap to buy
  • The language is very “correct” and often easier to understand than the slang infested language in modern books (which can be dealt with later)
  • They are classics for a reason; most of them are worth reading
  • Having read classic literature is good for understanding cultural references, intertextuality in modern books, etc.
  • It's another version of studying History

  • There is one small problem with classics though: they may contain old words. However, a 10 year old book may also contain “old” words, so that lazy argument is rather pointless. In case you are going to read Swedish books (in Swedish) from the early 19th century, you may have some issues with old spelling, plural verb conjugations and other things, but for French, English and Russian, the differences aren't very big. And if you read a modern translation of an English classic (for example), you aren’t that likely to run into ancient spelling.

    There is, however, another issue to take into consideration. Classics are classics because they weren't written last year and because they had an impact on the readers, on the society, of their time. Jane Eyre may not seem very outrageous today, but it was in the middle of the 19th century. In order to fully enjoy stories that deal with society, it is often a good idea to read up on the historical context while reading. Or if that is too much trouble, you can just state that “naah, the book was boring”. Classic books can be a bit slow, especially if your primary source of culture is 1,5h long movies where everything happens incredibly fast. For anyone used to reading, it shouldn't be a big deal though.

    French classics very often have sections at the end of the book that explain concepts, symbolisms, etc., and those should definitely not be overlooked. I think my reading of Le Cid would have been partly pointless without the notes that accompanied it. Some books do just fine on their own and people read and enjoy them no matter what their previous level of knowledge is, but I think a large number of classics improve significantly if you try to go back a bit in time.

    Some awesome classics:


    Pär Lagerkvist – Barabbas (the first book I read in French)
    Hjalmar Söderberg – Doktor Glas
    Victoria Benedictsson – Pengar


    Beaumarchais – Le Mariage de Figaro
    Choderlos de Laclos – Les Liaisons Dangereuses
    Guy de Maupassant – His short stories


    Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
    Jane Austen – Pride & Prejudice
    Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol


    Feodor Dostoevsky – The Idiot
    Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
    Chekov – His short stories

    I haven't read enough Norwegian classics to be able to recommend any, and for the above languages that's just a small selection. What are your favourite classics?

    Friday, May 8, 2009

    Le va-et-vient des langues

    Plus j'avance dans une langue, plus je me sens incapable de l'utiliser d'une manière satisfaisante. Quand je ne connaissais que le suédois et l'anglais, je n'y pensais jamais. J'étais très contente de mon anglais, confidente, et ne pensais jamais qu'il y avait quelque problème avec mon accent. Je considérais aussi que mon niveau en suédois était très bon. J'utilisais volontiers l'anglais, tant à l'oral qu’à l’écrit, tandis que maintenant, je n'aime pas du tout le parler. Pareil pour le français, avec lequel j'étais contente il y a deux ans (alors que mon russe était presque inexistant et que je ne pensais même pas au hongrois). Plus j'avance, plus ma confiance recule.

    Il y a certaines personnes qui apprennent de multiples langues sans avoir des problèmes pour les gérer. Pour moi, ce n'est pas très facile de changer entre deux ou trois langues. Pour l'anglais et le suédois, il n'y a aucun problème parce que je les utilise quotidiennement côte à côte depuis toujours, mais pour le français et le russe il y a un problème d'interférence. Quand j'ai lu beaucoup de russe et je dois tout d'un coup parler français, j'ai la tendance de les mêler un peu ; l'autre jour lors d'un séminaire de français, j'ai utilisé « или » à la place de « ou » et j'ai eu énormément de mal pour dire mes premières phrases en français. Je me sentais très mal à l'aise en parlant français et j'aurais, pour une fois, préféré parler russe, tout simplement parce que j'ai beaucoup plus le droit de faire des erreurs en parlant russe qu'en parlant français. C'est aussi comme ça que je pense à l'anglais par rapport au français ; je n'ai pas le droit de faire des erreurs en anglais, mais en français ça passe encore.

    Le petit « malentendu » entre le français et moi maintenant est d'ailleurs un peu bizarre étant donné que je viens d'étudier le français à plein temps pour la première fois de ma vie et que j'ai beaucoup écrit et beaucoup lu pendant ces derniers mois. Je dois être habituée à l'utiliser maintenant ! Mais non, j'ai l'impression que mon accent est pire que jamais auparavant, que j'oublie toute la grammaire et l'orthographe française et que j'insère des structures suédoises/anglaises/russes dans mon français. Je n'ose plus corriger d'autres gens en anglais ou en français parce que je ne sais jamais si c'est moi qui me trompe peut-être, si peut-être on peut dire ceci ou cela comme ils l'ont dit, mais c'est moi qui l’a oublié.

    Je pense que je suis peut-être atteinte de « surconscience linguistique ». Après tout, c'est quoi une langue ?

    Thursday, May 7, 2009

    Who was Peer Gynt?

    Arthur Rackham's painting of Peer Gynt meeting with the trolls

    Peer Gynt is a Norwegian play by Henrik Ibsen from 1867 based on the fairy tale character Per Gynt, who may or may not have existed. If he has existed, he lived in the 17th century. He was good at fighting folklore creatures such as trolls and he was not fooled by the seductive huldra (Swedish skogsrå or vittra) and he also had a knack for exaggerating his stories. Plus he lied a lot, and Ibsen's Peer Gynt starts out with just that, "Peer, you are lying!".

    I haven't actually read Peer Gynt, but I got inspired to do so when I watched a Russian documentary on Norway (a good example of combining languages with other things). I happen to have all of Ibsen's texts, but for those of you who don't but who still want to become a little bit more cultivated, here is Peer Gynt:

    In English, and in (very Danish looking) Norwegian.

    Wednesday, May 6, 2009

    Courses & Writing

    I have been thinking quite a lot lately about language courses. Some learners seem to stick to courses all the way through, they are always working on some course; beginner, intermediate, advanced… Perhaps this is the way to go, perhaps it's the fastest way - I have no idea, I have never completed a course in my life and I am not the fastest of learners. But I do find courses extremely dull. This is not necessarily because of the content; Assimil for example has enough odd lessons to keep it varied (or misogynic --> the Hungarian course), whereas TY with "Buying Tickets", "Buying Sausages", "Saying hello to Inga's mom and dad" etc. just makes me want to forget about the whole language learning thing altogether. Courses are unnatural and "dead". To me, that is. It is not language at its best use, it is not something someone wrote because they really had to or wanted to (fiction) or because they wanted to talk about something else they were passionate about (non-fiction): it is constructed bits of language with a goal other than that of existing for its own sake. When the words in themselves are of no interest to me, then why should I bother? Fine, if I have no alternative that's what I have to work with, but for anyone who can use Google these days (although those people do seem to be strangely rare) or who has a friend who can use Google, it shouldn't be that hard. Unless, of course, you like courses.

    Without some sort of course to start out with you can easily get lost, especially if you do not already know how to teach yourself things such as languages. Someone starting out with their first language probably will need a bit of direction in order to know what to do. When you get to your fourth, fifth, tenth, usually you know what you need yourself. I only use courses as long as it is absolutely necessary. I don't even remember doing a whole lot of lessons for Russian. 16 Assimil lessons was as far as I got before boredom struck. I managed rather good on my own though, in my opinion. I believe that what you need (or can use) to learn a language is:

    • A reference grammar (a grammar with exercises is also great)
    • Native material of varying difficulty (Easy Readers, articles, books)
    • ANKI (or similar)
    • Audio input (radio, audio books)
    • A platform for writing (, pen pals)
    Some people argue that grammars are also unnecessary, but then I would like to see them try to write something in a grammar heavy language, something that is not just a collection of memorized sentences. Unless you don't always try to read and write things that are slightly beyond you, you are never going to learn much. I often get the impression among learners of languages that writing is kind of left out. Lots of focus on speaking, on listening, whereas writing is perhaps seen as… too easy? Or perhaps people just think you can't learn anything from writing? (That which you of course do when you search for ways of saying things, when you study the mistakes you made, etc.) Just think about how much time you spent at school writing in your native language; just because you can speak a language it doesn't mean you can automatically write it well.

    Writing takes practice (and IRC or MSN is not the same thing, it's merely pseudo-writing, unstructured and spontaneous). When speaking French or Hungarian you can miss every other accent acute or perhaps mix up ü and ű and people will either not notice much or write it off as being your accent. When you write, and all of a sudden you show that you have no clue as to how to spell the French verb conjugations cause you learnt all your French from Pimsleur and MT, it will all of a sudden be a much bigger deal. Also, when you are writing things that are of concern to YOU, you become aware of what words and grammatical structures you frequently need. It isn't necessarily the same bunch of phrases TY teaches you.

    Any thoughts?

    I plan to try my own plan for Hungarian this summer. I have completed 44 Assimil lessons so far, and while I want to try to complete the course (as an experiment) I am going to try to use literature an LR rather intensively (Jane Eyre is first up!).

    Monday, May 4, 2009

    [FR] Lecture recommandée

    Un auteur que j'aime bien, mais dont on parle rarement me semble-t-il, c'est Jean Giono. En 2004/2005, son « Un roi sans divertissement » était sur le programme de littérature des Littéraires Terminales et je pense encore aujourd'hui à ce livre avec un petit « iih », ce qui est bon signe.
    Giono, c'est un auteur qui vient de la Provence il écrit souvent à propos de la nature et de la Provence, mais « Un roi sans divertissement » se déroule par contre dans les montagnes, non très loin de Grenoble, en pleine neige. Pour moi, qui aime la montagne et la neige, c'est un très bon fond de toile.

    L'histoire (en très court, car je n'aime pas quand on dit trop sur un livre) : chaque hiver, dans un petit village, des hommes commencent à disparaître dès que la première neige tombe. La seule trace qui reste, ce sont quelques gouttes de sang.

    Le titre de cette oeuvre est bien sur intéressant. Afin de comprendre l'oeuvre, il faut nécessairement savoir d'où vient l'expression, « un roi sans divertissement » et ce que cela veut dire. C'est bien sur Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) qui est la source de la fameuse citation « Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères » qui se trouve dans son « Les Pensées », et la signification est peut-être assez évidente ?
    Je conseillerais d'ailleurs quiconque de feuilleter un peu « Les Pensées » de Pascal, il y a beaucoup de sagesse dans ce qu’il dit. Parfois.

    Un extrait du livre peut-etre ?

    Je n'ai, comme bien vous pensez, jamais goûté le sang de personne; et aussi bien je dois vous dire que cette histoire n'est pas l'histoire d'un homme qui buvait, suçait, ou mangeait le sang (je n'aurais pas pris la peine, à notre époque, de vous parler d'un fait aussi banal), je ne veux pas parler du goût (qui doit être simplement salé), je veux dire qu'il est facile d'imaginer, compte tenu des cheveux très noirs, de la peau très blanche, du poivre de Marie Chazottes, d'imaginer que son sang était très beau. Je dis beau. Parlons en peintre.

    Friday, May 1, 2009

    Comic relief.

    Just to cheer things up a bit. A language trip to Finland, anyone?

    Perfection and postcolonial literature.

    To start this blog off I thought it would be wise to publish a long text on the scary concept of perfection, just to make sure I lose any possible readers.

    There are a lot of language related topics that I can't really make up my mind about, for which I can't really decide what my opinion is. One such topic is "perfection". There are several aspects of any language that are concerned by this devilish little concept that can make anyone break down and state that they don't know this or that language, because their knowledge of it is not perfect. First and foremost, there is "overall" perfection, when you have mastered a language well enough to speak it like an educated native, and this is what I intend to discuss. I am really uncertain about how frequent this phenomenon really is, if it is after all mostly just a myth (except for those that live abroad for decades) that make us ordinary perfectionist-mortals feel physical pain when we still discover errors in things we write and say in foreign languages we thought we were good at. What degree of perfection (if we allow it to have degrees) can coexist for different languages for a multilingual person? Or do we all just lose a little bit more of our edge as we add languages to the list?

    After having spent a couple of months studying postcolonial French literature, my perspective on languages has changed somewhat. This is not a useful change, not in any way, not in this lovely strict society we live in, but it is at least a broadening of horizons kind of thing, and those are always nice.

    Many have no idea at all what a huge thing colonialism was. Extremely few seem to be aware of the fact that it has left an incredible amount of cultures shattered, and that from these shattered cultures, an extremely interesting literary scene has arisen. Now, it's somewhat hard to just group it all together and put French-Canadian works next to Vietnamese ones, but there are things that unify them all. Language is one on those things. All these peoples, all these cultures, have been mauled by English, French, Spanish, Portuguese or Dutch. I know too little of any other than the French "realm", so I will stick to that one. Let's take an African country that had a lively oral tradition, but no written language. Enter French colonialists, French schools, make them all read Molière and Racine, make them "French". Only one day someone will start to long for what was originally theirs, and they will want to express it, rebuild it before it vanishes forever, using this new tool that the French came along with: writing. Or, take a northern African country where the Arabic culture was flourishing with all that means for the women in the harems, and give these women a new language that they are allowed to use. They may all have completely different ways of viewing space and time, a completely different symbolic world. A whole lot more interesting things will happen here than in the literary creations of your random overly pretentious spoiled to pieces Jean living in Paris.

    However, what is their language like? Is it perfect? It's not their first language, but their second, and their first language was probably very different. Their first language will almost always influence their French (even if their French is absolutely exquisite like in the cases of Aimé Césaire or Assia Djebar), so then they write poorly? Or do they write well? Are they merely unique? Is their French a new version of French, like Canadian French? We who come from "untouched" countries, or the old colonizing ones, aren't allowed to make mistakes or to write in another language in any literary way unless we can prove that we do so perfectly, but what is the big difference really? Some post-colonial writers have even created interlanguages and written in them - and been successful. Would this be acceptable in the perfectionist West? Jean-Marc Moura says "The purist question of errors has no say here". Could this ever be the case in, let's say France?

    Are we just a little bit too obsessed with mistakes? On the other hand, how can we not be? Language is one of the most important things for people, but as the same time as it is a "personal" thing, it is also a state matter. Someone else has decided how you should use your language, either an institution or all your fellow countrymen before you, and depending on the language, you are either very strictly bound to these rules, even for what is supposed to be your personal expression, or you have some freedom to mix things up a bit. Nevertheless, your language is supposed to match that of your nation and you are somehow supposed to be automatically good at it. Many natives aren't, perhaps their language is simply more "personalized", more instinctive, but anyway we know that it is first and foremost BAD. Young Frenchmen cannot write in French, young Swedes cannot write in Swedish, young Russians cannot write in Russian - these days. But were they any better 100 years ago? And why are we always complaining about this and being outraged by it?