Sunday, March 21, 2010

The pen is mightier than the sword

Have I mentioned recently that I live, more or less, in my second language? Let's talk about language.

I met a French lady today, who, immediately upon meeting me and learning that I was American, informed me that "French is the language of Culture." That French is more difficult than English, because there are more French words (although a minute with google debunks this), each precisely defined, lending the language infinite subtlety.

If French is the language of Culture, what, I asked her, is English? It's for everyone, she responds. Everyone can learn English. Whereas French cannot even be mastered by all French people.

Which is why, if you speak French truly well, you will always succeed (just, in general). Because, she explains, if in conversation you use a word that the other person doesn't know, "you win." The perfect French is the language you use to bend people to your will.

This conversation put me at unease.

I'm not sure I properly understood her, but the questions I asked didn't lead me to the clarity I'd hoped for. I asked, first, if she saw conversation as a way to take the upper hand, rather than as a way to establish rapport. She protested heartily. I couldn't say on what defense. My second question was which French language she meant. "In general," she said unhelpfully. The language of inner-city youth? Nope, definitely not that one. That's not French, that's something completely new. Those kids who can't be bothered to learn French French will never leave les banlieues (French equivalent of the inner-city). It's French French that will open doors -- or close them.

She is absolutely right, though, that language is power; that language can be used to exercise control. You can see this in the dynamics of a single conversation, or you can see it in the power politics of colonized countries. As soon as someone opens their mouth, you have the evidence you need to pigeon-hole them in a class, should you choose to stop listening there. I don't disagree that you'd do well to arm yourself with the weapon of words. But wouldn't you rather see words as a million little doors that open you to the world and the world to you? Or as bridges uniting two minds?

And what the hell is Culture anyway, if there's only one? Surely not the one that was dead by 2007?

As we parted ways, this woman invited me to an olive cultivation expo next week. With a smile, she said, "It's culture."

Whatever, dude.


  1. Any language can manipulate. The arguments you were given can also be given with English. Just ask someone in England about proper English and American English. Any word can have multiple meanings and it's the context that gets everyone in trouble. Go to a court room to witness that first hand.

    Even my first language has many interpretations Success is being able to get those interpretations out of the listener.

    I need to share this one with my English teacher:-)

  2. I'm Bob's English teacher (no, not really, but I'm the one he means).

    Here's the thing; I spend every working day teaching kids how to use their command of their language to their best advantage. I teach them about register and social contracts. I teach them that they WILL be judged, rightly or wrongly, based on the manner of their speech and/or writing skill. I see my job as preparing the students as best I can for the world they will encounter, and the truth is that, in the world they will encounter, they're going to meet people like that arrogant snot you met in this post.

    I prefer to think of language as a means to reach out, to CONNECT with people. Nothing thrills me more than when I know for sure that real understanding is going on, and that can't happen if someone is in the conversation only to "win."

  3. Thanks for both your comments, Walker & Mrs Chili! I agree with both of you. Language exists to express the mind of the person using it -- whether that's manipulation or forging connections. And it's basically like any other human activity in that you need to know how to get by in life (what you're teaching your students, Mrs Chili), but without making life difficult for other people (sorry you've had to go through that, Walker...).