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."