Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Power of Language

by Madeleine Kando

I teach French. And sometime Spanish but only when I can get away with it. I teach very little people. They are so young in fact that they barely understand the concept of another language. But that’s ok. We all like the way French sounds, me and my students, and that is a good start.

I try to teach my young brood that French has two genders.
‘Yes’ I tell them. ‘In French every word is either a boy word or a girl word. The moon is a girl word and the sun is a boy word’. So we play a game with animal beanbags. I put down two boxes. One for the boy beanbags and one for the girl beanbags. I tell them that an elephant is a boy word and a turtle is a girl word. Five year old Marty asks: ‘what if the turtle is a boy?’ ‘Aha!’ I say. ‘Very good question! Well, the poor boy turtle still would be called ‘la tortue’. He would still have a girl name.’ Marty’s face shows great confusion but eventually he accepts this as a fact of life. Kids are good at that. They accept things.

Then I realize that maybe explaining this to a 5 year old is counterproductive. After all, French babies don’t know about gender, yet they never make a mistake by saying ‘le tortue’ instead of ‘la tortue’. To them the animal’s name is ‘latortue’, period. Eventually they will learn that the ‘la’ part is the article and the ‘tortue’ part is the noun. The trick is then to avoid saying something like: ‘Maman, il y a une latortue dans l’eau!’ (Mom, there is a ‘theturtle’ in the water).

In my older classes I tell my students that words put together the wrong way can create havoc if you are not totally familiar with a language. Like a sign in Norway that reads: “Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar”. And I warn them never to ask ‘Ou est la salle de bain’ (Where is the bathroom) in a Paris café or they might be mistaken for a vagrant in dire need of a bath.

These young students of mine should become aware that words are so powerful that they can shape the course of history. As an example I tell them about George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2003 when he said: ‘The British government has learnt that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ (Which meant that Saddam was developing a nuclear weapon).

‘What if Bush had said: ‘The British government believes that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.’ 'Would the word ‘believes’ have qualified as a reason to go to war?’ I ask them? (It turns out that the British government only ‘believed’ Saddam had bought yellow cake since we never did find WMD’s, but that’s just a small detail in hindsight).

‘Even your own name is important' I tell them, 'and depends a lot on when you were born. How many parents, do you think, named their baby boy ‘Adolf’ after the second world War? Even though ‘Adolf’ means ‘Noble Wolf’, there was nothing noble about Adolf Hitler.’

Words have many degrees of strength, from neutral to inflammatory to offensive. They can stir up strong emotions. To illustrate we play a game by ‘conjugating’ verbs that increase in negative intensity like this: I am uninformed, you are ignorant, he is stupid’. Or: ‘I am slim, you are skinny, he is emaciated. And: I am laid-back, you are inactive, he is lazy. And so on.

Computer related terms can be quite a mouthful in French. Instead of ‘spam’ the French say:‘J’ai recu du courrier indésirable d’origine inconnue’. (I received undesirable email of unknown origin). There is a bug in my program is ‘le programme souffre d’un défault du logiciel’ (The program suffers from a logical mistake). ‘You can always substitute the English word and put a ‘le’ in front of it (le spam, le web)' I tell them. 'Just remember that it is officially verboten!'

The French, purists as they are, seem to be under the illusion that they can censure their language. But it's a lost battle, like prohibition. You cannot tell a language what to do. It is one of the most organic processes of human life. That is the power of language!
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