Monday, February 15, 2016

Learn a language in 2016, Britons are urged

The British Council has urged people to learn a new language in 2016. Fair enough, it’s a good idea in itself, and such promotion is part of what the BC does. But is it really a good idea for most people? What do they gain from it?

As pointed out in the article, it can make holidays more fun, enabling you to interact with the world around you rather than simply observe it. The advantages of this range from simply asking where the bathroom is or buying a ticket at the railway station, to the less practical but far more interesting ability to read the local newspapers and hear what people are talking about. Understanding what is going on around you and learning what matters to people are a far better way of getting to know a place than just reading the guide book and staring at churches.

A language is a route into a culture, the literature is has produced, the way it is currently moving, how it thinks and behaves, its moral values and personal assumptions. All of this can be quite fascinating and instructive.

A language is an unusual addition to a CV in England, and so can be attractive to an employer. Attractiveness to employers is a very good thing indeed.

There has long been a kind of understanding among English people that any foreigner worth talking to already speaks English. This is true up to a point, but not much of a point. English is the lingua franca of business, culture, politics, communications, and most things that matter to people around the world, but there are a lot of things going on in other languages that we miss, and might not want to miss.

Learning languages is, then, in my opinion, an excellent thing. I make my living helping people to do it, after all. But there is another side to the question.

Learning a language talks a very long time. Several months of immersion, or years of classroom study, to acquire basic competence, and basic competence is rarely enough for anything more than a tourist. As I frequently have to point out, half a language is no use to anyone, so unless you can achieve the right level of competence you are unfortunately wasting your time.

In Spain, professionals and aspiring professionals know that they must have a high level of communicative competence in English, and they work hard to achieve it, and their parents spend a lot of money to help them achieve it. The Spanish education system only aims at providing a B1 level, which is not an independent user level, and is no use to an employer. It might just do for a traveller. In any case, it usually fails to provide even that, which is great for my business, but not so great for the average Spanish student, who can’t afford private tuition over a period of years, or may not realize until it’s too late that what he’s been promised by his high school is not enough.

For a Spanish teenager with ambition, or for their parents, the effort and the investment are certainly worth making. For a young English person, possibly not, unless you have a very specific professional goal in mind, such as diplomacy.

So do listen to the British Council and learn a language this year. You really will be opening up all the possibilities that they offer, but be aware of the time and effort, and money, it will involve. Also, once you learn one language, and open up a culture you were barely aware of, you won’t want to stop.

But that, I imagine, is where the real fun lies.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Murray Dreamed a Dream

O Henry was one of the greatest craftsmen of a particular type of short story. He almost invented the type, in fact, and did it so well that no one has quite been able to copy it. You know an O Henry story when you see it, and you read it because it's his. When he died he left this story incomplete. He had written the opening, and left a few notes about how it should continue and finish. I don't know that anyone has tried to finish it before, so I've had a go. The result, for what it's worth, is below. The first half, roughly, is O Henry's. The rest is mine. My apologies to the shade of the great man for taking the liberty:

Both psychology and science grope when they would explain to us the strange adventures of our immaterial selves when wandering in the realm of "Death's twin brother, Sleep." This story will not attempt to be illuminative; it is no more than a record of Murray's dream. One of the most puzzling phases of that strange waking sleep is that dreams which seem to cover months or even years may take place within a few seconds or minutes.

Murray was waiting in his cell in the ward of the condemned. An electric arc light in the ceiling of the corridor shone brightly upon his table. On a sheet of white paper an ant crawled wildly here and there as Murray blocked its way with an envelope. The electrocution was set for eight o'clock in the evening. Murray smiled at the antics of the wisest of insects.

There were seven other condemned men in the chamber. Since he had been there Murray had seen three taken out to their fate; one gone mad and fighting like a wolf caught in a trap; one, no less mad, offering up a sanctimonious lip-service to Heaven; the third, a weakling, collapsed and strapped to a board. He wondered with what credit to himself his own heart, foot, and face would meet his punishment; for this was his evening. He thought it must be nearly eight o'clock.

Opposite his own in the two rows of cells was the cage of Bonifacio, the Sicilian slayer of his betrothed and of two officers who came to arrest him. With him Murray had played checkers many a long hour, each calling his move to his unseen opponent across the corridor. Bonifacio's great booming voice with its indestructible singing quality called out: "Eh, Meestro Murray; how you feel--all-a right--yes?" "All right, Bonifacio," said Murray steadily, as he allowed the ant to crawl upon the envelope and then dumped it gently on the stone floor.

"Dat's good-a, Meestro Murray. Men like us, we must-a die like-a men. My time come nex'-a week. All-a right. Remember, Meestro Murray, I beat-a you dat las' game of de check. Maybe we play again some-a time. I don'-a know. Maybe we have to call-a de move damn-a loud to play de check where dey goin' send us."

Bonifacio's hardened philosophy, followed closely by his deafening, musical peal of laughter, warmed rather than chilled Murray's numbed heart. Yet, Bonifacio had until next week to live. The cell-dwellers heard the familiar, loud click of the steel bolts as the door at the end of the corridor was opened. Three men came to Murray's cell and unlocked it. Two were prison guards; the other was "Len"--no; that was in the old days; now the Reverend Leonard Winston, a friend and neighbor from their barefoot days. "I got them to let me take the prison chaplain's place," he said, as he gave Murray's hand one short, strong grip.

In his left hand he held a small Bible, with his forefinger marking a page. Murray smiled slightly and arranged two or three books and some penholders orderly on his small table. He would have spoken, but no appropriate words seemed to present themselves to his mind. The prisoners had christened this cellhouse, eighty feet long, twenty-eight feet wide, Limbo Lane. The regular guard of Limbo Lane, an immense, rough, kindly man, drew a pint bottle of whiskey from his pocket and offered it to Murray, saying: "It's the regular thing, you know. All has it who feel like they need a bracer. No danger of it becoming a habit with 'em, you see." Murray drank deep into the bottle. "That's the boy!" said the guard. "Just a little nerve tonic, and everything goes smooth as silk."

They stepped into the corridor, and each one of the doomed seven knew. Limbo Lane is a world on the outside of the world; but it had learned, when deprived of one or more of the five senses, to make another sense supply the deficiency. Each one knew that it was nearly eight, and that Murray was to go to the chair at eight. There is also in the many Limbo Lanes an aristocracy of crime. The man who kills in the open, who beats his enemy or pursuer down, flushed by the primitive emotions and the ardor of combat, holds in contempt the human rat, the spider, and the snake. So, of the seven condemned only three called their farewells to Murray as he marched down the corridor between the two guards--Bonifacio, Marvin, who had killed a guard while trying to escape from the prison, and Bassett, the train-robber, who was driven to it because the express-messenger wouldn't raise his hands when ordered to do so. The remaining four smoldered, silent, in their cells, no doubt feeling their social ostracism in Limbo Lane society more keenly than they did the memory of their less picturesque offences against the law.

Murray wondered at his own calmness and nearly indifference. In the execution room were about twenty men, a congregation made up of prison officers, newspaper reporters, and lookers-on who had succeeded in getting permission to make sure Murray got the end that had been ordered for him. They had their own reasons, some of them. Others had none beyond curiosity.

Murray took in the prison warden, the doctor, an anonymous man who he knew would be the one to throw the switch. Some other time he would have found the face interesting, it surely had much to say, but now it meant nothing. The man had a job to do, no more. He thought he recognised some of Ginny’s folks. Not her mother. Poor woman, she had got old very suddenly, but she didn’t hate Murray enough to be there. He wondered if she wanted to hate, for the hate to give her courage so she could watch how it ended. For a moment it stopped him thinking about her father and that brother of hers who would likely be where Murray was some day. They were there, and Murray wondered if he should greet them. He smiled at himself.

The chair was to his left. They turned him and guided him towards it. It was a long time since he’d done anything of his own free will. As he was gently led he accepted the chair as part of all this. His life, the good times, when it all went wrong, what he had done to the girl, Len, Bonifacio, the man who came this way yesterday and whose name he had forgotten, the things that seemed so distant, and the games he had played in the prison, the conversations with those he was allowed to be around, empty talk it was now, meaning nothing; it all led up to this. It all made sense. His life was meant to come here.

Yet suddenly he was filled with horror. No, it should not be this way. He took in again the people and the events around him, he understood what they were doing, but it was not for him. It couldn’t be. He wasn’t the man they wanted. He dimly felt the straps being fastened. This was wrong, thought Murray. He understood that he had done nothing. He should not be there. The scene faded and he no longer saw the guards nor felt the straps nor smelt the old burnt wires within the machine that was meant to kill him. He saw what should have been, what was.

His life was suddenly before him. There had been no fight, no killing, no trial. There was no chair, no straps. He was in a brightly-lit room, where the sun shone on cheerful yellow walls, a warm carpet and wooden furniture he had made himself after his neighbour Pete had patiently taught him how to handle hickory. There are two paintings on the walls, small, framed landscapes, and a series of photos, portraits of men and women looking uncomfortable in clothes they weren’t used to wearing. His family and his wife’s, of course.

Through a curtained window is a garden with a lawn and a resplendent flowerbed, immaculately kept, and beyond it a wood filled with colour. The beauty of the scene was arresting, breathtaking even, and for a moment Murray couldn’t take his eyes from it. The room, the house, surrounded by that garden and that patch of nature, made a picture so idyllic he could hardly bear to believe it was real. And yet it surely was. It was his house. Murray felt a wonderful calm, a great peace. This was his house and his life, and it was as perfect as he could have imagined. Looking about him he could see his father-in-law’s photo, the tie badly tied because he had lost patience with the photographer. Murray smiled as he remembered that moment. There was a mark on the side of the kitchen table where the saw had kept sticking and even a plane and a lot of coarse sandpaper couldn’t smooth it away. They had left it that way and they laughed about how Murray had made his mark on his house. He would run his fingers across it as they sat down to eat.

There was a woman in a rocking-chair under the window, letting the sun play on the face of the baby she held. He greeted her and she addressed him as ‘darling’. She raised the baby’s hand as though to wave to him. She was Murray’s wife, the child was his child. He felt the joy that it caused him to see them and to know that they were his family. He knew that he had always felt and would always feel that same joy. She rose and came towards him. He took them both in his arms and kissed them.

At that moment the warden gave the sign and the current shocked through him. Murray had dreamed the wrong dream.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching Huckleberry Finn

There is a specific problem with teaching this book. There is a word in it that some people don’t like. (Most people, in fact). It’s a fine book, a borderline classic. It would be a great shame if people stopped reading it for fear of a word. Is it better to change the word ‘nigger’, where it occurs, to stop publishing the book, remove it from libraries, stop worrying about it, or when encouraging children to read it, explain why it uses that word, and its significance in that context?

Banning books is not civilized, and is almost impossible in practice, anyway.

Changing the word to something else is possible, and has been done before, but it’s a matter for the publisher. The book is out of copyright and freely available in electronic form, and I can’t see Gutenberg or Amazon or anyone else bothering to make that change. Many books have things in them that a lot of people don’t like.

I don’t believe the bad word should be forcibly removed, and the idea of Bowdlerization of any sort does not much appeal. The author wrote what he wrote and he did so for reasons which we cannot always understand, or even know. In the case of Huck Finn, the word is largely used by Huck himself, is not usually derogatory in any way, and it is certainly not an expression of hate.

I have never used the book in class, but I was thinking about it, partly because of some discussion I saw about this very matter. If I did, the word could be used as one of many internal devices for interpreting the internal and external context of the book.

This is great in theory, but the theory would clash rather badly with reality if that reality were a black student in the classroom. There aren’t many here, hardly any in fact, and the word doesn’t have the same cultural implications, but in the English-speaking world, to try to explain that an expression that  a black student has been told all his life means that someone hates you, and that he may well have experienced as such on a number of occasions, that he'll just have to lump it because that's what Twain wrote, is not quite so easy as it sounds.

I imagine it could be handled by asking the students what they think, negotiating among several options. Treating students as responsible, mature people is a good way of helping them to act like it, and to become like it. It would depend on the nature of the class. It's easy for a teacher to conclude that it's not worth the trouble, there are plenty of good books to read. I understand that position, but it can very instructive to work out a way of introducing difficult stuff in the classroom. It invariably means communicating with individuals, which is why it's rewarding for everyone, and why making some blanket policy, or talking in vacuo, doesn't work.

As a result of these idle ponderings I am about to read the book again. My thoughts may appear here in a few days.