by Mark J. Drozdowski
Despite years of study, I never could grasp French. In college, I was a walking paradox: I had a great facility for English but couldn’t comprehend its Romance cousin. My trauma culminated with a trip to Paris, where I discovered that the only thing worse than knowing no French is knowing some French. I mistakenly muttered chien instead of jambon, in the process ordering a dog omelet and insulting the garcon, who wouldn’t return.
With that distaste still circling my palate, I waded into Language Magazine, the “popular periodical of language, education and communication.” I thought perhaps I could rekindle any flicker of interest I had in learning a new language, or at least discover why I had failed so miserably.
Formerly known as American Language Review, the magazine began its life in 1997 and now appears monthly. A year’s subscription will cost you $24.95, while single issues run $4.95. On its Web site (http://www.languagemagazine.com), the publication suggests its audience consists of “department heads, supervisors, government officials and other decision-makers” who wish to be “kept up to date with developments in the fast paced world of language and literacy education.”
We can make further assumptions about the magazine’s audience based on its ads, with which it’s riddled. Competing for space are ads for software, publishers, conferences, postgraduate degree programs, language institutes and study abroad programs.
The magazine’s format is straightforward. An opening section presents letters and brief bits of news, appetizers readying readers for main courses. Back sections are dedicated to book reviews, conference reports and electronic education. Articles, I was pleased to discover, are informal and free of technical jargon. What’s more, these pieces don’t assume a high level of sophistication or knowledge of language theories and trends. Readers who don’t know a diphthong from a dingbat will find most of the writing quite approachable.
Core articles come under such headings as “World Languages,” “Bilingualism,” “Dialects,” and “Language Travel.” My sampling revealed pieces covering a wide range of subjects. One, on language academies, discusses a French law, enacted in 1994, designed to “protect the French language from English incursions…such as ‘cheeseburger’ and ‘airbag’…” The law never gained favor, perhaps because the penalty for such an offensive flouting would have been up to six months in prison. Another article, on bilingualism, reveals secrets of raising a multilingual child. “Research,” it says, “overwhelmingly suggests that a second language is best acquired within several ‘critical periods’ or windows of opportunity that largely end at puberty.” That would explains my frustrations with French. It also sheds light on my two-year-old daughter’s fascination with Dora the Explorer, an English-Spanish cartoon that has her running around the house yelling Hola!
Some articles are less serious than others, though I’m not sure if they were intended that way. In one on St. Louis dialects, for example, the author discloses that, “Lexically, St. Louisans tend to eat string beans and corn on the cob…, dispose of pits from their cherries…and seeds from their peaches…, carry groceries in bags…and water in buckets….” Those wacky St. Louisans. In another, a travel essay on Italy, the writer suggests that “there’s nothing better for loosening up your inhibitions and discovering your vocabulary is wider than you thought, than having a few glasses of vino with the locals.” And yet another, a cover story on revitalizing Hawaii’s linguistic heritage (“Topics from the Tropics”), discusses Islanders’ native dialect known as “Pidgin English.” As far as I can tell, the term has nothing to do with the Lingua Franca of butchered mother tongue known collectively as “Pigeon English.”
One piece I found most useful, given my work in government relations, was “Voices of the U.S. Senate,” a special report “exploring the voices of U.S. Senators” and giving us “windows into U.S. geography, regional pronunciations, slang, and history.” The magazine offers us a background on Senatorial oratory but saves the best feature for its Web site: an analysis of each Senator’s voice and speech patterns. Some are laudatory (Robert Bennett: “Authentically dripping with friendliness”), while others aren’t (Frank Lautenberg: “A bit nasal, congested with an educated twang”). Still others leave you scrambling to catch C-SPAN (Christopher Bond: “Resonates with the reasonableness of a Midwest farmer at a stockyard auction”). You can bet I’ll be listening more closely on my next trip to the Capitol.
Humor–intended or not–aside, language remains a hot and politically divisive issue. For better or worse, English has become universal, causing concerns for those who don’t speak it and those who wish they did. Not that it’s easy to learn: One column points out that English has more words (616,500) than any other language, totaling more than four times that of German and six times that of French. In my home state of Massachusetts, voters last year opted to end bilingual school programs in favor of English immersion. Our Governor, Mitt Romney, has been an outspoken opponent of bilingual education. And university core curriculum debates often weigh the pros and cons of requiring a foreign language for graduation. Language Magazine aims to keep those discussions alive for a wide audience.
I do have a few quibbles, though. The magazine’s design is generally uninspiring, using blocky text, photos and ads. Fonts change more frequently than Michael Jackson’s nose. Most spreads are four-color, yet some are black and white. Further, Adjunct Advocate readers familiar with my reviews might recognize my disdain for that picayune of punctuation, the exclamation point. So when I approached a “teacher training” article on studying in Spain, I blanched upon seeing this opening: “Thinking of studying in Spain next year? Why not!” Incidentally, the article ends with, “Take two trips to Spain next year–one with your students–and then one for yourself!” Besides being grammatically challenged, that sentence reminds me why I hate exclamation points!
That aside, I certainly recommend the magazine for faculty who teach foreign languages or who are involved with bilingual education. If you’re curious about a subscription, visit the magazine’s Web site for a broader sampling of topics. You can view archived articles (the current issue is not available) and even search them by keyword. As I’ve suggested, you’ll also find material not available in the print version.
So did this magazine immersion change my outlook on French? Not exactly, but I was somewhat encouraged to read that “the French have become more accommodating towards those who do not speak la belle langue.” Perhaps it’s safe for me to return and try another omelet.