Free thoughts on language learning

Discussions on learning Spanish, English and other language issues. Occasionally, we may stray from language learning topics if there is something that catches my interest.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On French Culture - The Art of Doing Nothing

*Give me your input (via comments here or email to "support (the "at" sign)") on what courses should be free during October*

Last month a FOP (Friend of Parlo) found this gem of an article on life in France as seen by an American. (see below) Once you've read it I recommend you go to the original article because the responses are quite lively. And now a word from Lili (FOP:

Parlo Blg Readers - meet Lili
Lili - meet the Parlo Blog Readers

I first found the French extract of the American article on Yahoo.France and then went to the actual Washington Post brief on Parisian life.

As a Parisian Vietnamese living in the US who has also raised an American boy I was able to understand both versions with their respective cultural bent and had quite a good laugh.

The American was intrigued with the Parisian relaxed ability to simply sit, to simply enjoy a cup of coffee, to simply be without narry a worry. This is something that is much frowned upon in the US and that Americans confess they are absolutely incapable of doing. The tone of the American was also one of subtle envy as he brought on all the many clichés of the differences between the Americans and the French - envy to the point of insulting American feminine sensibilities.

The French comment on yahoo.france (see below the American article) was rather pleased, even amused, with the American perception that the French knew how to bring the simple act of enjoying sitting in a café to an art form. The French summary graciously accepted the compliments with much amusement and ignored the criticisms and clichés thrown by Mr. Achenbach.

Joel Achenbach, Washington Post - August 12, 2006

Cafe Society: Dispatch from La Rive Gauche
[A dispatch from La Rive Gauche, in the Sunday magazine.]

In Paris, you sit in the cafe, like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sitting in a cafe is one of the main activities in Paris. It's what Parisians do instead of working or jogging. They have a natural talent for it, the way Americans are good at going to the pool, grilling meat or driving interstate highways.

The crucial skill in a cafe is the ability to gear down, from second to first, and then down yet again to a special, Gallic gear that is nearly paralytic. It's a bit like being dead, but with better coffee.

The chairs in the cafes are lined up in rows, facing outward, toward the theater of Paris street life. Or perhaps it is the patrons who are on display. Their posture says: Here, look at us, full in the face, as we sit in the cafe so brilliantly, thinking our big French thoughts.

Like the other day, I was nursing an expensive thimble of wine in a cafe on the Rue de Something, near the Avenue des Whatevers, and to my immediate left sat a Frenchman in a pose so relaxed he might have been modeling for Toulouse-Lautrec. He was doing nothing, and doing it with panache. Between two fingers dangled a cigarette that remained lit even though he never did anything so animated as puff. It was hard to tell if he was truly drinking his glass of red wine; the level went down so slowly it may have been merely evaporating.

Why did he not try to achieve something? The cafe advertised WiFi, but no one had a laptop. This was not Starbucks. There was no American compulsion to multitask, to use the cafe as a caffeination station and broadband platform for another increment of accomplishment.

Conceivably I could have spoken to the Frenchman, but the language barrier is significant; I am afraid to attempt anything in French in a cafe lest it be incorrect both grammatically and existentially.

Perhaps the Frenchman was dreaming up an elaborate sociohistorical theory, positing that human civilization has been in decline since the invention of the croissant. Or perhaps he was just enjoying the Latin Quarter, a section so old that I am pretty sure its residents still speak in Latin.

The nearby Notre Dame Cathedral was built in the Middle Ages, when the European idea of comic relief was a stone gargoyle. Parisian commerce is quaint, which is to say, hopelessly inefficient, requiring that shoppers pay the equivalent of a charm tax. You go to one little market to buy your cheese, another to buy your jalapenos, another to buy your corn chips, another to buy your salsa; only then can you make nachos.

I had an urge to blast the Frenchman out of his reverie. "Excuse me, I'm from Wal-Mart," I could say. "We're putting in a superstore right over yonder on the Rue Dauphine. Gonna kick some serious retail derriere, ya dig?"

Then, as though he could hear me thinking, the enervated Frenchman finally did something: He looked at his cellphone. Action in the cafe! He didn't make a call, let's be clear on that, but he studied the cellphone. It dawned on me: He was going over all the speed-dial listings of his mistresses.

Now we're getting down to business. Sure, he ponders the big Frenchy thoughts as he camps in the front row of the cafe, but he's also scoping out the Parisian femmes, who are tres magnifique! That is French for "bodacious." These women tend to be slinky and stylish and sophisticated, and they make American women look, by contrast, as though they just fell off a hay wagon. The femmes have an air of saucy liberation. You can imagine that they are writing Volume 4 of their projected nine-volume encyclopedia on les artes erotiques. They're on the chapter about the webbing between the toes. That lovely muscle tone in the upper arms? That's from all the time they spend on the trapeze. (Conceivably this is a projection from the tourist's subconscious: We've seen those subtitled films where a layabout Frenchman does nothing but smoke cigarettes and all the women take off their clothes.)

Eventually, I reached the obvious conclusion that the man beside me was a professional sensualist. It's a job that doesn't exist in America outside of certain Zip codes in California. For the sensualist there are long recessions, even depressions, as the economy of romance goes into a dive. One sits in the cafe and hopes for an upturn in the market.

I sympathize: It's hard work. A grind, at times. But it sure beats the heck out of doing nothing.

L'image des Français ou "l'art de ne rien faire"

agrandir la photo

WASHINGTON (AFP) - "S'assoir dans un café est une des principales activités à Paris", s'étonne un correspondant du Washington Post Magazine qui stigmatise avec humour "L'Art de ne rien faire", une spécialité que "personne ne fait mieux que les Français", selon lui.
"S'assoir dans un café (...) c'est ce que font les Parisiens au lieu de travailler ou de faire du jogging", écrit le journaliste Joel Achenbach dans un billet éditorial dimanche.

Les chaises des cafés sont alignées en rang d'oignons, décrit-il, tournées vers l'extérieur "vers le théâtre de la rue parisienne".

En scrutant son voisin, il voit "un Français assis dans une pose si détendue qu'il aurait pu être un modèle pour Toulouse-Lautrec". "Il ne faisait rien et le faisait avec panache", assure-t-il.

"Mais pourquoi n'essaye-t-il pas de faire quelque chose ?", s'inquiète l'Américain qui note que le café se dit pourtant équipé de Wi-Fi (accès sans fil à l'internet) mais que personne n'a d'ordinateur portable. L'observateur ne décèle "aucune compulsion multitâche à l'Américaine".

Cherchant à se plonger dans les pensées de son voisin, il imagine que "le Français doit cogiter sur le déclin de la civilisation humaine depuis l'invention du croissant". "A moins qu'il ne profite tout simplement du Quartier latin, un quartier si vieux que, je suis sûr, les habitants parlent le latin", conclut le journaliste du Nouveau monde

Read the replies to the original posting to see how many thin skinned people are out there.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ilan Stavans Thinks About Dictionaries

Who? Thinks about what?

OK - let's back up a bit. Ilan Stavans is a Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is also a terrificly, smart and fun author with wide ranging interests. Last year he come out with an autobiographical book titled, Dictionary Days: A Defining Passion (Graywolf) His background might called a little unique. (if one were also inclined to say things like "a little pregnant" or "a little dead" - I'm so inclined)Born of Eastern European, Jewish ancestry, he grew up in Mexico speaking Spanish and Yiddish. Along the way he learned French and English as well and thus is well equiped to comment on languages from muliple perspectives. In an interview on Translation Journal he speaks at length about dictionaries and what they tell us about trends in thought at the time they were written. He comments on their function and is right on the mark in this section:
Language without limits descends to chaos: grammar, syntax, spelling... these are all prescriptive activities. But when the limits are set in stone without any room to be innovative, language becomes stagnant. For languages, to survive, need to be in a state of constant mutation. They need to engage in a give-and-take, to borrow and improvise new terms, and offer terms to other languages.

There is great stuff in this interview. It is thought provoking and perspective broadening. Where else are you going to hear people talk about Logotheism ..."a religious manifestation where words have center stage" or lexicographicolatry (nope! you'll have to read the interview yourself) If you were good enough to stick with this blog posting but can't imagine wanting to read this interview then click here. (thanks to Monty Python)

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Sorry about the silly title. It's just my occassional attempt to play with the search engines. I read today that there are many "Confidential Do Not Distribute" documents on the web and that this fact is causing people to see what they'll find when they do a seach using those words. Using, Confidential - Do Not Distribute might cause this blog to be found more often - just a little experiment. And now on with our regularly scheduled blog!

It's all well and good to have a set of phrases and vocabulary when you wish to express something but that doesn't equip you for the back and forth reality that is called conversation. I'm sure many of you have had this experience:

Mastering a new phrase
Using it with "Native Speaker"
"Native Speaker" responds at length
You admit that you are virtually clueless as to what they said.

Choose A or B

A - Conversation grinds to a halt
B - Conversation shifts to English - Native Speaker gets to practice English

What happened was that you either encountered grammar, vocabulary or expressions that were new to you or possibly you knew them but they just flew by too quickly for you to take them in. This is an issue of listening skills. Listening takes practice just as much as speaking does since they both require you to process language. What to do? (How do you get to Carnegie Hall?) Practice, practice practice!

These two sites have short videos of their children's programming and are a great way to practice listening skills. Many of these cartoons are already familiar to us such as Bugs Bunny and The Flintstones. I can't urge you too strongly to practice listening and watching videos and movies to improve you language skills. If you can find a station on TV and turn on the closed captioning you'll find this even easier since you'll have the written words to help "decode" what's going on. So don't just sit there, buy a course from and then spend 10 minutes watching cartoons! Hasta pronto.

As a closing note please be aware that this is not Confidential Please Do Not Distribute. Sorry, I couldn't resist!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Free Business English & Spanish 2 course

The wise and august wizards (yep, they're a month behind but they work cheap) have consulted the oracles, tea leaves and chicken entrails* to determine what courses will be free during the month of September. In brief, here's how to access our free courses this month:

Go to

Basic Business English
Password: parlo

Interactive Spanish 2
Password: parlo

*No real chickens were hurt in the wizards' conjurings. Only free range organic rubber chickens are used at