Books Language

Ebooks for Learning a Foreign Language

I prefer reading real books. I love their feel, their heft, even their smell–musty and old, or inky and new. Some books have beautiful bindings, dust-covers with wonderful artwork, high-quality paper and lovely fonts. They are a pleasure to read. Even the lowly paperback with its fragile binding and quickly deteriorating paper can spark joy. But I have mixed feelings about ebooks. Certainly they are convenient when traveling. But I don’t like being dependent on a battery, or trying to see past the glare when reading on a bright sunny day.

There is one domain in which ebooks shine–learning a foreign language. This is so evident to me now that I am surprised when I come across language learners who are unaware of their utility.

Reading a book in a foreign language is a frustrating experience. You keep a dictionary nearby and stop to look up words. This takes time and slows down the flow of text. In theory this might provide an incentive to memorize words faster to avoid the constant interruptions. In reality effective memorization seems to be more a function of repetition than how “hard” one tries to memorize. The end result is that unknown words are often just skipped or guessed, perhaps inaccurately, from context and you may give up from frustration.

This is where ebooks shine. I’m talking about ebook software like Kindle, Apple Books, and Google Books, running on phones, tablets, computers or dedicated ebook readers. The beauty of these devices is the ability to quickly look up words. This is functionality I rarely use while reading books in English. When reading a book in a foreign language, however, this ability become very useful.

Touch a word and the definition appears instantly (from La Place du Mort by Pascal Garnier).

When I press on a word a short definition pops up. Select Full Definition and the full dictionary entry appears. This works whether or not there is an internet connection. With an internet connection, a Google translate box appears as well as a Wikipedia entry. You can highlight a whole phrase or paragraph and the Google translate box will perform a translation. The whole process is nearly instantaneous, barely interrupting the flow of reading. In addition you can highlight words and review the highlighted words and phrases at any time.

Full dictionary definition. Oxford Hachette French-English online dictionary.

All this works very well, at least with books in French. I also read some books in German, where the process is not quite so easy. German often splits its verbs, throwing the verb prefix to the end of the sentence, so just highlighting the main part of the verb and translating it isn’t so useful. The prefixes make a difference. For example, aufhören means “stop.” If hören and the auf are separated you might end up just highlighting and translating hören which means “listen.” Confusing! Someone should write a German dictionary extension that allows one to highlight and then look up both parts of the verb simultaneously.

This limitation doesn’t exist with French, and probably with many other languages as well. Even in German it is far easier to read an ebook than a paper book.

So even if you prefer physical books, you will have an easier time and probably learn more if you read foreign language books in ebook format.

Language Society

Index Verborum Prohibitorum

Index_Clemente_VIII_1596The Catholic Church for centuries maintained a list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum,  only abolishing it in 1966.  Governments, particularly fascist ones, also have had a pronounced tendency to ban books for moral, religious, or political reasons.   Such censorship is a repugnant form of thought control.  It is no surprise that the fascist dystopias of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 center around the destruction or mutilation of the printed word.

While banning books may no longer be in vogue, it appears that banning individual words is fashionable if not de rigueur on today’s college campuses.  The justification is that some words are too hurtful to use.  Some words carry so much historical and racial baggage that their use is always off-limits.  Certain racial epithets can’t be used in any context, not even in a discussion of how bad it is to use racial epithets, because the very act of speaking these epithets is an act of violence.  Thus words are imbued with almost magical powers, and some words are so evil that they can never be spoken out loud.  The “N-word” is akin to “He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter books.  People generally will avoid these forbidden words (as I will do here) partly out of a genuine desire to avoid hurting others’ feelings, but also, to be honest, out of fear — the fear of backlash, much like the fear of the media to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, though this is less a fear of outright violence than a fear of being ostracized and called racist.

This is what happened to the writer Wendy Kaminer when she used one of the proscribed words at a forum on free speech at Smith College in reference to teaching Huckleberry Finn, which, if anyone nowadays is allowed to read an unedited version, has a major character whose name contains that proscribed word.  Read her article in the Washington Post.  It is amazing that in this context (a free speech forum, in a discussion about a classic book that contains that word) she has been deemed a racist merely for using the actual word instead of its baby-talk equivalent.  This reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ film, High Anxiety, when, at a convention of psychiatrists, the word “woo-woo” is used instead of “vagina” because one of the psychiatrists brought his young children with him.  Political correctness is childish.  Political correctness and freedom of speech don’t mix.  The United States Bill of Rights makes a big deal out of freedom of speech.  It does not mention politically correct speech.

I have been living in Paris, France the past 6 months.  Despite being the home of Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech is more limited here than in the United States.   For example, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested in Paris for anti-semitism and hate-speech.   Broadly defined hate-speech and holocaust-denial are crimes here in France and in Germany.  As reprehensible as this kind of speech is, it is not a crime in America.  In America we put up with the Westboro Baptist Church and their God Hates Fags signs at military funerals.  We allowed the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois (though ultimately their march took place in Chicago).   We allow hate-speech because we allow all speech short of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater.  We don’t want the government to decide what we are allowed to say, write, read, or hear.

It is unfortunate that in the name of political correctness some people think nothing of placing limits on such a wonderful and powerful freedom — the one freedom that really sets us apart from the rest of the world.  Americans seem all too willing to trade our hard-won freedoms for short-term comfort.  The Patriot Act is a case in point, with which we gave the government carte-blanche to spy on us in exchange for — what?  Is it so comforting that Big Brother is watching us all the time?  Personally I would rather apply the word “patriot” to Edward Snowden than to the act.

It is disappointing that after the Charlie Hebdo murders, despite the wide-spread Je suis Charlie signs, there was a tendency among some in the media to blame the cartoonists and writers, though stopping short of saying that they deserved to die for their “hate speech” (see here, for example).  And college campuses predictably went back to business as usual, promoting suppression rather than freedom of speech, denying (or attempting to deny) commencement speeches to figures such as Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Condoleezza Rice.   The Ivory Tower has never been so heavily defended against the onslaught of reality.

Words are powerful.   Words allow humans to download the contents of their brains in a format suitable for upload to other brains.  Words express ideas that can be disruptive and disconcerting to the status quo.  It is no wonder that others want to control our words.  The best weapon against bad ideas is unfettered freedom of expression.  Bad ideas need to be exposed to the light of day.  In the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will drive out the bad.  It is not necessary and indeed counterproductive to ban bad ideas, bad words, or bad books.  The most effective way to destroy the Westboro Baptist Church is not to ban their demonstrations, but rather to allow them to display their hateful ignorance in public.  In their own way, the Westboro Baptist Church has probably done more to advance the cause of the LGBT community than most pro-LGBT activist groups.

I find it sad that left-wing groups on college campuses, who in past years were at the forefront of freedom of expression are now the ones who are most willing to shut it down in the name of political correctness.


Language Movies Society

Le Truman Show

The Truman Show
The Truman Show

Le “Truman Show” est un film qui est sorti en 1998.  C’était réalisé par Peter Weir et c’était écrit par Andrew Niccol.  Le personnage principal est Truman Burbank qui est joué par Jim Carrey.  Truman Burbank est un homme normal qui vit dans une ville normale. Son enfance était heureuse. Il es     t réceptionniste pour une compagnie d’assurance, il vit une vie ordinaire, il a une femme ordinaire, un voisin ordinaire et un ami ordinaire qui apparaît de temps en temps avec un six-pack de bière.  Mais Truman n’est pas heureux avec sa vie. Il veut voir le monde

Clip 1

Il veut sortir de son plaisante mais étouffante vie – toujours rangée – pour s’échapper de sa petite ville qui est sur un île au bord de la mer – une ville qui est toujours propre, toujours ensoleillée et en fait, trop parfaite. En réalité, Truman était le produit d’une grossesse non désirée. Son «père» (pas son vrai père), Christof, un producteur de télévision qui Truman n’a jamais rencontré, a réalisé le Truman Show – le plus grand spectacle sur terre – un spectacle dans lequel la vie est en direct – la télé-réalité. En fait, Truman ne sait pas qu’il vit dans un petit monde de de télévision qui a été inventé par Christof parce qu’il a grandi dans ce monde et il était là depuis son enfance. Donc, tout le monde autour de Truman est acteur avec un peu de casque à l’oreille. Même sa femme est actrice qui fait beaucoup de publicités pour le camera à la stupéfaction de Truman.

Clip 2

Un jour, Truman trouve accidentellement une zone de restauration dans un faux ascenseur de son bâtiment de bureaux et devient assez suspecte. Peu à peu, il vient à la conclusion qu’il ne vit pas dans le monde réel.

Truman découvre que tout son monde est un ensemble de film et que tout était contrôlé par Christof, son «père» son “créateur” qui travaille dans un studio dans une ersatz lune du monde de Truman.

Clip 3

Enfin, Truman réussit à s’échapper de son monde irréel. Il repousse son créateur, son père Christof. Truman ouvre une porte dans une peinture de paysage et il va à un monde qui n’est jamais vraiment montré dans le film. Ce monde reste inconnue, c’est notre monde.

Clip 4

Je crois que le film est très prémonitoire.   Au temps de son sortie, le Facebook n’existait pas et la télé-réalité était à son début.  Cependant, le film démontre que la démarcation entre la vie privée et la vie publique est devenu floue.  C’est aussi une critique des effets que la publicité ont sur notre comportement et même nos pensées.  C’est une critique de la vie occidentale (surtout la vie américaine), de la religion, du capitalisme, des médias et de nos perceptions de la réalité.  À la fin du film, en regardant Truman part son monde iréel, on espère que son nouveau monde sera réel. Toutefois, cette question reste sans réponse.

“Le Truman Show” est un film de science-fiction qui est à peine different de la vérité aujourd’hui. C’est aussi un drame philosophique qui provoque beaucoup de pensées et qui peut vous encourager de regarder votre vie un peu plus près.  C’est un film à ne pas rater ou manquer et un film qui a tout pour le revoir.

Language Travel

Paris Update

Eiffel Tower, January 19, 2014
Eiffel Tower, January 19, 2014

We’ve been in Paris (France, not Kentucky) a week now.  We have moved into the apartment that will be our living space for the next six months.   Gretchen and I have spent the week settling in, figuring out where to shop for food, how to get around the city, how to work the washing machine, and other essential tasks.   She has started her classes at Alliance Français, and I have been walking around trying to look inconspicuous, hoping no one will ask me a question in French that I can’t answer (which would be pretty much any question).  Here are some of my initial observations.


Not too different from Louisville, Kentucky in the winter.  Some cloudy days, some clear, some rainy.  No snow so far.  Temperatures in the 40s and 50s mostly.  Nothing too extreme.


Scarfs are de rigueur.  So we each bought one.  I already knew the French wear dark clothing from prior trips, so that’s what I wear too, though my white-gray sneakers are a pretty good give-away that I am not French.  Women wear dark tights and short skirts (yes, I do notice these things), or pants tight enough that they might as well be tights.  No one appears to be overweight and if they are they are probably Americans.  People walk around and avoid eye contact, quite unlike the casual friendliness of Kentucky and the US South.  When we were in New York City people there also did not greet each other, so this is hardly a unique European characteristic.

Living Space

We moved into our apartment, which went well.  It is small, though everything is smaller here than in America.  The kitchen and bathroom are slightly bigger than a phone booth (if anyone remembers phone booths these days).  There is a living room and a bedroom.  Anything bigger would have been too expensive.  Living in Paris isn’t cheap and we need to keep costs down.


We attempted to complete two major tasks our first week.  One was to start up a local bank account.  This would allow us to wire money from the US to the local bank and avoid a lot of charges involved in using a credit or debit card abroad.  We went to a bank and found we had to make an appointment to start an account.  We came back for the appointment and spent about and hour and a half filling out paperwork to start the account.  Thank goodness Gretchen is fluent with French, as the people in the bank spoke almost no English.  Gretchen has dual citizenship (American and Italian).  Having a European Union passport allows her to do a lot that would be difficult for a US citizen.  Anyway, after much filling out of forms the bank account was settled.  The second task was to get me a Carte de Séjour.  This is basically a residency card that allows me to stay in France over 3 months.  Gretchen with her EU citizenship can stay as long as she wants in any European country.  The husband of a non-French EU citizen (it is actually harder if your wife is French, but that’s another story) can also stay in France without a visa as long as he produces proof of marriage to the Préfecture de Police.  Well no one, including the French, seemed to know exactly where to go to get this done.  After being misdirected to 3 different wrong places (and putting about 20K steps on my FitBit) we finally reached the right place.  We then took a number and, after waiting, went in only to find we didn’t have all the documents with us we needed.  So we will try again tomorrow.


We brought a lot of electronics with us, including our two Android cell phones, two Apple iPods, an iPad, my Nexus 7 tablet, and two Apple laptops.  Our apartment has phone, TV and Internet service all through a DSL modem (not a cable modem).  The router is a “DartyBox” with IP address  Of course the web interface is all in French, but using Chrome to translate works fairly well.  The reason I tried to fool with the router was that not all our devices can connect to the WiFi interface.  Specifically there are no problems with the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, the 5th generation iPod Touch, and the Nexus 7.  Unfortunately both Android phones (including a Droid Maxx with Android 4.4 “Kit-Kat”), and the older generation iPod won’t keep the connection (We haven’t even tried the iPad, which is first generation).  Resetting the router allows these devices to connect, but eventually they disconnect.  The Android phone label the SSID as “Saved and Secured.”  But not “Connected” unfortunately.  Some fruitless googling and examining the router setup failed to achieve an answer.  I have never had this problem before and I think it is probably the French router doesn’t play well with some of our American devices.  I could buy a different router, but there is no guarantee it would work.  I guess I should be satisfied that at least some of our devices work.  The Internet speed clocks to about 15 Mbps, not bad.


As Dorothy said, we’re not in Kansas anymore.  I hope with future posts to share more of what I discover in the “City of Lights.”  Stay tuned.


Lose The Loose

Most commonly misused word on the Internet? Not your vs you’re, not its vs it’s, it’s …. loose for lose.

Books Computers & Software Language

What's Happened To The Bookstores?

If you are a bookstore aficionado you can’t have avoided noticing how they have deteriorated over the last ten years. Fewer books, less variety, more open spaces and chairs, fewer people, most of whom are there to drink coffee and work on their laptops using free Wifi connections — it’s hard to pin it down exactly, but the bookstores today are just not as good as they used to be. Are they going the way of video stores (e.g. Blockbuster which is dying) or CD stores (e.g. Tower Records, already deceased)? I can make a quick judgment of the quality of a bookstore by two tests: how many different Thomas Hardy books they stock and how large their computer book section is. At the Borders near Park Meadows Mall outside of Denver back in the 1990’s every Thomas Hardy book, even the obscure ones, from Desperate Remedies to The Hand of Ethelbertha, was there, alongside the more common Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native, in multiple editions (Penguin, Oxford, others). Nowadays, you’ll find a handful of the latter famous books, in some generic Barnes and Noble edition (Hardy wrote several versions of his books — the Penguin editions contain his first version and the Oxford edition his last, so the edition is important) and none of the more obscure novels. I don’t think there is anything unique about Thomas Hardy books, the same thing is true if you look at Charlotte Bronte (where is a copy of The Professor?), or Thackerary (you might find Vanity Fair, but good luck finding Pendennis), and so forth. The thinning out of the Thomas Hardy selection over time is just a symptom of the general malaise that is afflicting bookstores, gradually sapping them of their strength. The other barometer is the size of the computer book section. Back in the 90’s the computer book section at the above mentioned Borders took up a whole corner of the building. There was shelf after shelf of computer books, whole walls just devoted to C++ books alone. Nowadays at the downtown Borders in Louisville, KY there is one side of one shelf with computer books. That’s it. As for the huge Borders near Park Meadows Mall outside of Denver — it’s closed. Out of Business. Very sad.

Of course it’s all due to economics, to electronic book readers, to the iPad, to the Internet, to, and so forth. And it’s good for the trees. True enough. But I fear the downfall of the traditional bookstore is also due to fewer people reading books, to a general lack of interest in books and reading — in short to illiteracy. I could have written a post “What’s Happened To The Libraries?” to make the same point. Libraries have become a place for free Internet access, much like Starbucks without the coffee. The books are still there, but are ignored. Oh I know there are still plenty of book lovers out there. But we are a dying breed. I remember with great joy going to the Universal Books Store on 5th Street in Philadelphia as a teen and seeing the newly minted glossy covers of the Ace and Ballentine editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, or even more special, going downtown to Leary’s Bookstore, where I purchased the Ace book edition of The Fellowship of the Ring when it first came out in the 1960’s. Sure, now I can get any book I want on Amazon — in some ways it is better for a book lover nowadays then back when I was growing up. But I miss the browsing experience, the thrill of discovery, the impulse purchase that opens up a new author and new literary world at a bookstore, and am saddened to see this change.


English-Only Fans Need To Learn English

Some of the people pushing English as the official language of the United States barely can speak it themselves.  I am especially upset about the trend over about the last 10 years of what I call “pronoun confusion.”  I refer to this kind of statement:

“John drove Mary and I to the mall.”

Argggggggh!  Who would ever say:

“John drove I to the mall.” ????

But adding the “Mary and” to the above makes it correct?  No way!  The word is “me” as in:

“John drove Mary and me to the mall”


“John drove me to the mall.”

Goodness gracious, how many people talk like that now?  I have heard people in all walks of life use “I” in this way, including Barack Obama, Joe Scarborough, Keith Olbermann, and every news-bimbo at Fox News.  Actually the more conservative, older commentators, such as Pat Buchanan, and even Brit Hume (at Fox) wouldn’t be caught dead making such a mistake.  It’s the younger folk, subjected to a generation of teachers who themselves speak that way and know nothing about grammar who are the worst offenders.

How this got started I have no idea.  I suspect it has some tortured relationship to the fact that the verb “to be” takes the nominative case, so that “It is I” is correct and “It is me” is wrong, despite the fact everyone uses the latter form nowadays.  This has been turned around so that the “I” becomes the object of other verbs, I guess in a bizarre attempt to sound correct.  (Despite this, still no one says “It is I.”)  I live in Kentucky, so you are probably thinking that this is probably the least of the grammatical problems I should be worrying about.  (How about “It ain’t took yet?”)  But the “I” for “me” thing is said on TV all the time by people who should know better, and falls into a small category of commong errors (such as “drug” for “dragged,” “snuck” for “sneaked”) that I know will eventually spell the end of our language.  Will our great-grandchildren speak Pidgin English?

Regarding the English-only fans, most Europeans speak better English than Americans, and maybe if we all learned a second language we’d get a little smarter??  If you search for “Americans are stupid” on YouTube and watch the videos, you’ll see that we definitely need to do something.