Yesterday, in a rare idle moment, I was flicking through the Le Monde (French newspaper) app, which I pay monthly for but use less than I should, when I came across the ‘podcasts’ section. And while scrolling down through that, a recent ‘program’/podcast, whatever the correct word is, on the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s death caught my eye.
Now I have a college degree in history, but know woefully little about it, in the same way, I suppose, that I write about learning Italian (and other languages) but know very little about that, either. But still, getting less ignorant has to be easier than getting more ignorant (despite recent trends to the contrary in the USA), and I’d heard a lot about this anniversary while listening to Franceinfo, my go-to rolling news radio show for when I’m doing chores in the kitchen.
So I clicked.
A podcast created by a national newspaper sounds pretty much like what you’d expect: professionally-produced, nice intro music, a journalist hosting the ‘show’, a couple of experts handy to pontificate on various sides of the issue, and pre-recorded sections on various aspects of the topic.
So for a learner, with a relatively low level in the language, even one like me who takes listening practice seriously and does a lot of it, it was never going to be easy.
Nevertheless, it was nearly bedtime, I was out of scotch, and too tired to read, so I listened to the whole thing, which was about 25 minutes.
What did I learn?
That Napoleon remains a controversial figure, above all. He came from humble origins, rose up through the ranks of the military, and through connections with top revolutionaries, became a prominent figure in the republic. At which point, a group of power-brokers, fed up with the chaos and bloodshed, happened on him as a leader who could unite France, etc. There followed years of war, but also some of the innovations from that era (political institutions etc.) that remain part of French life and political identity, even today, over 200 years later.
So why controversial? Apart from the millions of avoidable deaths, obviously.
Well, it turns out that, while Napoleon is remembered fondly by many French (less so by other Europeans), he’s not flavour of the month with anti-racists or feminists.
Do your own research if you want more depth on this, because this is just what I gleaned from listening to the podcast in a half-doze, but the anti-racists have a bone to pick with N. because, while he initially abolished slavery in some or one of France’s colonies – to get one over on the Brits, presumably, but also for ideological reasons – once that phase of the Napoleonic wars concluded, in a peaceful interval in which trade was once more a priority, he was persuaded that French sugar growers were at a disadvantage compared to their English and Spanish slave-owning counterparts and so, at least in some places, slavery remained or was reestablished. I’m not sure which, but it was stain on the revolutionary conscience indeed!
And the feminists? They’d had high hopes that revolution would mean equality between the sexes as well as between citizens, and yet at some point (I missed the whys and wherefores) big N. sided with the guys, making men the undisputed head of the household, with sole authority over everyone in it, that’s to say their wives and children, even adult children. Again, not a great look for idealistic, post-revolutionary France.
Anyway, all this got me thinking about language-learning, which I always maintain is a life-long process, not that you’d know it if you read marketing blurb that promises to teach you a language in thirty-days, or similar nonsense.
Think of an iceberg. The white part, the part that you see above the water, with a forlorn polar bear standing on it wondering why the climate changed, is the usual language-learning stuff – the grammatical syllabus, the lists of irregular verbs, the tests, the certificates, the levels and rewards in your app. Insomma, it’s what you can SEE, what you can TARGET, what you can DO NOW.
But as everyone knows, most of the iceberg is not white and sparkly with cute animal adornments. The bulk of an iceberg’s mass is below the waterline, it’s color various shades of blue rather than white, getting darker and so less visible as you go further down from the surface.
The massive lump of ice that you don’t see, or see less well, from your plane or boat here represents the massive lump of language-learning that will go on (assuming you don’t quit) in your future, beyond your app, beyond our ‘easy readers’ and ‘easy Italian news’, beyond any course, or certificate, or exam.
The sugar-frosted part of the iceberg is the far-less important part, so the key question must be: what’s the rest made of?
What does YOUR personal, vast, blue, disapearing-into-the depths icy mass of language-learning consist of? What will you DO with the language you’ve learnt, when you finally realise that it’s time to delete the app or unsubscribe from my emails?
With my French, reading the newspaper and listening to the radio is getting much easier, as is chatting away about my week with a conversation partner. As I keep doing these things, I confidently expect they will get easier, and so more satisfying, still.
And yet, the reasons for doing these things will not remain the same – while initially I read and listened and chatted so as to improve, from a low-level to a less unacceptable state, at some point I found/will find myself doing these things because I enjoy them.
I begin language-learning as a student of French, but continue/will continue it as a user of that language.
The mass of language-learning that you’ll ever do is not in your past, or now, but in the future, assuming you don’t lose interest, which most people do.
What will that future be like, then?
What will you be DOING with the language you’re learning, and why?
No app can tell you what the underwater part of your iceberg is made of. Only you can know that.
N.b. ‘berg’ is Swedish for ‘moutain’, did you know?