Friday, October 28, 2011

France, the French, and Love/Hate

Almost nobody feels neutral about France or the French.  Many people adore France but hate the French.  There are probably a few who feel the opposite.  Some people love or hate both.  Whatever the case, it is rare to anybody say, I went to Paris.  Nothing special.
I am among those who love both France and the French, but not enough to want to live there.  France is a country where living is an art, whether it concerns food, clothing, or conversation.  By contrast, making a living is a necessity and a bit proletariat in the negative sense of the word.    Parisians constantly talk about restaurants, vacations, and movies or books.    So, while French emphasis on living may seem rather decadent to more protestant-thinking people, it is rather attractive and even addictive.
By contrast, to be diplomatic, the French themselves are not always appreciated, even by themselves.  Many people are quite offended by their arrogance and rudeness behind the formal level of politeness.  Being half American and half French, I have no problem understanding their attitude and even enjoying it.  There is a sociological concept called a zero sum world, typical of peasant societies, in which a finite, fixed limit exists for everything, material and immaterial.  There is only so much money and love in the world.  Therefore, to ostensibly show one’s money means that the people watching have less, an unpleasant feeling.  Similarly, in friendship, people have a limited space for love, i.e. childhood friends and close family.  This is creates an us and them world.   Friendship is total for the us group and basically non-existent for the them group.  Fortunately, Paris has a high percentage of non-French.  I belonged to the both to the us and the them.  As any obnoxious attitude was not personal against me, I found it amusing at time, like live theatre (of the absurd).  It is like watching a bunch of children trying to act like adults, ultimately very entertaining.
Of course, living in Paris is another story.  Paris is a small, dense, tense, and intense city with too much air pollution, strikes, and bureaucracy.  Also, for people used to seeing the sun most of the year, the weather is depressing.  Maybe Paris is like New York: a place for young people with lots of energy.
Still, I visit Paris at any opportunity and feel sadness each time I  part from it.   My fantasy wish would be the ability to transport myself instantly to Paris and enjoy a baguette, a good piece of cheese, an old dusty chaotic book store, and petit pain au chocolate or chocolat liegoise.  Ah, sometimes, la vie est dure sans confiture.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How to Write an Email in English

As English is the Lingua Franca of the world for the moment, non-native English speakers, i.e. most of the world, are often faced with the daunting task of writing emails in English.  (I would say that even the French have to do so from time to time, but as they would say, J’ignore.) 
In fact, business emails are easy to write.  Unlike personal letters, they are intended to be short, to the point, and simple.  So, the writer does not have to and should not write Shakespeare (or Orwell, whom I prefer).
Begin with the simple phrase “Dear …).  Add Sir or Madam if you don’t have the actual name of the person, i.e. the customer relations department.  A man is referred to as Mr. while a woman is addressed as Ms.  For business purposes, her marital status is irrelevant.
At this stage, to avoid forgetting to attach the required documents, I always add my attachments before going on.
If you are have written often to the person, are continuing a previous matter, or just want to create a friendly feeling, make the first line a salutation such as Good morning, Good evening, or even Happy Holiday if that applies.
The first real paragraph states directly why are writing:  I am writing in response to your notice on the forum or As requested, I am attaching the proposal.  Make it short and sweet.  You don’t have to use fancy words.  People receive hundreds of emails a day. They want you to get the point quickly.
The next paragraph or paragraphs go into detail concerning what you have to say.  Once again, write short, direct sentences.  If you are applying for a job, begin with one sentence why the company should consider you, such as I have expertise in C++, as you require.
The last sentence should say what you want them to do: Please confirm receipt or I await further instructions.  As for the salutation at the end, see my previous posting on that issue.
The final step before sending the mail is to reread the text and check for any grammar or spelling errors.  Those make bad impressions, as any girl who received a note saying “I luvs yu” would know.
By writing short and simple sentences, non-native speakers can simplify vocabulary and grammar while ensuring that their meaning is transmitted as intended.  Also, it reduces “language stress” when thinking about writing the email.  Here’s for reducing stress!

Friday, October 14, 2011

What I like about America

I recently realized that I am an “expatriate.”  That means that I have lived abroad, in Israel, for almost as many years as I lived in the United States.  That is nothing compared to my mother, who has lived in the U.S. twice as many years as she lived in France.  Still, as an expatriate who occasionally visits the motherland or the fatherland, as a Russian or German would say, I have the right and ability to appreciate many good things about the United States of America.
1.       The United States is one of the few countries in the world in which going to the post office and bank takes only 30 minutes.
2.      The level of service received is not a coefficient of the salary level of the worker.
3.      People do not feel entitled to punish the salesperson or secretary for the fact that they had a fight with their spouse, child, or cat.
4.      America is a place where everyday driving, except on Sunday, is not a battleground.
5.      Most people expect to work and make adjustments for life’s unpleasant surprises.  They don’t expect the government to do it for them.
6.      Two day weekends are fantastic! 
7.      It doesn’t make a difference how old you are or how new you are to a city.   You can still make new friends.
8.      Almost everybody has an accent (at least in California).  Variety is the spice of life.
9.      American food is world food: granted in enormous quantities, but there is everything.
10.   Americans try to be nice to each other at least in public.  That makes life so more pleasant!

I know that that the flip side also exists.  There are many problems in the United States.  However, as an expatriate, I can take the good and ignore the bad. 

I would be interested in hearing any comments or additions to this list.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Articles of (Grammar) Faith

The surest way to identify a non-native speaker is by looking at their articles – a, an,  and the.  Russian does not have any articles, which mean Russian speakers often add them almost randomly.  Hebrew speakers only have the definitive one – the.   French use is similar, but with differences, including the requirement to place one before every noun in a list.  Compare the English I will take the fish, rice, and salad as compared to the French Je prendrai le poisson, le riz et la salade.
For a change, there are actually clear rules in English.
a.      All singular nouns must have an article, either the indefinite a (or an) or the definite the.
b.      Plural nouns if definite must be preceded by the; otherwise there is no article.
Examples: A friend of mine has the only copy of the book.  The books are important resources.
Exception:  Abstract nouns (uncountable to some of you) do not take articles:  You need patience and skill [in general] to succeed.  Since as abstract nouns, they can’t be plural, there is nothing to worry there.
Clarification: a and an
Contrary to what many have you been taught in school, the word an does NOT go before a vowel.  It goes before a VOWEL SOUND!
Appearances can be deceiving.  Some vowels (AEIOU) can SOUND like a consonant while some consonants can sound like a vowel.
An egg but A European egg:  The word European sound like [yu], meaning a consonant sound.
An ugly building at a university:  [u]gly as compared to [yu]niversity.
You’ll be a happy person in an hour:  The word happy has a voiced h, while hour doesn’t.
Police look for an MO:  You say [em] and therefore write an.
If you are unsure whether to write a or an, say the word.
If you are unsure whether to use an article, remember that unless the noun is plural and indefinite, there must be an article.
As they say in Hebrew, הבנת את זה. ברוך?  or, more seriously, if you explain it to me slowly, I’ll understand it quickly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Splitting Hairs – What’s the difference?

What is better, one size fits all or exact sizes?  The same issue applies to languages.  There are terms that in one language one word fits all usages while in another, each specific context requires a completely different word.
In English for example, business offer special or volume discounts, i.e. they lower the price for a special product or if you buy more than a certain amount.  By contrast, in French, there is a rabais, an exceptional discount because of the condition of a good, a remise, a regular discount applied all the time, and a ristourne, a discount awarded periodically for various reasons.  These distinctions save words, but can definitely confuse a non-native.
Speaking of clothes, Hebrew is quite particular on how you put them on.  You lovesh ( לובש) a garment, noel (נועל) a shoe, gorev (גורב) a sock, hoger (חוגר) a belt, onev (עונב) a tie, oteh (עוטה) gloves, hovesh (חובש) a hat, markiv (מרכיב) glasses, and oned (עונד) jewelry.  The only help in remembering all that is the verb generally sounds like the article of clothing.
Getting married is supposedly about saying I do.  Well, in Russian, it appears  that they are very particular about not having same sex marriages.  A Russian man женится (jenitcya), meaning he marries a woman, while a Russian women is замужна (zamujna), meaning marries a man.  There is no ambiguity there.
I would be interested in hearing about other examples of such branching off of vocabulary in any language.