“Queen to Play” (La Joueuse)

(A new way to “mate”)

Chessboard

Directed by Caroline Bottaro, 2009

Starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline

I saw a French movie last night called “Queen to Play” (La Joueuse aux Echecs) about a middle-aged woman who works as a house cleaner. She is married and has a teenage daughter. Her love life is lacking: a distracted, working class husband supports her but is more interested in the traditional family status quo (the wife makes the meals and is there for her husband when he wants to make love; also there waiting when he doesn’t feel like it) than in encouraging her in her own personal growth. She sees a sultry young American woman playing chess with one of her house-cleaning clients, and winning. There is something alive and seductive about the game itself and the power it accords women (the queen is the most powerful game piece), and she resolves to learn to pay chess. Chess is, of course, a metaphor for her self-actualization and fulfillment. By persuading a reclusive doctor client of hers to teach her the game, she progresses in her skill. She is driven. She wants to learn not only the rules of engagement, but also how to win. In the end, despite the town’s rumor mill and her own husband’s jealous suspicions, she has her way. She not only gains a thorough mastery of the game, but also sparks an evanescent romance with her mentor, which culminates in a single meaningful kiss and nothing more. Here she has reached a turning point. She has ventured very far toward the horizon of her dreams, but to continue her chess-playing visits would destroy her family; besides, an extra-marital romance was never her intention. The kiss was rather a side effect of the self-realization she has attained. Then she makes love with her husband, and resolves never to see her former client/mentor, and to give up chess. Finally, her daughter and her mentor’s remembered words convince her to pursue her dream. She enters a chess tournament in Paris and wins.

That film, like other well-conceived and executed literary works, has inspired me in my creative endeavor. Not only the plot of the story, but also a vibrant, tangible memory of the feelings and mood associated with the character’s development, have stayed with me.

Good writing, when it comes directly from the source (the impulse), and is played through with sincerity, has meaning and staying power.

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Another Reason to Learn French

Flag of France

A recent article in The Economist by Robert Lane Green entitled “Which is the Best Language to Learn?” explains why, even though English is the most widely used language in the world, French is the next most important language to learn. The article is re-published as a discussion in the social network New York in French. Citing intrinsic benefits in learning another language, as well as the linguistic entrée to the world of art and culture that a knowledge of French affords, Green also points to the ubiquity of la Francophonie, a collection of 56 countries representing every region in the world where French is spoken, either as a native language, the tongue of the upper class, or a widely used, unofficial language. It is worth noting this considered opinion of a journalist and author, who is also a professor at New York University and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

French Invades New York

As a language teacher, I know that speaking two or more languages is a blessing. The more avenues we have to reach out to one another, the better off we are. Being bilingual or multilingual increases both cognitive ability and our ability to stay abreast of news and trends across the globe. Being able to enjoy music, films, and other cultural works in another language adds interest to our lives. Lately, I have been following a discussion on LinkedIn’s Alliance Francaise group called “Lament: The move of American Schools to Discontinue the Teaching of French.” (See WriteWireless post “When the World Spoke French”). Several dozen members have shared their dissatisfaction, concern, and opinions as to why the study of French (and other world languages) is declining in our public schools.

In New York City, quite the opposite seems to be happening. There is a growing number of options for children to learn French starting in the preschool years and continuing through high school. Some schools are private, but a growing number of public schools are now promoting French language in a big way. For just over two years, the French government has been instituting a French language education program in public elementary schools that is taking the city by storm. Spearheaded by the French Embassy’s Educational Attaché Fabrice Jaumont and enthusiastically supported by local parents, the program is instituting French bilingual and French immersion programs in neighborhood schools. To date, 32 new French-English programs have opened their doors to public school children in seven NYC public schools. The model has spread to two more programs in New Haven, Connecticut, with a total of almost 1,000 students in grades K-8 benefitting from French language as a foundation of their schooling. Parents have been very enthusiastic about the prospect of giving their children the gift of another language, and with it, a broader world view and increased opportunities to be players in our global community.

As any language educator can tell you, in order to become fluent, the earlier a language is acquired, the greater the the degree of fluency one can attain. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (or ACTFL, the national body that advises the U.S. Department of Education) states in its position statement that:

Learning languages should be a central part of the curriculum at all levels of instruction, from young learners through graduate school and adults (Pre-K through 20).

ACTFL further states that

Research corroborates additional benefits [of early language learning experience] including strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences.  (From ACTFL Position Statements, Updated 2011)

During this era of global economic upheaval, when the jobless and worried find their universe closing in on them, it is refreshing and encouraging to find members of the world community who are taking the long view, working to strengthen ties of language, culture, and common understanding that will endure when the current crisis has passed.

To read more about New York’s French schools, click on the “Schools” tab in New York in French (a French cultural website linked to the French Embassy), or read Monica Burton’s article in NYU’s Shoe Leather Magazine: A Language en Vogue: As French loses its place in U.S. public schools, in New York City it thrives.