How English Majors Read

Seldom is the case that an English major can’t or *gasp* doesn’t want to read something. Whether it be an old “Classic” (Jane Austen anyone?), the purpose of the lighting in a scene, a situation, the list goes on. I’m not using the verb read here, I mean something deeper, what picks at an English majors brain as they’re analyzing without even realizing it. But, how do we take in what we are reading? What does it mean when our favorite characters speak a witty line about their sensibility to a dangerous situation? Here is what it means to read like an English major.

Dictionary, reference, you name it

I’ve heard of readers who skip over words they don’t know or haven’t heard of before. My question to those who do this is Why? Every word the author placed on the page in front of you is there for a reason and sometimes translated to your native language since the book is praised. Even if it’s just to find out you already know the word, just the modern version, at least know you’ll know that when it shows up in another chapter. Something we do as humans, sometimes unconsciously, is judge a book not by its cover but first page. An author choses to showcase this first sentence and page right after the cover you found pleasing and they will invest you or lose you in their ambiguity. In other words, the first page must contain words that grip the reader like “The baby is dead” (The Perfect Nanny: A Novel) and “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” (The Sun Also Rises). Knowing whats going on in this first sentence could help the next time a book almost goes on your never read list.

Looking up words either with a phone dictionary app or a real one, whatever your preference, applies to the rest of a book too. This especially applies when reading a book from a time or region you’re unfamiliar with such as Wuthering Heights and its gothic setting filled with the class of the 19th century. Since its written by a British author and based in England, some words are spelled with an extra letter such as “colour”, but there are also many older words borrowed from French. One of my favorites is the term: sultry. This word heavily depends on context and either means you’re describing a hot day on the picturesque moors of England, or someone who appears to give you the hots, so to speak. This is just one example, but doing your research saves you from having a perplexed countenance during a reading session.

Time periods and cannons

When a book was written matters, this refers to more than the literal release date, a work comes in part from the author’s place in time, if they had status or not, you get the idea. A book where characters tend to emphasize their feelings rather than what they’re thinking, as opposed to, long dialogues debating life’s purpose shows a characteristic of what time period the work was written. Don’t even get me started on the cutting edge Postmodern movement. My own words don’t do it justice, pretty much the movement goes against everything books have been about until now, meaning it breaks apart logic and praise for humans and technology.  Movements such as this one, which form the literary cannon, help a reader identify common themes from the time period, and in turn, better understand what the work says about either the characters or the world around them.

My favorite example of cannon is 20th century literature where psychology enters books of all kinds slowly but surely. This is seen in thoughtful descriptions of what a character is worried about and the developing world around them. “The Great Gatsby” is able to feel disconnected from the world as the world figured out there is something going on in the human mind.

One final example, Contemporary Poetry where the exuberant amount of blank space on the page lets the reader think about what they’re reading. As technology ever advances and everyone is in such a hurry, there may be less time for reading lengthy texts. This leads to an emphasis on the blank space around a simple three line “love” poem.  Simple poetry of this kind may disguise itself a commentary on technology, politics, you name it when seen by an English major with an analytic background.  

Adaptations

If you’re like me, then you have a love/hate relationship when it comes to adaptations. This is especially the case when there is a waiting period of X amount of years for the tv/movie series to come out. After such a waiting period, we hope the final product is a well formed bonsai tree opposed to a wilted mess. One good yet faithful adaptation was the Hulu mini series of the John Green’s popular young adult novel “Looking for Alaska” which I can spend a whole other blog praising, teenage angst showed well in both novel and series. Anyways, what I’m saying is  English majors and dedicated readers alike scan these characters and plot they recall finding relatable. brought to life by actors and writers for consistency. This isn’t to say changes aren’t welcome since they’re usually necessary, a side character or plot may be switched for one better suited for the production. But it can be disappointing when elements such as the setting are not the well crafted Chicago or Panem pictured in our minds. To be clear on this, Divergent was the failed adaptation while Hunger Games captured the struggling societies excellently.  

Obviously filmmakers can’t bring everything to screen considering the adaptation needs to make money and be available to a wide audience. This is disappointing for certain books where huge points serve a purpose only to be rendered taboo. A key example of this is in the film Winter’s Bone where Jennifer Lawrence acts as a strong female protagonist who gets caught up in drugs and a gang war because of her Dad’s history in drug wars. I won’t spoil it as you really have to see and jopefully read it yourself but the book contains an explicit sexual assault scene that is not present in the film. Awful, yes, but it leads to a stronger win when she makes it through and has to overcome it. The author is crafty as well because I missed the assault on my first read as it is between the lines, much like the conversation gets shushed sometimes in real life. Film/TV fills gaps left in certain books where there was an indescribable piece missing.  Using Winter’s Bone again, Jennifer Lawrence brings more life to the film’s rendition of Ree compared to Woodrell’s version. We see a woman willing to fight for the little family she has left by using any strength within her reach unlike the more passive Ree from the book.

Avid readers, especially English majors, love adaptations; they show our beloved characters come to life just as we pictured them hopefully. The fine line between too graphic and subtle enough for consumption bogs them down sometimes. I guess that’s what the book is there for as long as they don’t become censored. Yes the book may bring something up we don’t want to hear, but maybe that’s exactly why it was written.

Other mediums

While visiting my family for a weekend, my mom, my fiancé and I watched the pilot for the Amazon original “Hunters”. A quick rundown of the show is the war between fascist Nazis and Jewish people has not ended in the modern day. This leads to the central character, a young Jewish man, finding a resistance group of Jewish people and joining to get revenge. In this episode, the opening scene caught my attention as it threw the viewer off guard. The viewer sees a colorful summer barbecue with a pool of the clearest blue ruined by a murderous man later known to be part of the Nazi group. What should be a happy scene given the bright colors and outfits on the random characters unexpectedly turns into a bloody massacre. I asked my fiancé if she noticed this and she commented that she didn’t until I pointed it out. Maybe English majors read television scenes too.  I think it helped that I had read enough Dean Koontz to never trust a beautiful setting.

There are other shows with creators who try to be clever by recalling books/themes that a viewer is familiar with. One is ”The Walking Dead” series, which I’m a huge fan of, and its dull at best spin off, “Fear the Walking Dead.” A literary reference appears in episode 5×10 “210 words per minute”  focuses on a new character Grace who enjoys listening to audio books at two times the speed. Where this becomes important is while in the middle of saving a survivor at an abandoned mall, she finds a copy of the classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities”. It’s a novel written by Charles Dickens about a time of high tensions in both London and France preceding the French Revolution. Now, I understand that in a zombie show there of course “best” and “worst” times mentioned in the first line of Dicken’s novel. However, by this point in the shows course, its rare that anything remotely bad happens to the characters. It’s a reference, while famous, it doesn’t add a connection to the plot or the characters as much as it shows the writers started looking up other source material than their own.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading. I hope this gave a little insight to what English majors and book lovers find in the act of reading and even in other medias as well. My next blog is going to be a review of a French Netflix original to switch back to my French major roots.  

What a French Major Studies

Hello everyone! It has literally been a year since my first post and I remembered I started this blog as the annual charge went through! I’m making the same promise of posting every week to myself again. As I really have no excuse since a bunch of free time opened up, thanks quarantine. So let’s see what French classes taught me in undergrad!

Parlez-Vous Francais? ; Tell me something in French

If you study a language, or anything in higher education, there’s the old routine of questions friends (but especially family) bring up. They expect you to be an expert in such a small time frame considering the classes are a couple of days a week. Here’s just a couple of examples of these questions.

So what are these questions specifically?

  • “You speak insert language fluently then?”
  • “When are you/have you studied abroad insert country?”
  • “How are you going to use the language?”
  • “What do you like/dislike about it?”

The questioning doesn’t frustrate me as much as it just left me as flustered as any college student defending their choice of major. Now if we’re talking job interviews or presentations, then I should be prepared to have a good “why”. Mine isn’t too deep, I just wanted to be able to read more and see where French literature crosses over thematically with English based overtime. Maybe one day my “why” will change once I have a better answer regarding fluency and traveling abroad once I make a trip.

While the first two questions are more difficult, this is also because they are closed questions with a yes or no answer. I prefer the later questions as they allow a freer conversation about what makes a language like French fascinating to me. Whether then if I have made it useful enough for conversation by developing a fluency. They’re also more interesting to answer as I can pull from my knowledge of a specific word that can’t be translated properly, looking at you “grandeur“. The content of my French classes also better prepared me for this type of question as we will now see.

Ouvrez vos livres; Hitting the books

What are French classes actually? It’s not a constant hour of speaking back and forth about food and books. But it also isn’t reading books with pretentious titles and subtle plot points. More of a fine line in between.

French Conversation, you hear the name of this class and think okay maybe we’ll learn how to discuss a bunch of topics. Food, books, the newest Weeknd album, things you’d discuss in your native language. I hated the fact that I was wrong more and more every week for twice a week when the professor had the authority to limit the class to her choice of topic: movies. Instead of learning vocab and role-playing like the introductory coursework, we watched films and had to be prepared before class through our research and writing to discuss them. This left my speaking fluency faltering even in class because there were only so many words to discuss a film especially when we watched two of the same genre. Next, we’ll discuss one other class where my speaking was not one hundred percent.

French literature, the higher level you take as a junior/senior exposed me to some of the most beautiful prose and poetry I’ve ever read. It was mostly reading and writing as this was the only way our professors could accurately test us. We still had oral discussions of the assigned readings but these turned into a competition of words. It’s hard enough presenting your analysis of a book in your native language and doing so in French required stringing together the grammar and right words in your head fast enough. Think of when a scrabble table is filled with all the words you know while you’re running out of useful letters. I found after three or more students made their points that it was hard to come up with a new sentence or idea. I’m prepared now to speak maybe one or two points on a formal book such as Hugo’s poetry, but not in modern terms or slang since the classes were formal.

My skills from the years in the unexpected challenge of lots of reading and relying on word reference “qui me sauve la vie”. I know the right reference sites, to watch shows in the language no subtitles, and even forums to discuss with others. Although I can’t call myself fluent as I was during my finals exams, its fun to dive into French culture and other places to see what I can retain outside the English barrier.

Bon Voyage ; Travel Difficulties

Of course, I desired the experience of studying abroad; the thought of practicing my French while surrounded by works of art and delicious cheese was always at the back of my mind. Finances stopped me once I realized the number of student loans I already racked up from undergrad and still desired to go to grad school after a gap year. Add on top of these things the extra costs of the flights and passport fees, my part-time student job wasn’t going to help me enough.

The new goal is to save money to travel on my own in the future after keeping up with French on my own. It isn’t immersing yourself around the language on a 24-hour basis, however, UNR does its best by having all third and fourth-year classes conducted entirely in French. Students cannot use English at all making it rewarding when you figure out another way to say the sentence you’ve had stuck in your head. No, it isn’t Lyon, but I’m still grateful for the classes I’ve taken that allowed me an experience immersed in the language regardless of dismissing a semester abroad.

Another conundrum in the plan was the required profinecy tests which ensure you’re ready for high-level courses outside the US. This includes oral, reading, and writing with higher score requirements depending on the classes you plan on taking. I considered it was too late for me after three years of French focused on written exams with enough student loans stacked up from housing and my other major. UNR has a renowned study abroad program which I’ve heard numerous great things about from my classmates don’t get me wrong, but the logistics of my situation lead me to decide I’d travel a year after graduating, maybe more delayed now.

Grandeur Dans La Langue; Language’s greatness

Another misconception of language studies is that the student learns how the language is spoken contemporarily and natively. Some probably know this already, but there are several dialects especially in romance languages and any language outside English. Dialectsrefer to variations in a language depending on the degree of formality or region for example along with different forms which include alternative vocab, grammar, etc. Examples in English seldom come up because they are with specific words and vowel pronunciations depending on where you’re from. Soda vs pop and sandwich vs sub, to name a couple.

The French I studied didn’t always transmit directly to the real world/native country. We didn’t learn slang and some words have more formal uses mainly found in older 17th or 18th-century literary works. Professors warn us that not every grammar structure (seriously there’s a lot), is spoken. An easier way is to avoid using formal tenses like the subjunctive employing substitution with another word or phrase whenever possible. This means that while a French major conjugates for every verb tense a ridiculous amount of time, they don’t know how to say the words “guy” and “bitch” translated to “mec” and “putain” informally. Seriously, context changes the meanings of words in all registers depending on who is dancing (danser) or what is being tasted (gouter).

French ER verbs
https://lingvist.com/course/learn-french-online/resources/er-verbs-french/

One more takeaway from the variations in slang, pronunciation, and other structures in foreign languages is the importance of listening and being open. Sure you may not understand the language someone is speaking, but I found this applies to English as well. We may disregard others when their word choice or descriptions sound unlike how we would say it. Naturally, we learn to speak the same way as those around us growing up meaning our families and hometowns. This doesn’t mean someone’s ungrammatical account of the quarantine, for example, is wrong as much as you may not understand what they’re saying.

Fin; Final thoughts

I’ve loved my French classes despite not studying abroad or speaking the same way they do in Paris. The small class sizes, the energy the professors bring to every class until finals week, and the beautiful language of course. Although I can’t say I’m a fluent speaker, I know that I made the right choice when I changed my minor to a major.

Thank you for reading if you made it to the this far! Next week, I’ll be switching back to my experience as an English major. I’m thinking of covering “how English majors read” not in the literal sense of course. So be on the lookout for that.

What Linguistic Majors Really Study

I’m asked often what I study as a linguistics major and usually this comes in the form of a question such as the following: You study a bunch of different languages then right? How many do you know? The answer is complicated, technically my classes expose me to many languages, however, I cannot say I know or can translate languages besides English. If you read on from here, the question should be answered, or at least linguistics may make a bit more sense to you than before.

Definition

A big misconception from linguistics is the notion that an undergrad learns how to translate/speak many languages. It’s not surprising considering the tendency for television and film to depict a linguist as an expert translator. Languages also shows up frequently in media as modern authors create their own languages unique to their universe such as Dothraki and Elvish. Linguistics in reality means the scientific study of a language. This includes its own topics like Syntax: how sentences are strung together in a language. Also, Phonology: the study of sounds along with their patterns in a language. So, I can say that I’ve encountered many languages as a linguistic major. But, I cannot speak or write them for you.

There is a great scene in a movie not talked about enough, in my opinion, titled Arrival. This scene explains a linguist’s job well in the sense that a language that is foreign to us still has the same general rules socially and grammatically regardless of the translation. 

Literature Coursework As Well

I also took some upper division literature to fulfill elective requirements towards my linguistic degree.  Literature majors earned my respect once I found out how  tough it is crafting new arguments for some of the most read texts, even though my courses were limited in number. The coursework was an adjustment for me at first since it involves weekly reading and writing as opposed to linguistics which focuses on exams and participation. My linguistic background wasn’t worthless once I took Chaucer where the required text was Middle English/Chaucer’s English version of The Canteburry Tales. Thanks to my linguistic background I picked up on the language’s structures quickly which made translations easier for me compared to my fellow classmates.

I even did some research to see if a linguistic background applies to literature and found yet another subtopic for linguistics devoted to this very issue. Click here to read more. Anyways, I’m saying not all linguistic majors only know linguistics; we also know how to identify a literary device or two, just ask!geoffrey-chaucers-masterpiece-10-728

Wrong major in retrospective (Looking at you, Phonology)

I changed my major to linguistics my Sophomore year because the variety of languages across time space still fascinates me today. However, phonology and sociolinguistics did not resonate with me (sound pun intended). These courses seemed interesting in the first couple of weeks, but quickly become an insufferable repetition of sound puzzles and failed studies. A more adequate description for both fields boils down to this; Phonology consisted of data set after data set with a hidden sound pattern in each one. Basically, we deal with puzzles using languages that you’ve never seen which have little incentive besides studying.

Sociolinguistics looks at language and how social factors affect it. I took language and gender as my sociolinguistics requirement where we learned through numerous studies that women and men do not speak as differently as hypothesized almost all of the time. This made the readings very dry and the research papers difficult to write given the lack of actually findings in the field. ipa

Conclusion

Therefore, I didn’t choose to be an English major because I like science which I didn’t really know linguistics was until the final classes described above. Studying literary works for a better understanding and then an analysis is much more pleasing to me. My time in the enjoyable linguistic requirements flew by until it was too late, but at least I took some French literature. To be continued in another post!

Authors note

IF you’ve read this far, thank you so much for reading! I hope this post provides you with a little bit of insight into what I and many others study when we say we are linguistic majors. It can definitely be confusing when its rarely mentioned or even majored in. Look out for my next weekly post which will more than likely be similar regarding what French majors study, yes I’m a double major with a minor as well (waiting for December when I’m finally done). Thanks again.