Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Learning

Half-baked writing

If I remember correctly, this happened 40 years ago when we moved into our house in Fullarton, Ontario. This was before the days of 220 volt plugs, I had to hard-wire the kitchen stove. Then wed put a couple of frozen pizzas into the oven to feed those who helped us move.

Pretty soon we were all sitting down, chatting and waiting for the pizzas to cook. It seemed to take a long time. I checked the oven; it was only warm. What was wrong?

I flipped the breaker, pulled the stove out, looked at the connections and decided I had fastened the wires to the wrong terminals. I unscrewed the clamps, switched the wires around, tightened the clamps, pushed the stove back into place and turned the breaker on. The aroma of cooking pizza wafted from the oven and soon we could have our lunch, just a little later than planned.

Well, I never pretended to be an electrician. I do pretend, however, to be a writer, though still in the learning stage. Half-baked writing has no more appeal to me than tepid pizza, and I’m sure readers feel the same. That’s why I am still studying how to get the connections right in my writing so that the story flows as it should.

But they don’t speak the same French!

I don’t know how many times I have been told that there is no point in trying to learn French. You see, they say, the French spoken in Québec is so different from the French spoken in France that they cannot understand one another. If you study Parisian French in school, people in Québec won’t understand a word you say. For proof, they may recount some story from years ago of a group of students from Saskatchewan who had studied French in school and then visited Québec with their teacher. They couldn’t understand a word that was spoken by Quebeckers and the Quebeckers could not understand them.

There you have it, irrefutable proof that it is no use trying to learn French. A large number of English Canadians have been told this so often that they know it is true beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Permit me to introduce some doubts. If such a language barrier exists, why are there plane loads of people going back and forth between France and Québec every day? Entertainers, politicians, tourists, all kinds of people, they don’t seem to have any difficulty understanding or being understood. Why is it that immigrants from France, Belgium, Switzerland, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroun, Congo and many other Francophone countries, have no problem living and working with the French-speaking people of Canada?

I took French for five years, grades 8 to 12, in a small town school here in Saskatchewan. I did not learn to speak French, nor to read it. I could understand a few words of what was said on French language radio, but I was nowhere close to being able to speak it. That takes a lot more than a couple of hours a week studying the basics of French. Years later, when I became more serious about learning French, I found that some of those basics had stuck with me.

A teacher cannot just pour French into the brain of a student, that student has to be able to practice as he learns. That is why French immersion works. Students are taught all subjects in French, except English. They speak French in the lunch room and on the playground. When they graduate, they are able to communicate freely in French in any situation.

By the way, studies show that students who learn to be bilingual do better in English and all other subjects than those who speak only English. Learning a new language appears to wake up areas of the brain that we might not otherwise use.

Seeing French as a Bridge

Some languages are walls, some are artefacts, a few are bridges. A language used only by one tribe or ethnic group is useful for communication within that group, but it is also a wall that prevents communication with, and assimilation by, another group.

Some languages are no longer in daily use but are studied as artefacts for understanding and preserving a heritage. Examples are Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Michif in Saskatchewan. (Michif, a blend of French and Cree, was once widely spoken by the Métis people.)

A member of one tribe wishing to communicate with members of another must either learn their tribal language or yet another language which can serve as a bridge between many tribes. For example, Kiswahili, a blend of Bantu tribal languages and Arabic, is spoken in many East African countries.

There are two world-wide bridge languages, English and French, spoken on every continent and learned as a second language by people in almost every country of the world. I assume that readers of this blog know quite a bit about English, but perhaps not a lot about French as a bridge language.

A generation or two ago it appeared that French in Saskatchewan was on the verge of extinction. It was only in the 1980’s that it became possible to establish French language schools. French immersion schools began in the 1990’s. Today the Conseil des écoles fransaskoises operates 15 schools in communities across the province. These are open to children from homes where at least one parent speaks French. In addition, there are 85 French immersion schools, for children with no prior knowledge of French. Enrolment in these schools is increasing every year.

Non French-speaking parents see French as a bridge to new opportunities for their children. Among those parents are many of Hispanic and Asian descent. French-language radio and TV is available everywhere, the internet gives access to unlimited French-language resources.

The last census showed that there are 750,000 people in the four western provinces of Canada who consider themselves fluent in French. Not all are people of French ancestry. On several occasions a few years ago I dropped in on meetings of a French Toastmasters Club in Saskatoon while my wife was at medical appointments. The secretary of the club at that time was a young lady whose last name was Reddekopp.

The situation in Louisiana is much like Saskatchewan 25 years ago. After trying to suppress French for many years, the state has decided to celebrate its French heritage. There are now French-language schools and French immersion schools. The state has placed billboards at entry points proclaiming Bienveue en Louisiane, and joined the international Francophonie organisation. The state of Maine is making tentative steps to encourage the learning of French.

There are currently 300 million French-speaking people in the world and it is estimated that by 2050 there will be 500 million. The Church of God in Christ, Mennonite has congregations and/or missions in seven of the French-speaking countries of Africa.

Personally, I feel there are two reasons for Anabaptist/Mennonite Christians to be interested in French. We are accustomed to dating the history of our faith from the activities of Dutch and German speaking people in the 16th century. But for a millennium prior to that the heartland of Anabaptist Christianity was found in the south of France and among the French-speaking people in the Alpine valleys. Much of that history was obscured by intense persecution, but I feel it is worth investigating and attempting to sort out the true from the false that history books tell us of those times. The second reason is that there are so many French-speaking people throughout the world who need to hear the gospel in a purer form than what is being told by many evangelists today.

Not too young to learn

Do you think your little child is too young to be taught important lessons? She is learning all the time, even when she doesn’t appear to be paying attention. Consider this item that appeared in the newspaper 25 years ago when we were living in Montreal.

A diabetic mother was worried what would happen if she fell into a diabetic coma while her husband was at work. She tried to teach her three year old daughter how to call 911 for help. She explained and demonstrated several times, but the little girl didn’t appear to comprehend and the mother decided she was just too young.

One day it happened. The mother lost consciousness. The little girl tried to awaken her, then went to the phone, picked up the receiver and pushed the buttons 9-1-1. When someone answered she said “Bobo maman, bobo maman” (Mommy owie, Mommy owie). Then she set the receiver down, unlocked the front door and stood by the window to wait for help to arrive.

First came a police car, then a fire engine and then an ambulance. All with personnel trained to help in such emergencies. One of them called the father, but by the time he arrived home his wife was awake and recovered. Thanks to a little girl who really was listening.

You don’t know what you don’t know

There’s a deep meaning in that short statement, but if you’ve never heard it before it probably sounds like childish babbling. Let me unpack it for you. What this statement tells me is that if I don’t know something, I don’t even know that there is a gap in my knowledge.

Like the time when I was learning French grammar and we got to the subjunctive mood. It made no sense to me, there is nothing like it in English but it seemed terribly important in French. My head hurt for weeks as I struggled to grasp the significance of this foreign way of speech. One day the fog and the cobwebs disappeared from my brain, at least from one little corner of my brain, and I understood the subjunctive mood.

And I realized that it was not foreign to English. I’d been hearing it, reading it, using it most of my life since I learned to speak, without knowing it. Every tine I said “Have a good day,” or “If I were in your shoes,” I was using the subjunctive. The Bible is stuffed with examples, from the third verse of the Bible when God said “Let there be light,” to the Lord’s prayer, which begins with “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” It is a means of expressing a wish. Back in Genesis, whenever God expressed a wish it instantly became reality.

There is a difference in the way dogs and cats communicate. When a dog wags his tail, he’s saying “Let’s be friends.” When a cat’s tail makes similar motions, she is getting ready to pounce on something. Therein lies the potential of a lifelong crisis of communication.

Even a simple word like college can be the source of miscommunication. When people in the US speak of a college education, they mean what we in Canada call a university education. In Canada a college provides post-secondary vocational or general education that does not lead to a degree. And in France, where the word originated, college is middle school, coming between elementary school and the lycée, or high school.

In our own country we assume that everyone else has the same set of references for understanding words, gestures and actions that we do. When people of a different background react to our words or actions in unexpected ways, we tend to think they are a bit daft. They probably think the same of us.

Most likely the real problem is that we don’t know that we don’t know. If we can open our minds to that thought, we can receive new information to stretch our minds and make us better able to understand other people.

The sad state of education in Canada in 1953

The bored “graduates” of elementary and high schools often are ignorant of things that they might be expected to know, and they do not care to learn. They lack an object in life, they are unaware of the joy of achievement. They cannot read, write or think. They can often type, but too often they cannot construct a grammatical sentence. They can emit platitudes, but they can neither explain nor defend them. They are as incapable of logic as they are ignorant of its name. Yet they are not stupid, or ill-intentioned or incurably indifferent to what they have never learned to call their duty. They are only ignorant, lazy and unaware of the exciting demands of a society from which they have been carefully isolated.

From So little for the Mind, by Hilda Neatby, copyright 1953 by Clarke, Irwin, Toronto.

Hilda Neatby was educated at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Minnesota and the University of Paris. She taught at the University of Saskatchewan and was head of the History department from 1958 to 1969.

The writing comes first

Self-publishing platforms and print on demand services have made it possible for every one of us to write and publish a book. easily and inexpensively. There are more books being published today than ever before; most of them sell about 100 copies. Those of us who aspire to do better than that are told that we have to put as much effort into marketing our book as we did in writing it. We need to make ourselves visible on all the social media platforms, use every marketing tool to get our books noticed.

Maybe that’s true. But Rejean Ducharme did none of that and his books flew off the shelves all over the French-speaking world. He never made public appearances, never gave interviews, only two photographs exist of him, from his younger years. He lived as an ordinary guy in Montreal, his friends and family respected his wishes and never talked about him to the media. When he was awarded literary prizes, his wife was the one who attended the events on his behalf. When publishers in Quebec rejected his manuscripts, he sent the manuscripts for three novels to Gallimard in Paris. They bought all three, published the first one in 1966 and published all his novels from that time on.

I confess that I have not read any of his books. Evidently he had fun with words, but that in itself would not sell a lot of books. The real key to his success, from all that I read about his books, is that his characters mirrored the aspirations, disappointments and experiences that make up the daily lives of the readers.

All the stories have already been written. We cannot come up with a unique plot that has not already been used by writers like Dickens, Dostoevsky and Dumas. What we have to do is write those stories in a way that lets the reader see something that they have never seen in quite that way before. The characters must not be wooden props to illustrate our narrative. The characters are the story, the reader must be able to experience their hopes, joys, sorrows, frustrations, defeats and victories.

Writing a believable story is not an abstract, theoretical exercise. Writers have described their work as bleeding onto the paper, or undressing in public. If we can delve into our experiences, the painful ones, the ones we never wanted anyone to know about, and weave them into our story, readers will find their own deep feelings compel them to continue reading. If our goal in writing is to help others, we cannot draw a privacy curtain around the things we are ashamed of in our own past. Whether we are writing memoir or fiction, the writing must flow from the heart to touch the reader’s heart.

Perhaps we do live in an era that requires writers to put more effort into marketing. But no amount of marketing is going to sell a dead horse; first we must ensure that the horse is alive.

Fraudulent calls from the Service Canada legal department

If you live in Canada, you need no explanation of that headline. We get those calls several times a week, up to three times in one day. The call display on our phone shows a different number each time, often what appears to be a local number. When we answer, we hear a message that our Social Insurance Number has been detected being used for fraudulent purposes and a warrant has been issued for our arrest. We are urged to press a button to speak to a supervisor to resolve the problem and avoid dire consequences.

Image by Sammy-Williams from Pixabay 

For people outside of Canada, Service Canada is the government agency that administers programs such as Employment Insurance, Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan, the Canada Child Benefit, etc. Each Canadian is issued a nine digit Social Insurance Number (SIN) to identify ourselves for these programs. Employers need to know our SIN, because they have to make deductions from our paycheque for Employment Insurance and Canada Pension Plan. Financial institutions from which we receive interest or investment income need to know our SIN in order to report those income amounts to the government. We are not required to provide our SIN to any other organisation, though it is not illegal for them to ask for it.

Most of us know that these calls purporting to come from the legal department of Service Canada are fraudulent. After receiving enough such calls, we hang up as soon as we recognize the familiar voice. Yet over the past three months the people behind this fraud have succeeded in defrauding 779 individuals of a total $1.5 million. These are almost exclusively vulnerable people such as the elderly who tend to believe anyone sounding official, or newcomers to Canada who do not realize that no government department would demand money in such a way.

Tristan Péloquin, a reporter from the Montreal French-language daily la Presse, recently followed the instructions given by the fraudulent caller to be able to tell how it works. If you read French, his article is here. He was told that 25 bank accounts had been opened using his SIN and all were being used for illegal purposes. When he denied having anything to do with such accounts, he was told that his SIN number would be cancelled and a new one issued. But first he would have to withdraw all his money from his bank account, or accounts, place the money in a special holding account and close those accounts. He would then be able to open a new account using the new SIN and transfer the money to that account. Unfortunately, that holding account was a bitcoin account and if he would have followed through the money would have been gone without any means of tracing it.

According to the RCMP, these calls are coming from India and they are working with the police in India. It is complicated and slow work when the fraud is committed in one country and the perpetrators are in a different country. In 2018 they succeeded in getting several fraudulent call centres in India closed and 45 people arrested. No doubt they will eventually succeed this time also, but the fraud is lucrative enough that others will start up using a slightly different line.

Phone companies are working on technology to block these calls. That is complicated when the fraudsters have the means to spoof numbers that appear to be local and keep on changing them. Mr. Péloquin reports that Telus is offering an ingenious option. When a call comes from an unfamiliar number, the caller gets a message asking them to press one additional number on the keypad, any number. A call coming from a robotic dialling device cannot do this and the call aborts. A live caller pushes a number and the call goes through.

Most people are discerning enough not to bite on such threatening phone calls, or on emails offering free gift cards from Canada Post or Walmart. Those emails are trying to obtain personal information for fraudulent purposes. But there are enough people who do not have such an internal warning system to make these scams profitable. I am thankful for news reports like the one in la Presse that help to reduce the number of people vulnerable to such frauds.

A renewed commitment to writing well

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Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

I have always thought of myself as a writer, one who would get serious about writing at some moment in the future. If reading is part of the training for becoming an effective writer , then I have been in training all my life. One cannot learn to write effectively without noting how and why some people’s writing catches your attention and draws you in; and how you mind wanders to other things when trying to read the words of others.

I feel that the moment to get serious about writing has come, and the place to start is to pull up the memoir of my faith journey and put it through the refining fire. If I were to publish it as it is now it would probably sell a couple hundred copies to people who know me or know a little bit about me. That’s nice, but the real test of writing is whether it is interesting to people who know nothing about me.

Here are some thoughts on writing well that I am putting down as an aide-memoire to myself. I hope others might find something here to consider.

1. Forget the Sergeant Joe Friday approach: “Just the facts ma’am, just the facts.” That may have been an effective police interview technique 70 years ago, but it doesn’t work in story writing. Not even when writing my own story. I know the story, I’ve lived it, I remember it because it had an impact on my life. How can I make it grab the attention of a reader who knows nothing about me and make him care about the outcome?

2. Don’t preach, don’t moralize, don’t explain. Let the story tell the story. Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster are two short books by British authors that make us think about our relationships with others. They are not Christian books, they don’t spell out any moral instruction, yet the messages are powerful.

3. Use simple words. A word with a single syllable is more powerful than one with six. Two adjectives to a noun cancel each other. Most adjectives and adverbs do more harm than good.

4. Eliminate jargon: Christian jargon or anything that is only understood by a certain group of people. It’s OK to use a little in dialogue to paint a picture of the character, but go easy.

5. Master the language you are writing in. Don’t use a word unless you are 100% sure of its meaning.

6. Respect the people you write about, whether real or fictional. Some of the people who appear in my memoir have made deplorable choices. That’s real life. People make choices that lead to unfortunate consequences and most don’t find their way home. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, or evil.

Another blind lady

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Rose Goodenough, widow of my cousin Ron, has written the history of her family and the community at Barrier Ford, Saskatchewan. Her parents were born in England, to families who lived comfortably, but were not wealthy. They thought to better their lot by coming to the Canadian prairies where free land was being offered.

Rose’s father, Fred Ham, was born in Devonshire in the 1880’s. He had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart. His parents were told that he would never be able to do heavy work. Nevertheless, he and his brothers came to Canada in 1910. Fred filed on a homestead at Barrier Ford in 1911 and worked hard all his life trying to make a living from the rocky soil in the bush country.

Eva Brown was born in London in 1890 with no vision in one eye and limited vision in the other. She received most of her education in a residential school for the blind, where she learned how to read and write with the braille system. She also learned to type, to weave and many other useful skills. Her mother, then a widow with two daughters, came to Canada in 1913.

In 1915 Fred and Eva married and this unlikely couple made a hard scrabble living, raised two children and came to love the country. By the time she married, Eva had 10% vision in one eye. Yet she managed to cook, sew, care for the two children and even milk their two cows.

I got to know Eva Ham in my childhood when we lived at Craik, Saskatchewan. Ron & Rose owned a grocery store and lived above the store. Rose’s Mom lived with them, having a couple of rooms of her own, including space for her loom. She was a sweet lady and got along well with my mother. I watched her read braille, write letters with a little frame and a punch to make the dots. I saw some of the letters she typed. Completely blind by that time, she said she could tell the difference between a window and a wall, she made very few mistakes when typing.

In 1954 she wrote an autobiographical sketch for a magazine for the blind. Here are a few excepts:

“I was almost eleven when I started to learn braille. Our teacher, a graduate of the Royal Normal College, was one of the finest Christian women I have ever known and had a lasting influence on us all. I had been rather spoiled at home and was not a ‘nice little girl.’ I remember my teacher calling me to her during the recess and kindly pointing out some of my shortcomings.”

After arriving in Saskatchewan: “Like all the English in those days, I had the notion there were no people as cultured as my countrymen. I felt myself superior to the neighbours who visited my uncle and I made up my mind to go home at the very first opportunity.”

Many years later: “Living in a mixed community, constantly coming into contact with people of different nationalities and creeds, has taught me that there are others just as cultivated as the English. I have learned to appreciate the views of different races and to acknowledge my own shortcomings. In my contacts with people I have found blindness to be an inconvenience and a handicap. Combined with deafness it is more serious – it is a double handicap. But even this double handicap can be overcome through developing patience and a good sense of humour, and through friendly co-operation with the many seeing and hearing friends who are always ready to lend a helping hand.”

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