In The Heart of an Artichoke: A Dialogue à Deux About French Language, Literature, and Life, Linda Phillips Ashour and Claire Lerognon help readers reawaken their love of French and the joy of learning.
Lively exchanges between teacher (Lerognon) and student (Phillips Ashour) range from task-based methods to a piecemeal approach that provides an alternative to classroom instruction. Peeling back the leaves of the artichoke, the authors uncover the true heart of language learning: a lifelong activity grounded not in textbooks but in human interaction. In a transcontinental Zoom session, we asked the authors about the book, starting with the playful and suggestive title.
Why an artichoke?
L: Claire and I bandied about a few potential titles for our dialogue though none of them felt quite right for an exchange that was steadily becoming a book. One evening I was trimming the tips from a mound of baby artichokes in preparation for a recipe that didn’t seem quite right either. I hadn’t eaten them this way in France or in Oklahoma, where I had first been introduced to their giant cousins. It took a circuitous Google search to discover the French maxim I believed to be the essence of our enterprise. “Cœur d’artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde.” The heart of an artichoke, big or petit, with a single leaf for everyone seemed thoroughly appropriate for our enterprise. One big question remained — would Claire go for this idea?
C: Once I was able to get past the fickle heart — one idiomatic meaning of cœur d’artichaut — I did love the idea. Prickly paths leading to smooth, buttery hearts ? In a certain way, artichokes indeed embody learning.
How did you come to know each other?
L: A friend of mine in New York, knowing of my attachment to the French language and culture after having lived in the South of France for several years, invited me to join a group of eager learners that was just getting off the ground. Before long five French enthusiasts were meeting monthly at The Carlyle Hotel to read and discuss French literature. With Claire as our teacher and facilitator, we lunched and learned for over a decade.
C: When a former colleague at the Lycée Français proposed that I facilitate these meetings I had no idea what I was in for.
L: Were we that challenging?
C: In the best sense of the term. You each had different aptitudes, tastes, and enthusiasms. Discovering our common ground meant a lot of improvisation and literary exploration until a plunge into grammar sealed the deal. What held this group of dedicated Francophiles together and fascinated me as a teacher was the intensity of our curiosity for the French language et ses rouages.
How did the idea of the book come to you?
L: Conversations that began at The Carlyle rarely ended there. It was fun to tease out a nuance about the book we’d read for our meeting and hadn’t had time to fully explore on the way home. Claire’s patience for my endless questions about a fine point of grammar and her own curiosity suggested a different form of dialogue was in store for the two of us. That walking and talking our way through Central Park would one day be replaced by lengthy long-distance phone calls wasn’t even a notion.
C: The book took a clearer shape when our conversations gradually led to the notion of fluency and what it meant — and required — to be able to “flow.” Linda’s idea of fluency was initially about grammar and it took hard work to convince her otherwise, unsurprisingly so. That grammar is the end-all in acquiring or enhancing communication skills is a belief well ingrained among learners — one we progressively demystify in the first part of the book.
Well, if it’s not grammar, what is it?
L: I’m still dazzled by flawless conjugation and impeccable sentence construction, but Claire has convinced me that there’s much more to effective communication than rules of language.
C: And more to being a fluent learner, which is exactly what our book is about — once pragmatic and intercultural skills are given the place they deserve.
How do you put this in motion?
C: Whether we’re discussing books or movies we’ve loved, we embrace the kind of learning embedded in tasks that catapult us into action. What we do with language matters much more than what we know about it.
L: My approach tends to be more piecemeal, a style I’ve adopted as an autonomous learner. I’m constantly falling for a new cultural export from France, be it a podcast or radio program that I can’t live without or a television program that has me falling for the language in fresh ways.
How did you come up with the book’s design?
C: Linda’s sister-in-law produced the superb cover art. Inserting boxes to highlight our digressions (personal stories, comments, cultural references … sparked by the topic discussed) was a stroke of genius.
L: The boxes were also a handy way to manage our enthusiasms. And a way to insert my constant interruptions.
What would you like to leave readers with?
L: A sense of possibility. Who could have foreseen a worldwide pandemic capable of bringing the world to a halt? France Inter, among other things, quickly became a daily staple. Rapid-fire radio dialogue presented a brand new challenge, as long as I didn’t give in to despair over words or phrases I couldn’t catch as they rushed by. I’ve spent the last two years largely listening to French, rather than speaking it, something that will be abundantly clear if I try to revive my côté pipelette. I remain more convinced than ever that blunders can be beautiful if treated as an opportunity to improve or, in my case, to get back in the groove. I’m eager to see what shape my engagement with French takes in the future — and how it shapes me.
C: Je rejoins Linda and will add a personal touch to her sound encouragement. Our artichoke tested my commitment to task-based learning in ways I could never have anticipated. More than writing in a foreign language, it was also writing music: literary language has a melody of its own and I spent long and often exhausting weekends searching for it. To hear my own voice considerably empowered and freed my learning. Language began to move and to take me with it — and what a trip that was. My sincere hope is that our readers will let French surprise them as well.
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