La santé :service public ?

L’ article de M. Ezra Klein « Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France ? » ( Washington Post 3 mars 2012 cliquez ici pour le lire) soulève des questions aussi fondamentales qu’intéressantes. Notant qu’en 2009, les dépenses de santé aux Etats-Unis se montaient à $ 7,960 par personne alors qu’en France elles n’étaient que de $ 3,978 par personne, au  Canada $4,808 et en Allemagne $4,218, il observe que si les dépense de santé américaines étaient au niveau des trois pays cités le déficit américain serait résorbé. Il attribue la différence aux prix pratiqués par les fournisseurs des services de santé qui cherchent à maximiser leur bénéfices.

Si l’analyse de M. Klein-et celles des économistes qu’il cite- est bonne, alors pourquoi ne devrait-on pas considérer que  la fourniture de services de santé est un service public qui devrait  rémunéré sur la base des coûts plu un profit garanti ? Vos commentaires seront les bienvenus.

Where else but in New York?

Wednesday,walking through Central Park with my friend Nicholas D. chatting merrily,if somewhat loudly,in French about the role of France in the concert of Nations  a lady ,looking remakably like the New York Public Library librarian in Ghostbusters, and,like her ,a librarian ,stops us ,apologizing profusely for the interruption ,to ask us in very good French,if in current usage a word such as « église » when capitalized should be written »Eglise » or « Église »!

Only in New York!

Valentine’s Day and the takeover of pagan festivals by the Church

The celebration of Valentine’s Day on February 14 provides us with an opportunity to think about the symbolism of the pagan festivals that were taken over by the Church.

Today, Valentine’s Day is the symbol of lovers, thus, indirectly, the symbol of fertility. According to tradition, Roman Emperor Claudius the Cruel had banned marriages amongst young people on the grounds that married young men were reluctant to enlist in the Roman army. Valentine, a Catholic priest, disobeyed the ban and continued to perform marriages amongst young people. Caught, and condemned by the prefect, he was sentenced to be beaten and beheaded. According to tradition, the sentence was carried out on February 14 of either year 270 or 278. In fact, the very serious Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that there were at least three St. Valentines all martyred on February 14 but in three different places!


In ancient Rome February 14 was right in the middle of the festival of the Lupercalia (February 13 – 15). This festival, marking the end of the Roman year, was a celebration of purification, health and fertility. It was celebrated in a cave, most likely situated at the foot of Palatine Hill, called the Lupercal in honor of Lupercus, god of shepherds. The ritual involved the sacrifice of a he-goat by priests clad in goatskins who then anointed two young men, of patrician families, by daubing them with the blood of the sacrificed goat whose skin was then cut up in strips. Upon washing away the sacrificial blood, the youths were to burst out laughing, dress in goatskins and then run, more or less naked, through the streets of Rome using the strips of goatskin to flagellate any woman desiring to bear child within the year!


The festival harked back to an even older ritual, one of spring cleaning called Februa, hence the name of the month of February. Thus, beyond purification, the ritual is also a rite of passage: the sacrifice in the cave is of course a symbol of death (remember the initiation rites in the Magic Flute) and the laughter outburst a symbol of resurrection while the he-goat symbolizes fertility.


In spite of the ban on pagan festivals in a Rome that had become largely Christian, the festival of Lupercalia continued to coexist with Christianity during several centuries. However, in the fifth century, Pope Gelasius the first (494 – 496) thought that, since the Lupercalia was at that time only observed by the rabble, the original purpose no longer warranted its continued existence. So, he decided to ban the Lupercalia, ordering its replacement by the feast of St. Valentine.


The setting of Christmas on December 25th is another example of appropriation of a pagan festival by the Church. The date was chosen to supplant the most important feast of the mithraic cult, that of sol invictus or Natalis invicti. The mithraic cult, widespread in Rome and in Asia Minor in the third and fourth centuries, celebrated by that festival the return of the sun triumphing over the winter night. In the Christian world, the setting of Christmas on December 25 occurred sometime during the fourth century. Pope Benedict XVI considers that it was natural to set Christmas on December 25 since it occurs nine months after the Annunciation! Given the number of Church Fathers who have thought that the relation between sol invictus and Christmas is established, we may wonder whether the date of March 25 for the Annunciation is itself either an arbitrary date or an exercise in bootstrapping: after having set Christmas at December 25 why not set the date of the Annunciation at March 25, nine months before!


Valentine’s Day and Christmas on not the only two Christian feasts that have supplanted pagan festivals. While there are numerous other examples, let us examine only two additional ones: Rogation Days and the feast of San John the Baptist.

The Rogation Days where instituted by the Church to appease God’s anger at man’s transgressions and to obtain bountiful harvests. In England, these days where known as “Gang Days » and “Cross Week », and in Germany as it Bittage, Bittwoche, Kreuzwoche. There were two Rogation Days: the Major Rogation Day on April 25 and the Minor Rogation Days which occurred during the three days preceding the feast of the Ascension. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Rogation Days « have been introduced to counteract the ancient Robigalia, on which the heathens held processions and supplications to their gods » for bountiful harvests and, in the case of Minor Rogation Days, for the avoidance of late frosts. In Rome, the Robigalia were held on the same days as the Major and Minor Rogations and the Major Rogation Day procession used the same itinerary in the city of Rome as did the supplanted pagan festival!


As a last example of appropriation, let us examine the one pagan festival that resisted for a very long time its supplantation by a Christian feast: the Scandinavian feast of the summer solstice on June 21. Today, the feast of St. John the Baptist on the same day has replaced it.


It is interesting, as well as enriching, to think back on the symbolism of the pagan festivals that have been supplanted by Christian feasts.


L’élection qui gêne l’UMP

Tel est le titre d’un récent article paru dans L’Express sur lequel une aimable lectrice a bien voulu attirer notre attention.

Au moment où les Français de l’Est des Etats-Unis s’apprêtent à voter, la lecture de cet article –cliquez ici pour le lire—incite à la réflexion.

Bilingualism: boon or bane?

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Guy Deutscher, author of « Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages », reviewed the current state of research to answer the question: » Does your Language Shape How You Think? » Mr.Deutscher gives interesting examples showing that language does indeed compel the speakers to express thoughts in a particular way or to provide the listener with certain information, whether about the gender as in French or German as opposed to English or about how the speaker came to know the facts they are reporting as for the Matses in Peru. Click here to read the article.

As the first bilingual French-English charter school in New York City, the New York French American Charter School, will open in September ,2010 we may well ask, following Mr. Deutscher’s inquiries, whether bilingualism shapes how the speakers think, whether there are any benefits, aside from the obvious cultural ones, to learning another language from the earliest age? Wouldn’t such bilingualism overtax the abilities of some children and render them less proficient in both languages? To answer some of the questions one may have about bilingualism, I did a cursory ,and wholly unscientific, survey of the literature in the last 3 years and share here what caught my attention.

What are the benefits of an early bilingual education?

According to studies of kindergartners done at Harvard by Prof.Silverman[1] pupils who speak another language at home and who learn English as a second language acquire a general vocabulary in English at a faster rate than English-only pupils of the same age.

Early bilinguals are able to learn another language faster than monolinguals and are better able to learn new words in their own language as shown by Viorica Marian and Margarita Kaushanskaya, professors of communication science at Northwestern University[2].

Professors Marian and Kaushanskaya’s research also answers a question many parents have when deciding whether to educate their children bilingually: will bilingual education confuse or slow down my child’s learning? In their article « Bilingualism reduces native-language interference during novel-word learning »[3], they show that bilinguals are better able than monolinguals to filter out « noise »-irrelevant information- when learning a new language.Accordingly, bilingual education from an early age helps rather than hinders a child’s development.

Parents may be wondering if it is worth going to the trouble of providing an early bilingual education to their offsprings if the child then loses the second language through lack of use. Recent research by Bristol University researchers[4] suggests that people who were exposed to another language when young not only relearn the forgotten language more rapidly but retain the ability to pronounce difficult sounds of the second language. They used Hindi and Zulu as second languages because these languages have phonemes –sound units- that are very difficult for native English speakers to recognize and reproduce. They found that the subject quickly relearnt to recognize and pronounce those foreign phonemes. We have all observed cases of people who lost a language learnt as a child who, when relearning it as adults, are able to pronounce it like native speakers.

Monolingual education of children from homes where another language is spoken has another very real negative impact on the construction of the child’s identity, language learning and critical thinking development as Elena Constantinou, doctoral student at the University of Leicester showed in her June 24,2010 presentation « Exclusion of mother tongue problematises identity construction » at the Festival of Postgraduate Research of the University[5].

How early should bilingual education start?

The short answer is as early as possible, even during pregnancy! As shown by psychologists Krista Byers-Heinlein, and Janet Werker (University of British Columbia) and Tracey Burns of the OECD who studied mothers speaking both English and Tagalog during pregnancy[6] and mothers who spoke only English, monolingual babies were only interested in English whereas bilingual babies showed no preference for one language or the other suggesting that those infants have a predisposition for bilingual learning.

Their research showed also that infants are able to discriminate between the two languages and to keep them apart. This research extends the earliest age at which infants can tell apart two languages. A previous study showed that 4- and 6-month-old infants can discriminate languages (English from French) just from viewing silently presented articulations. By the age of 8 months, only bilingual (French-English) infants succeed at this task.[7]

Bilingualism’s impact on brain structure and use of brain resources

« Can early language exposure modify neural tissue? Does extensive and maintained exposure to two languages from early life leave a « bilingual signature » on the human brain? How do bilinguals avoid confusing their two languages as they rapidly process their languages and /or move from one language context to another? Do early proficient bilinguals process language differently from monolinguals and recruit different neural tissue across all contexts, including one language at a time and two languages in rapid alternation?[8] Or do such bilinguals process language similarly to monolinguals and recruit similar neural tissue but not across all contexts?[9] » These are the questions that Professor Ioulia Kovelman and her co-workers set out to answer using novel neuro-imaging techniques[10].Her conclusions are well worth quoting in full:

« Early and extensive dual language exposure appears to have an impact on how the bilingual brain processes language within classical language areas (IFC, BA) as well as brain areas that support language processing (DLPFC, BA46/9 and IFC BA 47/11).The overall implication is that this neural change is entirely positive-bilinguals can read and listen to semantic information in each of their languages with the same effectiveness as monolinguals. The bilingual brain also develops mechanisms that allow for successful processing of two languages concurrently in a bilingual mode. We therefore hope that scientists, educators and bilingual policymakers, alike, will take notice of the present findings-especially those who decide on educational settings for the nation’s young bilinguals and whether early bilingual language learning as a child harms one’s dual language, reading, and cognitive processing as an adult. To be sure, we found no evidence of harm and instead found evidence that the bilingual brain processes each of the two languages with the aplomb of a monolingual brain processing one. »[11]

These results were confirmed in a study carried out by Professor Ibrahim of the Department of Learning Disabilities of Haifa University[12] who investigated whether one or both languages of an Arabic-Hebrew bilingual individual are disrupted following brain damage. In this case, his investigation led to the conclusion that the Arabic and Hebrew language capabilities of the patient resided in two different areas of the brain even though the two languages are semantically very close.[13]

Are there any benefits of bilingualism in adulthood?

Indubitably yes. Indeed, Alzheimer’s has been shown by Prof. Bialystok to be delayed by an average of four years in bilinguals versus monolinguals[14].Similarly, Dr.Gilit Kavé and her co-workers at the Herczeg Institute on Aging at Tel Aviv University have shown that senior citizens who speak several languages show less mental aging than monolinguals: the more languages you speak the better your cognitive states are when you get older. The study was conducted on people between the ages of 75 and 95.[15]

Last, but not least, according to a 2009 report by research team appointed by the European Commission entitled « The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity »[16], click here to read the Report, multilinguals show superior performance in handling complex and demanding problem-solving tasks, higher creativity and mental flexibility compared to monolinguals.

©2010 Pierre F. de Ravel d’Esclapon

[1]Elementary School Journal, 107(4), 365-383 (2007): Rebecca Deffes Silverman: »Vocabulary Development of English-Language and English-Only Learners in Kindergarten ».

[2] « The Bilingual Advantage in Novel Word Learning » (2009) Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,   16, 705-710.

[3] J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2009 May; 35(3):829-35.

[4] J.Bowers,S.Mattys and S.Gage « Preserved Implicit Knowledge of a Forgotten Childhood Language » Psychological Science 2009;20(9):1064

[5] While her research focused on children whose home language is the Cypriot dialect, her findings should apply to other communities as well.

[6] Byers-Heinlein, K., Burns, T.F., & Werker, J.F. ( 2010). « The roots of bilingualism in newborns ». Psychological Science, 21(3), 343-348,(2010) doi: 10.1177/0956797609360758

[7]« Visual Language Discrimination in Infancy » Whitney M. Weikum, Athena Vouloumanos, Jordi Navarra, Salvador Soto-Faraco, Núria Sebastián-Gallés, and Janet F. Werker Science 25 May 2007:Vol. 316. no. 5828, p. 1159 DOI: 10.1126/science.1137686.

[8] The neuroscientists refer to this as the Neural Signature Hypothesis

[9] This is the so-called Functional Switching Hypothesis.

[10] « Shining New Light on the Brain’s « Bilingual Signature »: a Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Investigation of Semantic Processing » I. Kovelman, M.H. Shalinsky, M.S.Berens and L.Petitto  Neuroimage 39(2008) 1457-1471.To read the article click here.Interested readers may also enjoy her other papers:« Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development« Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11 (2), 2008, 203–223 ; »Dual language use in sign-speech bimodal bilinguals: fNIRS brain-imaging evidence« Brain & Language 109 (2009) 112–123;L.Petitto « New Discoveries From the Bilingual Brain and Mind Across the Life Span: Implications for Education »MIND, BRAIN, AND EDUCATION vol.4

[11] Id.p.1468.

[12] « Selective deficit of second language: a case study of a brain-damaged Arabic-Hebrew bilingual patient » Behavioral and Brain Functions 2009, 5:17doi:10.1186/1744-9081-5-17

[13] Interested readers will benefit from studying the literature quoted in Professor Ibrahim’s footnotes.

[14] « Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia » Bialystok E., Craik F.I. & Freedman M. Neuropsychologia 45(7),2007 ,459-464

[15] Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A., & Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008). Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging, 23(1), 70-78.

[16] EC Public Service Contract No EACEA/2007/3995/2 16 July 2009

Temps des crises de Michel Serres

L’académicien Michel Serres, professeur à Stanford, vient de publier un nouveau livre,Temps des Crises, dont le sous-titre est : « Mais que révèle le séisme financier et boursier qui nous secoue aujourd’hui ? »

Canal Académie  nous propose d’écouter l’entretien de Michel Serres avec Jacques Paugam.

Dans celui-ci, le philosophe note que la proportion maintenant très réduite du nombre d’agriculteurs et des professions associées  (1,7% contre plus de 60% en 1900) à la fin du XXe siècle  marque la « la fin du néolithique ».

Il analyse ensuite les conséquences de la mobilité des personnes et des choses ainsi  que des progrès de la santé et de la révolution des pratiques médicales. Pour Michel Serres, les nouvelles technologies constituent sont aussi révolutionnaires que l’invention de l’écriture ou de l’imprimerie.

Pour lui, la crise financière doit être analysée comme la crise dans l’évolution d’une maladie, soit le point d’inflexion de la maladie où le malade meurt ou guérit. Pour lui, l’important n’est pas de revenir à l’état antérieur mais d’intégrer le nouvel état du malade dont l’organisme a lutté avec succès contre la maladie. Cette capacité d’adaptation est la définition même de la vie, « invention permanente de la nouveauté ».C’est ainsi nous suggère-t-il qu’il faut aborder la recherche de solutions aux crises économiques.

Cliquez ici pour l’écouter.

Le plan de relance américain:bilan après un an

Mercredi 17 fevrier 2010, l’émission quotidienne ,L’heure des comptes,de Radio Canada m’a interrogé sur le bilan du plan de relance américain après une année. Pour écouter cette entrevue cliquez ici.