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Why Learn French?

At the Montmartre Festival, October 2012
At the Montmartre Festival, October 2012

Linguist John McWhorter doesn’t see the point of studying French anymore. There are other, far more useful languages to learn, he says. Excerpt:

And especially with Chinese, beginning to learn the language at 18, in a freshman course, is too late. Someone with a few years of Spanish can often communicate on at least the basic level of Chris Farley’s Matt Foley on SNL, but that’s much less likely with Chinese. You have to speak each syllable on one of four tones—bi can mean compare, nose, than or force depending on the tone. That’s easiest for tots with maximally plastic brains and minimal self-consciousness; later, for many, it is simply impossible. Plus, you have to master a few thousand symbols, most of which resemble nothing in particular except one another, in order to even be able to read a newspaper headline or a children’s book. Many adults gamely hoping to learn a little Chinese are defeated by the demands of the characters alone. Kids have more time and less else to focus on, and can learn the symbols more as Chinese kids do.

What, then, is the benefit of kids internalizing Comment allez-vous? rather than ¿Como estas?, Nǐ hǎo?, or even Hindi’s Ap kaise hai? All I know is that if my two-year-old turns out to be the language nerd I was, I will counsel her to think of French as a distinctly low priority. I’m trying to learn some Chinese lately. As I laboriously stuff the characters into my head with flash cards and watch natives sweetly wincing as I mangle the tones, I only wish that even as far back as the Watergate era they had been teaching me Chinese instead of the likes of pomme de terre and je m’appelle. Hélas.

I think this is a hard case to answer for most people. I happen to love the French language, and wish I spoke it fluently, because I am fond of France. Yet unless a child of mine had a particular fondness for the French language and culture, I would encourage him or her to take up Spanish or Chinese, if either were available. Same with German or Italian. I have tried to give my children a sense of France and why it is so appealing, and it would make me very happy if they took up my passion. And, of course, I would be delighted if one of them chose to study French. The world and the culture it gives one access to is beautiful and meaningful.

That said, if they were only wanting to learn a language solely for practical reasons, it would be hard to encourage French over several other languages.

Perhaps you have a good argument otherwise. If so, I would be grateful to hear it. It makes me miserable to agree with McWhorter.

Beyond French, can you think of good reasons to steer a beginning language student away from a more practical, useful language, like Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, etc.?

[H/T: Andrew Sullivan]

UPDATE: I hope you will read the long comments thread. Some really great stuff there. I have had my faith in French restored.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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