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Why Learn French?

At the Montmartre Festival, October 2012 [1]

At the Montmartre Festival, October 2012

Linguist John McWhorter doesn’t see the point of studying French anymore. [2] 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 [3]]

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

149 Comments (Open | Close)

149 Comments To "Why Learn French?"

#1 Comment By Tab2 On February 4, 2014 @ 9:49 am

Everyone seems to assume that the practical business use, in light of a reawakening giant, is to be able to conduct negotiations. I suspect the larger market would be in serving Chinese tourists as China’s middle class grows and they start giving the “ugly American” a lun for his money. It’s not “practical” to assume your kid is going to be come a corporate executive.

Could we please cut the crap about how hard it is to learn (insert language of your choice here)?

Which have you tried?

My mother was an Italian war bride and had worked as a language teacher and journalist before she met my father in the waning days of the war in Europe. I was raised speaking Italian and, when my father was home, English. My first reading language was Italian. I had a facility for learning and for language and could read both before kindergarten. Which was a good thing, as I went to German kindergarten because that’s where my father was posted. Back in the states, my Denver public grade school offered only Spanish. I took it. Later, in Catholic school, I racked up four years each of Latin, German, and Russian.

My freshman year in college, I took Mandarin. There were help-wanted posters in the dept lobby for the CIA. The recruiter very nearly drooled when he heard I already knew Russian and was adding Chinese. Unfortunately for Uncle Sam — and for me — I was very nearly drooling over the interviewer. Nixed that career and State, too. (Uncle Sam has become more enlightened in that area and it surprises me how many of my age contingent bit the bullet and lived a lie for 30 years for their careers.)

Nowadays, disuse and debilitation have left me with English and a flawlessly pronounced but stilted Italian. My Italian half-sister says I speak like I’ve had a brain injury — Italians know from positive reinforcement 🙂

Anyway, the upshot of all that language-dropping is that, by far, the most useful language in my background is Latin. Propter English (as the kids might say). I think Mandarin is harder to learn than the others just because it’s so foreign and because of its written form(s).

#2 Comment By ADW89 On February 4, 2014 @ 10:19 am

Just realised my above comment was a bit unpleasant: I mention where I studied because each of those institutions is excellent, and, importantly, either bilingual English-French or with a very strong grounding in French. UoT, for example, stresses language acquisition. Entrants to the International Relations program were formally advised to learn French.All of my classmates- the Chinese and Persian sons and daughters of immigrants- made a point of learning French both to prove their worldliness and to improve their general culture. This in the heart of Anglo-Saxon Ontario!

#3 Comment By Gene Callahan On February 4, 2014 @ 10:29 am

If one is learning a language merely to conduct some business, of course French is not important. But should one want to enter our Western civilizational heritage, French is much more important than Chinese. (Chinese is great for entering into a distinct civilization.)

#4 Comment By B On February 4, 2014 @ 10:30 am

I’m not reading all the comments, but French, English and Spanish are the three languages spoken in North America. It seems reasonable that one living in North America study any one or both of them. Apart from globe trotting millioinaires, a citizen of the United States is much more likely to visit or do business with people in Montreal or Mexico City than Macau.

#5 Comment By elrond On February 4, 2014 @ 10:38 am

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Groundhog Day:

“I studied nineteenth-century French poetry.”
“What a waste of time!”

#6 Comment By mrscracker On February 4, 2014 @ 10:41 am

PS: someone else has probably mentioned this, but maybe 25-30% of English words are based on French/Latin.So,learning French actually gives you a better understanding of English.And more so if the vocabulary concerns food.

#7 Comment By Gene Callahan On February 4, 2014 @ 10:52 am

@educational realist: “The real question is why native English speakers with no facility for language (most of us) should bother learning any language at all.”

1) If you have “no facility for language,” how did you manage to type this? You apparently think of English as somehow “natural” and French or Chinese as arcane academic subjects. Perhaps because you haven’t bothered to learn another language?

2) The most important reason to learn another language is to come to see how your own language has shaped the way you look at the world, and how other ways of looking are possible.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On February 4, 2014 @ 10:56 am

ADW89 ,
Those students in Ontario might want to know a bit of French if they cross over to Quebec & try to order breakfast in some places.
One of my sons was up in Ontario for his work & went to a croissant takeout place just over the Quebec line.He said the boy behind the counter pretended he could only understand French.
I have cousins up there who’ve run into similar situations.But, looking at history,I kinda see the French side of it, too.
I’m pretty sure even in Quebec, both French & English are taught in schools today.

#9 Comment By Grigoris On February 4, 2014 @ 11:01 am

This kind of article comes out every week or two. They always seem to miss the point that we native English speakers have the luxury of choice in the matter. For now and the foreseeable future, English is and will be the lingua franca, so it behooves educated people around the world to learn it. We, however, should be diversifying and presenting students with a range of language options, since there is no one language that each student must learn. We should stop trying to predict the next “essential” language and try producing as many speakers of as many languages as possible. And we should work with the capital that we already have. If a school has a high concentration of heritage speakers of a given language, we should be providing them the opportunity to take advanced courses in that language to shore up their skills. It is often quipped that America is where languages go to die. This is because often the second generation can speak the language in a colloquial setting, but have never received any education in that language, so they can’t read or write and lack the educated vocabulary needed to command fully the language. Our government constantly throws tremendous sums of money at trying to teach Americans foreign languages from scratch, but it very rarely tries to cultivate the languages that students already have.

#10 Comment By hb On February 4, 2014 @ 11:31 am

My vote is for Spanish. When I was learning French in high school (during the 70s) we couldn’t practice with native speakers because there weren’t any around. Today there are native speakers of Spanish everywhere, in the supermarket, on Spanish language television, Spanish language radio, living next door, etc. It’s nuts to miss this great opportunity to actually be able to practice the language as part of daily life.

#11 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 4, 2014 @ 12:00 pm


Gabon just dumped French in favour of English.

#12 Comment By PDGM On February 4, 2014 @ 12:53 pm

I’m a mutt, and grew up exposed to Hindi, Urdu plus bits and pieces of other NW South Asian languages, such as Pushto; spoke fluent upland Swahili with a pronounced Kikuyu accent as a child plus bits of tribal languages; studied French from late elementary school through high school; did Latin in college and grad school (but medieval mostly, not classical); Greek (badly) in grad school along with Old English (a form of antique German); Middle English; and picked up Spanglish–the lingua franca of poor Los Angeles–in Los Angeles. I picked up little bits of Russian and Old Church Slavonic from liturgical settings and Russian friends; can understand big chunks of the liturgy; ditto Greek liturgy and Latin, as well as a bit of the orthodox liturgy in Arabic.

I can read French, but it’s rusty; can read Latin, ditto; can still read Middle English like modern; Old English at least as well as French or Latin, probably better.

French is a class marker, plain and simple. It’s also wonderful to know just for various literary and scholarly purposes. Spanish is useful in the US, particularly if you are in any trade; the lower level employees in construction are often Spanish speaking, as well as in many other areas.

Knowing French and Latin gets you a decent window into other Romance languages. Knowing Greek and Latin, even in fragmentary ways, gives you a grasp of etymology, like a built in dictionary. Knowing Russian and Church Slavonic gets you access to the amazing beauties of Russian liturgical chant.

I know Lebanese and Egyptian Christians who speak French, Arabic, English, and in some cases (the more elderly) Greek as well, because there were Greek communities in Cairo. I’ve known elderly Russians who spoke beautiful French (and here it was truly a class marker, as in the case of some old Lebanese and Egyptians: you spoke French to your family, but Russian or Arabic to shopkeepers and servants.)

I think that the ability to move comfortably through more than one language gives you the ability to be culturally flexible; that is, to determine what aspects of thought are cultural conditioning and what aspects are connected more to truth as such. Without knowledge of more than one language, I think you are blinkered: your point of view is narrower than it can (should?) be.

You begin to know a language when, in addition to understanding its basic content, you also begin to understand the rhetorical patterns behind the content. I remember reading Augustine at one point in Latin, and having a light bulb come on about the complex rhetorical strategy he was using. At that point, I think I learned something deep and real about Latin, Roman culture of the 4th and 5th centuries, something that I’d begun to learn by reading Cicero’s speeches in a Latin lit class, but had only imperfectly realized until this reading of Augustine. It is this kind of learning that results in coming as close as possible to “inhabiting” the world of others in either the distant past or in geographically distant places, or both.

#13 Comment By Flynn On February 4, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

This is a question I’ve been considering myself. I’m thinking learning a languague would be a good retirement project (and is thought to stave off dementia, if you want to go with long-term benefits.) I have some background in Latin (Mom insisted – sorry, I found it totally useless), French, and Russian(very interesting, but such a complex language that even children of native speakers find it difficult without the support of formal lessons). So should I take more French, which I love and know something about, or Spanish, which I could actually use since there are lots of native speakers where I live, and Spanish tv. Haven’t decided yet.
I do wish we were more committed to teaching other languages to young children while their brains are still plastic enough to absorb them. I’ve noticed that immigrants who came here before the age of 12 usual speak as if they were born here, while those who came here after 12 have an accent, no matter how good their English. It’s a shame to waste this window of opportunity by waiting until high school to start foreign language education.
I went to a technical instrumentation training course, and the instructors were worried because there were several Danes enrolled in the course. Would they be able to understand? The answer was yes. Their English was perfect, and they were able to understand all the scientific instruction involved. English is a standard course in Denmark starting in elementary school.
I’m always a little embarassed during the Olympics and similar events, when athletes from all over the world are interviewed and are able to give a good interview in English, which is not their native language. And these are athletes, not scholars. You couldn’t do that with Americans, expecting our athletes to be able to do an interview in another, in any other, language. And that’s one disturbing trend I see here. Not only do we not place much emphasis on foreign language. There’s an active hostility to it, a pride in ignorance about knowing only one language. Since when is it a point of pride that other people know more than you do? See the twitter dust-up on Sunday over the Coke commercial that had America the Beautiful sung in 8 different languages.

#14 Comment By Flynn On February 4, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

Grigoris: that’s a really good point. I’ve noticed that the immigrant parents generally aren’t very good at English, their children are fluent in both English and their parent’s language, and the grandchildren know a few words of their grandparent’s language and are otherwise monolingual. We’re losing a great resource by not supporting the ability to learn the grandparent’s language in a formal way and practice it with native speakers.

#15 Comment By Todd On February 4, 2014 @ 1:15 pm

Go to Poland and try to read the street signs. Do all those consonants get pronounced?


#16 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On February 4, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

Learning a language really requires talking to a native speakers. So the possibility of doing that is an important consideration too.

I took two years of Spanish in high school and was hopeless at it. But in the 90’s my employer had a contract with Telefónica, and I was working with native speakers during the contract. I also went to Spain towards the end of it for two weeks. Before the trip I was using languages tapes to brush up on vocabulary and recognition. The experience was like a Spanish language immersion course, and I learned more Spanish in six months than two years of high school Spanish.

I also empathize with the person above who described the experience like being exposed to a virus. Because I needed the language to communicate it took root in my mind in a way that it never did before then.

Although it’s been 20 years so I’m probably hopeless again.

#17 Comment By David J. White On February 4, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Anyway, the upshot of all that language-dropping is that, by far, the most useful language in my background is Latin. Propter English (as the kids might say).

Thanks, tab2! You just made this Latin teacher’s day!

PS: someone else has probably mentioned this, but maybe 25-30% of English words are based on French/Latin.

Try more like 60%.

The most important reason to learn another language is to come to see how your own language has shaped the way you look at the world, and how other ways of looking are possible.

Aside from the practical considerations of learning a language because a job or the demands of daily life require it, yes! This is something I try to impress on my students. Other languages are not just English with different words, and people who speak different languages often conceptualize the world in ways different from ours. Our categories thought, as shaped/reflected by our language, is not “natural” or “normal.”

#18 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 4, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

My family history, up to my generation, indicates a very different cultural factor: If one grows up in a culture that features fluency in two or more languages, one is going to end up being multilingual and simply take it for granted.

The context there is the cheek-by-jowl language proximity in European cultures.

My mother’s example is prominent in my own mind. Born in Zagreb in 1924, she changed languages with different people like I would change my outer garb for the differences in temperature. She spoke the language indicated. No one thought or expected one language to supercede all others. (I exclude my father because he was a natural polyglot. Look up the term. His ability to become conversant in a new language was astonishing.)

She was conversant in Croatian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, German (Austrian) and Italian. Only Serbo-Croatian was a formal subject in her school. She studied English in school, but became fluent in it by immersion as an immigrant.

Thinking in a foreign langauge: My mother wore her language skills on her sleeves, as it were. She never stumbled. She frequently got something wrong, but never repeated it unless she saw a deliberate reason (usually for humor). She was famous (well, amongst family and friends) for creating very plausible-sounding words that appeared in no dictionary one could find. She clearly thought in English sometimes, but mostly thought in Croatian. I learned to count to 10 in Croatian at about the same time I learned to count in English. Jedno, dva, tri, chetri often comes to my lips without thinking.

P.S. Anyone thinking to correct “jedno” to “jedan” will lose the argument. My mother is no longer around to explain it… and I write that with a smile, not a frown.

P.P.S. the rest to 10: pet, shest, sedam, osam, devet, deset. 😀

#19 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 4, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

A friend of mine, deeply immersed in studying languages for a career in the military (and later diplomatic corps), being familiar with Polish from her upbringing, declared with great frustration that Polish and Hungarian are actually the same language, but with opposite pronunciation rules. 😉

As a public service: the proliferation of Latin letters in the written Slavic languages is an inadequate (though still the best) transliteration attempt to convey the spoken language. Many multi-consonant strings and diphthongs represent just one letter in Cyrillic.

#20 Comment By mrscracker On February 4, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

David J. White ,
Thanks. I looked online & if you combine French & Latin, the influence on English words seems to be approx. 60%.

#21 Comment By Annek On February 4, 2014 @ 3:08 pm


“Pimsleur language instruction CD’s are great for car trips.
I’ve only tried out their French & Spanish CD’s, but think they do a great job. Plus, you can often check them out in the library.”

Great idea! Thanks for the suggestion.

#22 Comment By Pete S On February 4, 2014 @ 3:42 pm

I think Glaivester had a great comment early in the thread. I learned more about English grammar while studying French growing up than I ever did in English class! Learning a new language you want to learn is a great pleasure even if it is difficult.

I don’t see the value in teaching kids any particular language for what we are calling “practical” reasons. No matter which one you choose, most people in the world don’t speak it. The only practical need to learn a language arises if you know you are going to be interacting with people who speak that language, and who also don’t speak English. As MH points out, when you absolutely need to learn a language you can.

#23 Comment By MikeCA On February 4, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

This has been a refreshing change from the usual hard elbowed back and forth. More topics like this,please!

#24 Comment By Michael On February 4, 2014 @ 4:44 pm

Bloomberg.com ranked French as the number two (2) business language in the world (excluding English)…

#25 Comment By HenryClemens On February 4, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

“An educated gentleman need not know Latin, but he needs at least to have forgotten it.” Who said that?
In any case, true enough for my generation, and at 70+ I have found very few who believe that their time with amo-amas-amat was wasted.

In my day, even going to a public high school in a small south-western town, the Latin classes were full. Did you think you were college-bound? Then you took Latin. Not so sure, or wanted an easier language credit? then Spanish. The only two languages on offer, and neither for more than two years.

Upon further reflection and after a serious attempt at three more languages (retired diplomat), I continue to be shocked at our lack of effort in this regard. Algebra, geometry, chemistry — all expected/required in my high school, and so they should have been. Bright students should be required to study a broad range of prep subjects. But I have found Latin far more useful to me than most of the sciences or math. Only wish I had had more of it.

Thought I was reasonably well educated (I did have some good teachers in those days) until I went to college and met a chap from a really good school: the usual math and science and history AND three years of Greek and four of Latin and six of French. More than one can expect of even a very good public school today perhaps, but every public system but the poorest should offer at least Latin and a couple of modern languages — and at least four years in each case.

And I agree, it isn’t easy. Language study is demanding of time and effort. But we do the youth no favors when we let them avoid challenging subjects. And the reward of being reasonably literate in a classical language or a modern world language is great.

A mother came by the house today; she had been up at 6 to take a daughter to basketball practice. I wanted to ask if any of her children were taking a special tutorial in Spanish — the only foreign language available at the small local high school. But it would have been a foolish and insulting question. Sports are important; foreign languages, at least in a lower-middle class community, are not. And come to think of it, it’s not just the lower-middle class.

So I have told my children, “You may inherit some money. It is there to provide a good education for your children. If the public school is what it probably will be, I hope you will spend the money on tuition at a good private school.”

Videbimus, as the Romans said.

#26 Comment By PDGM On February 4, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

Oh, reading poetry–in my case Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert in English transation makes me want to learn Polish too; and when I look at Polish I notice that I recognize words that are cognate with Russian. In the case of poetry, one can even begin to formulate a definition of the genre using specificities of language: poetry is what is lost when a poem is translated. This is of course false in the most literal sense though it contains a grain of truth; and Milosz cotranslated many of his own poems as well as at least some of those I’ve read of Herbert, which complicates matters quite a bit.

#27 Comment By Rombald On February 4, 2014 @ 6:23 pm

Hector: I was interested in your comments about Indian languages.

Was Sanskrit really replaced by Persian as the prestige language? I was under the impression that they remained the prestige languages of Hindus and Muslims, respectively.

There is a Sanskrit-use movement in modern India, even with mother-tongue speakers; is that linked to Hindu extremism?

It’s interesting how influential Sanskrit has been outside India. It was widely spoken in mediaeval Japan, even now Buddhist priests have to learn it, and there are lots of Sanskrit inscriptions. Thai has borrowed heavily from Sanskrit.

I suppose other Indian languages of religious importance are Pali, for Theravadins, and Punjabi, for Sikhs.

Was Hindi really invented? I thought it’s what the British used to call Hindustani, although admittedly that was a low-status language. I am also told by speakers that Urdu and Hindi are the same language, just written in different scripts. The impression I get, maybe wrong, is that the northern Indian languages all blend into each other, with dialects in between; people are vague about whether their language is Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi. I suppose European languages would be like that were it not for all the nation states.

#28 Comment By Rombald On February 4, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

For tourism, it also depends on locals’ reactions to attempts to use their language.

The French and Spanish hate anyone not speaking their language. Spanish is the only language other than English that its speakers think the whole world should speak; in London I was once stopped and asked directions in Spanish, without first asking me whether I spoke it.

The Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians often speak English well, and don’t encourage anyone to try their languages. The Japanese are some of the world’s worst linguists, yet they also often insist on speaking broken English even with a fluent Japanese-speaker.

Most other places I’ve been, people are flattered and astonished by the most meager attempt at their language. Anywhere in Asia, stumbling through a sentence or two is the way to make friends immediately.

#29 Comment By HenryClemens On February 4, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

Further comment:
I think Grigoris is absolutely spot on. In my part of the country, almost every large high school should have on staff someone (probably recruited from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America), with the equivalent of a good BA or MA in Spanish Literature to teach the Spanish equivalents of Shakespeare/Milton/Twain and Senior English to the bright kids whose home language is Spanish. Any qualified Anglos could, of course, enroll too, but the effort would be to give Spanish-speakers real mastery at an academic high school level of the usage and literature of Spanish. This is NOT calling for the neglect of English; the students to be enrolled would be expected to have at least the same degree of facility with English and its literature. But what an opportunity going to waste! And is it happening anywhere in the country?

#30 Comment By David J. White On February 4, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

As a public service: the proliferation of Latin letters in the written Slavic languages is an inadequate (though still the best) transliteration attempt to convey the spoken language. Many multi-consonant strings and diphthongs represent just one letter in Cyrillic.

The line between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets in Eastern Europe seems roughly to follow the Catholic-Orthodox dividing line. (Though Romanian is a significant exception.) Peoples who were Christianized by missionaries from the Western Church had their languages written down by missionaries who knew Latin, and who used the Latin alphabet. People who were Christianized by missionaries from the Eastern Church had their language written down by people who knew Greek, and who devised an alphabet for those languages based largely on the Greek alphabet with some additional letters added.

#31 Comment By David J. White On February 4, 2014 @ 8:35 pm

PS — The truth is that learning any foreign language is better than learning no foreign language. If nothing else, learning a foreign language teaches you how to learn a language, and the lessons learned can be applied, to some extent, to learning another language if you have to. It also, as others have remarked, teaches you how your own language works, and teaches you that the way your own language expresses things is not just somehow self-evidently the way the world works.

Those who say it’s a mistake to try to get ahead of the game and anticipate what language a child might need later in life are also right. You never know what’s going to happen. What about all those people who studied Japanese in the 80s, when we thought Japan was the coming superpower that was going to be eating our lunch?

Besides, if someone in mid-career is suddenly posted to a position in, say, Buenos Aires, will dimly-remembered high-school Spanish taken ten or twenty years ago really put him that much further ahead of someone with dimly-remembered high-school French? A certain amount of memory-jogging will help, of course; but the mere fact of having studied a language will make learning another one (particularly a related one) that much easier.

I had four years of Spanish in high school and a year and a half in college. I was halfway decent at one time, at least by the standard of a non-native speaker who learned everything in school. I also know Latin pretty well, of course, since I teach it, and I went on to teach myself some French and Italian. I use French and Italian a lot more these days than I use Spanish; but I probably wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far with them, esp. on my own, if I hadn’t had the background in Spanish. I also had a fair amount of German, and that has helped as well.

#32 Comment By David J. White On February 4, 2014 @ 8:38 pm

PPS — (last one, I promise!)

Language study is demanding of time and effort. But we do the youth no favors when we let them avoid challenging subjects.

Ah, well, there’s the rub, right? We as a society don’t really believe anymore in doing things that demand time and effort (except for, say, sports). Instead, everything has to be entertaining, and teachers are expected to make sure that students show “results” regardless of the time and effort the students put in. This goes back to the notion of impulse control and delayed gratification being discussed on another thread.

#33 Comment By JonF On February 5, 2014 @ 6:43 am

Romamian used to be written in Cyrillic, but 19th century Romanian nationalism opted for the Roman alphabet since Romanian is a Latin-descendant.

By the way, I have a college friend who married a Turkish lady. They have raised their two daughters to know both Turkish and English, and when the girls were really young they would mix words of both in their speech. Now they are older and in school they are embarrassed to use Turkish publicly since no one else outside their household knows it. (My friend did learn Turkish and lived with his wife in Istanbul for several years). They will probably end up like some of the elderly folk at my church, children of immigrants, who know plenty of words and phrases in their immigrant parents’ tongue (Russian or Ukrainian) but would be tongue-tied if they ever visited the Old Country.

#34 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 5, 2014 @ 6:54 am

I’m never up this early, so coherence is not a priority. 😀

David, Cyril was a Byzantine, and the alphabet is named for him, so your “dividing” line seems reasonable. The story goes that he invented the alphabet out of compassion and mercy for Slavonic’s second-class language status.

Just want to point out that Roumanian is in fact a Romance language and would not want to be spelled with Cyrillic letters. Nervous breakdown would ensue. The language can sound Slavic at times — I know this from songs more than from conversational — but I’m told learning Italian puts one closest to it.

And, of course, the Hungarians are descended from crazy Mongols, so their language is just not going to fit into any civil discussion. 🙂

#35 Comment By mrscracker On February 5, 2014 @ 10:22 am

You’re very welcome.
Another resource is the “Destinos” lesson series that I think was produced back in the 1990’s by a PBS affiliate.
It teaches Spanish in a telenovela (Spanish soap opera) format. The story begins in Mexico & travels to Spain, Puerto Rico, Argentina, & Los Angeles so that all the differing accents & cultures are covered.
We used it for homeschooling & generally would watch several lessons in a row because it was so engaging.Each episode ends on a “cliffhanger.”
“Destinos” is available on DVD @ Amazon & we were able to check it out at our library for free.

#36 Comment By mrscracker On February 5, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

Franklin Evans,

“And, of course, the Hungarians are descended from crazy Mongols, so their language is just not going to fit into any civil discussion. ”
Is that partly why they use the Oriental form of referring to themself by surname first, given name second? I think I heard that used in a Russian film, too. Maybe Romania also?

#37 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 5, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

Mrs. Cracker,

The linguistic scholarship around Magyar (their name for their language) remains controversial, mostly for the lack of solid evidence. I take a ground-level view of it, having been introduced to it (and fell in love with it) from the music and dance angle. Trivial aside: Bela Bartok’s field notes are very interesting, and some of the melodies he collected from village and farm musicians are found intact in many folk recordings to which I’ve danced. His dance suites are to my ear loving homages to the melodic roots he studied.

The genetic legacy of the Huns is on a par with the linguistic legacy in Magyar. North Asian (trans-Ural and Siberian as well as Mongolian) phenotypes are quite evident even in modern generations. I once met a strikingly beautiful Mongolian woman who gently corrected me by explaining her centuries-long Hungarian heritage.

#38 Comment By mrscracker On February 5, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

Franklin Evans ,
Thanks. I think Hungary’s a pretty interesting culture.
I’m still wondering if their Oriental name order tradition came over with the Magyars or if it has some other history.

#39 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 5, 2014 @ 4:05 pm

I wouldn’t put too much stock in the name order aspect. Case in point: My wife’s last name was “created” by an Edinburgh immigration worker, who asked her grandfather his name and he gave it last-first. His first name was Yodl, and the worker wrote down what he heard as the last name. I refrain from posting it here for the usual reasons. 🙂

#40 Comment By JonF On February 5, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

The Magyars are not Mongols. They were originally a Uralic people (related distantly to the Finns and Lapps) who got swept up in the Turkic migrations of the early Middle Ages, and entered central Europe as Byzantine allies, established on the middle Danube as a buffer between Byzantium and the Franks. They became the terror of Europe until Otto the Saxon, Holy Roman Emperor, did to them what Charlemagne had done to his ancestors, whereupon they settled down in their lands to become good Christian allies of the HRE.

#41 Comment By John D On February 5, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

I’m a little late on this, but I wanted to get my deux centimes in.

I think McWorter is wrong saying that we ought to teach something “more useful” than French. As others have pointed out, “more useful for what?” And as for learning the Chinese characters, I remember reading a piece by a linguist who specialized in Chinese. When he couldn’t think of the character for “sneeze,” he asked a visitor who was a native Mandarin speaker with a degree from Peking University. He didn’t know either.

Recently, I was asked by a friend what language she thought her son should take. His school offers only the “Big 3,” and even there they seem to be low on resources.

I noted that while I don’t speak Spanish, I was aware that it was the easiest of the three (more phonetic than French, easier grammar than German). German grammar (four cases, fourteen plural forms!) put it as the most difficult. (I took a year of German and can now order in a restaurant if I absolutely have to.)

Then came the question of utility. The argument for Spanish is often “so you can speak with Spanish speakers.” There are a lot of them around here, many of them in low-level jobs. The implication seems to be that telling people what to do (“you there, the grass needs to be trimmed shorter”) and not getting into a discussion of Spanish literature.

Of course, the winner for the “literature in a language other than English” sweepstakes is French. If we played Spanish and German literature off of French, I really do think that French would win. “I will see your Cervantes and Goethe, and raise you a Proust and a Rimbaud.”

My son’s friend was at the time reading The Count of Monte Cristo in an English translation. He told his mother he had decided to learn French.

Hetzer was wondering about those “wasted letters.” They come from French finalizing its spelling before its pronunciation got locked down. If Louis XIV stepped through a time portal to modern day Paris, they’d wonder why he was talking so funny. Note that sung French follows the old rules, so all those silent e’s get pronounced.

I would be curious if Jay and Hector could name some of those scientific journals that still publish in languages other than English.

Finally, I want to chime in on Markk’s comment on Esperanto. Esperanto certainly fails the great literature test. This is no surprise given the age of the language, although the day could come when someone has written a work that to be truly appreciated should be read in the original Esperanto.

It also fails on the tourism aspect. Sure, you can find Esperantists in some cities, but if you’re a native English speaker whose only other language is Esperanto, on a trip to Paris you’ll be using your English in cafés and museums.

Yet, given its simplicity, it really should be offered more widely. Four years of high school foreign language is an amazing small amount. Two years of college-level foreign language gets you a little further than that. At the end of either, a novel or a newspaper is likely to send you diving repeatedly for your dictionary.

Students could effect a much deeper mastery of Esperanto in the same time (the rejoinder here is, “yes, but all they’ve mastered is Esperanto”). I know that the difficulties of the Big 3 (not to mention Chinese) leave many students erroneously concluding that they are incapable of learning a foreign language. It’s just too difficult. Not to disparage Esperanto, but as a “language with training wheels” it probably serve as an excellent introduction to language.

It seems funny to suggest Esperanto on The American Conservative, since the U.S. Esperanto movement had a serious blow in the 1950s, when head of the national organization, George Alan Connor, purged the group of communists and sought to have the world organization also ban communists. The claim was made at one point (by a detractor) that the emblematic color of the Esperanto movement should be red, not green. Stalin, on the other hand, did not like Esperanto; he preferred Ido.

#42 Comment By JonF On February 6, 2014 @ 6:08 am

Re: As a public service: the proliferation of Latin letters in the written Slavic languages is an inadequate (though still the best) transliteration attempt to convey the spoken language. Many multi-consonant strings and diphthongs represent just one letter in Cyrillic.

The same issue exists with using the Roman alphabet to write other modern languages, which have phonemes unknown to ancient Latin. Once upon a time monkish scribes tried inventing new characters for this purpose, but “w” and “j” are the only real survivors of those and instead Roman script language use either digraphs (“th”, “ch”, etc) or stick funny marks over letters (“ñ”, “õ”, etc) to represent non-Latin sounds Still the Roman alphabet has proven to be more flexible for these purposes than any other– Arabic writing being a distant second.

#43 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 6, 2014 @ 9:32 am

JonF: I’ve seen that about the Magyars, and I hold to no firm opinion on any of the sources. Indeed, I rather enjoy the controversy as a bystander. 🙂

I approach the entire situation from a cultural direction. My “expertise” such as it is derives from my passion for the music and dance. I taught the dances (in social settings, though I did perform some) and made it my responsibility to include cultural references with the dance steps and patterns. That included the stories told by the song lyrics if there were any. My exposure can be described as strictly anecdotal.

For examples, the south-Slavic word for “horse” is “konj”, and has Arabic roots. The word for “milk” has very close cognates in both geographic branches of the Slavic languages, and they all look or sound very much like “milk”.

Hungarian (“Hun” being a direct reference to that particular tribe/clan) is a fascinating language. It looks terrible to Western eyes, and has a spoken and sung beauty that takes my breath away. As a cultural and genetic group, the Hungarians are very mixed from both Asia and Europe. One can’t (as I learned from that lady) describe them using a single geographic origin.

Re: transliterations. Diacritics are the bread and butter of philologists and linguists. I always defer to them in attempting to accurately portray the sounds of a language in a script not native to that language… and my all-time favorite is the schwa “ə”. 😉

#44 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On February 6, 2014 @ 10:51 am

Re: Still the Roman alphabet has proven to be more flexible for these purposes than any other– Arabic writing being a distant second.

How well does Cyrillic work at transliterating foreign sounds?


I’m not a linguist, so take this with a grain of salt. My understanding is that Sanskrit continued to be used for religious purposes and to some extent for academic purposes through the medieval period, and even a bit into the early modern era, but that with the advance of Islam into India, Persian became the dominant ‘official’ lingua franca, until the British took over. Persian was even, as far as I know, fairly common in Hindu and Sikh governments, and even down in the south, where the Muslim influence was always rather tenuous.

Hindi developed out of the same dialect continuum (Khari Boli) that produced Urdu, but it’s a deliberately ‘Sanskritised’ register of Hindustani, with lots of neologisms and borrowings from Sanskrit, where Urdu is a Persianized/Arabized register. I’d call it more ‘artificial’ than Urdu because Urdu developed organically as a lingua franca, whereas Hindi (kind of like Katharevousa in Greece, I guess) was ‘invented’ in the early modern era as a version of Hindustani scrubbed of Persian vocabulary.

Interestingly, Tamil in the South underwent a ‘scrubbing’ process in the mid-twentieth century, except that process was led by left-wingers, generally hostile to organized Hinduism, who wanted to remove Sanskrit words (associated with the hated Brahmin elite) as well as Persian ones. So the Tamil that you will hear spoken for official purposes today is much less Sanskrit influenced than a hundred years ago.

Most northern languages (Punjabi, Bengali, etc.) are quite distinct from Hindi, but still clearly part of the same subfamily. The ‘learned’ versions of these languages are more similar to each other than the colloquial versions, as far as I know, because they all borrow their learned vocabulary from Sanskrit. (In the same way, it’s easier for an English speaker to understand highly technical French than ‘everyday’ French, because the English and French technical vocabularies both draw on Latin, while English colloquial vocabulary
is Germanic). The Indian national anthem, for example, is written in highly literary, Sanskritised Bengali, such that it’s comprehensible to Hindi speakers to an extent that more colloquial Bengali might not be.

#45 Comment By JonF On February 6, 2014 @ 8:47 pm


There’s no controversy about the fact that Magyar is a Uralic language. That doesn’t really tell us anything certain about the people, however: languages are learned not inherited. Best guess is that the early Magyar homeland was at the southern extreme of the Urals which would have meant they were on the shoulder of history’s great highway for folk migrations and could have picked up every gene that sloshed by them. Possibly they, like the Bulgarians, were ruled by a Turkic elite who lost their own language and adopted their subjects’.

#46 Comment By Franklin Evans On February 7, 2014 @ 12:29 pm


I find your citation most reasonable. I also, this being both facetious and sarcastic towards the academia involved, take note of one position that insists on a “Finno-Ugric” grouping that includes Finnish and Estonian with Hungarian. Many references that include the term append it with “?”, which I put to voice in my mind as “are you kidding us?” 😀

In my personal research about the Celts, reminding all that documentary evidence is sparse to non-existent, the generations of that migratory group the Greeks encountered (naming them keltoi) seem to have left their genetic markers throughout the Balkan Peninsula and surrounding areas. I have two red-headed siblings out of five, red hair (the darker variety; strawberry blonde Irish and Scots get that hue from Norse blonde ancestry) is common in my father’s heritage, and his family reliably dates back to the 14th century. The Celts made their way through Serbia (as we know it today) well before the Turks.

Trivia note: The modern bagpipes, which we mostly know from the Irish and Scottish varieties, was reliably traced to origins in western North Africa. The Celts encountered it in Asia Minor and the Balkans, and “seeded” it all across Europe. There are modern “acknowledgments” of that, for example: watch videos of the original cast of “Riverdance”, and you’ll see a Balkan folk trio accompanying some of the dances. The are playing kaval (end-blown flute), gadulka (rebec) and gajda (bagpipe).

#47 Comment By Mathieu Josephin On February 14, 2014 @ 8:35 am

Upstairs USA, there is a country named Canada
In Canada, there are millions of French speakers, and a lot of them don’t speak English
You could visit hundreds of town in Canada where everybody speaks only French for centuries.
They are yours neighbors across the hall
Isn’t it a good reason to learn French? To communicate with next door’s Canada?

#48 Comment By Lucien On February 26, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

Why learning a foreign language …?

1. … because it allows to do business

Although English is obviously widely spread and spoken around the world and shall remain like that, having conversations solely in English with ‘non-native english speakers’ is not always sufficient a skill to reach your business goals in the MOST EFFICIENT WAY. For that you may indeed need to speak in the mother tongue.

1.1. Employing mother tongue …
-> bring substantially more trust in human relationships
* quicker partnerships agreement
* easier to sell deals
* especially in Asian and Western countries where those values are cherished
* especially when you need to interact with governmental entities

-> makes work requiring exchange MORE EFFICIENT
* Rapidity to understand phrases structure,points of view, vocabulary slight differences
* Allow far less misunderstandings and mistakes and false agreement

1.2. French is worth for business
-> in:
* all Africa
* Canada
* Half of the Europe
* In most countries when it comes to Diplomacy

-> This is especially important when you need to interact with governmental entities

1.3. Chinese is also definitely worth for business, especially considering the fact that speaking in someone’s mother tongue leads to more trust and understanding, and that Chinese notably people need to build strong relationships with you before making any deal

2. Learning a language … because you can access another culture and built human relationships of another kind
2.1. This advantage is also supporting the 1st one (doing business: direct conversations with people in their mother tongue are a more spontaneous and lead to better productivity/efficiency; more trust helping to build relationships)

2.2. Chinese and French cultures are both fascinating and both are worth being discovered !

#49 Comment By A On September 23, 2016 @ 1:44 pm

Apologies for being 2.5 years to this, but I wanted to add that, per the Economist, French will be the most widely spoken language in the world by 2050 due to population growth in Africa, with some 750 million speakers projected by that point. Africa is, of course, China’s next frontier, and I’m pretty confident in stating that it’s the Chinese who are learning French as a result of this push and not the other way around. Spanish vs. French is a matter of preference, I think both are equally useful; however, native English speakers can learn to speak either (or both) at a fairly solid level without ever setting foot in a Spanish- or French-speaking country. As far as I know, that’s simply not possible with Chinese, so the ROI is infinitely greater with either of the other two. That said, the more diverse and varied your linguistic base, the better, of course, no matter what you do in life.