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Why Learn French?

Monday, December 20, 2010
Via Andrew Sullivan, John McWhorter at the New Republican wonders why we should care if people learn French; more particularly, why we should care if French is eliminated from college curricula. Well I can tell you why I learned French (or at least tried too) - I thought it was pretty. That was it, just aesthetic reasons. You can talk about the mold growing in your refrigerator and the noxious smell it's emitting and I can guarantee that the French have a wistfully poetic-sounding expression for it. That and so much of the history I'm interested in takes place in or near France.

But that's only me. McWhorter makes a good point - why aren't we learning Arabic or Chinese? McWhorter leaves Spanish alone, because it's pretty obvious why that language is important, but why is Latin or French or German or Italian sacrosanct? I think it's probably a mistake to lump Latin in with modern languages, since Latin is our gateway to the whole classical world, but I'll leave that aside. For me it's really quite simple: I don't care what foreign language someone learns, I just want them to learn one. I worry about switching our focus to Chinese and Arabic for fairly cynical reasons - Americans don't like learning foreign languages and I suspect they'd be even more resistant to learning Chinese (which is an extraordinary difficult language to learn) than to learn something as akin to English as German or French.

But ultimately this whole discussion is a distraction. We aren't be asked to choose between French and Chinese. We're being expected to be quiescent while we squeeze the humanities out of the curriculum. It's not that Americans won't be learning French in school that bothers me. It's that they won't be learning anything.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:43 PM
  • I love learning languages. And, strangely enough, French & Italian are the ones I'm trying to learn now. I'm also a huge history fan. Yet, still, I would sacrifice time in both these subjects and use it for teaching American students so much more about life in other countries as it is today.

    I think much of the racism and bigotry that exists today could be mitigated to a surprising extent if this could be implemented. The technology exists now for video Skyping between countries, and I think untold good could come from doing this once a week in every grade starting with the very youngest.

    I feel so strongly about this that my original comment was probably longer than your post. So instead of hijacking your Comments section, I wrote my own post. You see, it concerns all the topics dearest to my heart: tech, travel and world peace. :)

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 7:03 PM  
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