The linguist John McWhorter thinks it’s a waste of time, so he informed the readers of TNR the other day in a piece entitled “Let’s stop pretending that French is an important language.” Now I’ve read numerous articles by McWhorter over the years—on language, race, ethnicity, and other topics he writes about—and have generally found them interesting, thoughtful, and well-considered. He’s a rare conservative intellectual (which is becoming an oxymoron outre-Atlantique). But this piece is not thoughtful or well-considered. It is stupid and inane. Rubbish tout court.
McWhorter was prompted to write it after reading the report in the NYT last week on the popularity of French/English dual-language programs in New York City public schools (and which was, BTW, the NYT’s most emailed article over two days). He found this “surprising,” as French, so he informed the reader, has ceased to be a “useful” language. And if a language is not “useful”—and one does not issue from an immigrant community that speaks it, so no identity issues are involved—what’s the point in learning it?
A few points and observations here. First, on usefulness. What makes a foreign language “useful”? Two things: If learning to speak a particular language will (a) help one get ahead in life, and (b) enable one to communicate with people with whom one may want or need to communicate on an ongoing basis. On getting ahead in life, this, of course, mainly means the job market, i.e. if one’s employment prospects will be considerably enhanced if one has a functional knowledge of a foreign language, and, conversely, hindered if one does not have this. One can know if this is the case simply by looking at job announcements and descriptions (one doesn’t need to go this far, in fact: if knowledge of a particular language is a major asset in the job market, this will be well-known to all, including youngsters in school). On communicating with people, this mainly involves those who live in multinational states—where there is more than one recognized linguistic group of native-born citizens—or who spend a lot of time in a foreign country where another language is spoken.
In France, where I live, only one foreign language is objectively “useful,” which is, of course, English. If a Frenchman or woman wants any kind of job or career that will take him/her outside of France and/or that involves regular interaction with non-French people who don’t actually live in France (business associates/clients, fellow professionals, tourists, and the like), then s/he needs to have a functional command of English. Period. Most jobs don’t require this—e.g. the clerks at the post office, the cashiers at Monoprix, the men who pruned the trees in my résidence this week, even doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, don’t need to speak a word of English—but enough do, and particularly in the globalized sector of the economy. Even in the 1980s almost all the job announcements in the then-weekly economics/business supplement of Le Monde stipulated fluency in English. Back then—don’t even talk about now—I observed that a significant percentage of the books being checked out of the library at Sciences Po Paris—a major establishment of higher education for the future ruling elite—were in English.
One hardly needs to be reminded about the status of English; everyone in France knows it, it’s a fact and with the educational system having adapted to the reality three or four decades ago. In the first year of middle school (6th grade) all students must choose their first foreign language (langue vivante 1, LV1) and which they take until finishing high school. Some 93% opt for English, with almost all the rest German. A few linguists (e.g. Claude Hagège) and other francophonie ideologues may rail on against the dominance of English as LV1 but they’re shouting at the moon. No one is paying attention. And in the 8th grade, when choosing the obligatory second foreign language (LV2), all the LV1 German students have to go for English. When making the pitch for LV1 German to entering 6th graders—i.e. to their parents—, German teachers assure that learning German will in no way set the children back when they start English two years later (I first read this and then heard it with my own ears, at a parents-students-teachers meeting when my daughter started collège). So by the end of high school, almost all French students have taken English for at least five years, and most for seven (whether or not they have actually mastered it is another matter). In France, English is objectively useful. It’s the globalized economy, stupid.
In the US, where students take only one foreign language in high school—and usually as an elective—, it is entirely normal, given America’s geographic location, that the most popular one by far will be Spanish. But, objectively speaking, Spanish is not “useful” for the majority of those who take it. Apart from those who live in Miami, south Texas, and Mexican border towns, Americans do not need to know Spanish. Jobs in major American cities—not to mention the heartland—do not require it (except for those involving contact with recent Latino migrants; when McWhorter says that he has “seen medical professionals just miss getting plum jobs in New York because a competitor happened to speak Spanish,” he’s recounting an anecdote; the great majority of medical professionals in New York City do not need to speak Spanish—and most likely do not). A quick perusal of job announcements in any American city—Miami, El Paso, and a few others excepted—will demonstrate this. As for communicating with the sizable number of Latinos/Hispanics in America, any member of this population that a non-Latino/Hispanic American would ever possibly meet and want to strike up a conversation with already speaks English. The upper class in southern California may find Spanish useful to communicate with their gardeners and cleaning women but the huge majority of Americans just don’t need to speak it in their daily or working lives. Ever. Spanish, for the vast majority of Americans, is, objectively speaking, no more “useful” than any other language.
As for Chinese, a language that has McWhorter’s favors, the utilitarian arguments for learning it do not hold water. If people want to learn Chinese, all power to them, but they should not do so on account of its purported usefulness. The fact is, Chinese is only useful if one is going to live in China or do a lot of business there (a future eventuality that American schoolchildren cannot possibly anticipate). Outside of China and for those who don’t regularly deal with Chinese businessmen or tourists, the Chinese language will get one nowhere. It is of no utility whatever. And the rise of China will not change this. In 2050 Chinese will still be pretty much useless in the rest of the world (if anyone would like me to defend this assertion in detail, I will happily do so). A fact: with the exception of English, languages are only useful in the countries in which they are spoken or are widespread as a secondary language. Spanish is spoken only in Latin America (minus Brazil) and Spain. Apart from Mexico and maybe the Dominican Republic, the number of Americans who travel to Latin America is rather less than those who visit France and other Francophone countries. In Europe outside Spain, Africa (except Equatorial Guinea, if one ends up there), and all of Asia, Spanish has little to no utility.
French, by contrast, is incontestably more useful on this level. In addition to France, French-speaking Belgium and Switzerland, and Quebec (which borders the US and where the French language can be most useful), there are all the former French colonies: in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) and Francophone Africa, where French is even more useful than in France itself, as English is far more understood in the latter than the former. French has pretty much disappeared in Indochina but is widely spoken in Lebanon and Israel (though admittedly less than English) and persists as a second (or third) language among portions of the elites in a number of countries in the Middle East and Latin America (e.g. earlier this week I attended a talk on Turkey by two academics from Istanbul, who spoke in fluent French). So when it comes to utility, French is, outside the Western hemisphere, far more “useful” than Spanish. And it is a hundred times more useful than Chinese.
So—and this is the second point—for an American middle/high school student (outside the aforementioned parts of the country) who is deciding what language to take—or a French 8th grader choosing an LV2—, considerations of utility should absolutely not enter into the equation. Whether or not a language is “useful” should not be a consideration. Any language is as good as the other. For many students, their parents will be implicated in the decision on this, or the decision will be driven by family history or predilection. Young people with immigrant origins or sub-cultural identities will often want to learn their heritage language, which is entirely legitimate. If the language in question is not offered by the school and there is sufficient demand for it (and with qualified teachers available), then that demand should be satisfied. E.g. in my suburban Chicago high school four decades back, one of the most popular foreign languages was Hebrew. A third of the student body was Jewish and enough of them clearly wanted to learn Hebrew (and as they were presumably motivated, they likely mastered the language more than did those who took Spanish or French by default). In American cities with a critical mass of immigrants from China, Chinese is presumably offered as a foreign language in public schools, and with the Chinese-American kids presumably taking it in large numbers. That’s excellent for them and their families. And also for America, as the more Chinese speakers America has, the better.
When it comes to French, McWhorter sniffs that “in educated America [it] is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language.” Insofar as this may be the case, so what? If people want to learn French—or have their children learn it—because it has a certain cachet or snob value for them, that’s their business, and neither John McWhorter nor anyone else has anything to say about it (as for McWhorter’s facetious throwaway line on how “[i]t’s swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film”: what a hackneyed cliché from another era; McWhorter clearly does not frequent “art houses,” where most foreign-language films these days do not come from France). A personal anecdote: when my daughter entered the 8th grade in our Paris banlieue and had to choose an LV2, both my wife and I encouraged her to take Italian, which was offered in her collège. Why? Because Italian is a beautiful language, Italy is a country we love (does anyone not?), has a great civilization, a great cuisine, and all the rest (she was game but finally didn’t do it, as Italian was not offered in the lycée she wanted to go to two years later; I pushed her to take German instead but she didn’t want to, opting for Spanish for her LV2, as do the vast majority of French middle school students nowadays, who think that the langue de Cervantes is easier and cooler than the langue de Goethe; dommage…).
Which leads to the third point, which is that if one is going to master a foreign language, there has to be some pleasure in the process and interest in the cultures where the language is spoken. And France and French culture remain the nec plus ultra for many Americans. The aura of Paris for millions of American tourists is intact. In learning French, Americans gain access to one of the richest cultural heritages in the history of the world (and yes, France continues to make movies worth seeing and not all of which make it to the US, so don’t have English subtitles), not to mention the satisfaction in being able to communicate with people in the most beautiful country in Europe and that millions love. If McWhorter has little interest in France, that’s his business. And if he considers French culture to be has-been, that’s his personal opinion. But it’s not that of many others. As for China, this is incontestably a great civilization—and with a cuisine that I will personally rank above French—but it is inaccessible to most Americans and of less overall interest to them than France. And China is a harder country to visit, get around, and spend time in. America is a Western culture and an extension of European civilization—and which France was long its highest expression—, so Americans in their majority are necessarily going to feel a greater affinity with Europe than with Asia. And will always visit it in far greater numbers. This is not a value judgment, it’s a fact.
Fourth point. French is an easy language to learn for native English speakers. A piece of cake. It is considerably easier than any other non-Romance language (with the possible exception of Dutch). A few years of serious study in middle and high school followed by several months of immersion in France and voilà, one will be fluent or nearly so. One can, in fact, achieve fluency in French without ever living in a Francophone country. If a native English speaker who has learned French doesn’t use it for a lengthy stretch of time, it will get rusty but s/he’ll recover it quickly if need be. Not so with Chinese or other objectively difficult languages (Arabic, Japanese…). These take many more years of study (as McWhorter acknowledges) and one really does need to live for a time in the country where they’re spoken. And they have to be maintained. If the difficult language falls into disuse, recovering it will take longer (and trying to recollect all those forgotten Chinese characters would be a tall order indeed). So from the mere standpoint of investment of one’s time and then payoff, if one has to choose between French and Chinese, opting for French goes without saying. It’s a no brainer.
A note on learning Arabic, a language McWhorter correctly says is “achingly needed on the geopolitical scene.” It would be nice if more American schoolchildren studied this. If Arabic had been offered as an LV2 in my daughter’s middle school, we would have pushed her to take it—for reasons having to do with my and my wife’s personal histories—and she would have readily agreed (but few schools in France offer Arabic, which is both incomprehensible and, given France’s national interests and sizable population of Maghreb origin, a bit of a scandal). There are, however, some particular challenges in learning Arabic and which make it unlikely that it will ever take off as a foreign language in American schools. First, one needs to study Arabic for many more years than a Romance or Germanic language to achieve a functional command of it. Second, Arabic is a diglossic language, i.e. it exists on two levels: modern standard (the written language, spoken on formal occasions but never in daily life) and dialects (which vary considerably across the Arab world). To say that one knows Arabic, one has to know both the standard language (fusha) and a dialect (darija), the latter of which is quite different from the former. But to learn a dialect one has to live in the country where it’s spoken (as well as to really master fusha). It is not possible otherwise. The most popular and logical country for American students to do this has always been Egypt. But if my 20-year-old daughter were to propose spending a year in Cairo nowadays, we would veto it. Period. Damascus was a great city in which to spend a year or two studying Arabic—and was popular with French students—but it would not be advisable to go there today. So that leaves precisely three countries where an American or any other Western student can go for a séjour linguistique: Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco (Lebanon, for a variety of reasons, is not a good place for this). If one wants to go to Jordan, fine, but it’s boring (personal opinion). Tunisia (which means Tunis) and Morocco are great places but French is widespread in both and their dialects—and particularly Moroccan—are incomprehensible in the rest of the Arab world.
So voilà my advice to an American middle/high school student who’s not interested in taking Spanish: go for French. You won’t regret it.
On the subject of learning foreign languages, writer Mary Hawthorne had a fine piece on the The New Yorker website, dated August 13 2012, “Language is music,” and with contributions by David Bellos, Arthur Goldhammer, and Lydia Davis. It’s well worth the read.
UPDATE: The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie has released a slick 24-page executive summary in English of a 576-page book published by Éditions Nathan in 2014, “The French language worldwide.”