A couple of weeks ago, I retweeted an awesome article about the presence of the French language in New York City’s bilingual schools. In a globalized society, dual language learning has never been more important (although world languages are also facing some big cuts throughout public schools.)
Fast forward a few days later, and New Republic’s John McWhorter comes out with a response article, entitled, Let’s Stop pretending French is an Important Language. His narrow-minded viewpoint simply implies that the only importance of learning a language is for career advancement, and the only important languages to use are Spanish and Chinese, and perhaps Arabic. According to Mr. McWhorter, French is simply not useful so therefore it is simply a waste of time to learn.
Flashback to my undergraduate career, I strayed away from French because I was told I would, “never get a job.” Up on returning from Normandy, however, I quickly said, “Screw that!” and quickly changed my major to French Education. Unfortunately, this change did not come without several degrading comments from various university professors in regards to my choosing French over Spanish (very encouraging that Education Professors would be discouraging education students from obtaining certain certifications!) In response, after graduating I published an article on A Woman’s Paris entitled, Why on Earth Would You Ever Want to Teach French?
What infuriates me most about John McWhorter’s article is not ONLY that he refers to French as useless but that he– A LINGUIST– believes that the only sole benefits to language learning is for potential employment. As a French teacher from a country with NO OFFICIAL LANGUAGE, and where a Coca Cola commercial representing America in multiple languages is seen as “controversial,” instead of beautiful, and where language-fluency is seen as low priority or a waste of time (because everyone speaks English and should learn English, right?), it’s disheartening. It’s equally unfortunate that public schools are pushing Common Core’s Global Citizenship yet continue to cut world languages from the curriculum, as well as rank some languages as more important than others. It’s unfortunate to see well-known, influential politicians write articles such as this one.
Of course, language competency is important and it can certainly play a huge factor in potential employment (my studies and travels, international internship, and knowledge of French certainly helped me land my first teaching job.) However, I wish McWhorter would consider that being competent in multiple languages may be beneficial for reasons other than employment, or that it is almost a personal responsibility as a global citizen to learn multiple languages.
French is spoken on six continents of the world, including Canada, half of Africa, the Middle East, and yes, Western Europe. France is the number one tourist destination in the world, and the official language of the Olympic Games. It is also the third most-used language on the internet. Learning French makes learning other Romance languages easier, including Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, in addition to the English language, as 50 percent of English words are derived from French. The French language is found in various domains, such as architecture, cooking, fashion, theatre, and dance.
I chose to learn French because I love the language and it’s overall cultural influences on our world. Becoming (almost) fluent has immensely expanded my vocabulary and understanding of languages in general. I am able to express myself in two different languages and because of my knowledge of French, my comprehension English phonetics and grammar has also improved. Traveling in Barcelona, I seldom used my English, but got by with Catalan-speakers thanks to my knowledge of French (I suspect it will be similar in Morocco.) Living in a French-speaking country has also helped me to become a better, more empathetic teacher with my ELL students living in an English-speaking country. Learning French has helped me to better understand other cultures and make connections to my own. Finally, knowing French is what helped me to successfully move and work abroad.
I never want to discourage anyone from learning any language. If you have a strong desire to learn Spanish or Chinese, learn Spanish or Chinese. If you want to learn Scandinavian languages, African languages, or Native American languages, do it! And, if you want to learn French, learn French. But do it because you want to, because you’re inspired, because your feel a connection to the culture, because you want to live or work with this language. Do it because, as Nika Likes Maps (whom I discovered from A French American Life) points out, “Learning a language is an access card to seeing life through another perspective.”
All of the languages on the world are individual puzzle pieces which make up a larger puzzle. One is not more important than the other, for without all of the pieces in the puzzle we would not have a complete masterpiece.