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Let's Stop Pretending That French Is an Important Language


A somewhat surprising piece in The New York Times this week reported that the French dual-language program in New York's public school system "is booming," the third-largest such program in the city, after Spanish and Chinese. That commitment is a beautiful thing—for children of Francophone immigrants. But for we natives, the idea that kids need to pick up French is now antique.

Make no mistake: For immigrant kids from anywhere, bilingual education is invaluable. But the idea that American-born children need to learn French has become more reflex than action, like classical music played at the wedding of people who live to modern pop. French in educated America is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language. Fewer Europeans spoke English then, which made French actually useful—at least for Americans who could afford international travel. Those same Americans were also still suffering from an inferiority complex to Europe’s “sophistication.”

Enter the idea that a language that began as a mere peasant dialect of Latin is a language of precision, savoir-faire, and romance: Molière, Voltaire, Pepe Le Pew. Naturally, then, our little ones must even now know some French to qualify as what used to be called "people of quality."

But the era of Henry James is long past. When I was a teenaged language nerd in the seventies and eighties, it was the tail end of a time when kids of my bent knew French first and foremost, and then likely dabbled in other Romance languages, plus some German and maybe a dash of Russian. Grand old pop-linguist authors like Mario Pei could write about what they termed the “languages of the world” in books where European languages took up a good half of the space. 

After all, between the twenties and the Immigration Act of 1965, immigration to America was lower than it had ever been. Betty Draper and Lucy Ricardo likely never knew a Chinese person in any real way; to them, immigrants were Italians running restaurants. But as Fiddler on the Roof’s Tevye had it, “It’s a new world, Golde.” Somewhere in the nineties, I noticed when teaching linguistics classes that Spanish had overtaken French, and that students were more likely to have studied Japanese, Chinese or Arabic than German or Russian. These are children of the post–Immigration Act era, either by birth or just experience. 

What, then, will be a new marker of linguistic classiness? One could be to seek languages for actual use rather than as a fashion statement—i.e. to be more like Europeans, where English has become the international language. One learns French to communicate with … who, exactly? Some will yearn to read Sartre and Molière; more power to them. But what about languages like Spanish and Chinese, which are useful to learn because we encounter them in everyday life? I have seen medical professionals just miss getting plum jobs in New York because a competitor happened to speak Spanish, and Chinese will be increasingly important in the business world. Arabic skills, meanwhile, are achingly needed on the geopolitical scene. It’s swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film, but unclear why this would be considered a priority of childrearing.

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.

Image via shutterstock.