Who Cares If Students Aren't Learning French?

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Cash-strapped colleges are cutting language departments--especially French, German, and Italian. In a higher education apocalypse, a demolished language department is supposed to be one of the four horsemen. But maybe it's not so bad, says John McWhorter in The New Republic, if young adults find themselves unable to order a a cafe au lait with the proper accent.

"I have as deep-seated a sense as anyone that an educated person is supposed to be able to at least fake a conversation in French," McWhorter writes. "But then I also have a deep-seated sense that the driver's seat in a car should be on the left side. It's all I've known, but hardly the choice all humans would make if designing a car from scratch with no cultural preconceptions."

Why should students be made to focus on a handful of languages spoken on a tiny slice of the globe? Learning languages is important, but preferring French or Latin to, say, Russian, seems questionable to McWhorter. It seems less that speaking French is critical, he observes, and more that it's a class marker.

A Martian would be baffled as to why anyone would think of French, German or Italian as more important for young Americans to learn than Chinese. Or--in response to the objection that no one is saying European languages are more important--let's face it, the Martian wouldn’t understand why Chinese was not thought more important.
As language goes, a solid education would expose people to how different languages can be despite all of them expressing the humanity common to all of us. Because English, as a European language, is built on the same general game plan as its relatives French, German and Italian, to love languages and concentrate on the grand old staples like French, German and Italian is like being an animal lover and only engaging varieties of cat. That may come as a surprise to those exposed only to those languages, but Chinese grammar is facsinatingly unlike anything European.
Should students be able to take French, German and Italian if they want to? Of course. But should it be expected that any university worth its salt have majors in those languages? I doubt it. A university of limited resources that has majors only in Chinese and Arabic should be a perfectly normal proposition. The only reason it does not seem so now is because of noble but fraying traditions.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.