by Conor Friedersdorf
A reader writes:
Studying European languages teaches us about Europe, about the West, about the languages of the West - about ourselves. This isn't chauvinism, or at least, it doesn't have to be - rather, it is merely venturing into new fields that, nevertheless, share our cultural substratum. We can put down roots more quickly there... Cross-cultural communication is an important goal of language study, but it isn't the only one. There are reasons other than strict, direct utility for learning a language.
French is not just the language of France and Belgium (and maybe when you think about it, Quebec). It was the language of the ruling classes of England for centuries. Much of the writing of the thinkers of the Enlightenment wrote in French (or German, sometimes English). It was in France--reading those French works, even meeting some of the writers and conversing with them--that Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin developed and refined the political beliefs that led them to become founding fathers of our country. Today French is the lingua franca of much of Africa and the Caribbean. It will even get you further in the Eastern Bloc and parts of the Middle East than English.
Which isn't to say French is booming, or even really that global anymore. But it used to be, and anyone who wants to fully understand our history and the texts that shaped Western Civilization needs to know how to read it.
I must concede that this reader is correct:
People learn French because it is beautiful. This is sufficient purpose.
Here's another one:
Depending on what you do for a living, French is still important because of its widespread use as a lingua franca in Asia and Africa. Even though the number of speakers is quite lowand, indeed, it's shocking to find out how low the number of native French speakers in African countries where French is the sole official languageit's an auxiliary language along the same lines as English: People may not speak it at home, they may not go to it when they watch movies, but they use it at work and they use it for news. (The Dutch excel at English, but they still watch their crappy locally produced sitcoms in droves when they're off the clock.) French, English, Spanish and Portuguese don't have the numbers but they do have a reach that Chinese and Russian simply don't. And, believe me, the Russians tried. A lot.
Unlike Chinese, French, English, Spanish and Portuguese also use the Roman alphabet which makes their widespread adoption MUCH simpler for a variety of reasons, not least of all because virtually all sub-Saharan African languages and a good number of Asian languages (e.g., Hmong) have adopted versions of the Roman alphabet for their native orthography. And, again unlike Chinese, the big Western languages are neither tonal nor have many tricky phonemes, meaning
pronunciation is often considerably more forgiving.