Parlez-Vous Français?

by Conor Friedersdorf

John McWhorter wonders why it matters:

Out of the 6000 languages in the world, why is it so vital for smart people to learn the one spoken in one small European country of ever-waning influence and its former colonies? Isn’t the sense of French as a keystone of an education a legacy of when few met foreigners who spoke non-European languages, French was educated Europe’s lingua franca, and the elite who went to college often had plans to do the Grand Tour?

That is, is knowing French really so obviously central to engaging what we know in 2010 as the world, or is it that French is a kind of class marker? You know: two cars, a subscription to the Times, and mais oui, Caitlin knows some French?

...There’s an awful lot of world beyond Europe; people speak some languages there too, and in our times, a liberal arts education should focus on them. Take Chinese, which increasing numbers of students are taking. 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. Orin response to the objection that no one is saying European languages are more importantlet’s face it, the Martian wouldn’t understand why Chinese was not thought more important.

I took Spanish, and never could learn it until I actually moved to Spain, where immersion worked. But if I had a facility with language I'd learn Russian so that I could read Tolstoy in the original (no disrespect to Constance Garnett intended).