"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Learn French? Why not?

New York City has recently begun a bi-lingual French-English curriculum in select schools. Why, one might wonder, would a city with relatively few French-speaking immigrants embark on such a program?  Because the French government – in its perennial effort to promote its language and culture -  is underwriting it
Several levels of the French government — including the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, the Senate and the National Assembly — have helped nurture the program, giving seed money and grants to individual schools in New York as well as paying for teacher training in France and course books for students.
Now, the government is intensifying its commitment by spearheading a fund-raising campaign intended to accelerate the growth of the program.
Officials from the French Embassy’s cultural division, housed in a landmark mansion on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, are going cap-in-hand to French corporations and affluent parents, expatriate and American, whose children use the program. Their goal is to raise $2.8 million in five years to help support the expansion of the program to new school (New York Times, 1.30.14)
France has long considered itself the savior of Europe and defender of Christianity (Roland, Roncesvalles, Charlemagne) la fille aînée de l'Eglise Catholique, beacon of culture; champion of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and perhaps above all, the country which gave the world the most elegant, complex and sophisticated language ever. 

Image result for images roland at roncesvalles

The fact that French owes its existence to Julius Caesar and five centuries of Roman rule and that it is as much of a Romance language as Spanish or Italian, has not humbled French intellectuals and politicians who for three hundred years have proclaimed its supremacy.  It is the language of artists, philosophers, and poets.  It is at once the most complex and subtle of all its sister languages.  It alone can articulate the most essential and elegant qualities of human nature and humanity itself.

This is nonsense, of course. Except for the many lingua francas of the world – polyglot, simplified amalgamations of many languages with one familiar linguistic platform designed for business and trade – all languages are equal in complexity and subtlety.  Their primacy on the international stage depends only on the economic and political influence of the country of origin. 

Latin was spoken throughout most of the civilized world because of Roman conquest and administration.  Persian, Mandarin, and Arabic had their heydays just as English has now. Each language imports words and concepts.  German was at one time the language of philosophy and science and zeitgeist and weltanschauung were imported widely.  Today the American ‘software, hard drive, app, google, blog, tweet’ are common everywhere.

Different languages express different cultural perspectives.  Portuguese, for example, has three subjunctives (present, past, and future).  All other Romance languages have two at the most.  French retains the concept of a past subjunctive, but has long since dropped a particular form of the verb for it.  Portuguese speakers have felt the need to distinguish between a present and future subjunctive because they see a difference between present possibility or uncertainty and a more distant future one.  Portuguese also has a personal infinitive which makes linguistic reference more specific.  For example in the sentence “Thank you for coming”, the ending of the verb ‘to come’ must agree with the number of people addressed.

German and Russian have diabolically complicated case endings. German retains three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) when most other languages have been content with two, and English – thank God – has done away with the concept of gender entirely.

In Russian the ending (nominative, dative, accusative, etc.) depends on the number of the noun. The ending for ‘chair’ in the phrase ‘one chair’ is different from that of ‘two chairs’ or many chairs. Soon after arriving for an extended stay in Ukraine, a friend of mine asked his Russian-speaking colleagues for a quick tutorial.  He wanted the basics – the verb ‘to go’, for example.  “How do you intend to go”, he was asked. “The verb is different depending on how you travel, whether by foot, by car, or by air”.  Something in Russian culture required a level of linguistic precision in the core language that English resolved less precisely by modifiers (“I went by car…I went by foot”).  Apparently Japanese is even more complex in terms of case, tense, number, and gender.

The fact that the Portuguese value the concept of uncertainty so much that they have created an additional tense for it says something about their view of time and possibility.  The fact that Spanish uses far more of the passive tense than English (Se me cayó – ‘It fell’ rather than ‘I dropped it’) says a lot about causality and responsibility. The fact that Italian has three levels of intensifiers for nouns reflects a highly-attuned sense of quality.  Word order is not neutral, and whether the verb comes early in a sentence or at the end means something.

This is all to say that while learning a language is important to facilitate communication between cultural groups, to expedite business transactions, and to improve political dialogue; the real reason is to understand the peculiarities of culture and by extension the nature of cultural difference.

Language acquisition is a function of many abilities.  First and foremost it requires an ability to analyze and appreciate structure – grammar and syntax; how the language is internally organized.  Second it requires an ability to recognize patterns and especially what are standard, repeated usages, and which are idiosyncratic. Third, it requires the recognition of similarities between one’s own tongue and other learned languages and the language to be acquired. It is easier to build a vocabulary if you start with words that are familiar and similar. 

Fourth, language acquisition requires an ability to classify. It is easier to build a vocabulary if new words are classified (travel, purchase, intimacy, etc.) than if they are learned individually. 

Last and least is accent. A good accent is not necessary either to communicate or to learn linguistic intricacies.  Listeners in most cases can figure out what you are saying if your grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and usage are good and proper. 

Sounding good, however, pays other rewards.  Native speakers hearing a nearly flawless accent assume that the speaker knows their language far better than they really do.  They engaged the speaker more directly and openly; and although one misses a lot of what was said, progress for those with good accents is far quicker than for those colleagues who were dismissed for what listeners assumed was their language incompetence. Making a point of mastering the most difficult constructions of a language – the conditional-subjunctive phrases (‘If he came, I would….) shows a sophistication of language and an appreciation of its complexity.

It is a good thing that the French government and the City of New York have embarked on this language collaboration, for thousands of children will have the opportunity to learn a foreign language.  The fact that it is French is incidental, for once one learns one language, all others come easily. Learning to learn languages is as important as learning any one; and students learning French can master the four analytical elements indicated above.

Unfortunately there are very few foreign language courses in primary or even secondary school which teach students anything - certainly not enough to be able either to communicate or to appreciate the nature of language.  If language programs could focus on the latter – structural elements, analytical process, and classification – then any language would do and could be selected for cultural relevance – an African language, for example, or Arabic.

So, while many critics may chuckle at the persistent arrogance of the French and their insistence that French language and culture are supreme and will always be, one should be happy that they continue to support French language learning.  Language is important.  Who cares if it is French?


  1. Good supposition for learning French and as well as opposite it. So whatever it is by reading this blog I got some positive opinion and also got few negative opinion but from my perspective as a language learner I always look forward to learn new language whether it's French or anything else because I just want to learn at any how. Best of luck:)


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