In Defense of French

The following piece is a rebuttal to John McWhorter's piece in The New Republic entitled, "Let's Stop Pretending That French is an Important Language."

"And when he told me French was a dead language, I knew it was true," recounted a friend of mine's mother a few months ago as I sat with his family having dinner in London. She was describing a conversation she had had with a French friend of hers. They were discussing the impending death of the French language -- a popular topic of conversation among Americans and French alike.

French's detractors claim we should be teaching our kids Spanish or -- even better! -- Mandarin. This was a sentiment most recently espoused by John McWhorter's in his article for The New Republic entitled, "Let's Stop Pretending That French is an Important Language." He responds to a piece the New York Times ran about the rise of French bilingual education in New York City's public schools. [Disclaimer: Not only do I live in France and speak French, but my brother attended the Lycée Français de Chicago for 10 years].

Mr. McWhorter admits that bilingual education would benefit New York's sizable French-speaking immigrant population, which is undoubtedly true. He directs his advice to, I presume, the (probably) affluent subset of the American populace shopping for the language that would provide the greatest economic benefit to their children, not unlike American parents who hire nannies to speak Mandarin with their children.

This is all well and good, and it's certainly something to encourage, but it's a high-class problem to have -- a problem that, as statistics show, America actually can't afford to have. Literally. Funding for -- and, commensurately, the availability of -- foreign language education in the United States has fallen precipitously since the turn of the century, a trend that's been exacerbated by perpetual budget shortfalls at the national level and in public schools across the country. If the French government or its partners in the private sector are willing to foot the bill, why not teach our kids French?

As the 9th most-spoken language in the world, it's not as though French is going to go the way of Cherokee anytime soon. (Sorry, Cherokee -- I do hope the iPhone can save you). And then there's Africa, the continent on which more of French's estimated 220 million speakers live than any other. Like it or not, French colonialism made it a lingua franca on the continent. Largely thanks to the high rate of population growth in Africa, French's speakers are expected to number about 700 million by 2050, increasing French's global language share from three percent to eight percent.

This is important for several reasons, not the least of which are economic. Five of the top 10 countries with the fastest growing economies in Africa use French as an official language. Globally, 19 percent of the world's trade in goods involves French-speaking countries.

Interested in international affairs? Better learn French. In 2012, al Qaeda seized a portion of French-speaking Mali larger than the size of Texas before the French military came the country's aid. (If you missed this story, you could be forgiven -- we were busy having a national conversation about big bird in the wake of the first presidential debate). An ongoing political conflict with ethnic implications and the possibility for genocide warranted the intervention of -- you guessed it -- France in the French-speaking Central African Republic late last year. Who's been at the negotiating table during talks regarding peace in Syria or Iran's nuclear program? France. Oh yeah and that Syria place? Yeah, that was once a French protectorate.

Forget Sartre and Molière, Mr. McWhorter -- you know that whole Internet thing? It's a series of tubes and wires, and there's a bunch of information involved... Anyway, French is the third most widely used language on the web, behind English and German. It also has the fifth largest presence on Wikipedia, a site that's often used by people of my generation as a first -- and, unfortunately, last -- resort for information.

It is also, might I add, a quintessentially American flaw of the imagination to exclude the possibility of learning both French and another language in school. While political leaders in some U.S. states continue to bicker about whether creationism should be taught alongside evolution in science classes, 61 percent of children in Europe are currently learning two or more languages in school. Mandarin is a difficult language for native English speakers to learn, and, despite their massive number, its speakers are not as widely diffused as French's are. Would it really be such a crime for Americans to have a knowledge of Mandarin and a language that's spoken widely in both Europe and Africa?

In its incipience, Facebook once gave you the option of selecting "whatever I can get" as your "interested in" status on your profile. That's kind of where America's at when it comes to its relationship with foreign languages. So, no, McWhorter, let's not stop pretending. Let's keep encouraging students to learn French, especially when others are willing to pay for it.