The Duel: Should schools still teach French?

John McWhorter vs Chris Bryant
April 23, 2014

Chris Bryant (left) and John McWhorter (right): this month's combatants.

I’ve said in the past that French is probably not the most useful language in the world to learn. After all, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian all have a greater reach these days than the old language of diplomats. And it’s true that although all my French friends think theirs is the most precise language in the world, French has found it far more difficult than most to adapt to the fact that modern languages evolve organically, and are often moulded more by people for whom it is not their first language than by native speakers. Hence the rather silly battle over le weekend and other Anglicised words, for which the Académie Française insists on, or even invents, French alternatives.

But in the end, nothing can beat learning a foreign language in your early years, when you are still linguistically sticky enough to absorb vocabulary and syntax by what I can only describe as osmosis. I was lucky. Brought up for five years in Spain between seven and 12, I learnt Spanish by total immersion (the local kids used to throw stones at me because I didn’t speak Spanish at first). As a result, when it came to learning French at school, both in Spain and in Britain, I already had that confidence to soldier on even when some of the words weren’t quite right (which is half the battle).

But French has other advantages. When I was a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I visited Laos in an attempt to get a pregnant British citizen, Samantha Orobator, released. Our ambassador in Thailand confidently told me that my visit was a waste of time as the Lao minister only spoke Lao or Thai, but when I arrived in Vientiane it turned out he spoke French and we were able to converse fluently. I then rang him once a week to try and get another Briton back home. I’m sure that if we’d been relying on one or other of our languages we’d have got nowhere. It was the fact that we were both slightly struggling to express ourselves in our third language that meant we could end up agreeing.

Mr Bryant and I agree that it is crucial to get children learning foreign languages as early as possible. However, the default language to learn being French is, in my view, an archaism in need of revision, certainly here in the US. Don’t get me wrong—French should be available to those who seek it, whether to enjoy its literature, to use it for diplomatic purposes (such as in Vientiane!), or because one happens to have a particular interest in a country where it is spoken. The point is that one ought to learn languages in order to actually use them—and in 2014, a person learning French just “because” will rarely have occasion to do so.

A Martian observer would be baffled as to why American kids are not taught Spanish as the default second language. One can use it with a great many other Americans, read it on signs and engage with it on television and radio with ease.

This country also has a large Chinese immigrant population, and with China increasingly important in the global sense, Mandarin will be ever more useful to American careers. And because Mandarin, with its tones and much else, is tough for English speakers to pick up, they should be exposed to it earlier rather than later.

My demotion of French’s current importance irritates many. But I maintain that to insist in 2014 that French be the second language of choice for English speakers is like proclaiming the virtues of vinyl records. LPs had their good points, and there will remain some for whom those points make holding on to LPs worth it. But no one would say that CDs and MP3s have been a bad move.

The truth is that French is a class marker for Anglophones. We associate it with Godard films and Balzac, as opposed to Spanish which, for many, has lower-class associations, while Chinese seems just completely “other.” That needs to change.

Yes, of course I agree that French should not necessarily be the modern foreign language that every child is presumed to want to learn. Since more than 12m Brits go to Spain every year, it might make far more sense to learn Spanish, which would also be helpful across much of Latin America. Many young people from migrant families already speak Arabic, Urdu or Polish and we should be enabling more of them to turn that into an academic discipline, not least so that they might one day teach those languages to young people for whom it is not a maternal tongue.

But I don’t want to lose French from the curriculum. I know it is not as precise as the cultural authoritarians in Paris would have us believe (after all they have a single homonym for green, glass, towards and worms) and I’ve often found it harsh and grating when set to music, but as the language of poetry and mellifluous prose it is outstanding. So I want as many young people as possible to be able to hear the cadences of Molière, Racine, Zola and de Maupassant in the original. “They don’t know they’re making love with death” might be an interesting image in Les Misérables, but how much better in French—ils ne savent pas qu’ils font l’amour avec la mort.

Some phrases are just better in French: de haut en bas, esprit de l’escalier. France is still one of the UK’s biggest trade partners and (here is my killer argument) the French simply refuse to take you seriously unless you can speak at least a little French and manage a Gallic shrug or two. Make an effort and you have Paris at your feet.

Plus, so many English words come from French that you need to learn French to speak and write really good English.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t share that sense that French is pretty, although I’m inclined to think much of that verdict is tied up with those class associations I mentioned before. However, watching young’uns these days, I’m not sure I could tell them that being able to savour Molière and de Maupassant in the original is more important than, say, being able to read Japanese manga in the original or being able to watch a Chinese film and catch a lot of the dialogue.

I think a major difference between us is where we live. One can try to use French in Canada, but English-French bilinguals there tend to find it odd to tolerate an English speakers’ mistakes, understandably, when they can just switch to English. Americans rarely have occasion to meet Canadians who are solely Francophone, and the dialect is vastly different from the Parisian we learn in school. For us, it’s Mexico that offers an opportunity to speak another language across a border, and that language is Spanish. However, the argument in the UK is about France across the channel, where, indeed, it really helps to at least halfway speak the language. I doubt I’d be making my argument about French if I were British.

I’m tempted to say that Americans should try learning English first, but that would be a cheap gag. As I’ve said several times, I think Spanish is probably the most useful of the European languages to learn, although the difference between Argentinian, Mexican and Castilian is marked. I once got into terrible trouble in a church in Buenos Aires with the word coger (innocently meaning “to catch” or “to grab” in Spain, but used rather more crudely in South America).

The languages of the Far and Middle East have a clear commercial value. But starting with a foreign language in the same script as English is easier for most young people, who stand a chance of doing an exchange with a French family or using their language skills on holiday. They might even know a song or two in French (though Kylie Minogue singing “le disco a besoin de vous” doesn’t count).

Above all I want children to learn French so as to get over the ludicrous anti-Frenchism that exists here. Some people inaccurately say that Westminster was the mother of parliaments. In fact the old House of Commons was based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris and the first man to invite commoners to the English parliament was Simon de Montfort, who was French. Even the word parliament comes from the French parler and royal assent to parliamentary bills is still granted in Norman French. As we come to the 600th anniversary of Agincourt let’s celebrate our shared Frenchness, not denigrate it.

In the spirit of the looming gag about how we don’t speak real English in America, I can’t help a certain sense that the way “you guys” talk is “better” than the way we do. I am in the middle of a movie with Terry-Thomas in it and have been walking around imitating him for days (and yes, that’s silly old Terry-Thomas!). But that’s just it: the affectation is arbitrary. There isn’t anything “classier” about saying “pawt” rather than “paht” for “pot.”

Some of my feelings about French come from a related issue. In the first episode of Fawlty Towers, Basil says he can’t speak to Manuel because he was taught “classical Spanish, not the strange dialect he seems to have picked up.” It always struck me—why would a snooty schoolkid such as Basil have been learning Castilian instead of French? Somehow I liked the idea that Spanish had been an option, and it got me to thinking about why over here we were so often given French. It is quite true that starting with the Roman alphabet makes languages easier to learn—which is why my daughter will be learning Spanish first and then something, probably Asian, with a different script.

And I’ll even admit this: a part of me would feel like she wasn’t “finished” (in all senses of that word) if by 18 she couldn’t speak some French. After all, one is “supposed” to, no? As a middle-class educated person, at least... But then a hundred years ago that same person was also supposed to play the piano, at least a little, and we seem to have let that go.

I am always on the lookout for those things we do not out of immediate necessity, but because of ancient assumptions we no longer reflect upon (“qwerty” keyboards, the fact that cameras on iPads make a clicking sound, and so on). I’m smelling a bit of that in our special affection for français— but I can’t pretend that I don’t harbour the same affection nonetheless.