Should You Learn French?

19 Mar


I could be a little show off and roll my r’s in that pronounced, Alex Trebek way. Say Paris in that way that hides the ‘r’ in Paris? Yes, I speak French, as a third language. I have few occasions to use it, but I have found my knowledge of the language to be useful primarily as a means of reading. Enjoying Jean Paul Sartre, Amelie Nothomb and Bernard Henri Levy in the original has been greatly rewarding for me. But would I encourage others to learn French? Sadly, the answer is non.

Yet I have always had a tough time understanding learning a new language with utilitarian ends. I initially chose to study Spanish because I had always spoken it, so there was little question. I studied Spanish for the same reason every other bilingual Mexican kid studies it: it’s easy. Of course, the first two years of Spanish are easy. You smirk as other kids struggle with the fact that the double ‘ll’ is said as an English ‘y’ sound (instead of like the English llama). But then, as you progress in your Spanish study (because it allows you to be immersed in Spanish for an hour a day at school, yay!), it gets harder. It’s not just a matter of imitating what you hear at home, the grammar gets more complex. So if you’re like me, you start studying French, as a challenge.

I also studied Arabic for three weeks during grad school, as a way of learning about my Lebanese roots (pet peeve: when people say, “Do you speak Lebanese?” That’s not a language, dummy!). In the class were young professionals looking to get ahead in their political/intelligence/foreign service careers. I was possibly the only person there with an interest in Arab civilization. It was jarring to encounter people who studied a language not for the fun of it, but because of its perceived utility. I have friends who have proclaimed their intention to teach their young child Chinese, because it is so useful. You see, in the 80’s that useful language was Japanese, and before that, any aspiring young diplomat learned Russian. So the language du jour changes. But our culture and intersts do not. I could have grown up in a time when speaking Spanish was not considered an asset. So I don’t speak Spanish, or French, because they’re useful. I speak them because I like them. They’re now a part of me. Let your culture and interests guide you in choosing which language to study.

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