Monday, February 17, 2014

Analysis: John McWhorter's Recent Article on French

Linguist John McWhorter's recent article on why he thinks that French is no longer an important language understandably created a bit of a furor within French-teaching circles, not to mention French government circles within the U.S. that are seeking to promote the French language. Several high-profile responses have done a reasonably good job of pointing out the shortcomings of McWhorter's piece (which does not benefit from a sensationalized and thus bad title). Here I would like to examine a few of McWhorter's main points to express some agreement but also general criticism.

Is French a Class Marker?

First, in order to defend McWhorter against ad hominem attacks, it is important to note that he has a bachelor's degree in French and, presumably, still speaks French -- not to mention that he is a respected linguist and so should have something intelligent to say. It is thus baffling to read statements such as the following in his article: "French in educated America is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language." He even asserts that "our little ones must [...] now know some French to qualify as what used to be called 'people of quality.'"

Maybe McWhorter just lives in a very different cross-section of American society than pretty much all French teachers (or French speakers, for that matter). It is conceivable that some parents and students of French have as their primary motive some sort of Victorian-era-style snobbery as one of their ulterior motives. But even in the New York schools that receive French governnment funding for language instruction that apparently ignited McWhorter's knee-jerk reaction, it is highly unlikely that this is in anyone's reasoning, making the linguist's reaction just that, knee-jerk and unfair.

Which Languages Are Useful?
How do you even determine linguistic usefulness, for that matter? Some advocates of French (and other "minority") language programs have, due to budget cuts and reprioritizing largely due to the recession of the past five or so years, resorted to unhelpful attempts to quantify the importance and usefulness of French. McWhorter seems to be bound up in these same misguided metrics of immediately visible "practicality" or "usefulness." He writes, for example, that "one learns French to communicate with ... who, exactly? Some will yearn to read Sartre and Molière; more power to them. But what about languages like Spanish and Chinese, which are useful to learn because we encounter them in everyday life?"

Here is another zinger from the linguist along similar lines: "It's swell that knowing French allows you to ignore subtitles in the occasional art house film, but unclear why this would be considered a priority of childrearing."

This is, first, shocking coming from someone who knows French. Is he really ignorant of the importance of French in the world? I do not argue that we should ignore population sizes and business/political/cultural applications of languages. And certainly Spanish is more immediately useful in most North American settings as a spoken language. But does McWhorter really think that Chinese is more useful or frequently encountered in "daily life" (not sure who's) than French, or that French is exclusively useful for reading Sartre?

Again, these metrics are not terribly important -- or at least not determinative. What is really important is what people want to learn. Why should we insist that anyone learn French or Spanish or Chinese if they really want to learn, say, Urdu or Breton or Fang? I just do not get this purely quantitative approach to language pedagogy. For practical reasons, I understand that universities, for example, can only offer so many languages, and for the most part those will be the more common ones, one of which is French by any metric.

McWhorter seems furthermore unaware of current scholarship on language pedagogy and neurolinguistics. How else could he baldly assert that Chinese should be taught early, not French, because "with Chinese, beginning to learn the language at 18, in a freshman course, is too late"? This is simply wrong, not to mention insulting to Chinese professors and to the capacity of the human brain for language acquisition.

So, Is French Important?

Well, is language important? Of course it is. The usefulness and importance of a given language depends, again, on the individual. Thus the incomprehensibility of the obtuseness in McWhorter's final paragraph:
What, then, is the benefit of kids internalizing Comment allez-vous? rather than ¿Como estas?Nǐ hǎo?, or even Hindi’s Ap kaise hai? All I know is that if my two-year-old turns out to be the language nerd I was, I will counsel her to think of French as a distinctly low priority. I’m trying to learn some Chinese lately. As I laboriously stuff the characters into my head with flash cards and watch natives sweetly wincing as I mangle the tones, I only wish that even as far back as the Watergate era they had been teaching me Chinese instead of the likes of pomme de terre and je m’appelleHélas.
I can only close by saying that if French is unimportant for McWhorter and his daughter, that is totally fine. That, of course, cannot be generalized to any other American, much less the American population and children as a whole. And also, if he, a linguist, is really struggling that much with learning Chinese, I or myriad others can give him a few pointers on language acquisition. It is not as hard as he would make it out to be. There may be some points to make about language teaching (French in particular), and indeed I have some to make later, but McWhorter wasted an entire article on red herrings and simply unlearned assessments of language and language education.


  1. I dunno, Jeremy. I really think this is your chance to develop a public, well, raison d'être as a French teacher, and I'm not yet satisfied with your answer.

    You basically dismiss McWhorter’s argument that French is a class marker, but you don’t say what *does* motivate most parents to put their children in French classes. And, more importantly, I came away from your post—a subject in which I have a lot of interest, especially as my kids start school—not knowing what *should* motivate me to put my child in French class. The only thing I really got out of your post as far as reasons go is that French is “common … by any metric.”

    I’m in “print” saying that money is the true driving force behind language instruction in America. We teach modern languages when they are spoken by people who can reward us financially. I surely could be wrong, but it certainly would help explain why Urdu, Breton, and Fang programs are, to put it mildly, rare in American high schools and colleges (my example was Quechua).

    Money isn’t the only factor, of course. Culture plays a role. It’s not an accident that the most commonly taught languages in America are contributors to the Western tradition; this makes their literatures more easily comprehensible to us than those of other traditions. Learning these languages can help enrich our understanding of the big conversation that’s been going on for so many centuries in the West.

    But I think McWhorter’s right: most highly significant foreign-language works in my field, at least, seem to have been translated into English. So the cultural motivation is weakened. I’m left with the money motivation.

    And that’s the best case for Chinese right now: it’s making the best bid to be the world’s second-place lingua franca (an ironic phrase, I know) merely because China is becoming the world’s second-place super-power. And what cultural riches could be gained from mining their literature?

    I think you’re wrong (but I still like you, you know) to say that McWhorter is stuck in “misguided metrics of immediately visible ‘practicality.’” I listened to his whole series on language for the Learning Company, and he seems to like language whether it’s immediately useful or not. Like it or not, however, somebody has to pay language teachers, and they do have to justify their particular language’s value. I believe there is value in the liberal arts in general—and in learning any language—and I’m concerned that STEM may take over funding that should go to the humanities, but we have to do better than saying that French is “common” and that if McWhorter doesn’t like it he can learn something else.

    This comment is written in good faith that you’re the man to do better!

  2. Here's that post:

  3. Hey Mark! Good points. I won't respond in depth now because, though you're absolutely right to point out that I don't say what does (or should) motivate parents to put children in French classes, I intend a post on that later.

    For now, I just wanted to debunk McWhorter. My main points there (and these are not as developed as they should be, perhaps) are 1) he is obviously unaware of the metrics, and 2) he is (at least in this article, though maybe not in his series for the Learning Company) barking up the wrong tree anyway with his exclusive focus on those metrics.

    All that to say, I'll come back and spell out my own ideas more clearly in a later post!