COLUMN: C’est la vie.



“Pourquoi est-ce que vous étudiez français?”

Why are you studying French?

That was the question my teacher, Mme de Venoge, asked aloud on the first day of my seventh-grade French class. In my opinion, this was not a particularly great way to start the year. No one in the class spoke more than a few words of French, so we could neither understand what Madame was saying nor give even a minimally coherent response. Fortunately, she provided salvation in the form of the “Introduction” section of our Beginners French textbook. It helpfully included an English-language page entitled “10 Reasons To Study French.” This seemed to satisfy most of my classmates, who, when called upon by Madame, gave one of the stock reasons from the book, such as No. 6: “French is the main language of the fashion industry.” (Apparently these writers have never heard of Gucci or Versace.) This worked for a little bit, but I felt that the last few reasons were really stretching it: No. 9 read “Many scientists and mathematicians are French.” Great, but many are also German, or Japanese, or speak lots of other languages. I mean, come on. Certainly No. 3: “French is the second-most used language on the Internet,” was true for Al Gore’s Internet of the 1995 publication date. But over twenty years later, French now is barely beating Polish to claim the number-six spot for Internet use. I’m sure the authors meant well, but none of the reasons seemed to work for me.

I must have been born with the desire to take French. There were really no other factors impacting my decision when I signed up for my seventh-grade classes. I only recall a deep-seated conviction that I absolutely HAD to take French. I have no relatives or friends who live in France, or even Québec (despite my many fan letters to Celine Dion.) I have no desire to enter the cooking industry or diplomacy (other reasons listed in the textbook.) The only part of my twelve-year-old thought process that I do remember was my father.

Just as much as I desired to take French, he was irrevocably set against it. I needed to learn Spanish, he insisted. I should have paid closer attention to what he said at the time, because the litany of reasons to learn Spanish he recited are ones that many French students come to hear quite often—from parents, friends, assorted relatives, counselors, teachers and that bartender in Puerto Rico who was quite offended when I confessed to him that I knew French but not Spanish.

Today, that holier-than-thou sermon about the superiority of the Spanish language causes me extreme discomfort that manages to be nauseating yet satisfyingly familiar. And the main points are still the same from when my dad first lectured me: First goes that more people speak Spanish than French. This is true, but the people I know who speak Spanish also speak English. People who only speak Spanish live in places like Bolivia. Unlike them, I do not live in Bolivia; therefore, there is not a pressing need for me to learn Spanish.

Second, they say, Spanish is very common in the United States, especially in California, the Southwest and Florida. Again, this is a fair point, but I make no plans to live in Florida as an adult. Who do you think I am? No one voluntarily resides in Florida unless they are over the age of 65 or magically immune to mosquito bites.

Lately, I’ve also read in quite a few places that over half of Americans will speak Spanish by 2030. This statistic, accepted as gospel by many online blogs, is misleading, mostly because it’s a lie. The Census Bureau does estimate that Hispanics will make up a third of the American population—in 2060, thirty years after the fact. So how did they get to 50% of Americans? They included everybody who’s ever taken a Spanish class. Sure, this sounds fine. One doesn’t necessarily have to be Latino to speak Spanish. The problem is, this includes millions of people like my rather white mother, who grew up in South Florida and took Spanish classes for four years of high school. Today, I think she can maybe order a sandwich in Miami on a good day. And forget about all those losers who took a year of remedial Spanish to fill the course requirement. Please. How much Spanish do you think they know? What is so frustrating about people who take Spanish is their obvious disdain for anyone who doesn’t. I kind of vaguely understand their sense of superiority, but only by comparing it to my clear superiority to anyone who takes Latin.

Latin is literally a dead language. People who take Latin are either a) idiots who think four years of suffering through endless verb conjugations will somehow give them an unparalleled boost on their SAT scores, b) vocally impaired people who don’t want to take the oral portion of the IB language exam, or c) ambitious go-getters planning to enter competitive fields where knowledge of Latin is certainly a requirement, the most common being medicine and law. This last type is particularly frustrating. Even my father, an estate lawyer in a profession where almost every term comes from Latin, freely admits that he absolutely regrets taking four years of Latin in high school.

But French is different, and not just because people actually speak it. As far as I know, it’s the only language where the reasons to take it are constantly drilled into you. Over the years, I’ve noticed that this rehearsal of reasons is a unique symptom of the French inferiority complex. I had to repeat the vaguely disquieting discussion about the merits of the French language at the beginning of eighth and ninth grade.

Naturally, when I took Spanish 1 sophomore year, I assumed that we’d begin by discussing the various barely relevant rationales to study Spanish, as well. But no, Señora Laureen Burke just dived straight into Lesson 1. This is another glaring symptom of the smugness of Spanish-takers. Clearly, there is some unspoken, unwritten code that is somehow obvious to everyone in Spanish that we don’t need to go over the reasons to take Spanish because they’re just so undeniable. What reasons aren’t there, the message seems to be. Well, I’ve got an ironclad one: I still can’t roll my Rs. This sounds somewhat manageable, but it really isn’t when one is trying to speak Spanish in comprehensible sentences without sounding like an infant or idiot. I’ve made numerous valiant attempts at it, and the many freshmen in my class have very graciously tried to coach me, but to no avail. Me rolling my Rs is like Sisyphus trying to roll his boulder. It just will never work for reasons beyond my control.

I still don’t know why I’m taking French, but at least now I have the satisfaction of knowing that Spanish doesn’t work for me. Even today, as course registration forces me to confront a seemingly impossible number of required classes for my junior year, I can cling to the comforting, stable fact that at least I will still be taking French. C’est la vie.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: