what language to study

Our 10-year-old can decide whether to study Chinese, Latin, French, or Spanish in school, repeating a choice that our older kid got to make some years ago (minus the Chinese option). In my own childhood, I studied Latin and French and have since added some other languages, although none to a level of mastery. My school friends and I almost all chose French over Spanish. Perhaps part of the reason was that we lived near Quebec and very far from Mexico, and there were hardly any Latino immigrants that far north in those days. But the main reason was that French seemed to define a certain level of educational attainment (and therefore class status), not only for Americans, but for many people around the world.

I’m glad I learned French. It’s a beautiful language, and I’ve had opportunities to read some literature in the original language and to spend time in francophone countries. These are mind-broadening experiences. But of course Spanish is also beautiful; there is more excellent literature in Spanish than one could read in a lifetime; and numerous countries speak Spanish. The same could be said of Chinese. The main reason we all chose French, I must admit, was to join a global class of people for whom French was an expected part of an education. This expectation began with the diplomatic dominance of France from the 17th to the 19th century, but its legacy lasted long after Napoleon, because once a language is a common expectation, it pays to acquire it. By the time I was born, English was far more widely spoken and useful than French, but French remained a privileged second language in anglophone countries. Often, French passages in Russian novels and French dishes on restaurant menus were left untranslated because the sophisticated reader was supposed to understand them in the original.

Pierre Bourdieu is the theorist of such “cultural capital.” (By the way, you can read him in English.) He explains how relatively arbitrary bodies of knowledge become markers of status. For cosmopolitans of relatively high socioeconomic standing, knowledge of French has been part of the habitus. I believe that today the privileged position of French is slipping, although it may still have some force. I also believe in making choices for ethical reasons, not to maximize one’s own cultural capital. Thus, on balance, I would probably choose Spanish or Chinese if I were ten, although not without a sense that I was missing a key to the kingdom if I didn’t learn French.

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