If Jeremy Paxman is to be believed “… the real problem with French is that it is a useless language.” He took a real pop at the language in an opinion column in the Financial Times, which was followed up by much of the media.
Naturally, this sparked outrage among students here at the VICI Language Academy – and not just those learning French, and reassuringly if you look through the comments in response to the FT article and the other newspapers, the vast majority put up a spirited defence of French and the value of learning it.
Before we offer our own word of practical wisdom, let’s just recap what the erstwhile Newsnight presenter said in the now infamous column. He began in combative form:
“What is the point of learning French? In a notoriously monoglot nation such as ours, the answer is usually something along the lines of the old justification for forcing cod-liver oil down children’s throats: it is good for you.
“It is time to realise that in many parts of the world, being expected to learn French is positively bad for you. If you were to emerge from school unable to add up, you would, rightly, be furious. Yet it is possible to finish schooling all over the world fluent in French but ignorant of the skill absolutely necessary get by in the global economy: English.
“There is nothing inherently evil in promoting the teaching of French… In many of the countries where French is most actively taught — one thinks immediately of north Africa — the indigenous tongue is very different. So learning a foreign language which uses a different alphabet is no mean feat. The problem is not that French is impossible to learn: you can hear it spoken perfectly in Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. No, the real problem with French is that it is a useless language.”
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying any language as a hobby or mental discipline. But let us not pretend that understanding Sanskrit has great practical value.
“If you are a native English speaker, by all means learn Chinese or Arabic or Spanish. If you must, study French, because it is a beautiful language. But let us have no truck with suggestions that it is much worth learning as a medium of communication.”
Oh where to begin? Firstly let’s keep in mind Paxman enjoys being controversial and is a bit like an educated Katie Hopkins. That is to say both present opinion as if it is fact in order to court controversy and no doubt justify the salaries newspapers pay for the engagement it creates. All that said, let’s demolish his argument with suitable aplomb (incidentally a French word now part of the English language).
He says that English is so widely spoken and the language of commerce that there is no need to speak another language. We have long argued that the widespread nature of spoken English is precisely why you should learn a second language. Knowing English no longer offers a competitive advantage, but there are enough people who have a different first language, knowing a second or third language does offer a competitive advantage and makes your more employable – and you’ll earn more than your monoglot colleagues!
I’m also unclear why he picked on a few African countries, especially when 26 countries speak French as a first language. Also French is still widely accepted as the diplomatic language of choice.
Then there are the phenomenal advantages to the development of children’s brains and confidence by learning a second language, and French is the perfect first language for children to learn and builds a foundation to learn other European or international languages.
We are in agreement with Paxman that French is a beautiful language, it truly is (and I’m not just saying that as a native of France!), however he is so wrong that it is not a tool of communication, it is and it will be for many years – whether it is to give you the competitive edge in business, because you want to be a diplomat, or simply want to be able to enjoy your holiday in one of 26 different countries.
Incidentally, Paxman also relied upon the word ‘etiolated’ in his article, a French word it means having lost vigour and being feeble. Perhaps that is a good word to describe someone who once used to hold politicians to account, but now picks fights in a newspaper column.