Parlez-Vous Français? Americans and Foreign Languages

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 18, 2020

Man of letters Samuel Johnson once remarked, “Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

In the spring of 1974, I learned the truth of that saying.

A graduate student in European history at Wake Forest University, I was on the verge of winning my master’s degree and heading north with a fellowship to the University of Connecticut. I’d nearly completed my thesis, and had only to pass an exam in French to finish the program.

The exam, if I recollect correctly, was 60 minutes long, and students were allowed three attempts to pass it. I’d taken French for two years in high school, some of the sources I’d used for my thesis were in French, and I was overly confident. After a few hours of study, I took the exam and failed abysmally.

For the second exam, I studied a bit more, but failed again, though not quite as badly.

At this point my adviser, the beloved Jim Barefield, called me into his office. “If you don’t pass this next exam,” he said, “you won’t graduate, and your fellowship at Connecticut will disappear.”

“I’ve been in tougher places,” I said.

The raised eyebrow and the look of incredulity he gave me were unforgettable.

For the next 17 days, from early morning into the evening, I did little but study French grammars and textbooks, frantically crammed vocabulary into my brain, read and interpreted passages, and walked up and down the street outside reciting conjugations. The possibility of losing everything I’d worked so hard for had, as Johnson said, concentrated my mind wonderfully.

I took the third test, received a score of 90 percent, and by fall was in Storrs, Connecticut.

And to this day, though I would never embarrass myself trying to converse in French, I can read my way through a French newspaper with some help from a dictionary.

The Scattergun Approach

In addition to French, I’d also studied Latin for two years in high school and for a semester in college, read primary sources in Latin at Wake Forest and Storrs (which I left after a year for personal reasons), and later taught Latin to homeschooling students. In college, I also studied Russian for three semesters. My poor instruction in that language and my own ineptitude have left me unable to say little more than “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “I love you,” “I don’t know,” “Thank you,” and “Don’t shoot.” (It was a military college.)

I imagine my experiences with foreign languages are typical of many American students. Though I’ve known young people who became fluent in Russian or Arabic, most of us who sit through French, Spanish, or Chinese in secondary school come away equipped only with common phrases and a short list of vocabulary words.

Why is that? Why can so few Americans speak and comprehend a second language?

Reasons for Failure

In “Why Don’t More Americans Know More Foreign Languages?” Steph Koyfman analyzes this deficit. She points out that American geographical and cultural isolation may still play a part in our aversion to learning another language, but even more importantly she draws attention to our system of education: the shortage of qualified teachers, the failure of schools to emphasize foreign languages—only 11 states require a foreign language for graduation—and perhaps most crucial of all, the failure of most of our students to begin learning a second language while in elementary school.

In many other countries, students are exposed to a foreign language, often English, in their early elementary school years. Through that course of study, they leave school with eight to nine years of learning a language other than their own. Not all of these programs are successful. The Japanese concentrate on reading English and learning its grammar rather than speaking it so as to pass written exams for universities, and German students who don’t attend gymnasium, our equivalent to high school, often leave school at age 15 without being particularly skilled in the other languages.

toddler learning a language
Of course, it’s best if we start learning a language early. (Maroke/Shutterstock)

Nonetheless, introducing students at an earlier age to a foreign language, and thereby extending the number of years they study it, does bring results. Here I will cite the case of one of my Latin students. I began tutoring him in Latin when he was 7 years old, and just before his 14th birthday, he took the Advanced Placement Latin Exam and scored 4 out of 5 on that test, an above average score.

ulius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico
Learning a language often involves learning history and culture as well. Julius Caesar’s “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” is one of the most famous classical Latin texts. (Public Domain)

Is There Any Value in Studying a Foreign Language?

Certainly. Here are just a few of the reasons to do so.

Learning a foreign language puts students in touch with another country. Typically, students studying German, French, Spanish, or Chinese will pick up information about the culture of those nations. My high school French teacher, for example, who had spent a couple of years in that country, taught us French songs, regaled us with tales of living in Paris, and taught us a little modern French history.

The study of a foreign language, like the study of higher mathematics or the sciences, also exercises the mind, forcing students to think more abstractly than they might in a literature or history class.

And learning a foreign language immerses students in the basics of grammar. Given that many American students are weak in that subject, which is often neglected after elementary school, a new language brings into play such concepts as the subjunctive voice or the use of an adjective as a noun.

Those who wish to become teachers add strength to their job prospects if their résumé includes a second language. An example: When I taught homeschoolers Latin, I would tell them that if they decided to pursue the classics, doors into the teaching world might open to them. Five of those young people are today Latin instructors in private schools. This same situation is probably true across the board, for as Steph Koyfman tells us, all of our schools are begging for qualified language teachers.

Finally, becoming fluent in another language opens doors of possibility for future employment and adventure. Our military and our diplomatic corps are always on the lookout for candidates fluent in a language other than English or Spanish, and many companies welcome job seekers who can engage foreign clients in their own language. The young woman I knew who became fluent in Russian—she majored in that and Russian history in college—worked for several years in that country for an American firm.

These last two reasons account for the establishment of the European Day of Languages. Since 2001, the European Union has set aside Sept. 26 to celebrate its diverse languages and as a day to encourage its citizens, both young and old, to learn a new language so that they might enjoy greater opportunities in work and travel.

Maybe we Americans should do the same.

Resources and Help

Certainly we live in the best of times for acquiring a second language.

We can go online and read newspapers from Paris, watch any number of instructive videos on YouTube, enroll in foreign language programs through universities or community colleges, and purchase any number of language programs on CDs and DVDs. We can ask our neighbor, who spent part of her life in Spain, to instruct our children in Spanish. And we ourselves, whatever our age, can partake of these same gifts.

Online resources are more abundant than ever. The Live Lingua Project, for example, offers free instruction in over 130 foreign languages, with each program featuring free e-books, videos, and audios.

Or you might want to try the approach I took so long ago. Fill a desk full of grammar books and readers, chain yourself to a chair, metaphorically of course, and slog away for a few weeks. The method’s painful, but it worked for me.

Et Voilà!

At our fingertips are the means and materials to learn a foreign language. What is required is the time and willpower to make those resources our own.

Kathryn O’Brien’s “First Year French,” the textbook I used 55 years ago, has these lines in the first lesson:

J’entre dans la salle de classe. I enter the classroom.

Je regarde autour de moi. I look around.

Je vois les élèves et le professeur. I see the students and the teacher.

Je dis bonjour au professeur. I say hello to the professor.

Je prends ma place. I take my place.

Young or old, if we want to learn a foreign language, we must enter the classroom, greet the teacher, and take our place.

C’est facile, eh?

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.