as you likely know, i’m a teacher. what you may not know, however, is that i am a native french speaker and this means i am sometimes asked to teach french language. it’s not something i do all that often, though i have created a series of curriculum guides for teaching the language and language teaching in general is my main educational specialty — it’s what my graduate research focused on. french as a specific case is very much like any other modern european language. the french language is probably the most fundamentally representative of what modern european languages are like, actually. and it’s spoken by untold millions (billions if you count non-native speakers) and is high on the list of functional languages for global communication.
the question i’m asked, though, by most people — especially parents wondering about second-language education in schools but sometimes others — is why learn french. well, there are five reasons i typically give. they don’t all apply to everyone but i guarantee you’ll find at least one that works for you and you may find yourself getting closer and more intimate with la belle langue in the near future (it literally means “the beautiful tongue” but you can think of it as closer to “the language of the gods” because that’s how it’s generally interpreted in context).
the five-part motivational answer comes down to these things — beauty, poetry, theater, communication and function.
french may not be the most beautiful written language in the world (it’s not, i guarantee you, though i’m not sure what is — my vote on that sometimes goes to chinese, sometimes korean, for different reasons, korean having by far the most advanced writing system currently in common use and chinese having the most efficient while maintaining aesthetic precision). but it makes up for its ridiculous spelling and complex written grammar by its musicality and tonal beauty, at least to me. when people call french “the beautiful language”, they don’t mean looking at it on a page. they mean how it sounds. it is inherently like singing a song in so many ways and it has another great quality that differentiates it from languages like english and german — it’s uninflected. that makes it far easier to listen to. it sounds more like a constantly-flowing waterfall without all these sharp pauses and speed changes. words merge into each other (we can call this elision if we want to get technical and it’s what makes “il” and “est” together sounds like “ee-lay” and “je t’aime” becomes a single-syllable gloss of “jtm” with no functional vowels. this softening of the spoken language presents a gentle side of a culture that in many ways is quite inherently rough, a paradox — french culture is full of those, you will quickly discover, much as french cuisine is full of pairs of actual ducks, much to my chagrin.
there are few things more integral to the history of french than its poetry. ask a french native speaker with no language interest what is so good about the french language and they’ll probably give you an answer that includes the word poetry in some form. even the simplest of french poetry (usually in the form of children’s lullabies) has an aural beauty that the most advanced english poetry can’t match. it flows off the tongue easily without all the harsh consonants and it’s full of neutralized vowel sounds and glosses where most other languages have sharp edges. french, in a word, is soft. sure, you can shout it and you can definitely be angry in french (call someone in marseille english or german and you’ll immediately get to see it) but even mindless screaming in french has a subtle gentleness that’s hard to dismiss. i know. sounds impossible but watch a few french-language movies and you’ll see what i mean.
of course, as a native speaker, i should probably give you a few places to find french poetry to stimulate your interest. traditional english poetry is summarily shit. yes. i really did just say that and include shakespeare, milton, byron, yeats, burns, wilde, keats and donne in that classification and i will stand by it until the earth consumes my spent body. nothing worthwhile was written in english before the twentieth century and, as far as poetry goes, very little worthwhile appeared until about thirty or forty years ago (poetry before 1980 was classical, traditional nonsense and can be dismissed as childish and ridiculous). french poetry, however, like that of many other languages, has a long history of beauty. if you want some stunning poetry in french, one thing might disappoint in its selection — all the names i’m going to give you are dead white men. why is this? because france has for centuries been a predominantly-white country and women were almost completely eliminated from education because of christianity until the twentieth century. so who had the ability and social potential to write poetry? white men (before they were dead).
baudelaire, hugo, verlaine, apollinaire, mallarmé. these are the names you want to go looking for. not the only beautiful french writing in history and there’s amazing modern french poetry, too. to round out the list, here are a few contemporary poets you should check out if you’re interested — and their work (i checked) has been translated to english. stéphane bouquet, jérôme game, cécile coulon, rim battal, thomas vinau, valérie rouzeau, nathalie quintane. not all white, not all owning penises, all still living as i write this article. you’re welcome.
we can group this with traditional novels and such but really where the artistic writing has appeared in french is in its theater. the entire western tradition of theater in its modern form sprang nearly adult-born from french theater of the eighteenth-to-twentieth centuries. not to mention a history long before that. if you love modern television dramas, romance, anything performed on a stage, virtual or actual, with any intelligence or even comedy, you should thank a french playwright. this is where it began, grew, developed and became the thing you know, love and stream on netflix. without french theater, there would be no modern television drama, no sitcom, no romantic chick-flick and no blockbuster with its predictable explosions. entertainment in the theatrical and televised sense was born from french culture. and if this is something you enjoy you might want to go back and experience a little of it in its more nascent setting. perhaps not. but knowing more of the language will allow you to have a deeper connection with media culture. and that might be just what your saturday night binge-watching has been looking for. plus there’s so much awesome modern french filmmaking and television you’ll be amazed once you start watching it that you were satisfied with only things filmed in english. it’s more realistic, raw, gritty and emotional. if you’re into that (which i’m desperately not), it’ll check all the boxes for you. i love the more traditional theater with its passivity and gentleness. but if you’re like me you can find that pretty easily, too.
the names to look for in traditional french theater and literature (which is a sliding scale in ways i can barely describe), just to satisfy the curiosity of the literally six people who will ask, by the way, are mollière, hugo, racine, sartre, voltaire, ionesco, dumas, balzac, flaubert, zola, camus, bergerac… the list goes on and on and i’ve given you just a sample. while these are all men, they’re not all white and they didn’t all even grow up in france (ionesco was romanian, camus was algerian, etc). it’s a bit more diversity than you find in the traditional poetry and there are reasons for this. if you want one of the best traditional novels ever written, by the way, the name missing from that list is proust. his magnum opus is an amazing trip into memory and questions of realism. but it’s not even close to theater so i’ll leave that to your discretion. it’s also several thousand pages long and you probably have somewhere to be in the next ten years other than in front of your screen with a dictionary…
while those were arguments about what’s nice about french, this is different. it’s about french being useful. the united nations says almost three-hundred-million people speak fluent french in the world and more than a billion speak it at least a little. that’s the entire population of the united states of fluent speakers. if you go anywhere in the world and can’t find french speakers, it’s pretty astonishing. it’s taught both formally and informally in pretty-much every country and has been for centuries. it’s been the basis of languages from russian to japanese (to varying degrees) as borrowed words and sometimes even grammar. it’s the largest fundamental structure underlying modern english and its words make it possible to understand a huge portion of languages like latin without having to study them directly. the bigger key to this is where it’s spoken, though. if you travel in north america, europe and asia and you’re a fluent english speaker, you won’t get lost. seriously. everyone speaks at least a little english in these places and many people speak english better than native speakers — if those native speakers are from the united kingdom, even some of the beginners speak it better but that’s a story for another day, one i am itching to tell but it’s long, complex and will make many people angry so i have to mentally prepare myself for the onslaught that will come from telling the truth about the united kingdom as a country with only one official language but where almost nobody actually speaks it.
but go to africa and you’ll see (and hear) another story completely. many parts of that continent have far less english penetration. and that’s totally fair. there are plenty of totally functional modern languages spoken natively by populations in africa that are just as developed and coherent as english or french or mandarin. the problem is you likely don’t speak any of them. i don’t. and even my arabic isn’t up to the challenge of complex discussion, though arabic is quite common in much of africa, especially the northern parts. but french? that’s extremely common. there are few parts of africa where french hasn’t got serious traction with the local population, not necessarily as a native language but as their lingua-franca (which actually means “french language”, by the way, as it was the predominant language of commerce and trade long before english took over that role in the twentieth century and started to use the same phrase as self-description) of choice. there are some (painfully colonial) reasons this is true. but the simple truth is you’re probably more likely to find people who speak comprehensible french in most of africa than english. of course, i highly recommend if you’re going to spend time in a place to learn the local languages. at least enough for basic conversation. it’s respectful and interesting at the same time — a combination that doesn’t present itself nearly as frequently in life as i would prefer. but if you suddenly have to take a trip to rural algeria or morocco or travel through egypt… you might find it easier to brush up on your french, which is, after all, the foundation english was based on and fairly easy for english speakers to learn, rather than mastering the hypercomplexity of arabic, a language where everything, its dog and its dog’s dog has gender, number and a list of functional word changes as long as my arm, not to mention a writing system that is unavoidably cursive. don’t get me wrong. arabic is a beautiful language and i could listen to it all day. the problem with it is that, without many hundreds of hours more studying it, i could listen to it all day and catch less than ten percent of what was being sent my way. and that, in a practical sense, isn’t quite as useful as understanding nearly all the french — african french dialects vary quite a bit and even a native speaker like me can encounter some oddities but they don’t stop me from having a good conversation about any topic and being completely understood in both directions.
french is a functional language but that’s not what i mean. of course it’s functional. we use it every day to communicate. but we could use grunts and moans and quick smacks to the side of the head to communicate most of what we say in a typical day and it would be functional in a limited sense. what i mean by functionality is that it’s a modern language with (arguably) modern-ish grammar. you probably didn’t learn much about grammar in your native language. few people learn much of the complex stuff. if you’re an english speaker, i’d be amazed if you learned anything about grammar at all because it’s simply not in the western english-speaking curriculum, much to my dismay when trying to teach people about it later in their educational careers.
learning a foreign language will teach you how to speak and write and read and use english better. say what, you’re thinking. yes. speaking french won’t confuse your english. far from it. learning french will make you a better english speaker by teaching you the mechanics of language that transfer from one to another. and it will make you a vastly better writer for the same reason — but writing is more technical so the skills you learn in french will be more easily-transferrable to any other language. native korean speaker? no problem. learn french. it’ll help. native swahili speaker? same deal. it doesn’t have to be french. and a korean speaker may want to learn japanese while a swahili speaker may want to learn mandarin (yes, i know swahili is an african language but there’s a reason why chinese would be easier to learn than other african languages and have a more significant improvement impact on spoken and written language and if you really want to know the details you’re welcome to ask but even this comment is outside the typical guidelines i impose for staying on track in articles). but french is decidedly similar to english. it shares a huge amount of vocabulary if you’re ok with vague spelling and pronunciation differences. it has a very similar grammar. it has a culture that is very western and, while different, is predictably different in a way asian cultures aren’t to most english-native-speakers. so french is probably the fastest way for you to get an extralinguistic education. and that’s important.
french is worth studying, whether for its beauty, its past, its function or its usefulness in propping up your dismally-lacking education in language. but here’s the real reason to study french. it’s fun. yes, i’ll say that again. studying a new language is fun. mastering it is hard work but the basics? that’s fucking awesome. you’ll go around telling everyone you put on your best chapeau this morning and went for a promenade in the jardin before déjeuner under the beau soleil. welcome to my linguistic obsession. i’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself here. thanks for reading!