If you haven’t read Liam Mullone’s piece in The Spectator entitled “Why I won’t let my children learn French,” you should. His writing is as crisp as an autumn leaf and evinces an excellent grasp of history. It’s also one of the most dangerously myopic articles written about a foreign language I’ve ever read.
If you don’t care to read the full article, the cliff notes are thus: Mr. Mullone makes the case that both the economic prospects of the French language and the moral transgressions perpetrated by the French government in Africa vitiate any need for his children to learn the language of Molière; indeed, he claims he fight any attempt to inculcate his children with the French language vociferously.
Africa’s Francophone countries, he writes, “speak French because 100 years ago they had no choice.” They’re “irretrievably buggered” for reasons that are “intimately connected to the fact that they speak French.” He goes on to list the ways in which France has entangled itself with nefarious regimes and hampered progress in those countries since the decline of its colonial empire in the mid-20th century. “Today,” he writes, “if you scratch a poor Francophone country you’ll find France.”
Which languages will Mr. Mullone allow his children to learn? Well, on this point he’s rather specific. “German is going places,” he writes. “Mandarin will be indispensable. Spanish has few irregular verbs and is spoken in a multitude of fascinating countries with positive economic outlooks.”
If you are to accept Mr. Mullone’s argument, you must first accept the spurious premise on which it rests: That a particular language’s moral value is equivalent to the sum of the sins committed by its speakers. Taken to its logical ends, this reasoning leads to some rather unsavory—and decidedly limiting—conclusions.
Take English, for instance. Ah, yes, English—my mother tongue. We could mention U.S. and British slavery; years of secret and not-so-secret British and American meddling in the Middle East and Latin America wherein our governments toppled democratically-elected governments and installed or backed brutal dictators in service of our own interests;orhuman rights abuses committed during the decade-long U.S.-led and British-supported War on Terror, War in Afghanistan, and invasion of Iraq. Does the collective weight of these events, then, inveigh against learning the English language? I don’t think Mr. Mullone would agree.
In addition to English, is it not also the case that Mr. Mullone’s reasoning would preclude his children from learning German as a result of the holocaust; or Mandarin as a result of the Chinese government’s continued denial of basic human rights in occupied Tibet or support for the Kim regime in North Korea; or Spanish as a result of the Spanish conquistadors’ decimation of native populations in South America?
The world’s major languages are, by and large, major languages because their speakers have, throughout history, expanded their holdings overseas by committing all manner of atrocities in pursuance of their own interests. If you scratch at many of the world’s major languages today, more often than not you’ll find histories of murder, oppression, slavery, and any number of other unsavory deeds. Mr. Mullone is correct in saying that the French are guilty of this, but so too are the Germans, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans. And though largely Mandarin-speaking China hasn’t had a global colonial empire to speak of, it’s certainly not without its flaws. (What sorts of thoughts, for instance, does “The Great Leap Forward” bring to mind?)
If he would like to teach his children a language whose speakers have committed the fewest moral transgressions, Mr. Mullone would do well to browse through UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and choose from among those. Speakers of those languages have experienced history as a negative experiences its photograph. Consequently, their numbers are dwindling, and their mother tongues are likely to find themselves in the dustbins of history by the conclusion of this century.
The troubling bit for me—and the bit that I cannot seem to move past—is that Mr. Mullone’s argument is merely the latest iteration of ignorance cloaked in the trappings of faux-intellectualism. Take, for instance, the controversy a few years ago in the United States over the “ground zero mosque,” the Islamic community center that was to be neither a mosque nor located on what was formerly ground zero. A variety of television personalities took to their glossy bully pulpits to deride the proposal, which they found offensive, as through the events of September 11th constituted an indictment of the Islamic religion as a whole.
Here we find the rhetorical cousin of Mr. Mullone’s present argument regarding the French language. Calls like these for retributive cultural justice miss their mark because they paint the world with the smallest strokes possible, strokes that make the lines of the world appear clean, sharp, and perfectly discernable. The truth, however, is that they aren’t—indeed, the world looks much more like a Jackson Pollack than we’d care to admit—which is a truth that is quite frightening for many people.
There exists a great paradox in Mr. Mullone’s argument: The ultimate goal of learning another language is to be able to access a new culture, new people, and new experiences that would otherwise have been inaccessible if not for the acquired language; Mr. Mullone’s argument, however, precludes these possibilities. Africans in francophone Africa likely don’t spend each day cursing the French. They speak French because, well—they speak French, and if you’d like to communicate with them, learning French would be a good way to do so, especially if they don’t speak English, which, spoiler alert, not everyone does.
If you taste the injustice in each language you attempt to speak, you will taste a bitterness that pervades your worldview, rendering you wholly incapable of realizing the full benefits of multilingualism, of travel, of experiencing other cultures. A language is greater than the sum of the atrocities committed by its speakers; indeed, the world is greater than the sum of the atrocities committed by its inhabitants.