Over the last four years, I have often been forced to contend with two comments concerning my college majors. After I reveal that I study French and English, people inevitably make some dismissive comment about how I will go into teaching and then they ask if I am fluent in French.
Although the first supposition exhausts most students of the liberal arts, the second question seems fair. I have studied the French language for eight years. I have read more than 25 books cover to cover and written full length essays in French. Films like Rohmer’s Six Contes Moraux move me deeply without subtitles.
And though I have studied French for almost a decade, I have never been to France. I have never smelled the Gauloises burning in the fingers of cafe patrons, never looked at that skeletonic tower with which Americans identify the French. Despite all of this, if I were to enter a French cafe, I would likely stumble through an effort to order an espresso.
Why is this? Because foreign language majors at Hillsdale do not study in order to obtain the skill of fluent speech. Though that skill could be an incurred benefit of studying a rich language like French, American students have no chance of developing even reasonable fluency if they don’t run off to a different country for a semester or more.
I chose not to leave. Despite my freshman plan to spend the first semester of my junior year in the land of baguettes and berets, when the time came, I found myself wanting to stay at Hillsdale and continue my pursuit of truth instead of the pursuit of skill.
At Hillsdale, we speak a lot about the liberal arts as we defend students’ decisions to whittle away their hours translating ancient Roman poetry and studying the intricacies of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, but the same defense seems to come rarely for language majors. The expectation of fluency shows that when it comes to language, lovers of the liberal arts still succumb to utilitarian ignorance.
In a piece published by the Huffington post, titled “The Best Languages to Learn in College,” Dr. Ali Binazir writes, “Hate to say it, but French is pretty useless except for speaking, well, French. Although the employability boost is minimal at best, of all the languages you could learn, this one probably makes you look the most sophisticated.”
Through taking courses in foreign languages, students engage not only with a different culture and body of literature, but they also engage with differences in philosophy and culture while they try understanding their world more fully. Students begin to bear the weight of a separate tradition, a non-english tradition.
Marie de France, the 12th century French poetess, wrote a poem titled “Chevrefoil” which could be the earliest piece of literature that focuses solely on romantic love. In the poem, the king banished Tristan, the hero, from the kingdom for falling in love with the King’s wife. During Pentecost, in the middle of the night, Tristan hides near the forest path the queen will take and carves his name into a hazelnut branch as a secret message for his former lover, the queen. She sees it on her way through the woods and the two meet for just a moment. When the time of parting comes, both Tristan and the queen weep.
To read this story in ancient French is to comprehend the genesis of romance. To read it is to connect with the foundation of how we conceive of love. It is the first story of unrequited love, wrapt with self-determination and tenderness still recognizable today.
This moving experience with the French language is more profound than the ability to ask a passerby directions to the nearest metro stop or to barter with a street vendor.
Like any of the disciplines protected under the umbrella of the liberal arts, foreign languages slice through the mysteries of the world and allow glimpses of transcendent truth. When we suppose that the priority of any foreign language major should be the mastery of elocution, vocabulary, and phraseology, we suppose that the pursuit is merely useful if not for commercial advantage, then for reasons of personal vanity and cultural superiority.
In reality, the earnest study of a foreign language forges empathy with a dissimilar culture and opens students to the possibilities of human thought and experience. Before you ask a foreign language major to say something in their elementary tongue, consider that they are learning more than a marketable skill or a party trick, consider that they are stumbling their way toward truth.
Mark Naida is a senior studying English and French.