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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.