My 15-year-old daughter is off studying Russian at a language camp in Minnesota for a month. To which people generally ask incredulously: "Why Russian?" Last year, when she took French at Pasadena Community College, we got the same reaction: "Why French? Why not Spanish? Isn't that more useful around here?"

Well, no. What's useful in Los Angeles, just like everywhere else in the country, is English. I suppose if I were a contractor rounding up day laborers every morning, and wanted my daughter to learn the family business, Spanish would be invaluable. But this is not the case.

I do speak enough Spanish to communicate with the cleaning lady, just from living in the Hispanic barrio of Echo Park for six years. This is sort of useful, but not vital.

Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French. Even if we don't speak it (I certainly don't, although I took French for three years in high school), it gives us a deeper understanding of our own language, and prevents embarrassing gaffes like "I just love that Why-vees Saint Laurent!" Which some trophy wife actually said to me at a fashion show once.

Of course, studying any foreign language broadens the mind, which is why I've never understood people who keep demanding "Why Russian?" (The answer is that my daughter likes Russian literature and culture, and also has a Russian friend here in L.A. she can practice speaking Russian with.)

In Southern California, though, it's assumed that naturally most students should study Spanish as a foreign language, so that's all that many schools offer. The fact that in many schools the majority of students already speak Spanish at home, and therefore would find it far more useful to learn French (or another foreign language), never seems to have occurred to public school officials.

I can't access the horribly annoying L.A. Times archives via Google, but the paper ran an excellent July 2 story about all this titled Students Ask For More Foreign Language Choices, and you guys all have Lexis, right?

P.S. French can actually be handy, even here in Southern California. During the L.A. bus strike, I often gave one of my daughter's classmates from her community college French class, a 19-year-old girl from Guadalajara named Veronica, a lift home. Veronica works in the corner grocery on weekends, and told us she often gets into language trouble with customers.

"I was born here!" they'd say angrily, if she spoke to them in Spanish. "Speak English!"

So then she'd try English with the next customer, who'd snap, "Who are you trying to pretend to be? Speak Spanish!"

I suggested she start speaking to everyone in French. Then they can all feel equally offended.
Russian is a pretty difficult language to learn for an English-speaker, though, and many of the pronunciations are extremely hard to master. I wish her luck though. Znaniye vsegda polezno! French, on the other hand, is useful for intellectual snobs who like to know what "je ne sais quoi" really means, or the proper tense for ordering at a French restaurant.
7.17.2004 8:10pm
R. Martinez-Brunet (mail):
Dear Cathy,

Your phrases "I do speak enough Spanish to communicate with the cleaning lady" and "I were a contractor rounding up day laborers every morning ... Spanish would be invaluable" show a great deal of ignorance about Hispanic culture.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with learning Russian; is a beatiful language and, as you said "studying any foreign language broadens the mind". Are _you_ studying any foreign language? I would suggest Spanish.


Roberto Martinez-Brunet
7.17.2004 9:22pm
Jason (www):
I agree with everything you said. I studied spanish when I was in school and I have to go out of my way to find reasons to use it. it seems to me, unless you travel somewhere or are interested in foreign literature, english is all you'll use. lately, I've been trying to learn chinese just because it seems so dam hard to do.
7.17.2004 9:42pm
i've got to say, i agree with roberto. and how lovely of you to think of the spanish-speaking population as only day laborers or people to clean your toilet.

spanish, in all its many variations, is a lovely language. and i've found it comes in handy in some of the most unlikely places — such as the main post office in prague. i don't speak a lick of czech (although i would like to learn some day; it's my father's first language), but as i was fretting about my inability to navigate the various lines (in spanish), a spanish gentleman came to my assistance.
7.17.2004 10:15pm
DetachedObserver (mail) (www):
Way to peddle ethnic/racial stereotypes.

"Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French"

Its difficult to respond to the arrogance embodied in that statement. Educated English speakers have also studied ancient greek and latin until fairly recently; does that make it a good idea? Taking French in high school, and forgetting it aferwards, leaves you with little besides an ability to avoid embarassing gaffes at socialite dinner parties.

Perhaps you should rethink your idea of what makes an "educated" person.
7.17.2004 10:57pm
DetachedObserver (mail) (www):
Way to peddle ethnic/racial stereotypes.

"Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French"

Its difficult to respond to the arrogance embodied in that statement. Educated English speakers have also studied ancient greek and latin until fairly recently; does that make it a good idea? Taking French in high school, and forgetting it aferwards, leaves you with little besides an ability to avoid embarassing gaffes at socialite dinner parties.

Perhaps you should rethink your idea of what makes an "educated" person.
7.17.2004 10:57pm
DetachedObserver (mail) (www):
Way to peddle ethnic/racial stereotypes.

"Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French"

Its difficult to respond to the arrogance embodied in that statement. Educated English speakers have also studied ancient greek and latin until fairly recently; does that make it a good idea? Taking French in high school, and forgetting it aferwards, leaves you with little besides an ability to avoid embarassing gaffes at socialite dinner parties.

Perhaps you should rethink your idea of what makes an "educated" person.
7.17.2004 10:57pm
DetachedObserver (mail) (www):
Way to peddle ethnic/racial stereotypes.

"Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French"

Its difficult to respond to the arrogance embodied in that statement. Educated English speakers have also studied ancient greek and latin until fairly recently; does that make it a good idea? Taking French in high school, and forgetting it aferwards, leaves you with little besides an ability to avoid embarassing gaffes at socialite dinner parties.

Perhaps you should rethink your idea of what makes an "educated" person.
7.17.2004 10:57pm
DetachedObserver (mail) (www):
sorry for the multiple posts -- the software used for comments seems to puts out a "page not found" message after each comment
7.17.2004 10:58pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
After Spanish, my vote would be Latin. While it is true that French formed some of the basis for English, and our French roots are closer to our Latin roots, I will suggest that Latin is still more useful in understanding formal English, as it is supposedly supposed to be spoken and written. Besides, what is French anyway, but basterdized Latin?

Apparently, some time in the last half a millenium (singular - plural is, of course, millenia), scholors forced the English language into a quasi-Latin structure. The result is that there are a number of English language quirks that are really best understandable in relation to Latin (or maybe some of it derivatives), such as the predicate nominative and the subjunctive tense (or maybe even the differences between the past, past perfect, and past pluperfect tenses of verbs). Also, many English words, esp. in the sciences, are Latin based. Familiarity with that language allows one to properly pluralize them - though I was called to task a couple of years ago concerning "virus".

Of course, most schools no longer teach Latin. My daughter was given the choice of Spanish or French when entering middle school. Her mother and step-father pushed French, esp. as his family is French-Canadian. Luckily, she followed my advise, and picked the more usable language, Spanish.

As a second language? I am thinking Mandarin. I suspect that it will be more useful to her than Russian, given the status and future of the two corresponding countries. Her mother took it for a number of years - picking it over Japanese based on the belief that the Chinese were less male chauvenistic than the Japanese.
7.17.2004 10:58pm
Bruce Hayden (mail):
I should add for this forum that a lot of legal terms are also of Latin origin - even more, I will suggest, than of French origin.
7.17.2004 11:06pm
Nels Nelson (mail):
Good point that learning a language need not be for any practical purposes, but the need for Spanish in California extends to all professions which deal with the public: health care, legal, teaching, law enforcement, government agencies, tourism, retail, real estate, and so on. Through financial necessity, our public education system has been reduced to the bare minimum - no art, no gym, no music - and the justification for teaching a language has to be that it has an immediate, obvious use, for which only Spanish qualifies.

I'm not badmouthing French - I took both French and Spanish in high school and my wife is French - but living in San Diego I find a practical use for Spanish almost every day.
7.17.2004 11:21pm
The Concordia Language Villages have worked incredibly hard to develop the quality programs they offer in Russian — as well as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, Chinese, and Japanese for high school (and younger) students. It would have been thoughtful to identify them in your post beyond "a Russian camp in Minnesota."
7.17.2004 11:30pm
Seriously, Japan is just chauvinistic as any Asian country, but it isn’t as bad as you’d think. It’s one of the few countries in which I feel comfortable traveling alone. Plus, Japan has excellent movies and literature, a bonus for learning any language.
7.17.2004 11:42pm
Bernard Yomtov (mail):
Surely Spanish is the most useful foreign language for everyday life in the US. That doesn't mean it's a bad idea to study French or Russian instead if you feel like it.

By the way, I'm not sure there was such a thing as "French" in 1066, any more than there was "Spanish," or various other languages. My impression is that until fairly recently European languages were more of a continuum than a set of discrete points, and what we think of as national languages today got that way by virtue of the political and military triumphs of their speakers.
7.17.2004 11:46pm
Brock Sides (mail) (www):
Wow, comments at the Volokh Conspiracy! Will we be seeing this more often?

I agree that one shouldn't look at studying another language as a purely utilitarian activity. I studied French and German in high school, and Latin and Ancient Greek in college, and I can't say I've ever used any of them. The only one I remember even a little of is French.

Nevertheless, I had a blast studying all of them, especially Ancient Greek.

It's worth noting, however, that certain professionals who are fluent in Spanish are going to command a premium for the next 20-30 years at least. I know this is the case in nursing right now. I wouldn't be surprised if this were the case in law as well.

Also, Spanish, French, and Italian are probably the easiest languages for a native speaker of English to pick up. You'll be fairly conversant in any of these after a couple of years of study. I'm not so sure that's the case for Russian. And I know it's not the case for the Asian languages.
7.18.2004 9:31am
tioedong (mail) (www):
Ah, I know the camp adopted Spanish speaking son was a cook at the German camp one summer...Hope she took along the mosquito repellant and her sub zero parka...

Russian is an excellent language to learn. If she learns Russian, then it will be easy for her to speak Polish, Croatian, and the other Slavic tongues.

As for French, it is one of the two official languages in Canada. And it's vocabulary has similarities with Spanish.

I speak Colombian Spanish...but I still don't understand TexMexSpanglish, which is what is spoken here. Similarly, speaking Castillian won't help her in California.

Now, if she REALLY wants to be controversial, maybe she could try addressing customers in Klingon...or Quenya.
7.18.2004 10:14am
Tomasu (mail):
Here's the text of the LA Times article you referenced. And I think those that take offense to the statement that "Since 1066, educated English speakers have studied French," ought to temper their insecurities.


Students Ask for More Foreign Language Choices
Erika Hayasaki
Times Staff Writer

Eighteen-year-old Victor Soltero grew up speaking Spanish at home. He read books in Spanish by Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But at school, he wanted to learn a different language, like Italian or French. But at North Hollywood High School last year, those languages weren't options.

Spanish is the only foreign language offered to most teenagers at the 5,000-student campus, where 71% of students are Latino. Only 300 students, enrolled in the school's highly gifted magnet program, have the option of taking French.

The North Hollywood campus is one of two Los Angeles Unified School District high schools that offer Spanish as the sole foreign language for most students. Franklin High School in Highland Park, where 88% of students are Latino, offers about 45 Spanish classes, but no other foreign language.

Most L.A. Unified high schools offer French to all students. Some offer German, Italian, Japanese, Korean or Mandarin, in addition to Spanish. But principals at both North Hollywood and Franklin high schools said there was not enough room or interest to add more language programs on their campuses.

But Soltero said the interest exists — and about 200 other North Hollywood students who wrote letters recently or signed a petition for another language class option agreed with him. Some Franklin High School students have also complained about the lack of options.

"Why are they limiting our choices?" said Soltero, who wants to travel the world and meet people from different cultures. "I'm Mexican, and it's putting my race down. It's like they're saying, 'You guys aren't smart enough to take anything else.' "

Many students and teachers said Latinos enrolled in Spanish classes more frequently than others because they wanted to learn about their culture or study a subject they already understand. Sometimes, they expected it would be easier to get a good grade.

But other students said they wanted to challenge themselves by learning a language different from that which their parents speak at home.

Natalie Gonzales, a native Spanish speaker and 11th-grader, wrote a letter to the administration that stated: "It is illogical to obligate students who speak Spanish to sit in a room for an hour every day to 'learn' Spanish. Where is the challenge? The purpose of learning a foreign language is to enlighten and motivate and elevate the soul, and a large percentage of fluent Spanish speakers are robbed of this experience."

Non-Latino students have also complained, asking for more options.

North Hollywood senior Anca Giurgiulescu wrote: "How do you hope to improve the performance of students attending North Hollywood High School by limiting the availability of foreign language classes to just one language? ... If students are not allowed to choose from challenging classes, how do you hope to inspire them to strive beyond just the minimum requirements, or in other words, to strive beyond mediocrity?"

North Hollywood Principal Randall Delling said there is no room for another language class on his overcrowded campus. "My God, where would we put it?" he said. "Every single room in this school is used every single hour of the day."

A few years ago, the campus offered French classes, but the former principal closed the program because of a high dropout rate and purported problems with the instructor. But the school's Spanish program, Delling said, is superior. The program has talented teachers and Advanced Placement students who are mastering Spanish literature.

Delling said it was absurd to claim that his campus was discriminating against Latinos by offering only Spanish.

"I've always said I would be willing to look at a French program, or a German program or Armenian program. That's fine," he said. "But it's got to be a program that ... students want to stay in. Yes, there are students who want to take all these languages, but are they willing to continue with the program, or will we end up with all of these classes and no one in them?"

According to state data, most California campuses offer Spanish, along with at least one other foreign language.

Arleen Burns, of the California Department of Education, said: "We do realize there are often constraints such as resources. In the ideal world we would be able to offer a variety of languages to every student in California." But she added that the situation at North Hollywood and Franklin was rare.

Bud Jacobs, director of high school programs for L.A. Unified, said the district encourages schools to add as many foreign language programs as possible. But "foreign language teachers are hard to find," he said. "It's an area that could probably use a lot more attention."

In overcrowded schools like North Hollywood, space for core curriculum classes, such as math, science, social studies and English, take precedence over foreign language classes because they are graduation requirements, Jacobs said. Foreign language is not a requirement, though most colleges and universities require two to three years of it for admission.

Any Los Angeles high school students who want to take a foreign language class that their campus does not offer can enroll concurrently in a local community college to study it, Jacobs said. That can be complicated, however, because it requires rearranging schedules and finding transportation.

At Franklin High, Principal Sheridan Liechty said her campus had offered French and Mandarin in the past, but that students were not interested in those subjects.

"Most of our kids' primary language is Spanish. They do beautifully on AP Spanish exams," she said. "If all of your students are selecting Spanish, you can't support hiring a French instructor."

But at the overcrowded Belmont High School near downtown, where 89% of students are Latino, there is always a demand for the school's two Mandarin and 16 French classes, as well as Spanish, said counselor Lewis McCammon. French classes, he said, are packed.

"A lot of them think it's a very strong academic subject," he said.

Franklin High student Stephanie Vasquez, 17, said she would love to take French.

"I went to Europe just this past March, and when I went to Paris," she said, "I wish we had a [French] class so I could have been prepared."

The options, she said, limit students like her.

"I don't think it's fair," she said. "Yeah, Highland Park is a Spanish-speaking area. But [another language] makes you prosperous in life. It looks better on your resume."
7.18.2004 12:59pm
Beth Donovan (www):
Latin would be a far better language to study than French or Spanish if you are seeking to better understand the English language. Believe me, vocabulary scores on SATs and ACTs would go way up if Latin was taught regularly in high school

Once you can translate Caesar's Wars in Gaul, difficult Englis words become more understandable.

And a good understanding of Latin helps you to learn Spanish and French, as the two newer languages stem from Latin.
7.18.2004 1:13pm
Treb Courie (mail):
I took 3 years of French in high school and 2 years of Russian in college. Russian is a fascinating language and gives us insights into a culture that unfortunately we know little about.

I am sure that Spanish has its uses in the United States. I've lived in Germany for the past 3 years and now have a passing (I can order in a restaurant and get directions) knowledge of German. I've discovered that a minimal knowledge of Russian (for the Slavic/former Eastern bloc countries), German, and French can help me get by almost anywhere in Europe. German even helps in Turkey. Spanish only helps in Spain.
7.19.2004 3:54am
amcguinn (www):
If all educated English-speakers learn French, why can't the presumably educated members of a certain institution in South Bend pronounce the name of their own university?

I thought Spanish had taken that place in American culture a long time ago — you certainly wouldn't find them talking about, say, "Jaguars" the way we Brits do.
7.19.2004 7:45am
I agree with the comments posted by “Roberto” and “Jenny”. Your comments regarding the utility of the Spanish language are racist and offensive. You could have provided countless examples for when the ability to speak Spanish would be invaluable, and you choose rounding up “day laborers”! I was still trying to get myself to believe that you actually wrote that when I came across the “cleaning lady” comment. I am shocked and appalled.

By the way: Noting that English is useful in Southern California is not an argument for supporting your claim that Spanish is not more useful than French. Nor is the claim that it isn’t invaluable. Nor is the claim that it is not “vital”.

I do agree that schools should have a larger selection of “foreign language” options, and that we should learn what we want to learn. Spanish shouldn’t be forced down your child’s throat—if she wants to learn French and Russian, then more power to her. That’s great. But I firmly believe that for the vast majority of people in Southern California Spanish is much more useful than French. I am certain that its utility goes far beyond hiring day laborers and cleaning ladies
7.19.2004 3:07pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
I studied French and Russian in high school. They prove useful from time to time (I can still sound at Cyrillic, anyway, and that's enough to pick out the cognates.) But I wish I were more[*] conversant in Spanish, even here 3000 miles away from California. Of all times when knowing something more than English would have been useful, the greatest number that language has been Spanish. Close seconds are ASL and Portuguese. Latin seems like fun -- I'm glad my local high school offers it for the mandatory third language.

[*]Enough time growing up in the Bronx, and a little formal study of Portuguese, has led me to pick up a smattering of Spanish.

As for the customers, I'm in awe of counter staff who are not only fluent in two languages, but also amazingly accurate in guessing which any given customer prefers. (When they guess wrong and starting speaking Spanish to me, I just attribute it to my swarthy, cosmopolitan good lucks, and answer in English, which they then switch to.)
7.19.2004 5:17pm
I would suggest spanish spanish as a second language.
I am an italian national and I often use foreign languages for working. I've learned at school enghlish and french, and I've notice that the not kwnoledge of spanish is a big gap for me. With english you can communicate with all the world (France included) with the notably exception of south america countries. That means more than a billion of people including the growing market of Brasil.
I use my french only when I travel there... and even in that case I'm sooo bad that they prefer I speak in english. ;-)
8.2.2004 10:28am
Another vote for Spanish. I've had so many opportunities to use my Spanish at home and traveling in California, New York, South America, Spain...Spanish is the most practical second language to have in the U.S., there's really no serious doubt about that. Spanish speaking attorneys are consistently in demand at the big New York law firm where I'm working, for both pro bono cases and South American deals.

Beyond practicality, the study of any language is an equally fine option as a purely academic or cultural endeavour. It's patently ridiculous to suggest that any language is superior in this respect. Every language is rich enough in its own vocabulary, literature, and culture to provide a lifetime of enjoyment.
8.12.2005 2:11pm