restricted access What Is French?
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What Is French? Andrea Tarnowski Are you fascinated by the idea of speaking another language? Very early on, I was—in particular, I was eager to absorb the complexities of French. It wasn’t just the mechanics of learning to communicate in French that moved me, but also the hope that this would be part and parcel of a way into French culture and history. While for me it was the French language, for some of you the “other” or “foreign”(we’ll get to those terms later) language might be Russian, Swahili, Hebrew, or German. No matter what your choice, the surest and most direct path to participating in another culture is through its language. Many of you may have experienced the truth of this statement firsthand, because you speak a language other than English at home, or have parents or grandparents who do.You know that perspectives on what is important in life,on how children should be educated,on relationships and religion,are most clearly understood when you learn them from inside the language the culture carries. If you don’t already know a language other than English, you might aspire to because you’ve long wanted to understand your family’s origins,or you might be excited about becoming a skilled speaker of a language your friends and relatives have never studied. In any of these scenarios, you’re demonstrating a healthy desire to go beyond “tourism,” where many people stop. Tourism doesn’t just mean physically visiting other places for short periods of time to get a taste of what they’re like; it can also be an intellectual approach.You dip into a book, or sample a philosophy. While all of us are tourists in some things—expertise in even one or two areas is a commitment!—deep knowledge of another language opens door upon door on the millions of minds that have used that language to live.Whichever language you choose,it offers a path of exploration and discovery, about others as well as yourself. What Is French? 161 The Tower of Babel—An Origin Myth for Language Before we get into the philosophy, practice, and results of speaking another language, we should turn to an emblematic story about languages found in the Bible’s OldTestament: the tale of theTower of Babel.This is an origin story; that is,it aims to explain why something is the way it is.In this case,the explanation addresses why the world contains a wide variety of languages,rather than a single language used by all human beings. In the distant past, the story says, all people spoke one language, shared one speech. A group of settlers on a plain decided to build a city, marked by a tower that would reach to the heavens; their achievement would ensure their fame. They set to work, and were able to build because they could all understand one another and thus make good progress toward their common goal.But when God saw what they were doing,he wasn’t pleased.He knew that if all those people set their actions to a single purpose,there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish; they would succeed in their plan,and their tower would touch the skies—all because they could communicate seamlessly with one another.The heavens were God’s realm; he didn’t want human encroachment on his territory.So he had to devise a solution that would keep human beings from getting too close to divinity.Just destroying the tower wouldn’t be enough; he had to ensure that, once razed, it could never be rebuilt. God’s idea was to create a diversity of languages; this would confuse people and block mutual understanding. Rather than uniting, human beings would disperse. That is indeed what happened as soon as God divided people linguistically. Groups left the community they had built and scattered to every land on Earth. And so there is a multiplicity of languages. (Just to add some numbers to the picture, there are about 6,500 languages in existence, but only about sixty or so have more than 20 million native speakers. As for the number of languages taught in US universities, there are rarely more than thirty, and most often considerably fewer.) While the tale of the Tower of Babel gives a reason for our linguistic diversity, the important point it conveys to us now is that language and communication are foundational to any kind...