According to linguists, all languages are equal. But tell that to a French native for whom French is the most beautiful, exquisite, expressive and, in short, the best language in the world, bar none.
I just read an article in a French magazine, L’Obs, in which a French linguist, Pascale Casanova, addresses this, as well as the current domination of English among the world’s preferred languages (at the expense, some would say, of French, which used to hold that position, at least for those in Western cultures).
I’ve always found French pride in their language to be interesting, as in curious. Not that such pride is unfounded, certainly. French is indeed a beautiful language, and it’s one that I’m delighted I can finally speak and read and even write with some amount of fluency – but I also find the attitude of French toward their language to be strangely self-satisfied. As if no other languages exist outside of French.
I hear often in conversation with friends in France, apropos of a particular way of expressing oneself in French, “Ah, that’s the beauty and complexity of the language of Molière,” as if complexity itself were a good thing. Or that certain puns or wordplay reveal the particular nature of French, as if French were the only language in which puns or wordplay occur.
And then some folks tell me that French is much more subtle than English – this is usually from people who don’t speak much English – and that other languages are weaker somehow than French. And also that the French language needs to protect itself from incursion by foreign invaders (in particular English), as if such linguistic border-policing is ever possible.
In her article, Casanova says that the linguistic power of a particular language – one that has achieved a certain universality or one that you’re supposed to speak in order to communicate with others who aren’t speakers of your own other tongue – is arbitrary. It’s not the language spoken by most people that becomes a world language, but a language spoken by most people who speak more than one language that does, she says. And for now, English it is.
For some French, according to the linguist, it’s fashionable to speak English. But the same is true for English speakers who speak French. Or for those who speak Spanish as a second language. Or Chinese. Or Arabic even.
I chose to learn to speak French. Paul-Guillaume, a Parisian I used to know, once asked me why I did this – my going to the trouble as an adult of learning another language. He said it certainly wasn’t necessary for me, as an English speaker, to learn a difficult language such as French, since most people speak a modicum of English, even in France. But that missed the point. I actually wanted to learn French because I like the language, and I like the culture, and I like the people, and I like the country – and just getting by in French isn’t a good way of even beginning to understand the subtleties of the French culture, or the nuances of France’s attitudes toward life and art. Or in fact of trying to do the same thing in any country whose language isn’t your own.
I happen to love my native language – the language of Shakespeare and Melville and Dickinson and Whitman and Keats – and find it delicate and powerful and expressive and blunt. And coarse and strange and lovely and rich. Like many or most languages, in fact. But I certainly am not going to offer an opinion on any other language than the one I learned from birth – you have a certain relation to that language that no amount of later learning in another one can give you. I feel at ease in French, but it’s not my language, and I will always be a linguistic outsider in it.
In the same way, the sounds of the language, while soothing and pleasing to me, are different than those of English, whose sounds I also like (depending, of course, on the particular accent of the person speaking). The phonemes of Chinese or Arabic or Japanese or Finnish create sounds that aren’t immediately pleasing to my ear. They might not carry the same beauty for me as they do for native speakers of those languages, but that’s because I didn’t grow up learning to speak them and understanding their varieties of articulacy or the tunefulness of their words that convey so much in one’s unremembered yet evocative life of speaking and reading and writing and dreaming. And since I don’t speak any of those tongues, I can’t claim that my language, or that French, for that matter, is more subtle or expressive than they are.
But I’m glad I’ve taken the trouble to learn at least one more language than the one I was born into. I may not weigh the relative quality of one language against another – though I do weigh my own ability to express myself in whatever language I happen to be speaking – but I can say that although I may be proud to speak more than English, I remain humbled by how little of the world I experience in another tongue. I’ll always be a bit provincial, but that’s to be expected, isn’t it? At least I do know, with absolute certainty, that there are an infinite number of ways in which you can find yourself not knowing what to say in the way you want to say it, no matter how expressive your language may be.