SPEAK TO ME:
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.