The prevailing idea among the upper American classes that even their little children must learn French, and to that end must speak it at the table, is highly blamable, for reasons more than one. It is based upon entire ignorance of the fact that it will require the life-time of each mortal to master the language of his birth and country. All the young years given by Americans to the study of French are years turned away from the greatest language yet known to man. All the acquisitions of the human race, all the sciences, and arts, and histories, and sentiments of humanity have passed into the English tongue….. He that has perfectly mastered his own language has a store of information immense in bulk and rich in value. To excavate many channels for a river is to lessen the unity and power of the stream otherwise majestic. It will always be proof of some blunder of judgment, or of some stubborn vanity, when Americans will be found using a little French and German and Italian, who have not mastered the English of William Wirt, or of Tennyson, or of the eloquent Ruskin.
It is not a room full of violins, but the power to make music. It is therefore simply painful to hear a fashionable girl or woman or man combining several languages in conversation, when the listener knows well that this bright talker could not by any possibility compose an essay in the English of Washington Irving, or Charles Sumner, or the poet Whittier.
Even when a whole life is given to one’s native English or native French, so inadequate still is that language to express the soul, that it seems a form of wickedness to divide the heart between many masters, and to have no supreme friend. Chateaubriand, the greatest master of the French tongue, when he stood near the Niagara Falls almost a hundred years ago, ands saw evening coming down from the sky upon all the sublime scene; saw the woods growing gloomy in the deep shadows, and heard the sound of the waters increasing its solemnity as the little voices died away in the night’s repose, said: “It is not within the power of human words to express this grandeur of nature.” Skilled as he was in a most rich and sensitive form of speech, that speech , all of whose resources he knew so well, now failed him, and his spirit had to remain imprisoned, there being no gateway by which its sentiments could escape to the heart of his countrymen. What are you and I to do, then, if we have not loved early, and late, and deeply, our own English -- that English which is now the leader in literature and all learning; if we have not mastered its words, its elegancies, its power of logic, and humor, and pathos, and rhythm, and have not permitted our minds to become rich in its associations; if we have for years gone along with a heart divided in its love, or with a mind that has studied words more than has thought and prayed, and laughed, and wept, amid the sublime scenes of nature, or the more impressive mysteries of mankind? “Parlez vous Francais?” Not well; not at all; would to Heaven we could learn to speak English!