Ugh to many of these answers.
The traditional European language curriculum was oriented to an elite, and had to do with instilling the cultural values of the West, which privileged Latin and Greek. Latin was still the lingua franca for European intellectuals up until the 18th century, but that does not explain Greek. I’ve written on that more extensively at Nick Nicholas’ answer to In the traditional British public school system, why is (or was) it believed that knowledge of “the classics” was necessary?
German was added in the 19th century because German at the time was what English is now: the language of science and technology and scholarship. In the Anglosphere, French was always more prominent than German.
The curriculum worldwide has turned away from prioritising culture and character development, to prioritising utilitarian skills and citizenship. That shift has been most prominent in the Anglosphere, and slowest in Germany—the last refuge of Bildung in the West. Accordingly, the choice of language in the Anglosphere is now most oriented to what will be most useful to students: Chinese in Australia rather than French, Spanish in America.
That’s not something to boast about or decry; it just is. Learning Spanish is still better than learning no language at all. And learning a putatively useless language is not stupid or the cause of the collapse of the British Empire (Good Lord!):
- It was definitely not seen as useless by those who promoted it, and it had a clear ideological intent (see my linked answer).
- Not everything in school has to be about utility.
- It’s not like people retain from school the utilitarian skills that they don’t end up using.
If the place of Latin in the curriculum is shaky because it isn’t “useful”, I’d argue the place of trigonometry is even shakier. In fact, prioritising trigonometry over statistics is downright irresponsible to the citizenry…