Another Reason to Learn French

Flag of France

A recent article in The Economist by Robert Lane Green entitled “Which is the Best Language to Learn?” explains why, even though English is the most widely used language in the world, French is the next most important language to learn. The article is re-published as a discussion in the social network New York in French. Citing intrinsic benefits in learning another language, as well as the linguistic entrée to the world of art and culture that a knowledge of French affords, Green also points to the ubiquity of la Francophonie, a collection of 56 countries representing every region in the world where French is spoken, either as a native language, the tongue of the upper class, or a widely used, unofficial language. It is worth noting this considered opinion of a journalist and author, who is also a professor at New York University and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

French Invades New York

As a language teacher, I know that speaking two or more languages is a blessing. The more avenues we have to reach out to one another, the better off we are. Being bilingual or multilingual increases both cognitive ability and our ability to stay abreast of news and trends across the globe. Being able to enjoy music, films, and other cultural works in another language adds interest to our lives. Lately, I have been following a discussion on LinkedIn’s Alliance Francaise group called “Lament: The move of American Schools to Discontinue the Teaching of French.” (See WriteWireless post “When the World Spoke French”). Several dozen members have shared their dissatisfaction, concern, and opinions as to why the study of French (and other world languages) is declining in our public schools.

In New York City, quite the opposite seems to be happening. There is a growing number of options for children to learn French starting in the preschool years and continuing through high school. Some schools are private, but a growing number of public schools are now promoting French language in a big way. For just over two years, the French government has been instituting a French language education program in public elementary schools that is taking the city by storm. Spearheaded by the French Embassy’s Educational Attaché Fabrice Jaumont and enthusiastically supported by local parents, the program is instituting French bilingual and French immersion programs in neighborhood schools. To date, 32 new French-English programs have opened their doors to public school children in seven NYC public schools. The model has spread to two more programs in New Haven, Connecticut, with a total of almost 1,000 students in grades K-8 benefitting from French language as a foundation of their schooling. Parents have been very enthusiastic about the prospect of giving their children the gift of another language, and with it, a broader world view and increased opportunities to be players in our global community.

As any language educator can tell you, in order to become fluent, the earlier a language is acquired, the greater the the degree of fluency one can attain. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (or ACTFL, the national body that advises the U.S. Department of Education) states in its position statement that:

Learning languages should be a central part of the curriculum at all levels of instruction, from young learners through graduate school and adults (Pre-K through 20).

ACTFL further states that

Research corroborates additional benefits [of early language learning experience] including strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences.  (From ACTFL Position Statements, Updated 2011)

During this era of global economic upheaval, when the jobless and worried find their universe closing in on them, it is refreshing and encouraging to find members of the world community who are taking the long view, working to strengthen ties of language, culture, and common understanding that will endure when the current crisis has passed.

To read more about New York’s French schools, click on the “Schools” tab in New York in French (a French cultural website linked to the French Embassy), or read Monica Burton’s article in NYU’s Shoe Leather Magazine: A Language en Vogue: As French loses its place in U.S. public schools, in New York City it thrives.

When the World Spoke French

A debate is raging within the Alliance Française group on LinkedIn: Who is responsible for the imminent demise of French language teaching in the US? Is there a concerted effort to stifle “la francophonie” (French language and the culture that it entails)–a sort of  premeditated “linguicide”; or is the decline in French and other European language courses (except Spanish) in our public schools a symptom of something else? Could it be declining interest in language study, a de facto casualty of the shrinking domestic budget, or a shift in the valuation of world cultures and our priorities in international relations?  No one seems quite able to put a finger on the cause, but a general malaise is evident as Francophiles (those who love and have studied French language and culture) watch French language education programs disappear, one by one.

Given the major political and economic movements in the past year–popular revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East; the surge of China from third-world status toward an important industrial world power; the great will of India and African nations to join the first world–one might expect Americans to become avid polyglots, eager to travel, to work with international organizations, and to help effect and lead change across the globe.

No one has experienced the loss of our vital connection to one of the world’s most influential cultures (and one of America’s founding cultures) more keenly than I–a French teacher who has devoted a significant proportion of my time and finances to language and literature study and teacher preparation, only to encounter a dwindling array of French language teaching opportunities across the state and country.

In the 18th Century, French was a global language that reflected education, nobility, and freedom of thought and expression. It was studied widely, and known to all in the educated class. It was the language of art, diplomacy, literature, and intellect, and was spoken as far across the globe as France had influence.

Until a generation ago, French language education blossomed in American schools, from elementary through university. Now the Gallic tongue, along with German, Italian, and other European languages, has been supplanted by Spanish and Mandarin in many American schools, if their academic budget is robust enough for them to offer a world language at all.

But for all of you Francophiles on the brink of despair, fear not: Académie Francaise member  Marc Fumaroli gives us hope for the survival of our beloved language in the form of a book entitled When the World Spoke French. By means of anecdotal portraits of some colorful historical figures (amongst them Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin, and many others of whom the reader has probably never heard), Fumaroli affords readers an unexpected and fascinating peek into the French-speaking Age of Enlightenment. Click on these links to read two wonderful reviews of Fumaroli’s book, by the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Cognizant of a modern global trend toward an English linguistic hegemony, Fumaroli reassures us:  “An optimist, I am led to believe by experience that the number of people in the present-day world capable of a real conversation in French (who are necessarily also real readers and owners of a library) has actually increased.”

Perhaps there is hope for the Language of Enlightenment after all.