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.