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Does Teaching French Have a Future?

Sitting in the waiting room of an automobile dealership while my car was being repaired, I overheard the conversation of a customer and a salesman as they waited for the sales manager to appear. “My son-in-law just got out of the Air Force, and he can’t find a job anywhere,” the customer said, “I don’t understand why; he speaks three languages.” “But what can you do with that,” the salesman countered, “hold a conversation?”

For some years now, it has been a family joke that all I can do with my knowledge of French is hold a conversation. There is some truth to that. It took me ten years of studying French before I really felt comfortable holding a conversation, before I actually knew I could talk about most anything to anyone without embarrassing myself. Reading Flaubert can in some ways be easier than holding a conversation. But that dodges the real question. Is learning French worthwhile in and of itself or is it largely useless unless combined with other knowledge and skills? And do large numbers of Americans feel an urge to converse in French, especially given the years of effort it requires?

The utilitarian arguments for learning French, in my experience, simply do not persuade doubters. Most people recognize that studying a language for two or even four years is not mastering a language. To conduct serious business in any language takes many years of study and practice. Ironically, the language you spend years mastering may not turn out to be the one in popular demand by the time you need a good job. When I was young, pundits said Americans needed to learn Russian. Now, the fad is to learn Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or Pashto. Who knows what the future language du jour will be?

The argument that studying a foreign language opens a whole new cultural world is not that compelling either. After all, deep cultural insights come mainly at higher levels of language proficiency when you can read sophisticated prose and poetry or experience the culture first-hand by living in it on its own terms—experiences few American students will ever have. Furthermore, cultural insights are not automatically beneficial. Sometimes experiencing a foreign culture only reinforces your ethnocentrism, especially when the contact is as superficial as that of most American students.

The claim that studying a particular foreign language opens the mind to understand the nature and structure of language is valid, but arguably someone could acquire much the same understanding in less time and with less effort by studying linguistics. When I was reading Homer in the original Greek, my professor suggested to our class that it was good for our English. I loved studying classical Greek, but that statement struck me as absurd. Besides, who, beyond an elite, actually needs to know the nature and structure of language?

Attempts to quantify the value of studying the humanities ultimately seem pointless to me. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. For most students, the purpose of studying a foreign language is to fulfill a requirement either for admission to college or for graduation from college. That is the primary utilitarian reason. Which language they choose, however, depends sometimes on what is available, sometimes on the advice of parents, and sometimes, magically, on their own personal dreams and predilections. French has a future to the extent it can capture the imagination of young people.

France did fuel the imagination of many Americans from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century to ex-patriots like Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright in the twentieth. When I was growing up in the 1950s, France seemed to be at the height of its popularity. Movies like An American in Paris (1951), Sabrina (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), and Gigi (1958) honed the image of France as a place of sophistication and style where dreams could come true. Ella Fitzgerald made Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” a big hit in 1956. No wonder, then, that French was the most commonly taught foreign language in the 1950s and continued its dominance until around 1967, when it was clearly beginning to lose ground to Spanish. France continues to charm many Americans, although it has evidently lost much of its allure among opinion makers such as film directors, song-writers, and politicians. Mitt Romney doesn’t like to advertise that he speaks French.

Does French have a future? Yes, of course. It has a future as long as France has a future. It has a future because of France’s glorious past and vibrant present. But the cultural hegemony of France, which once had a strong claim to exist, has declined, and stereotypes of France seem, generally speaking, to command the minds of average Americans. The real question is, “Does France have a future in American classrooms?”

Ultimately, the motivation to learn French, believe it or not, is much the same today as it was for Thomas Jefferson long before he became an ambassador. As a young man, his imagination was inspired by writers like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. His house was full of products imported from France, products he found both useful and pleasing in their style and sophistication. In purely utilitarian terms, it is hard to complete with Spanish and Chinese, but for “culture vultures” France competes quite well.

Almost forty years ago (March 1975), Jon R. Kimpton was arguing in the French Review that French was “for humanism, for culture, for literature.” He saw himself, even then, as a voice crying in the wilderness of utilitarianism to return to the old paths. While high culture should not be the sole aim of French studies, Americans simply do not associate French with practicality and probably never will. At best, they associate French with glamor and exoticism, with something different from the humdrum of pragmatic American culture. American French teachers, I think, must either work that angle or be kicked to the curb.

Young Americans deciding which language, if any, to study are only incipient “culture vultures.” Many of them know in their idealistic heart of hearts they want something more than practicality, but that spark has to be fanned into flame. Today, no longer aided by the popular culture of movies and music, the local French teacher has to do the fanning. Years ago, I met a retiring French professor who had run a small but successful program for many years. He loved French, and the students loved him. French today has a future in the United States to the extent that French teachers can project love for the language (in all its manifestations) and for their students. American students and schools, in turn, will be fair only to those teachers and electives they love.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 14, 2012 8:58 AM.

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