As French wanes in popularity, its speakers reaffirm its importance
For centuries, French was the language of lovers and kings, epicures and thinkers. Once the international language of diplomacy, considered a hallmark of sophistication and class, interest in French is now waning in a world increasingly dominated by English.
According to the language encyclopedia Ethnologue, there are an estimated one million French speakers in America. American students have historically been drawn to French for its appealing cultural lessons, its timeless glamor and sophistication and the historical ties common to France and the U.S., such as French participation in the American Revolution.
But today, because of shifting demographics, Spanish has become the more useful and marketable language for American students. In response to these changes, devoted Francophones insist that in our increasingly global society, French is more valuable and relevant than ever.
Language du jour
No one at Blair knows more about French's cultural value than Arlette Loomis, head of the foreign language department. Since 1985, Loomis has been a fixture in the department — she began teaching Spanish with only basic knowledge of the language, but today she teaches French and is fluent in both languages, as well as Arabic and English.
Loomis has noticed a trend over the past few years: more and more Blazers are opting to study Spanish. The change has not necessarily hurt the French curriculum, but it does indicate a shift in students' priorities. She says that while interest in Spanish has certainly increased during her time at Blair, there remains a constant number of French students — there have always been fewer numbers of students enrolled in French.
So as more students are studying Spanish, enrollment in French has stagnated. This shift reflects the increasing demand for Spanish as a job skill, as more and more businesses recognize the need for bilingual employees. This demand is especially great in Montgomery County, which has the highest concentration of Latino citizens in Maryland. According to a 2004 census by the Maryland Department of Planning, the Latino population is at 121,415 citizens and growing.
Many French students recognize that French is not as useful or in-demand a skill as it used to be. "I'd like to learn Spanish because it's more valuable to be bilingual in that," says freshman Danielle Miller, who is enrolled in French III.
But while American demographics are changing, Loomis wants students to realize that there is greater value in being multilingual, making French more important to learn than ever.
Pas de deux — or more
Colonization introduced the French language and culture to at least one area on every continent. Even as French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean won their independence in the 20th century, the language of the conquering empire was not abandoned altogether.
Instead, the French language branched out into various dialects and mixed with the native languages that had been spoken for generations, forming new hybrid languages. The resulting cultural diffusion is personified by sophomore Carol Kengne, an immigrant from Cameroon, who speaks English and French as well as five dialects local to Western Africa. For Kengne, being multilingual is simply part of her culture. "If you speak two languages, you have more advantages," she says.
Today, there are a total of 73 French-speaking countries which, all together, make up the International Organization of La Francophonie. According to Loomis, the group advocates not only the spread of French, but also increased emphasis on multilingual education worldwide. "There is a very clear desire for Francophone countries in a multilingual, multicultural world," she says. "These Francophone countries don't only represent the old colonies — they represent countries in Europe that remember historical culture."
Among these countries are several surprises — Greece, Poland and Albania, for instance, are not known for their French culture, but Loomis believes that the countries have co-opted the language as a response to the global predominance of English. "Their goal isn't to make everyone bilingual," she says. "The goal is multilingual."
Recently, the buzz around Blair has been about the more exotic languages that will be offered for the first time next year. "I understand the seduction of Arabic and Japanese," Loomis says. "I just don't think it needs to be at the expense of other languages."
Loomis cites the European Union as an example of the utility of a multilingual body. As new nations gain and lose prominence, she believes, languages will oscillate in their prevalence. But, as a French speaker, Loomis is quick to point out the alluring and enduring aspects of French culture, from fine cuisine to high fashion.
The je ne sais quoi of culture
Senior Courtney Deluca is similarly enamored with all things French. "I remember being little, like three years old, and I told my mom I wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower," she says. This affection blossomed over time, and even though she decided to drop French for her senior year, she is eager to continue it in college.
Part of French's appeal stems from its urbanity. Paris is the capital of haute couture, and many of the biggest names in fashion today — Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, for example — began as French couturiers. "France, culturally, is still admired," Loomis says. "It's on par with New York and Milan."
Loomis also cites a bevy of other factors that link America today to French culture. In addition to the military muscle France provided to the American colonists during the Revolutionary War, French thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau influenced the concepts of government in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
And while student interest in Spanish is outpacing interest in French, Loomis says the numbers for enrollment in French are not dwindling. "As long as students want to learn French, it will go on," Loomis explains. "For me, I want to keep a love of French language and culture in the school."
Quiz du jour:
How well do you know your French?
Test your knowledge of Franglish — what do these French crossover words mean?
1. Agent provocateur
a. An attractive traffic cop
b. A police spy intent on discrediting a group
c. An overpriced line of men's lingerie
2. Au naturel
a. The French practice of not bathing to stay natural
b. The French equivalent of your birthday suit
c. Eating raw meat. Because it's natural.
b. Adjective to describe a Blair senior; i.e. "I am so blaséd about being a Blazer"
c. A popular name for French dogs, like Fido or Spot in America
4. C'est la vie
a. A song from the '90s that you still love but may be afraid to admit.
b. A carefree slogan — such is life!
c. An excellent response when your boyfriend or girlfriend is crying about something and you don't really care.
5. Raison d'être
a. Reason to live
b. Literally, to be a raisin; used to describe people who tan so much their faces shrivel.
c. Really cheesy way to pick someone up. Try it.
ANSWERS: 1B, 2B, 3A, 4B, 5A
Becca Sausville. Becca is a senior who is keeping the dinosaur dream alive. She loves Silver Chips a lot, possibly more than life itself. More »