Parlez-vous Français?

FrenchSchoolSystem

According to a recent article in the NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/31/nyregion/a-push-for-french-in-new-york-schools-from-france.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=tw-nytimes&_r=0), Spanish and Chinese are the most popular second languages to take up in the United States. Bilingual French programs have taken off in New York City schools. The French government actually spearheaded these programs, which are located in several schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. However, recent strains on the French governments’ budget has caused them to find other ways to fund these programs. Now, New Yorkers are providing private donations and starting fund-raising campaigns to keep these programs alive. Many people can argue that learning French as a second language is losing its allure and usefulness. If that is so, why has it taken off in this small group of NYC schools.

This form of public diplomacy directed by the French government is actually quite good. Somehow, they have increased the popularity of French  in the biggest city in the United States. By introducing children to French at a young age, they are sharing French culture and reinforcing it’s economic and political ties with people of the United States at a time when Americans have pivoted to Asia. Furthermore, they have gotten the parents and students in the area so excited about it, that the government no longer has to foot a big part of the bill. Parents are fighting to get their children enrolled and raising millions of dollars in an effort to bring more of the French immersion programs to schools in their neighborhood. Although the quest for donations are targeted at more affluent families, the program wants to expand into less affluent neighborhoods  and schools as well.

I’m not sure if there is a desire for similar programs such as this all over the country, but I can’t help but think that location is what is making these French bilingual programs popular. New York City is a hub for immigrants and many non-native English speakers reside there. The families and children of these families who are enrolled in this program are exposed to multiculturalism every day. If you aren’t a French speaker, and you live in a neighborhood with an authentic French restaurant, owned and operated by native French speakers, on every street corner; or come into contact with people from Haiti or parts of West Africa, your interest in French would likely be higher than someone in say South Carolina. In my opinion, in order for cultural public diplomacy initiatives to work, their has to be some sort of interest or advantage to the person in which the program is targeted. Kids who learn French in New York City will not only have more jobs opportunities one day, but they will be able to communicate with the native French speakers they come into contact with everyday. I think France has done well in boosting the popularity of a dying second language in the United States, however, I’m unsure of it’s potential success in other regions of the country.

 

 

47 thoughts on “Parlez-vous Français?”

  1. MP,

    Very interesting article. It brings to my mind when French was the dominant language or the language of the nobility around the 17th Century. So that bears questioning: why did it fall out of favor to learn French? Well, it was the language of trade and the arts, however, other languages took over the “language of money” so it’s easy to see why people didn’t have as much desire to learn French.

    So why is it making a comeback? Partly because of the diplomatic efforts of the French government, but it I think it reminds people of more romantic times. Possibly, for these New Yorkers that are footing the bill for the ailing French government, it gives them a feeling of aristocracy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think that the more people are cultured, then the more they can contribute to society. On a diplomatic level, this is great news for both New York and France.

    The ability to reach the French diaspora in the United States has been tough for the French government. Throughout the years, Americans have had a jaded viewpoint of the French and their culture hasn’t thrived in the U.S. This was a great attempt by the French government to reach out to these disconnected networks in New York and I wouldn’t be surprised if other European countries tried to do the same.

    -Mark

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I just wanted to add, I realize this was just a random example you chose to contrast with New York, but as someone who grew up in South Carolina, I was actually exposed to a large amount of indirect and direct French public diplomacy because my hometown, Greenville, is home to the North American headquarters of Michelin. Because of this, there is a very strong interest in the local chapter of the Alliance Francaise, as well as many organizations getting together to speak French and celebrate French culture in the city, including one I was involved with when I was an undergraduate called ‘The French Underground,’ which met in coffee shops and bars for French conversation and fellowship with a strong presence from the French expatriate community.

    I think this is actually a great example of how the private sector can be a facilitator of public diplomacy, and how European corporations moving manufacturing to cities in the United States has been a great way of spreading cultural ties and cultural diplomacy outside of the normal big urban centers. Greenville is also home to a very large BMW manufacturing plant and a substantial German expatriate community, which has led to similar interests in German culture in the city. In my personal and biased opinion, public diplomacy efforts on the part of these corporations and their expatriate workers are particularly well-received in the hospitable and friendly climate of a small southern city that has become much more diverse and open to outsiders in the past two decades, in no small part thanks to the presence of these European companies in the community.

    Therefore, as to your question about potential success for French in other regions of the country, I can assure you that at least in my region, it’s a strong success, although most of that can be attributed to the presence of Michelin. I would mention that in my city we have an elementary school with a French immersion program, and that French is taught in all of the high schools (although not at a high level of quality).

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