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Why French?

New Bell Bilingual Lycée, Douala, Cameroon

Kathy Stein-Smith explains why demand is growing for French the world over.

There is one skill that is being learned around the world, with enrollments growing by 50% in Asia and Africa, while in the U.S. programs are being reduced and even eliminated. This highly sought-after global skill is not social media, data analytics, or coding; it is learning French. French is a language that reflects both the rich cultural and historical heritage of France and also that of the worldwide Francophonie. It is a language of international diplomacy, a global business language, and a top internet language, which points to the growing importance of French.

With deep historical roots in the U.S. and throughout North America and the Caribbean, it is also a local language. The ideas of the Enlightenment inspired the American Revolution, several of the Founding Fathers visited Paris to elicit French support of the revolutionary cause, and France has been considered America’s oldest ally.

In the 19th century, Americans flocked to Paris to visit the Louvre and to enjoy French fashion, and later, into the 20th century, writers and artists spent time in Paris, termed by Hemingway, “a moveable feast,” and Julia Child introduced the American home cook to French cuisine. Traditionally studied as a means to appreciate French literature and the langue de Molire, French is now also studied as a heritage language, in immersion programs, and as a business language. Building on this traditional foundation, the modern imperatives for learning French are numerous, including culture, career, and global citizenship, with experiential learning a key component for millennials.

France, renowned for its culture, cuisine, and lifestyle, has influence that extends beyond its borders and impact that exceeds that which would be expected based on its population. France is home to 41 of the 492 Unesco World Heritage sites in Europe and North America. Leading in international arrivals, France is the most visited country in the world, and is among the world’s most innovative countries.

Paris is home to the Louvre—widely considered the world’s best-known museum—is a global fashion capital, and the best student city in the world. France is a top destination for U.S. students studying abroad and for international students, with the largest number of international students after only the U.S. and the UK. French is one of six official languages of the United Nations, one of three working languages of the European Union, and one of two official languages of the Olympics. It is an official language of countless other international organizations, including NATO, and is spoken on every continent, with 220 million speakers, one of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world.

According to the OIF report, La Langue française dans le monde – 2014, French is spoken on five continents, and the population of its member nations approaches one billion. It is the second most widely studied language in the world, after only English. French is the third most important language for business, after only English and Chinese. OIF members comprise 16% of the world population and earn 14% of the global gross income, and partake in 20% of world trade. It is predicted that the number of French speakers will rise to 767 million by 2060. The OIF has observer status at the UN, where French is not only one of the six official languages, but is one of the two working languages, mastery of one of which is necessary to be employed at the Secretariat. In addition, the Group of Francophone Ambassadors promotes multilingualism and the role of French at the UN.

French in the U.S.
French (including French Creole) is the fourth most widely spoken language in the U.S., with over two million speakers over the age of five. It is the most widely spoken language, after English, in four states, and after English and Spanish in seven more, making the French language a significant presence in 11 of our 50 states. In addition, Canada is officially bilingual in French and English. Yet according to the 2014 OIF report, the study of French has only increased by 2% in the Americas in the most recent five-year period reported, far less than in many other parts of the world, and reports of potential and actual reductions and eliminations of French programs in the U.S. have been in the news. The disconnect between the actual relevance of French in North America and current enrollment at all levels highlights the importance of advocacy by educators and language enterprise partners in government and industry. French is not a foreign language, but rather an American language. . French influence has extended through a broad swath of the U.S. and from Quebec to Louisiana, with Minnesota’s state motto of l’Etoile du Nord and many place names across the U.S. signs of our French heritage.

French for Business and Careers
France is one of the world’s largest economies and one of most important trading partners of the U.S. Of the Fortune Global 500 2016, 31 are headquartered in France. France is one of the top five investors in the U.S., and over 4,600 French companies, providing over 650,000 American jobs, operate in the U.S. France and French-speaking countries are a major world economic factor, accounting for 19% of the global trade in goods. French is a global business language, and knowledge of French can lead to career opportunities. A 2011 Bloomberg study found French to be the third most useful language for international business, with only English and Mandarin Chinese more useful. According to 2013 British Council report, Languages for the Future, French is the third most useful language for British business. French language skills can also lead to careers in the language-services sector, valued at more than $25 billion per year and employing more than half a million in education and industry alone, and predicted to increase by 29% between 2014 and 2024. A 2014 global talent survey found that 11% of U.S. mid- and large-size companies are actively recruiting candidates with foreign language skills and 35% give an advantage to multilingual candidates.

Learning French
French is the second most studied language in the world, with 100 million students around the world—a huge market. Over a million students study French in the Alliance Française alone. A recent study by Duolingo, the mobile language-learning-tools provider, found that French is the second most frequently studied language, with only English having more learners. The English language has been profoundly influenced by French, with estimates of French loanwords in English ranging up to 45% of our vocabulary. French is one of ten languages ranked by the Foreign Service Institute as close to English and easy to learn for English speakers. In a globalized, interconnected world, foreign language skills are more important than ever before, and yet Americans do not tend to study foreign languages, with only 18.5% of K–12 public school students studying a foreign language and a mere 8.1% of college and university students enrolled in a foreign language course.

Effective advocacy for French is essential for sustainable French language study commensurate with the importance of French in the globalized world and workplace and includes efforts and initiatives by associations of French-language educators, foreign-language educators, and other partners. The American Association of Teachers of French has taken the leadership role in French language advocacy through its national organization, regional and state chapters, and national commissions, including its Commission on Advocacy. Other advocacy groups include the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the Modern Language Association, the Joint National Committee for Languages–National Council for International Studies, the American Translators Association, and the Association of International Educators. Through its Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, the French government supports French language education around the world, deploying approximately 700 staff worldwide and providing funding of over six million euros per year. The OIF and the Centre de la francophonie des Amériques include advocacy within a broader agenda. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana promotes the use of French in Louisiana. On an international level, the United Nations advocates for multilingualism, as does the Many Languages One World essay contest—an initiative of the UN Academic Impact and ELS Educational Services.

Current trends in French language education include immersion programs, interdisciplinary programs, partnerships, international education, and online learning. Even as traditional K–12 and postsecondary enrollment has been problematic, the French language has enjoyed a resurgence in terms of French heritage-language and immersion programs. A noteworthy example is La révolution bilingue in New York City and neighboring North Jersey, which offers both dual-immersion and French heritage-language programs within its public schools. In New Orleans, immersion programs are also on the rise. French language education also includes Noteworthy immersion programs include the Middlebury College Summer Language Schools and the Concordia Language Villages. Beyond specifically French language programs with an interdisciplinary approach, Culture and Language across the Curriculum and the Centers for International Business Education and Research are among the best known. French government support for French language and francophone culture includes La révolution bilingue, the French Language Heritage Program, the Institut français and Alliance Française, CampusFrance, its nonprofit partner, FACE (French American Cultural Exchange), and numerous additional programs through the cultural services of the French Embassy.

The Future of French
French may be not only the language of the past and the present but also our language of the future. A 2014 study by investment bank Natixis suggests that by 2050, French might be the most widely spoken language in the world, with a half billion speakers. The 2014 OIF report La Langue française dans le monde predicts that by 2060, there will be 767 million French speakers in the world.

French is considered an advantage in personal life, in culture, in travel, in education, in the workplace, and in terms of access to information around the world. With 900 million people learning French around the world, our relative lack of French language skills and knowledge of francophone culture may mean that we are falling behind and may put our futures at risk. So, for all of these reasons and many more, the question for most of us should no longer be Why French? but rather Why not French? and Why not now?

American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Foreign Language Enrollments in K–12 Public Schools. 
Bloomberg Rankings: The Languages of Business. 
France and the Promotion of French Worldwide. 
French at the United Nations. 
Fumaroli, Marc. When the World Spoke French. New York: New York Review Books, 2011.
Language Difficulty Ranking. 
La Langue francaise dans le monde 2014
Modern Language Association. Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in
United States Institutions of Higher Education.
North American Francophone and Francophile Cities Network. 
Organisation internationale de la Francophonie. 
Rivers, William P. The Language Enterprise in the U.S.: The View from Washington. 
Rivers, William P. Making the Case for the Language Enterprise in 2015: Forging New Connections.
Top Trading Partners 2015. 

Kathy Stein-Smith, PhD, is associate university librarian and adjunct faculty in foreign languages and related areas at Fairleigh Dickinson University—Metropolitan Campus, Teaneck, New Jersey. She is chair of the AATF (American Association of Teachers of French) Commission on Advocacy, and a member of the ATA (American Translators Association) Education and Pedagogy Committee. She is the author of two books and several articles about the foreign language deficit, has given a TEDx talk, The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit—”What It Is; Why It Matters; and What We Can Do about It”, and maintains a blog, Language Matters.

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