With the celebration of la fête nationale, or Bastille Day, as it is generally referred to in English, on July 14th, in many towns and cities in the US like Piermont, NY, we may tend to think of it as part of the summer season, but it is interesting to take a look not only at the Hexagone, the taking of the Bastille for many of the ideas and values that drove our American Revolution, and at French as a European and as a global language, but also at French as part of our US heritage and cultural identity—past, present, and future.
Our Francophone Heritage – Our Francophone Past
The story of French in what is now the US begins in the earliest years of the European era, with parts of New England and much of the Mississippi Valley part of la Nouvelle France. The course of US history was upended with the fall of Québec in 1759 and the role of the ideas of the Enlightenment in the American Revolution, as well as the aid and assistance given by France to the new nation. However, many Americans may be relatively unaware of the presence of French language and Francophone culture throughout our history and across our country.
French surnames and place names like St. Louis, Boise, and Vermont, along with L’Étoile du Nord as the state motto of Minnesota, hint at the French-American connection, but it is key to recognize that this connection is not limited to the history books, but is part of our present, in the everyday lives of people across the country.
French in the US Today – Our Francophone Present
More than 10 million people in the US consider themselves of French ancestry, and an estimated 2 million speak French at home. Louisiana and New England are well-known for their significant French and Francophone heritage and presence, but South Florida is home to a fast-growing French and French Creole-speaking community, New York City is home to 80,000 Francophones, while an estimated 160,000 French nationals live throughout the US, and a resurgence of French in Maine is being driven in part by recent immigration from Africa. Rather than being a nostalgic part of our history, French language and Francophone culture are not only part of our present, but also importantly, our future. Priorities to be considered include support and promotion of French language learning and use in the widest possible variety of settings, support of French language educators and French language programs at all levels, and support of media and cultural initiatives related to France and the Francophone world.
Francoresponsabilité and Franco-Activists in the US
Francoresponsabilité, a term used initially in Québec, refers to developing the use of French in daily life, and Franco-activists can be found across the US. A few selected examples include the Oui! Initiative, a movement to promote the use of French by Louisiana businesses, the activities of CODOFIL (Council for the Development of French in Louisiana), the Nous Foundation, whose work includes “living and creating in French and Creole,” and the Laura Plantation, Louisiana’s Creole heritage site. Beyond Louisiana, New England is home to the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast, the Franco-American Centre, and the New Hampshire PoutineFest. The University of Maine hosts Franco-American Programs and Acadian Archive, as well as a recently-established Alliance Française, and the multi-university collaborative Franco-American Digital Archive (FADA). In Minnesota, the French American Heritage Foundation promotes knowledge and engagement, and in Missouri, the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Geneviève offers an annual French Heritage Festival. In New York and beyond, the Bilingual Fair, or Salon de l’Éducation Bilingue, brings information about French language education to interested parents and communities, and “French Morning,” “Frenchly,” and “France-Amérique” are among media bringing useful information to French and Francophone communities and to Francophiles in the US.
Films, music, media, and the creative and performing arts, in French and/or on Francophone-related themes, including Télé-Louisiane, films like Carrefour and Réveil, musical artists like Zachary Richard, Josée Vachon, Dennis Stroughmatt, and Sweet Crude, among others, are an important part of advocacy and activism, and these are just a few of many examples.
French Language Education
French is the second most widely-studied language in the US, with 1.3 million K-12 students and 176,000 college and university students enrolled in French programs. The American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), whose mission is “to promote throughout North America the teaching and learning of the French language and French-speaking cultures and civilizations,” includes French language educators at all levels.
Noteworthy trends include the rising interest in immersion programs and the success of college and university programs and courses that address specific student needs and interests. Examples include the French immersion programs in New York City and the surrounding area that have been propelled forward by the Bilingual Revolution (most recently, the Pointe-au-Chien immersion school in Louisiana), the French Heritage Language Program, and pre-professional and special-interest courses at the college and university level. The master’s program in Professional French at the University of Wisconsin and programs responding to student interests as highlighted in the most recent MLA report and the French Language Job Fairs on campus and online are examples of bridging the gap between language learning and the benefits of French language skills in the workplace and in daily life. It is important to remember that French language education offers language learning pathways to a variety of learners with a wide range of goals. From Anglophone children whose parents would like their children to be bilingual and adult learners who are seeking to improve their knowledge base and cultural knowledge, advance their careers, or re-connect with a partially forgotten or lost heritage language. Even more importantly, French language education serves the needs of French-speaking families trying to ensure that children and future generations continue to speak the family language.
Needless to say, in addition to world language education in schools and colleges, community-based language learning, after-school and weekend programs, and summer camps—both onsite and online—play an important role.
Issues facing French language education include, but are not limited to, expanding access to include all interested learners. Online learning and affordability play a significant role in expanding access, as do community-based programs and after-school, weekend, and summer programs. An example of community-based online learning is the Prêt-à-Parler program of the Franco-American Centre in Manchester, NH., along with language French language tables, either onsite or online, offered by libraries, cultural centers, and other institutions, including the Alliance Française.
Our Francophone Future
Our US Francophone future is bright— vibrant and diverse, and includes Francophones from around the world, so it is necessary to respond to a wide range of needs and goals, for Anglophone and other French language learners, to children of Francophone families who are learning a family language, to those who are re-acquiring a partially or completely lost heritage language. As paradoxical as it may sound, outreach to those who don’t speak French (yet) is part of our Francophone future. The sheer number of Americans potentially interested in Francophone culture—just think of the 10 million Americans of French ancestry, who may speak French well, somewhat, just a little, or even not at all, not to mention Francophiles – makes outreach in terms of events, programs, and activities to those who may not know the language an obvious next step.
Unfortunately, even the best initiatives may not be sustainable in the absence of reliable ongoing funding. Partnerships are a possible answer to sustainable funding. While public funding made possible by a language policy is best, private philanthropy used for scholarships, grants, and endowments can provide the means for a wide variety of initiatives to continue. The FACE (French American Cultural Exchange) Foundation is an example of the role of philanthropy in language and cultural advocacy. The French government has launched a Dual Language Education Fund, announced by French President Macron at the CUNY Graduate Center during his 2017 visit to NYC for the UN General Assembly. The campaign for the French language worldwide announced in 2018 is framed by goals including learning, communicating, and creating in French, with the publication in 2021 of the online Dictionnaire des Francophones and the opening of a Cité de la langue française in 2022 its most high-profile projects thus far.
It is impossible to fail to mention the work of the OIF and the CFA in any discussion of the French language in the world. The Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), with its mission “to support the French language and cultural and linguistic diversity” and the Centre de la Francophonie des Amériques (CFA), with its mission “to promote and enhance an exciting Francophonie to secure a bright future for the French language in today’s culturally diverse landscape” are pillar of Franco advocacy and activism.
Given the significant number of Americans of French ancestry, with language skills ranging from mother tongue and heritage language speakers to those who speak limited or no French due to assimilation and language loss, along with their geographic dispersion, online and independent self-directed learning are important elements in our Francophone future, with the increase in OERs (open educational resources) offering a wide range of quality learning materials to learners of all ages wishing to create their own learning journey. Valuing regional French and including those who do not speak French are essential, because French has many local and regional variations and vocabulary. It is important that both global French and the needs of those without language proficiency are included in our US Francophonie.
It is also important to consider the needs of different age groups. While many existing programs and initiatives focus on adults, the needs of children and young adults, sometimes referred to as Gen-Z, are especially important for the future of French. Born since 1997, Generation Z is tech-savvy, and resilient in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, and our Francophone future will inevitably evolve within a context of effective use of technology and a focus on the importance of language and languages in the life of the individual. This focus on the importance of the motivations and purposes of the individual language learner in planning both learning and cultural alternatives is essential to the future of the Francophonie in the US.
Building on recognition of and respect for the many historical connections and centuries-long friendship between the Americans and the French, the future of French includes not only descendants of early French explorers and settlers, but also the descendants of the million French-Canadians who came to the US from the early 19th century through the early 20th century, descendants of the Acadians who came to the US during the Grand Dérangement, and all who have come to make their home here at different times throughout our history.
However, while French has been a language used in what is now the US since the early years of the European era in the Americas, advocacy for French language and Francophone culture remains necessary as a result of language loss and in response to challenges facing French language learning at all academic levels, especially at the postsecondary level, in the years leading up to and immediately following the COVID pandemic.
Advocacy for French language and Francophone culture in the US needs to be inclusive, responsive to a wide range of needs, and the work of a broad partnership of French language educators and partners in our communities, businesses, and government— especially parents. Advocacy also needs to focus on the importance of multilingualism in a globalized world, recognizing the importance of French as a global language, and maximizing the personal, cultural, professional, and global citizenship benefits to US Francophones.
Advocacy can take place at the highest levels, through the Languages Caucus or French Caucus in the Congress, or through US officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others like Senator Mitt Romney, or former Senator, former Secretary of State, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, all of whom speak French. It can also take place over a cup of coffee with a family member, friend, or local decision-maker. The important thing is that we work together – L’Union fait la force!
Best Bastille Day wishes to all, as we celebrate Bastille Day on July 14th and embrace our US French heritage every day! To learn more about French language and Francophone culture in the US and to stay up to date on the latest news, local, regional, and national organizations are among the best information sources. Research, data, and historical information can be found in numerous reports, books, and articles. The following are just a few examples.
• Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes
• Alliance Française du Maine
• American Association of Teachers of French
• Bilingual Fair
• Le Centre de la francophonie des Amériques
• Le Château de Villers-Cotterêts, écrin de la langue française et de la première œuvre de Mondes nouveaux
• Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins
• Le Dictionnaire des Francophones (DDF)
• Emmanuel Macron launches global campaign to promote French speaking
• Enrollments in Languages other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education
• FACE Foundation
• Franco-American Centre
• Franco-American Digital Archive/Portail franco-américain
• La Francoresponsabilité, un enjeu en Louisiane
• French American Heritage Foundation of Minnesota
• French Heritage Language Program
• French Canadian Legacy Podcast
• International Strategy for the French Language and Multilingualism
• Job Fairs
• Language Use in the United States: 2011
• Laura Plantation
• The National K-12 Language Enrollment Survey Report
• New Hampshire PoutineFest
• New York, la capitale méconnue de la francophonie
• Nous Foundation
• Organisation internationale de la Francophonie
• Pointe-aux-Chenes French immersion school proposal passes through state House legislature
• Professional French Masters Program
• University of Maine. Franco-American Programs
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. She is a member of the ATA (American Translators Association) Education and Pedagogy Committee, the CSCTFL (Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advisory Council, and the NECTFL (Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advisory Council. She also serves as French language facilitator at MLOW (Many Languages, One World). She is the author of three 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.