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Valuing Local Forms of French


French language and Francophone culture are global and—as the world evolves—renewed manifestations of language and culture stand positioned to grow in influence and leadership. In a globalized and interconnected world, it is easier than ever before to attend and participate in French and Francophone events around the world.

As the Journée/Mois/Printemps de la Francophonie approaches, the office of the OIF (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) Ambassador to the United Nations in New York traditionally holds a meeting for all of us who are planning Francophone events.

This combination of old and new, from regions around the world, ensures the ongoing vibrancy and sustainability of French as a global language.

In addition to the Journée/Mois/Printemps de la Francophonie around the world and in your neighborhood, it is also possible to enjoy Francophone media wherever you are on TV5Monde, a worldwide French-language media network celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and through many other media sources.

With projected growth in Africa—the fastest-growing continent—and creative media like the television series Lupin re-imagining traditional French literature and culture for new generations and diverse audiences, French can easily be considered a language of the future.

The year 2023 was a banner year for French, highlighted by the opening of the Cité internationale de la langue française at the extensively renovated historic Château de Villers-Cotterêts, where French was proclaimed as the national language of France—and the best is yet to come. In 2024, Paris is slated to host the Olympic Games, with French as an official language, both as one of two official languages of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and as the language of the host country. France also has a just-appointed Premier Ministre, Gabriel Attal, who, at 34 years old, is the youngest in recent history, symbolizing renewal to many.

The French Language and the Francophonie—Now and Forever
French is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 300 million speakers. The majority of French speakers reside in Africa, whose young and growing population points to present and future French language growth. It is also a global language—an official language of the United Nations, the IOC, and many other international and global organizations and initiatives. It is spoken on every continent. It is interesting to note that TV5Monde is currently funded by France, Switzerland, Canada, Québec, and the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles.

Beyond our heritage language and our personal and cultural lives, French language skills and a knowledge of French and Francophone culture are also an advantage in the workplace, with French among the top languages in demand in the US workplace and in international business. On the global stage, French also—perhaps most importantly—sets an example in valuing and welcoming local forms of French. As we all know, French is a global language with a local touch, including both a global language that people around the world use in communicating with others and a local language that people around the world use in their daily lives communicating with family, friends, and their local communities, from Québec to Polynésie. While the langue de Molière and the Académie française retain their roles, French is evolving as a global language, incorporating terms from local Francophone communities around the world. This is especially important for French language heritage educators, speakers, and language learners. Local forms of French are being welcomed in the French language globally and in French language learning and use in the US. In addition to the importance of valuing local forms of French in a global sense, it is also important to think of the students who may be in our classrooms, who may include French language speakers with origins spanning the globe along with those learning French as an additional/ world language.

It is essential for educators and for local stakeholders who seek to encourage French language learning and use in our local communities to take into consideration not only French as a global language but also the French spoken by students in local communities and in the Americas.

As a global language, French is unique in that it generally exists in a multilingual environment. In most countries and regions where French is spoken, it may be one of several official or widely used languages. In fact, French speakers may be the minority in a country where it is an official language, such as in Switzerland and Canada. The sharing of French, however, has been referred to as an advantage, or gift, in the sense that it is a unifying factor, bringing together Francophone communities around the world in the expression of humanistic ideas as well as through their local language terms and expressions.

This welcome of international French is especially visible on the media network TV5Monde, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, where programming from around the Francophone world is readily available on a daily basis, and in the freely available online Dictionnaire des Francophones, where words and expressions have been recommended by French speakers around the world.

Most of us are aware not only of the role of French as a language of culture and ideas in the world but also as a language of our US history and cultural identity, with names like Lafayette and the role of France an undeniable part of our American Revolution. In the current era, public figures like Antony Blinken and John Kerry speak French, as do celebrities like Jodie Foster and Bradley Cooper.

Many of us are well aware of the role of French in the world as a language of culture, civilization, ideas, and humanistic values, and even more of us are aware of the role of France in the American Revolution. The Paris Olympics and the selection of the youngest prime minister in recent history are in the current news. While we are well aware of the historic and cultural role of French, we are sometimes less aware of the business and technological importance of France in the world, where companies like LVMH and French business figures like Bernard Arnauld are less well known.

In addition, the French presence, or espace francophone, around the world is somewhat less known to us. Many of us are unaware that—beyond France—not only is French spoken in other European countries but also around the world, and right here at home, in the US, Québec, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Since becoming president of France, Emmanuel Macron has launched a campaign to support and promote the French language in the world. One might be tempted to ask, mais pourquoi? The answer is simple—the vast majority of Francophones, or French speakers, over 320 million around the world, live outside France, with the majority living in Africa.

Macron has highlighted not only the significance of the French language in a wide range of areas but also the fact that French is a global language that belongs to many countries. On the Journée internationale de la Francophonie, March 20, 2018, he launched the worldwide campaign for French.

High-profile elements of this campaign include the Dual Language Fund, the Dictionnaire des Francophones, the Français pour tous/French for All initiative, and the opening of the Cité internationale de la langue française in the just-restored historic Château de Villers-Cotterêts. The Dual Language Fund, launched in 2017 during President Macron’s visit to New York City, builds on the growing interest in dual language immersion schools. Published in March 2021, the freely available online Dictionnaire des Francophones was a collaborative initiative of the OIF and includes over 470,000 words from around the world.

The French for All initiative, launched in Louisiana during Macron’s state visit in 2022, highlights the importance of opportunity for French language learning, which is an especially important concept in the US. It supports the education and training of French teachers, significant at a time when there is a shortage of world language teachers.

The opening of Cité internationale de la langue française at the Château de Villers-Cotterêts, proposed at the beginning of the campaign for the French language, took place on Oct. 30, 2023, with a nearly hour-long speech by President Macron.

While we may be accustomed to thinking of French in terms of history, literature, and so on, it is also necessary to think of the French language and of French and Francophone culture in terms of science and technology, business, current global issues, and the like. Another area that we may not always think of is the truly global nature of French. While the word global is often used, it is often used in an abstract sense, and many Americans remain relatively unaware of French beyond the iconic symbols including the Eiffel Tower, croissants, macarons, and so on. They may be unaware that French has always been an American language, with French spoken throughout the US, most notably in Louisiana and New England, and—beyond the US—throughout the Americas, most notably in Canada and in the Caribbean.

The focus is increasingly on the dynamic among the different regions of the world where French is spoken, with the influence of Africa, home to the majority of the world’s Francophones, growing in importance due its rapidly growing population. Closer to home is Canada, where the Francophone population, though located throughout the country, is concentrated largely in Québec, along with neighboring Ontario and New Brunswick. Closest to home is the Francophone population of the US, again located throughout the country, yet most heavily concentrated in New England and Louisiana, with a significant number of Francophones (80,000) in New York City.

French is a global language and an American language. It is spoken around the world, a language of international organizations and relations, and of international business, science, and technology. It is also an American language, spoken by 33 million in the Americas, and a US language since the earliest days of the European era. It is a language characterized by diversity, with the majority of French speakers located in areas beyond French borders, which welcomes new words from around the world.

Action steps include additional opportunities for French speakers in the US to learn and to use French not only in their personal and cultural lives but also in their communities and in the media.

It is essential that educators and communities have the opportunity to come together to develop new and additional language programs including world and heritage languages, as well as immersion programs, to develop low-cost and free materials that reflect the global nature of the French-speaking world. Organizations like the Franco-American Centre and the Nous Foundation lead the way, along with initiatives like the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast and many others.

We must remember the pillars of the ongoing international campaign for French education, communication, and creativity— and the Cité internationale de la langue française at the Château de Villers-Cotterêts. Most importantly, French as a shared language is an atout—an advantage, bringing together diverse cultures in a global world. It is more important than ever that we work together here in the US—in our classrooms and communities—to defend and support French language and Francophone culture. L’union fait la force.

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 Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes académiques and a member of Pi Delta Phi, the National French Honor Society. She is the author of three books and several articles about the foreign language deficit, has given a TEDx talk, “The US Foreign Language Deficit—What It Is, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do about It,” and maintains a blog, Language Matters.

Kathy has also recently been elected to the executive board of the American Society of the Academic Palms (www.frenchacademicpalms.org).

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