It was with sadness but not surprise that I read the recent report about the demise of French in the Mattituck School District. As the school population on the North Fork continues to ebb and our school districts are put under more and more economic pressure, cutting programs continues to be a technique we use to save money. Is this wise?
At this dire juncture in our nation’s history, in a world that is increasingly conflicted and barbaric, can we afford to dispose of the bridges that bring us together and help us to communicate with and understand our friends around the globe? In these perilous economic times for our nation and other nations on the world’s economic stage, can we afford to speak only English or the languages we commonly hear in our neighborhoods?
I have taught French on the North Fork for my entire professional career and believe today, as I did when I started teaching, that French is a vital language of major importance in our world. It is the language spoken in all three of the cities where the European Union headquarters are: Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg. It is both a working and an official language of the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the International Olympic Committee, the International Red Cross and the International Court. It is the third most widely used language on the Internet, ahead of Spanish but behind English and German. It is the language of more than 250 million people in over 55 countries and the only language besides English that is taught and spoken on all continents of the globe. French is the language of the world’s fifth largest economy; France is the third most popular destination for foreign investment. Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world and Canada is the United States’ most important export market. French is the language of the world’s No. 1 tourist destination: France, which welcomes over 70 million visitors each year.
Besides its relevance in economics, diplomacy and politics, French also permeates our history and our culture. French contributed 40 percent of the words we use in the English language today. It is the language of the scientist who discovered the AIDS virus. It is the language of the authors of our Bill of Rights and France’s Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme. It is the language of the revolutionaries who followed our example and fought for a government for the people. France is one of our allies and the French people fought in our revolution. We fought shoulder to shoulder in both world wars with our francophone friends from Belgium, Canada and France. French is the language of cooking, fashion, theater, visual arts, dance and architecture. The study of French is the study of the culture and history of the globe.
This past summer I spent July at the University of Liège in Belgium. I was awarded a scholarship from the American Association of French Teachers to study the culture of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium and to attend some of the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War. The war started in Belgium when the Germans ignored Belgium’s neutrality and invaded in order to get to their main target, France. Everywhere on the European continent I saw evidence of the current importance of French as the language that is most spoken and most useful in Europe, seconded only by English. The time I spent in Belgium and Holland reaffirmed what I already knew: French is a 21st-century language and learning it is a 21st-century skill.
More than 75 percent of the U.S. population is unable to hold a conversation in another language. Over 70 percent of U.S. “foreign” language students study Spanish. Three out of five states in the U.S. expect a shortage of foreign language teachers in 2015. Only 8.9 million, or 18.5 percent, of eligible students in the U.S. are enrolled in foreign language courses — and most study for only two years. Five states — California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania — combine to represent over 40 percent of the total foreign language enrollment in secondary schools nationwide. Only 10 states require a minimum amount of foreign language study for high school graduation. Only 8 percent of college students study a foreign language and only 1 percent graduate with a language major.
Hopefully, these numbers and statistics have caused concern and alarm; they should. Let’s make language study a national priority and prepare a generation of Americans competent in other languages to be global citizens engaged internationally as never before in our increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Stand up for language education, stand up for French, stand up for more choices: earlier language intervention and more language study in our schools.
Virginia Gilmore of Southold is a French teacher in the Southold School District. She can be reached at [email protected].