Two days before Bastille Day, the French national day, I was prompted to do a Google search for “bastille day celebrations usa,” which returned over 248,000 results. A 2018 map revealed some 200 celebrations taking place from California to Maine and Florida, and at many points in between.
As an educator with a lifelong affection for French language and culture, I was more than happy to see the number and the geographic distribution of Bastille Day celebrations in the United States. This widespread interest in the French national day is an indication of increasing interest and awareness of French culture among Americans.
While the history and heritage of France and the U.S. have been interconnected for at least 500 years, many Americans have remained unaware of French and Francophone influence in their own country. French-Canadian explorer Pierre de la Vérendrye reached the Northwest well before Lewis and Clark, and Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi valley as early as the 17th century.
Today, over 10 million Americans claim a French ancestor, and nearly 160,000 French nationals reside in the United States. French is one of the most spoken languages in the country — over 2 million speak it at home — ; it is the most popular language after English in 4 states, and the third most popular after English and Spanish in 12 states. Nearly 1.3 million K-12 students and 176,000 university students are enrolled in a French program. And there is not a single American state without a French business within its borders!
While these numbers are impressive, the French influence in the U.S. remains understated, overlooked, and misunderstood.
Many language advocacy initiatives have focused on language learning, primarily in the classroom, and this is essential. It is also essential that French be used in authentic ways in our homes, in our communities, in our society and media. The Oui! initiative in Louisiana, grounded in the concept of francoresponabilité, is a wonderful example of initiatives promoting the use of French in local businesses. We need to think of other ways to promote the use of French in our local community and beyond.
With Bastille Day just around the corner, we should all work together to build on the enthusiasm, keep the momentum going, and encourage the growing interest in French and Franco-American heritage and history. Let’s work to make French language and Francophone culture part of our lives on Bastille Day, and every day!
Kathleen Stein-Smith, PhD, is associate university librarian and adjunct faculty in foreign languages and related areas at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 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).