The French in Our Lives

This week-end, Americans will be celebrating Bastille Day by eating crêpes and drinking wine and cheering on the French team in the World Cup final. Foreign language advocate and devoted Francophile Kathleen Stein-Smith takes a look at the influence and impact of French language and culture in the United States.
The Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino in Nevada. © Mike Boening

It is possible to sit in a café, to have a macaron or a crêpe as an afternoon snack, or to purchase a ticket to the ballet, while strolling through countless towns and cities in the United States, and most of us would easily recognize these as French words describing French contributions to the local lifestyle.

Most recently, U.S. media outlets showcased the historic state visit to the U.S. of French President Emmanuel Macron in April 2018, which closely followed his visit to New York in September 2017 to address the United Nations during which he made numerous public appearances, including the launch of the French dual-language education fund at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Beyonce and Jay-Z have recently released a music video filmed at the Louvre, and a recent television business news broadcast included an interview from the Cannes Lions Festival. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, was a major bestseller in English translation in the U.S., and well over 500 French titles in translation are scheduled to be published in the U.S. in 2018. Following a long tradition of American food-lovers in Paris made famous by Julia Child, David Lebovitz has chronicled his experiences and the food of Paris in his best-selling books.

French music and media are more readily available than ever in the U.S., through online and social media platforms – think Kanye West’s remix of Stromae’s Alors on danse, as well as in more traditional settings, including theaters, concert halls, and museums. Available French television series include, for example, Marseille, Call My Agent, and a Quebec-themed episode, “The Maple Sugar Heist,” on Dirty Money. Current museum exhibits include Visitors to Versailles: 1682-1789, and Public Parks, Private Gardens: Paris to Provence, both currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Numerous U.S. films have portrayed the French-American relationship, with Midnight in Paris, Le Divorce, and Paris Can Wait as just a few examples.

France has long been a favorite destination for American tourists and for study abroad, and both returning tourists and students often bring back new ideas and perspectives. At present, nearly 20,000 American college and university students are currently studying in France, following a tradition made famous by many, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, who were among the first young American women to return to Paris for study abroad after the end of World War II. In addition, it is estimated that over 100,000 Americans live in France, making France one of the most popular destinations for American expatriates. Elaine Sciolino, a New York Times writer and former Paris bureau chief, who has written of her junior year abroad in France, has been recognized by the French government for her “special contribution” to French-American understanding and friendship.

While champagne, braille, and pasteurization are among the many inventions well known to be French, the stethoscope, just as French, has been saving lives for over 150 years. Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and L’Oréal are just a few examples of the many French fashion and beauty brands that are household words in the United States, and the American company Best Buy is led a French chairman and CEO, Hubert Joly. France is among the top trading partners of the U.S. – with over 4,600 French companies operating in the United States and providing over 650,000 jobs – and among the top foreign investors in the US.

It could seem that – suddenly – French culture and lifestyle are everywhere, part of American daily life. However, the extent and impact of French and Francophone thought and creativity on Americans is more complex and more nuanced than many of us would easily imagine.

The French and the Americans, a Shared History

Thomas Jefferson supposedly once said, “every man has two countries: his own and France.” For many Americans, the first introduction to French language and culture may be a family vacation to Quebec, or an elementary school history lesson mentioning in passing the influence of the French Enlightenment on Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers. However, relatively fewer may know that several of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, spent a considerable time in Paris and spoke French, and that Thomas Jefferson actually had a home on the Champs-Elysées.

While most of us have heard of the Marquis de Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution, relatively fewer of us may known that Lafayette College in Pennsylvania was founded out of respect and admiration for Lafayette’s contribution to the founding of our nation, or that, at President Monroe’s invitation, Lafayette toured the country in 1824 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United States.

From the earliest days of the nation, American writers and artists, including James Fenimore Cooper and Samuel Morse, flocked to Paris and to the Louvre. However, American tourism to Paris throughout the 19th century and beyond included not only artists and writers, but many middle-class Americans as well. France remains the favorite European destination of Americans overall, purely as tourists, with few heritage connections.

Our French and Francophone Heritage and Identity

The earliest European communities in what later became the United States largely reflected the long-term global competition among Spain, France, and Britain, and this conflict between France and Britain was largely decided, as far as North America is concerned, by the loss of Quebec to the British in 1763. While most Americans have heard mention of Wolfe and Montcalm, many are somewhat unaware of the significance of the French colonies in North America, and even more would be surprised to learn that Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two small islands off the Atlantic coast of Canada, are part of metropolitan France.

The French presence in North America dates back to the early explorations of Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, with the city of Quebec founded in 1608. L’Etoile du Nord, state motto of Minnesota, and French toponymes across the U.S. – including St. Louis, New Orleans, Detroit, Vermont, and many more – indicate the French presence.

Today, in addition to numerous local and regional festivals, the Congrès Mondial Acadien (Acadian World Congress) takes place every five years. French-Canadian migration to the U.S. and the Grand Dérangement described in Longfellow’s poem Evangeline have contributed to the role of French as an authentic historical American language. It is estimated that 13 million Americans are of French heritage, with French being the most widely spoken language – after English – in 4 states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Louisiana) and the most widely spoken language – after English and Spanish – in 8 additional states (Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Florida), indicating a strong French and Francophone heritage in 12 , or nearly a quarter, of our U.S. states. Even in states not mentioned, French has a significant presence – in the neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York, for example.

French as a Global and Local Language

French is a global language – many would say, one of only two global languages – and French culture and literature have been admired for centuries throughout the world. In addition, French is one of the world’s most influential languages and one of the top 3 languages for international business. This combination of enduring appeal, or attractivité, and usefulness for business, educational, and information purposes, has encouraged interest in French around the world. Closer to home, not only is French part of our history and heritage, but it is also part of our cultural identity.

It is interesting to note that France has been recognized as the world leader in terms of “soft power,” reflecting the worldwide appeal of both the language itself and the culture and ideas that it represents, as well as its growing number of speakers in France and abroad.

French is certainly part of our past and of our present, but what of the future? The number of French speakers around the world has been increasing, and it has been predicted that, by 2025, French will be the most widely spoken language in Europe, and by 2060, the most widely spoken language in the world. In addition, French President Macron has recently launched a campaign to promote French worldwide.

It is up to all of us to ensure access to continued and sequential foreign language learning, including French, to the broadest cross-section of Americans possible, especially children in the early grades, who have the best chance of achieving fluency, and heritage language learners of all ages, who may have the most powerful motivation, another predictor of successful language learning. In addition, programs should be developed to facilitate language learning by those already in the workplace, empowering them professionally, culturally, and personally.

Both traditional and immersion foreign language education are valid approaches, with the proactive use of technology and online learning no longer an added advantage, but rather a necessity. Effecting a paradigm shift in attitudes toward foreign language learning among Americans will not be without challenges. Partnerships among educators, communities, the private sector, and government are essential to supporting the sustainable foreign language learning needed by all of us as global citizens.

The Enduring Appeal of French Language and Francophone Culture in the U.S. and Beyond

Ma patrie, c’est la langue francaise,” wrote Albert Camus. My fatherland is the French language. France is the most popular tourist destination in the world, and French is the second most frequently studied language in the United States with 1.3 million students in K-12 public schools and more than 175,000 at the college and university level. In addition, 22% of the immersion programs in the U.S. are in French, far exceeding the percentage of Francophones in the U.S. population. The Organisation international de la Francophonie has more than 80 members, confirming the status of French as a global language.

The appeal of the French language and Francophone cultures is evident. In the U.S., Franco-Americans across the country have treasured their linguistic and cultural heritage, and in Canada, French Canadians and Québécois have kept their language and culture alive and vibrant for more than 250 years since the fall of Quebec. Around the world, people are using French for professional, educational, and cultural purposes, learning French in record numbers, and French is predicted to surpass German as the most widely spoken language in Europe by 2025, and to become the world’s most widely spoken language by 2050.

By virtue of the appeal, or attractivité, of French language and Francophone culture, people, the world over continue to be drawn to France and to the French language.