Making French more than just a fashion trend

(Bonjour à tous! Je suis étudiante à Princeton University, et ici c'est un article que j'ai écrit pour un cours de journalisme.  Je vient de Singapour mais j'aime bien la langue française, et je m'intéresse au sujet du langage et de l'éducation. Je suis ouvert à vos opinions et commentaires. Merci!)


At the French-American School of New York (FASNY), where students hail from over fifty nationalities, one of the most popular events is the Soirée d’Internationale, or International Night.  Students, parents and employees come dressed in their national garb and prepare their national cuisine.

“We have a French-American accent, but are fundamentally more global and international, training citizens for the world,” said Robert Leonhardt, the Head of FASNY.

Apart from the usual French traditions, American holidays such as Thanksgiving and a Halloween parade are also mainstays of the school calendar.

Even Kermesse, the annual June spring fair, inevitably reflects the diversity in the school.   At the fair, the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Patch reports, you can sample quiche from France, beignets from Cameroon, paella from Spain, pizza from New York – and get Indian henna tattoos.  Students participating in the talent show sing American hits such as Sara Bareilles’s Love Song.

Already, the name “French-American” strays from the conventional image of an indignant France, wringing its hands at the dominance of English and decline of French.

It is symbolic of the pragmatic adaptation by the French community in the United States, to a country – and a world – where French is decreasing in popularity and importance.  There is a growing recognition that it is unrealistic to just learn French alone.

The energetic response, driven by the grassroots, has been to promote French alongside other languages.  The education system has been an effective means of integrating French into the wider community, by making it accessible from young not just to the French, but also Francophones and non-French speakers.

“In reality, there is a diversity of languages.  English exists alongside other languages,” said Ambassador Moussa-Makan Camara, the Permanent Representative of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) to the United Nations in New York.  “We are not waging a battle against English.  We are fighting for the coexistence of French.”

There are now 35 French-American schools nationwide, and a network of bilingual French schools across the world.  Most have sprung up within the last ten to fifteen years.

The French-American Schools boast of a bilingual and bicultural curriculum, combining the rigor and content of French education with the creativity and flexibility of American teaching methods.  Subjects are taught in both languages.

Even for French schools sticking with the traditional French baccalaureate curriculum, there is an increased emphasis on learning other languages.

“Any bilingual school is a plus for the world,” said Yves Thézé, the Head of the Lycée Français de New York (LFNY).

LFNY also offers other languages such as German, Spanish and Italian.  Mandarin, introduced four years ago, is now taken by 400 students from Grades 3-12.

Whether these schools are French or French-American, French students are no longer the majority.  For instance, only a third of the students at LFNY are French citizens.  At FASNY, Americans constitute 20% of the student population, while 17% of the students at its Princeton counterpart claim international origins as diverse as Russia, Brazil and Egypt.

Apart from serving an expanding group of French-Americans and international students, bilingual immersion is seen as the most practical way of ensuring the continued survival of the language in its precarious state.

Leonhardt said that in the 1960s-70s, 40% of secondary school students taking a foreign language studied French, but this has declined to less than 15% today.  The College Board has also discontinued the Advanced Placement French Literature test since 2010 due to the low numbers of high school students taking the course. 

Fabrice Jaumont, the Education Director at the French Embassy here, estimated that in the last twelve months, thirty American universities had shut down their PhD or Master’s French programs.

“In the U.S., the view is that Chinese is more important to learn nowadays,” Jaumont added.  “European languages have the ‘old Europe’ type of image.”

“There is no longer any economic and political interest,” said Marie Christine Vannier, who runs exchange programs between Centre Madeleine Danielou (CMD), a French school, and American high schools.  “Sidwell [Friends School] had since 2008 ‘flirted’ with us on setting up this exchange program, but at heart it was not very interested.”

Sidwell has been described by the New York Times as the “Harvard of Washington’s private schools,” and many U.S. presidents including Obama have enrolled their children there.

According to Vannier, the school abruptly backed out last year, despite having given the “green light” earlier.  It claimed to have had a change in the required administrative procedures.

“At that, I smiled, because how can the school at which the daughters of the U.S. President are studying suddenly have new regulations at the end of October,” remarked Vannier.  “It is the laziness of the teachers who realized that they needed to put in a bit of work for the exchange program and changed their minds.”

The dismissal of their language remains particularly jarring for the French, for whom linguistic and cultural self-preservation has historically been a priority.

“More than any other ethnic group, the French people in the U.S. are keen on protecting and maintaining their ‘Frenchness’ within their community,” said François Rigolot, a Princeton University professor in the French and Italian Department.

“If other languages are reduced to the status of local dialects, this will necessarily entail an increased marginalization of alternative cultures, and therefore alternative modes of thinking,” Rigolot added.

But the concern also goes down to a personal level.  Second-generation French who grew up in the United States are more likely to feel detached from their linguistic heritage.

“They can’t read and write even a polite letter to say ‘Thank you,’ ” said Catherine Poisson, a French professor at Wesleyan University.  Poisson recalled being “horrified” at the number of Francophone students she taught who couldn’t “write a decent sentence” although they spoke French fluently with “no accent.” 

Sophie Meunier, a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School was “upset” that her daughter had read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth in English.  “If it’s originally written in French, and you know French, you should read it in French,” Meunier said.

Often, part of the challenge is financial.  “The French embassy and government did not realize that many abandon French completely because they cannot afford [the Lycée Français’s tuition fees],” explained Poisson.

Poisson is also the president of Education Française à New York (EFNY), a volunteer organization founded in 2005 by Francophone parents worried about their children’s waning interest and proficiency in French.

“We want to read and write correctly in French while having a regular life in America,” Poisson said.

Similar to the approach taken by the private French-run schools, the EFNY is spearheading a dual language initiative in New York City, but with one defining feature – the program is integrated within the American public education system, making it completely free.

Set up in six schools and counting, it follows the same curriculum as regular schools, but 40% of the subject matter is taught in French, taking up half of the instructional time.  Each dual-language class has equal numbers of Francophone and Anglophone students.

These EFNY initiatives have led to what the magazine French Morning New York has called an “explosion” in French-English bilingual programs. According to Jaumont, almost 1,100 students were enrolled in dual language programs in New York City in 2009-2010, and 15,000 nationwide, including in cities from Boston and Chicago to Los Angeles and Miami.

Even the New York City Department of Education has got into the act.  Last September, it opened two new multi-language immersion schools: the New York French-American Charter School (NYFACS) in Harlem, and a trilingual English-French-Spanish school, The New American Academy, in Brooklyn.

The French in America have welcomed the proliferation of bilingual French initiatives beyond their community.  Private or public, American or French curriculum or otherwise, the variety of programs are seen as complementary.

“We are not offering the same thing, not targeting the same population,” said Thézé.  He added that for example, LFNY caters to students in Manhattan, while FASNY serves those living north of Manhattan.

“No many how many schools or programs, they contribute to the expansion of the French-speaking and French-learning community,” said Jaumont.  “It creates competition, which is necessary.”

“There is enough room for everybody,” Head of FASNY Leonhardt agreed, saying that he would “applaud any development that promotes the study of French in a period that French is declining significantly.”

What is crucial, in the words of Thézé, Head of LFNY, is the “right to protect French language in American culture, otherwise it will be eaten up.”

The crux, then, is to be open and encourage the participation of the non-Francophone population, instead of constructing an aloof French-only system.

“The best way to ensure the promotion of the language is not through pure French schools, which don’t reach out [to the wider community], but bilingual schools,” said Camara.

“For me, it should never answer to just the French-speaking families.  We should definitely incorporate non-French speaking families, to integrate families from more walks of life,” said Jaumont.

At the same time, some French parents remain concerned about priority of access for their own community.

While praising NYFACS as a “nice initiative,” Poisson said that the charter school is “not the best way of offering a dual language program” because its lottery-based enrollment system does not ensure that Francophone children would have a guaranteed spot to learn their own language.

“Your house can be across from the school but your child can not get in,” she explained.

But Poisson emphasized that the importance of having several programs from which parents could choose.

“We don’t want LFNY to say horrible things about the dual language program, and we don’t want to say horrible things about NYFACS,” she said.  “I am not against NYFACS or any kind of private schools – if it was not so far away and expensive I would have put my daughter there [at LFNY].”

At the same time, however, the lack of coordination can have unintended effects.  For example, the recent opening of NYFACS had attracted French families away from nearby dual language programs.  PS 125, also in Harlem, was forced to shut down its program, while PS 151 almost closed its.

“We don’t have to be in competition, I hope in the future we will be respectful of one another,” Poisson explained.  “There is plenty of room for many different projects, I don’t think NYFACS has to steal students.”

However, she added that the dual language program at PS 125 had already been facing difficulties as it had been “imposed” by the French Embassy and NYCDOE, because “it looked good on paper to be helping a struggling neighborhood rather than a white one.”

Poisson said that officials had wanted to “invite families to renew with one of their heritage languages,” but the large West African community had not been receptive.

“There were communication problems and structural problems,” Jaumont admitted. 

The African and Haitian Francophones tend not to see French as crucial for integrating into American life.

“They don’t intend to return [to their home countries],” said Camara of the Francophone immigrants’ priorities.  “Why learn the language if it is not useful? Attending university requires English.”

Furthermore, bitter memories of French colonial rule persist.  Camara said it was a “pity” many Francophones still viewed French as the language of the elite. 

“You can’t shake away the horrible relations between France and Africa.  Although [Africans] know French would be potentially valuable for their kids, there is still some resentment,” Poisson said.  “Both EFNY and NYFACS have had a very difficult time with African organizations.  In principle they are very interested with the program, but they are still very prudent.”

NYFACS has not been able to enroll as many African-American students as it wanted, and there remain almost zero Haitian families in the dual language project.

But optimism prevails.  Camara said that mindsets were changing with the drive by the International Organisation of la Francophonie to increase education and awareness in the larger population.

In fact, the OIF was actually mooted by Francophone African countries, and not by France, to advocate French linguistic and cultural heritage.

“It is in the midst of becoming the language of the people,” Camara said.

EFNY also hopes that in the next 5 to 10 years, more Francophone families will join as the dual language program becomes increasingly established.

“The Senegalese immigrants spend twelve hours a day driving a taxi, and never went to school, yet they are very interested,” added Jaumont.

Through the French Educational Attaché in New York, he has successfully launched Heritage Language Programs for Haitian and African students to help them integrate into American life without losing their French heritage.

“It develops knowledge of English and French, to be self-confident and good citizens,” said Jaumont.

Another initiative is New York in French, an online social network for not just French expats but also other Francophones to exchange information and discuss initiatives.

“It is a platform to reach out to the French-speaking communities – in plural – and build a bridge between the different groups, in their own neighborhoods, who don’t know how to communicate with each other,” Jaumont explained.

The French Educational Attaché is now working very closely with grassroots organizations such as the EFNY.  However, this collaboration did not happen immediately.

“The French Embassy thought that we were being needlessly difficult,” said Poisson of EFNY’s efforts to start the dual language programs.

“The driver here is the parents,” said Jaumont.  “It took a few years to understand that.”

Even officials like him acknowledge the disconnect from the top.

“Sometimes, the official view is just to promote the French bac and school model, but this is not realistic,” said Jaumont.  “I’m not tied to an official way or message.  If I’m just a robot, repeating what comes to me from Paris, I won’t be very effective in New York City.”

Indeed, the biggest grouse among the French community here is the lack of support from their own government.

“The French government is not giving enough money,” Poisson said.

While private schools such as the Lycées Français and the French-American Schools are accredited by the French Ministry of Education, they rely on tuition fees and donations to survive.

“It needs to be more than a public relations campaign,” said Leonhardt.  He identified teachers, teaching methods and educational resources as some areas for which government funding was needed to ensure “quality of substance.”

“The French government will not spend millions of dollars on the U.S.,” said Jaumont, explaining that funding is only at seed money level.  “The government pays only for coordination.  Teachers are paid for with fundraising and through American foundations.”

This contrasts with the millions of dollars spent by the Chinese government on setting up Confucius Institutes and cultural centers in the U.S. and elsewhere.  French is also at a disadvantage compared with other European languages.

Efforts to set up a French Centre at Princeton University were stifled because the Cultural Services of the French Embassy refused “to give money to big American universities,” Meunier said. “Even though the Germans are doing it – they give a lot of money to Harvard.”

To cope with the limited funding, Jaumont said that the approach has been to emphasize the relevance and importance for the French community and beyond in the U.S.

“We’re no longer promoting French as the language of France, the language of Molière.  We’re trying to create, show more diversity, the strength of French language and culture in the future.  That’s where its wealth comes from,” explained Jaumont.

For the French community, the U.S. has been an experimental ground of sorts because of its relative openness to new pedagogies that are “breaking the walls of traditional language education,” in Jaumont’s words.

“The wealth of education [in America] is something that I envy.  For France, it is just a one-model-for-everyone approach,” he said.  Jaumont hopes to be able to bring such change/new ways of thinking back to France.

It may well be that the French living abroad will be agents of change for domestic education reform, given the innovative pedagogies they are already pushing for in America.

EFNY’s “dream”, Poisson said, is to eventually set up a bilingual school within the public American system.  The EFNY website describes this school as “focusing on French language and Francophone culture, for both children who are already bilingual and those who wish to learn French.”

Above all, hopes for success are driven by the belief that the relevance of French will endure despite its presently embattled status.

“In my view, French has been studied in this country for a very long time.  New languages are like fashion trends, but French has always been there, and will be there 50 years from now,” said Jaumont.

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  • Let us not forget the Franco Americans founded more than 20 US cities. Go to:


    French will survive as long as we have great French teachers.

  • I sincerely hope that M. Jaumont's concluding comment rests somewhere in the conscious or unconscious mind of any Americans who know the history this country and appreciate the beauty of our own language which has been so enriched by its relationship with French since the days of William the Conqueror.
  • You might want to shop it around.  My first candidate would be the NYT Style Section followed by the Greater New York section in the WSJ.
  • Bonjour Audrye

    Great article! I would like to discuss publishing your paper and perhaps other articles on our francophone/francophile community website  Would you like to 'friend' me and we can discuss if you would be interested and then we can message...

    I look forward to hearing from you

    A bientot

  • Hi Robert! This article was actually written for my final project in a journalism seminar I took at Princeton last semester, so it has not been published anywhere (and unfortunately I don't have any photos right now).. but I have really enjoyed researching and writing it!
  • Welcome to New York in French!

    Was this article published anywhere?  Are there photographs accompanying it?
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