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What we can all learn from International Francophonie Day

What we can all learn from International Francophonie Day

Published on March 22, 2021
Opinion by Ambassador of France to the United States Philippe Etienne, published in "Newsweek" (March 20, 2021)

March 20 is International Francophonie Day. It is a time to celebrate not only the French language, but also cultural diversity and multilingualism.

The French language is diverse. It’s the product of a linguistic melting pot comprised of almost 300 million speakers across the world; its future is found in uplifting each one of these speakers. Witness to this future is the recent initiative of the International Organisation of Francophonie to create a Francophone dictionary, which invites speakers from Francophone, or French-speaking communities worldwide to share unique words from their regional linguistic heritage.

American Francophones are, without a doubt, an important part of this cultural diversity.

Americans with a French-speaking heritage comprise some 9 million people, notably in Louisiana, Maine and numerous Midwest states; large populations of French speakers are equally found in immigrant communities in urban areas scattered across the country. The French language has also found its place in the United States through 1.3 million students learning the language in schools and universities—making French the second-most taught foreign language in the country.

The United States is home to a longstanding richness of multilingual heritage, yet this intrinsic commitment to multilingualism has recently been challenged by significant cuts in foreign language programs across all levels.

Funding language programs in U.S. higher education has been hit particularly hard by the effects of the pandemic. A survey by the French Embassy of university French departments nationwide found that among 134 of the biggest French departments, 11 percent experienced the closure of a major this year and 75 percent were affected by a decrease in staff or salaries.

K-12 institutions seem to follow the same pattern. Several states are relaxing their foreign language requirements for graduation by substituting them with computer science classes. Even on the level of the "virtual classroom," the shift to remote teaching created a learning gap in language education. Language classes are increasingly pushed out. The argument is that when resources become scarce, funds should be directed toward subjects deemed more "critical."

In our increasingly globalized world, language instruction should be considered equally as important as math and science. Researchers rediscovered language learning, particularly among young children, improved learning outcomes in a variety of disciplines over an extended period of time. Empirical evidence also suggested that the teaching of foreign languages encouraged the development of empathy, emotional intelligence and effective interpretive and interpersonal skills.

Not only are language skills a boon for personal development, it is also an important skill to have when looking for a job. Business leaders recognize the necessity of foreign language skills, especially when it comes to negotiating and attracting foreign direct investments in the U.S. In a time of globalization, with 75 percent of the world’s population not speaking English, multilingualism has never been more useful than it is today.

The question of equity due to the existing gap in language education between public and private schools has also been raised. More than 50 percent of private U.S. elementary schools provide foreign language instruction, compared with only 15 percent of public elementary schools. Multilingualism will be a necessary skill for the workforce of tomorrow and school boards could face a significant challenge making this skill accessible to all learners given the pandemic’s impact on education funding.

Fortunately, there is good reason to hope.

Linguistic diversity is deeply embedded within the fabric of the United States. Diverse communities are the backbone of the renaissance of teaching French, thanks to their commitment of dual-language immersion programs that have mushroomed all over the U.S. over the past 10 years and are now a global standard for language education. Such programs, when implemented correctly, have been instrumental in desegregating underserved communities.

University French majors nationwide have certainly experienced stress, like most students, during the global pandemic. Innovative higher education institutions have been crucial in developing coursework associated with professional purpose—such as creating interdisciplinary dual majors like international studies, European affairs and global health. The Missouri University of Science and Technology inaugurated its first global engineering program last fall. The program allows students to study languages and engineering in tandem, opening a door to international opportunities for American companies and their future engineers.

These developments support the teaching of French, which is in many ways the language of the future. French speakers will reach 700 million by 2050, to become the second most-spoken language in the world. This will dramatically impact the U.S. labor market. Research shows that the number of positions requiring a mastery of French has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, French is the third most in demand foreign language among U.S employers.

We hope to highlight the role of French in the professional world by giving an opportunity to students who have been unable to study abroad and make in-person connections because of the pandemic.

Today, on the International Day of the French Language, several Francophonie embassies have come together to organize the French Language Online Job Fair, to give students the chance to grow professionally and linguistically during these challenging times. Whether we like it or not, current students will live and work in an increasingly interconnected world in which foreign language skills will be more essential than ever.

Monolingualism will be the illiteracy of the 21st century.

On this International Francophonie Day, we want to celebrate all those in the U.S. committed to the advancement of the cause of multilingualism. Our hope is to equip the new generation with an education that will both prepare them to seize new opportunities in our globalized world as well as tackle its challenges.

This Op-Ed was endorsed by the ambassadors to the U.S. from the following countries, countries that are either members or observers of the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF)

Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Belgium, Benin, Cambodia, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Cyprus, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, France, Greece, Ireland, Lebanon, Laos, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Moldova, Monaco, Morocco, Poland, Qatar, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia and United Arab Emirates.