French Matters

Does French Matter? Do the joy, the adventure and advantage of full communications with a culturally diverse population 220 million+ French speakers all around the world matter? How about listening to their every-day talk, their logic, their heart-felt opinions, their music, watching their films and TV, reading their newspapers and their literature?  Whether they are my friends, my colleagues, my clients or people I run into in the streets; whether our conversation occurs in the bosom of their family, the bakery, a restaurant, a concert, a club, at work, on email, Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere, nothing that really matters or truly joins us will happen if I don't know French.  

Nearly 20 million of these French speakers are American, a number of them descendants of the children of New France, who helped to shape much of North America from the beginning of the sixteenth century. Understanding French is also helpful in interpreting their heritage of place-names, documents, cultural artifacts, and the contemporary customs of the places where they settled.

Of course, learning French caries with it all of the benefits associated with learning any other language

    Foreign Languages: An Essential Core Experience

Most people who understand what it takes to learn a language will acknowledge that French is a comparatively easy language to learn:

    Le Français...pas compliqué

According to the Foreign Service Institute, learning French level one experience for motivated Anglophones, requiring 575-600 class hours to reach an IRL scale 3 (General Professional Proficiency):

Wikibooks:Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers (FSI scale)

This attainability is significant because French is a language encountered in so many places on all continents, and it makes sense for a language whose mastery is enhanced over 10,000 pure and close English/French cognates and a wealth of historically related words.

Since the 1990s, many of the challenges to the place that French held in the curriculum have come from proponents of language less commonly taught than Spanish, French and German

Some of these less commonly taught languages are assessed to be considerably more difficult for American English speakers than is French. Looking again at the Foreign Service Institute scale, we see that both Arabic and Mandarin are level 3 languages, requiring 2200 hours of study to attain an IRL-scale level 3.  For Mandarin, the cultures of China also present formidable cultural learning challenges; in particular, the cultural learning key of writing. Of the 17,000 characters in the "reformed" Mandarin written system, it takes a knowledge of 3000 for basic newspaper reading. The paucity of certified "highly-qualified" teachers for many of the challenging less commonly taught language programs is matched by the paucity college major programs available and absolutely necessary for a level-3 language.

While we are told that European languages like French, German and Spanish will play little or no role in our economic future it is interesting to look squarely at present economic issues often linked to international aspects of education. Let us look at national figures available for 2010 exports. Let us compare US export revenues from the five countries most frequently among the top trade partners of the individual states and where French is an official language (Belgium, Canada, France, Luxemburg, Switzerland) with the growing economic giants like China, where Mandarin is the official language. At $325,505.900, export revenues from the first are more than three and a half times that of the second.

In 2009, 22 out of 50 states in the US derived over a third of their export revenues from countries where French is an official language. Through May of 2010, 3 of America's top 15 export destinations have been Francophone countries (=$121 billion). In assessing just one impact at home, it is generally acknowledged that for every $billion of export revenues 6000 jobs are either sustained or created.

Foreign Trade: State by 6-Digit HS Code and Top Countries [Census data]

state    %
AR    35.8
CO    37
DE    34.2
IA    37.3
IL    34.9
IN    44.8
KY    41.4
ME    44.6
MI    51.6
MT    45.6
NV    67.2
NY    33.4
ND    60
OH    46.1
OK    34.1
PA    39.8
RI    37.8
SD    39.2
TN    35.2
VT    49.4
WV    33.7
WI    33.5

There are more than 2,423 French companies in the U.S., providing more than 500 000 direct jobs. The direct investment balance favors the U.S., with U.S. investment in France ($75.0 billion) just 46% of total French direct investment in the U.S. in 2008 ($163.4 billion).

Our $14 billion per year translation industry is yet another testimony to the many seeing-is-believing instrumental values of actually knowing a foreign language.  In a number of the key areas of translation: Index Translationum, SOGET  Multilanguage corporate documentation, international literature, websites, online, etc. French is consistently among the top four languages needed.

To what extent is French an international language?  

    L'Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie

is an important witness, with its 56 member nations. There are 30 countries where French is an official language, and a seemingly endless number of international organizations where this is also the case:

List of international organizations which have French as an official language (82)

International Association of Athletic Federations (Fr, En)

International Hotel & Restaurant Association

International Association of Applied Psychology

International Association of Universities

World Health Organization

International Association of Labour Inspection

Union of International Associations

International Association for Maternal and Neonatal Health (IAMANEH)

International association of Theatre Critics

International Association of Music Libraries

International Association of Prosecutors

International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions

International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property

International Association for the History of Religions

Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

Convention on Biological Diversity

International Organization for Standardization

Hospice (IAHPC)

International Association of Facilitators

International Association of Schools of Social Work

International Tennis Federation

North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation

International Sociological Association

Fédération internationale des ligues des Droits de l'Homme

The International Energy Agency

International Organization for Migration

International Association Of Youth And Family Judges And Magistrates

UITP - International Association of Public Transport

INTERWOOLLABS - International Association of Wool Textile Laboratories

World Association for Public Opinion Research

World Federation of Democratic Youth

Amnesty International

With the instrumental values cited for the study of French, we should expect confirmation that those who have some mastery of the language would do well in a number of careers outside of teaching French.  This is indeed a common occurrence, as you can see in the following web site featuring 130 people who have college degrees in French, but who are very successful in careers outside of the French classroom.

    You Wouldn't Know They Majored in French

Did I forget to tell you that French is still a very fashionable language. Indeed, the language spoken formerly by the czars is now


This web site will show you not only key thinkers, inventors, politicians, and celebrities who were French speakers, but will let you view videos of living French-speaking celebrities and athletes.

The American Association of Teachers of French Commission on Advocacy maintains two resource web sites:

    French Advocacy Wiki

    Ideas for French Language & Culture Advocacy in the US

AATF members also maintain web sites for the promotion of French:

    French - The Most Practical Foreign Language

    On the Importance of Knowing French

I have attempted here to show where to find support for why Americans should learn French, and have also brought up for discussion certain empowering instrumental values which are frequently buried by those who want to see French as a meaningless "nicety", a dusty knickknack in the tokenology of the "dangling conversation".

TennesseeBob Peckham
Chair, AATF Commission on Advocacy
Director, Andy Holt Virtual Library
Professor of French
University of Tennessee at Martin