Why Study French?
French is an official language for over 140 million people, and an important second language for millions more all over the world. There are French speakers in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the South Pacific. France is geographically the largest country in Western Europe, and economically is second only to Germany.
Culturally, France has played a central role in the development of Western civilization. Its written literary tradition is over one thousand years old, making it the oldest and arguably the richest living literature in Europe. Disciplines in the humanities and social sciences in American colleges and universities have been especially influenced by French thinkers over the last fifty years. The literatures of Québec, Francophone Africa and the French West Indies are currently among the most vital in the world.
Issues of cultural identity, so important in our society in recent years, are just as complex and urgent in the French-speaking world. The Francophone population of Québec Province is seeking more autonomy and greater recognition of its linguistic and cultural heritage from the Canadian government. Many African nations which are former French colonies continue to use French as an official language, and to maintain close economic and political ties with Paris. France itself faces issues of national identity as it comes to terms with the growing influence of American popular culture, strives to assimilate an increasing immigrant population, and preserves its role as a leader of the European Community.
For these reasons alone, French language and culture are an essential part of the liberal arts curriculum which it is Kenyon College's mission to uphold. There are many other reasons besides its historical importance, however, which make the study of French so important. For example, French and American citizens have long recognized an affinity between our two nations which has resulted in a complex, emotional, and vital relationship that goes back to the American War of Independence and before. Part of this affinity comes from the complementarity of our world views. From the French, we learn to value intellectual and artistic achievement at least as highly as economic success; also, to recognize that centuries of trial and error can result in a national consensus concerning the esthetics of everyday life, of which the traditions of French architecture, fashion, and haute cuisine are just a small manifestation. Conversely, the French look to us for insight into the nature of modernity, which is arguably a French invention, but has a more pervasive influence on our own society. Our two cultures have coexisted in a state of creative tension that has inspired many great human achievements of the last several centuries. From this it is clear that students from all academic backgrounds can benefit tremendously from advanced work in the discipline, not just those who elect French as their major area of interest.
French Studies: an Overview
The discipline(s) of French Studies have undergone major changes in our lifetime. Traditionally, the academic study of French had a well-defined and specific purpose. For a long time mastery of a foreign language, in the university context, meant the ability to read, to a lesser extent to write, and to an even lesser extent to speak. Foreign language study was seen primarily as a discipline of the mind, as well as a means to assimilate literary and scientific texts written in that language. If you wanted to learn to speak the language, live in its culture, and thereby gain knowledge of an entirely different world-view from your own, you did so elsewhere than in an academic institution. Although we have not lost an appreciation of language study as a means to enhance one's academic pursuits, its scope has grown considerably in recent years.
The biggest change has been in the emphasis on oral communication every bit as much as, if not more than on reading and writing. The reasons for this are simple. First of all, these skills are harder to acquire. It makes sense to learn a language by investing more time and effort into those aspects which are hardest to learn. Secondly, learning a foreign language is no longer simply a means of decoding foreign texts and covering a wider range of research within your field of specialization. We now believe that learning a second (or third, or fourth...) language changes you profoundly. Your perceptions of the world itself will change and, in the process, you will experience one of the greatest virtues of education. Every time we express ourselves in a language other than our native one, we are using an entirely different conceptual grid to make sense of our selves in the world. Of course, this works best when you have internalized the language completely, the words as well as the sounds, the text on a page as well as the social context. The study of French and Francophone literature and culture, which has always been the primary goal of French as academic discipline, can only benefit from this evolution in pedagogy.