vendredi 12 février 2010

Pardon my French! But we need it

By Michele Mallory

I was mistaken for a French woman once. I was on a scholarship in Normandy studying the Second World War, and some friends and I had taken a weekend jaunt down to the wine country of the Loire Valley.

After a long day touring, I decided to run into a cave de dégustation (a wine cellar) on my own to purchase some wine to take home to my parents. After some polite conversation, the viticulteur (wine maker) asked me what region I was from. Region?

"Non, non, je suis américaine," I said. The temperature in the cave dropped five degrees in an instant. Ah, the French and their love of Americans.

Still, as a lifelong Francophile, I was much chagrined to hear the news that my alma mater is "phasing out" French as a foreign language offering to make room for Mandarin Chinese.

From a purely economic perspective, I suppose I understand.

Mandarin Chinese has about 800 million native speakers, with French falling far behind with only 90 million. I understand the need to change with the times; to teach marketable skills. After all, parents who fork over $15,000 for tuition each year need to get their money's worth. But, to quote my epicurean mother-in-law, "how will they ever learn to read a menu?"

French is so tied to the English language that by not studying it, these next generations will miss out on one of the building blocks that make us who we are as Americans.

Does the Battle of Hastings in 1066 ring any bells? When William the Duke of Normandy conquered England, our language changed forever. Without this infusion of the French, and thereby Latin, language into our own, we'd sound almost German right about now.

Studying French allows us to truly understand words like "fraternity," "equality" and "liberty." Or more useful to our American plight these days, "mortgage" (mort = death, gage = pledge).

I'm curious to see how the Mandarin will take off. For one, there is absolutely no common etymology between Chinese and English. Get out those flashcards! Also, Mandarin is a language of intonation. The French student's struggle with pronouncing nasal vowels pales against the Mandarin student's struggle to convey the difference between the spoken ma (mother), má (hemp), ma (horse) and mà (scold). Good luck with that. I'll stick with my pain au chocolat, s'il vous plaît.

And about that Franco-American hatred; it makes a good joke, but it's far from true. Anyone who loves to say that the French hate Americans has never been to Normandy.

Visit the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach of D-Day. Go now before our greatest generation is no more. You will see nothing but thankfulness, honor and sincere tribute paid to the Americans who died for that country.

And the conversation with the viticulteur I mentioned earlier? It turned out, his response to my being American was halting, but out of shock, not disrespect, that an American had taken the time to learn the French language so well. He asked me to stay and have a glass of wine with him, as my friends in the car honked for me to hurry up. Rude Americans. Vive la France!

Michele Mallory lives in East Memphis and is a wife and mother to two boys. She has a degree in communications from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with French as a second major. She teaches French at East High School.

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