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Why study French?

Many of us have read that there’s no real reason to study French in the 21st century because English is the world’s business language. Even eminent linguist John McWhorter, a French major during his undergraduate days, questions the importance of French. His 2014 article in the New Republic, “Let’s Stop Pretending That French Is an Important Language ” is his mocking manifesto on the sad state of French in global affairs.

I would like to share with you an excerpt from one of our board members, Dr. Steven Sacco, who has studied workplace language use by multinational corporations operating in Francophone Africa. His article “The Myth of English as the Lingua Franca of Business: Research Findings and Implications for French Programs” will appear in the December 2022 issue of the French Review.

In his studies, he interviewed 212 engineers, managers, and logisticians representing 135 multinational corporations which operate in Francophone Africa. 85% of these multinational corporations have an English-only workplace policy.

His findings contradict McWhorter’s claims. French is indeed a major global language of business, not only in Francophone Africa but also within the Francophone World. Below is an excerpt from his upcoming French Review article. The author would be happy to share his research findings in French classes in San Diego County.

Our executive director, Julie Ripoll, with eminent executives and entrepreneurs of Burkina Faso,

Cameroun, Ivory Coast, Congo, and Benin.

The Myth of English as the Lingua Franca of Business: Research Findings and Implications for French Programs

Many French educators are well aware of world-renowned linguist John McWhorter’s 2014 article in the New Republic: Let’s Stop Pretending That French Is an Important Language. For those educators who aren’t familiar with the article, permit me to share three key paragraphs:

“A somewhat surprising piece in The New York Times reported that the French dual-language program in New York's public school system “is booming,” the third-largest program in the city, after Spanish and Chinese. That commitment is a beautiful thing—for children of Francophone immigrants. But for we natives, the idea that kids need to pick up French is now antique.

Make no mistake: For immigrant kids from anywhere, bilingual education is invaluable. But the idea that American-born children need to learn French has become more reflex than action, like classical music played at the wedding of people who live to modern pop. French in educated America is now a class marker, originating from that distant day when French was Europe’s international language. Fewer Europeans spoke English then, which made French actually useful—at least for Americans who could afford international travel. Those same Americans were also still suffering from an inferiority complex to Europe’s “sophistication.”

Enter the idea that a language that began as a mere peasant dialect of Latin is a language of precision, savoir-faire, and romance: Molière, Voltaire, Pepe Le Pew. Naturally, then, our little ones must even now know some French to qualify as what used to be called “people of quality” (McWhorter, 2014).

Ironically a former French major, McWhorter is a world-renowned linguist, but he’s not a global business expert. I am--especially when it concerns Francophone Africa. Since my retirement as a French educator in 2014, my new life as a consultant outside the Ivory Tower of Academia has immersed me in global business activities, mostly in Francophone Africa. In addition to my consulting duties, I continue to conduct research, focusing on workplace language use where I have interviewed 212 respondents representing 135 multinational corporations and companies of smaller stature. The respondents come from the vast expanses of Francophone Africa from Tunisia to Togo and from Mauritania to Mali. On the other hand, McWhorter offered no data and conducted no research, armed only with flippant opinions. French is a dominate language of global business and will continue to dominate in future decades. American companies interested in connecting with companies in Francophone Africa had better do it in French.

However, before I present my research findings, permit me to return to my roots as a high school French teacher in rural Illinois to illustrate the importance of French in global business. Situated less than an hour from the AATF Executive Director’s headquarters, Bettendorf Stanford is a company that manufactures and sells the world’s “premier food slicing equipment.” Established in 1965, this industry leader continues to operate in Salem. In 1979, the company hired me as a consultant to translate hundreds of business letters from French-speaking customers from around the world. Boulangeries, charcuteries, and boucheries were and are the primary purchasers of the food slicing equipment. Instead of translating Bettendorf Stanford’s letters from French to English, I redesigned my French III and IV class so that my students would do the translations while experiencing the richesse of French business etiquette and culture. They learned the art of commercial communication and translated letters for which they were paid five dollars per letter. As of 2022, Bettendorf Stanford continues to sell slicing equipment worldwide through its distributors in 22 countries, including France. Forty years after my first consultancy, an Indian mining company hired me to connect them with gold mining firms in Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

There is no need to “pretend” (McWhorter, 2014) that French is important. It is.

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