March 24, 2010 Volume 3 Issue 6
. . . an e-conversation with the Faculty of Gordon College . . .
By Emmanuelle A. Vanborre
Ask many English speaking Americans what March means to them and they might say, basketball. Others may mention women’s history month, the season of Lent, or spring. What they might not know is that every year in March, all around the world, the French language and French cultures are celebrated.
Of course, some might not care. They might instead be stuck in the stereotypes French and Americans have had of each other for years. But that would miss the point as well as the reality that today there are over 200 million French speaking—or Francophone—people in the world. In fact, French is the ninth most spoken language on the planet and the only one—along with English—to be spoken on all five continents (yes, in school in Europe we learn that there are five continents, not seven!). And every year in March, hundreds of countries and governments organize a variety of events to celebrate the diversity of Francophone cultures, including in the U.S.
As one born in the south of France and as a current professor of French, I can’t help but look forward to March as the time of Francophonie. The term “Francophonie” was coined at the end of the nineteenth century by a French geographer named Onésime Reclus to refer to the community of people and countries using the French language. Less than a hundred years later in 1970, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophine (OIF) was founded with the goals of promoting French language, education, equality, peace and development among its members. Its impact most recently was felt when the OIF set up a linguistic program to help young students from Haiti.
So March is an meaningful time for me. Though I am a part of a department that offers Francophone classes throughout the year such as African studies, Québec studies, French Cinema, French literature, etc., I know that this week of Francophonie helps us reinforce the power of cultural diversity.
Why? Because to teach a language is to teach a culture, so as language professors we teach more than just nouns and verbs. We teach geography, history, politics, sociology, religion, literature, arts, etc. This variety and richness is what makes our task so interesting, challenging and rewarding.
Though much has been said of how technology has brought the world to us in immediate and innovative ways, today’s students nonetheless tend to enjoy the real time cultural differences they encounter with each Francophone event. They are curious, enthusiastic, surprised, sometimes shocked about their new discoveries and they like to compare what they learn, how other people live, worship, and think, with the way the people in their community do. There is no substitute for first hand experience.
I think of the author who came to our campus last year from Québec to discuss her latest novel and took time to talk with us over meals—in French. Or the French Film Festival we organized, inviting French classes from a local school to join us. I think of the times we’ve traveled into Boston to participate in cultural events organized by the Francophone community. Or of the speakers who talk in class and outside, bringing to life what we read and learn in our studies.
In other words, how many students of foreign languages have indirectly met the other through what they learn in texts and books? Through videos we watch and discuss, and more directly through real persons who belong to other cultures and traditions, we learn more about distinctions and similarities, about what it means to encounter someone other than ourselves.
Such knowledge brings about a certain open-mindedness, an appreciation for difference. It confronts prejudices and it challenges us to relate, to interact and learn about those outside our usual corners of the world. And in so doing, we learn about ourselves.
Learning different languages and becoming familiar with other cultures helps us connect with people from around the world and prepares us to understand and help them. As a result, we can better respond to global events—like the earthquake in Haiti—because we have learned of other’s languages and lives.
So this year, as we celebrate Francophonie, we are all the more mindful of our Haitian neighbors. We will listen to speakers on campus and we will know that another part of the world is very close to home.
Dr. Emmanuelle Vanborre is assistant professor of French at Gordon College. She moved to Boston in 2000 and currently lives in Woburn, MA.