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A Chat With Julie Barlow

Date:May 8, 2007
Time:6 pm Pacific (GMT -7)
Topic:Is French still relevant?
Duration:One hour

(Chat transcript below)

Julie Barlow is a journalist, writer, and speaker from Montreal, Canada. With her husband Jean-Benoît Nadeau, she has published more than thousand magazine and newspaper articles for The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, among others.

Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau are the authors of the bestseller Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong. Their latest book is The Story of French which The New York Times called "a well-told, highly accessible history of the French language".

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Bienvenue! Welcome to the 24th online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today we're pleased to host Julie Barlow, co-author of "The Story of French" and "Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong". She is joining us from Montreal, Canada.

Welcome, Julie Barlow!

Julie Barlow
Hi. Thanks. This is my first chat, ever (not counting the warm-up yesterday with you, Anu).

Anu Garg
The topic of the chat is: Is French still relevant?

Toni--Milwaukee
Salut, Julie!

Julie Barlow
Salut. Should we be doing this in simultaneous translation!!?

Toni--Milwaukee
I have so enjoyed your book (Sixty Million) and have used it already for two college classes.

Sebastien - Santa Cruz
C'est vrai le livre Sixty millions est tres bon.

Victor - Toronto
Is French relevant?

Julie Barlow
No, the French are lovely, but we discovered researching the Story of French that the French language is a little more popular than the French on the whole.

Jessica - Williamsburg VA
So, is French relevant. It sure is a lot of work to learn -- though I love it.

Julie Barlow
Well, there's a popular idea out there that French is on the decline as a world language and we found that to be absolutely false. French is still, by far, the world's second global language after English.

Victor - Toronto
I find that to put it in a Canadian context, the usefulness of French is exaggerated. There's a great Francophone community in Toronto, but it's not really that necessary to know the language.

Victor - Toronto
Sure, if you get close to the Quebec border, it gets more useful. But British Columbians have to learn the fourth most used language in their province.

mb -olean
In what country of the world is it really necessary to know the language, if one keeps to the big cities?

Jessica - Williamsburg VA
Yes, I lived in Toronto for 30 years and never learned a word. I did, however, pick up a lot of useful vocab from boxes, etc.

Julie Barlow
Guys, this is my first chat and I'm having a little difficulty following. Anu, any suggestions? Shall I tackle the question of the language's relevance again?

Anu Garg
Julie: Don't worry about the flow of comments. You may want to take a question and try to answer it and then find the second question.

You may want to prefix your answer with the name of the participant. for example:

Jack: Well, the way it is .. etc. etc.

Julie Barlow
Newyorkais is perfect French.

Julie Barlow
Okay, let's go back to the numbers then. French is an official language in 33 countries, next to English. It's the second most taught language on the planet, after English, with two million teachers and 100 million students.

Toni--Milwaukee
Julie, what is the current status of French in Francophone African nations, par exemple?

Julie Barlow
Though French is only ninth in terms of number of speakers, so far, no other language even comes close to rivalling it (after English of course) on the international stage.

Don - California
Julie, Do you think in ten years' time there will be a greater percentage of people on the planet who use French or a smaller percentage? - if that makes sense.

Julie Barlow
In the last 50 years, the number of people speaking French has increased in proportion to the population of the world (tripled). My guess is that that will continue, for how long? Not sure. But it's not likely to change, and we explain the reasons why in the Story of French.

Julie Barlow
In West Africa, French remains the language of education and of social promotion. And that also is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. English is not really a threat to that at the moment.

Don - California
Julie, What is propelling this increase in the use of French around the world as a percentage of the world's population?

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Do you think the French news show, France 24, newly on U.S. cable, will compete with the BBC and advance French culture and language?

Julie Barlow
I've heard about France 24 but don't know much about it. We talk a lot more about the work of TV5.

DiJohn - Middletown
Julie, if it is true that French is the second most taught language worldwide then why the decrease in French language instruction and the government's emphasis on funding "strategic" languages...a French teacher wants to know the future.

Julie Barlow
DiJohn, which government are you referring to?

ginny - hinsdale
Julie, what I find sad is that the French speakers I know wonder why people are learning French and would rather converse in English than French. I love TV5 and watch it on Internet on a regular basis.

Julie Barlow
Yes, ginny, French speakers are probably the most pessimistic on the planet about the chances of their language.

dew-St. Paul
Here in Minnesota, for instance, schools are starting to focus more on teaching Spanish for "practical" reasons--because there are many migrant workers here and immigration is driving those language choices. I am afraid French is getting squeezed out.

Julie Barlow
DiJohn, one reason there is (probably) less emphasis on French is the (false) belief that it is not a useful language, particularly in terms of doing business.

Victor - Toronto
Some people learn it in school and never use a word after.

Julie Barlow
Actually, you can travel the world in French. One of the most surprising discoveries we made in our research was learning that 15% of Israelis speak French! I had travelled there twice and returned a third time speaking French and couldn't believe my ears when people answered me in French.

Lee
My middle schoolers can't wait to go to France,Québec, or anywhere French is spoken. They (and I) love it!

Julie Barlow
Let me suggest to the teachers that they encourage their students to travel to West Africa, Lebanon, Switzerland, Belgium, ... or Sudbury. They can learn French in these places and more. There's more than France and Quebec.

DiJohn - Middletown
Julie do you think that a Sarkozy government bodes well for an improvement in US - France relations?

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Julie, does the new French president, Sarkozy, have any plans concerning the French language? (DiJohn, see, I had the same question) ;)

Julie Barlow
Sorry about the Sarkozy questions. I've been on maternity leave for the last five months and not been following his promises very carefully, to put it mildly. But I think it's fair to assume language won't be a high priority for him.

Lee
Is French still used in Viet Nam and Cambodia?

Julie Barlow
A little in Viet Nam and Cambodia, but French was pretty much wiped out there by deliberate efforts following decolonization. Though Algeria tried the same thing, and half the population of Algeria today speaks French.

ShastriX—BLR
I like French. On entends que la deuxième langue des Gemeaux est française :-) Did two courses at L'Alliance in Chennai, but the grammar got to me. Things like tables and chairs having a gender. Ridiculous. Gave up.

leslie anne
I think that because of its grammatical complexity, French is good to study for mental exercise ... as well as being THE best foreign language (btw, I'm from Liberty Lake, WA).

ginny - hinsdale
On a positive note, I find students enjoy the sounds and playfulness of speaking French. There's nothing like a French song, movie, book...

Lee
Is the French Academy still effective concerning any changes in the French language?

Julie Barlow
We describe the French Academy as a sort of "museum" of the French language. Its main job, is in fact, to produce a dictionary, which no one really reads or uses. But its symbolic role as a place where a sort of model, or ideal French, is housed, that's very important to all French speakers.

Lee
My students would like to know what we have comparable to the French Academy for English.

Julie Barlow
Lee, English is one of the few languages on the planet that DOESN'T have a regulating body, similar to (and often inspired by) the French Academy.

Lee
Dictionary writers I suppose.

Murray - Vancouver
For those who take their cues from British English, I think our closest equivalent would be the Oxford Dictionary.

dew-St. Paul
I think there is a perception in U.S. schools that Spanish is "easier" to learn -- that French is complicated and difficult to use. While I know that is not necessarily accurate--I think the many American students who are afraid of languages will go with Spanish thinking it's easier.

mb -olean
Is English difficult to learn for Europeans? It seems as if since there are not as many rules of grammar and/or spelling that it would be.

leslie anne
Julie: I am a prof at a local university, and our (French) numbers keep falling compared to Spanish. Any suggestions for boosting those numbers?

Julie Barlow
I'd like to answer that question about the difficulty of the language. French is actually not especially difficult to learn. What makes it difficult is an attitude about the language, shared by many French speakers, that they must speak "correctly". This intimidates students.

Lee
In my opinion, the first foreign language you learn is the hardest. The second always easier and so on.

dew-St. Paul
Julie, a fascinating point about using the language "correctly." Can you give an example....explain that just a little more.

Lee
I just read in Language Educator that a foreign language in Great Britain will be required beginning in the 4th grade. We should do that in the US.

Julie Barlow
Sure. French speakers, unlike English speakers, all adhere to the idea that their language should have a "norm" with clearly defined rules. English also has rules, of course, but we downplay that fact when we think about our language. The French emphasize this aspect of their language, for historical reasons dating back to the very formation of the language.

DiJohn - Middletown
Julie, Can you comment on a recent NYT's article about the future of Francophone literature and the feeling that most authors who use French as their langue de communication would rather distance themselves from the French writers "de l'Hexagone" and align themselves writers from the diaspora (aka world literature). Is French-French literature in danger of become irrelevant on the world literary scene?

Murray - Vancouver
Dew, it seems to me there's a perception that if people go to a French-speaking place and try what they've learned, that if they make a mistake they'll be sneered at. That certainly hasn't been my experience in France or Quebec.

Julie Barlow
French was the first Romance language to be clearly defined, with grammar rules. That was the work of the French Academy in 1635, hence the symbolic importance of this body (which, by the way, does not control the language in any real way).

lolanola
As a teacher having taught English to Francophones in France and French to Anglophones in the US, I'd just like to say that, very much like the law, the French language has a set code, whereas the English language seems to be much more built on precedent, meaning that the rules can change as more information is added to the language. Therefore, French is much easier to explain to students. I've had my French corrected in France, but never sneered at.

Victor - Toronto
Murray: I'm a visible minority and the last time I went to Montreal, most people actually expected me to speak English. And when I did, they expected me to speak French. It was rather strange.

Julie Barlow
Murray, that perception is exactly what I'm talking about when I mention the adherence French speakers have to the "norm." The idea intimidates people trying to learn the language.

Julie Barlow
Right you are Iolanola. And the clearly defined rules of French were what made the language "exportable" and what turned French into THE international language of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the language of diplomacy until the end of WWI.

Murray - Vancouver
Seems to me that teachers of French need to instill a little more daring in their students. Tell them: Go ahead, you can only say something silly, and people might laugh. But also tell them that by meeting anyone in their own language, they earn amazing entree.

Julie Barlow
I agree Murray. The advice I got when I was learning French was to go to bars and drink a lot. It helped loosen up the strings (still does), makes you lose your inhibitions. But I guess the fact that the drinking age in Quebec is 18 helped that strategy.

Julie Barlow
That is to say, you could learn French from a book. You didn't have to be there.

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Julie, what percentage of French as spoken in France is English slang, and what are some examples of their use of English slang, like "jazz"?

Julie Barlow
Betty, I don't know about a specific percentage of slang. Everyone uses slang, to different degrees, just like in English. The use of English is also quite common, but the words that are picked up tend to change with fashions. People in France, for example, used to say "smart" meaning stylish.

Murray - Vancouver
I'm now learning a lot ABOUT French from your new book -- about 50 pages into it, and thoroughly enjoying it, Julie.

Eleanor Dugan - San Francisco
On "franglais," I remember the maîtresse saying, "Ou est ton lunchbox? Bonne weekend."

Murray - Vancouver
Anglicisms abound in French -- things like jazz, and "le week-end." And "stop" on stop signs -- unlike Quebec, which I think is the only place that uses Arret.

lolanola
Of course much of the fun in learning a language is that which you cannot learn from a book. The language you can only get from being "part of the in crowd", so to speak. Just recently I read a Libé blog mentioning "tonton", which I understood, only because I had been there! There is a lot to be said about learning French from hanging out at a café!

Lee
How about "faire du shopping" "le week-end" "super cool" "le super marché' there are many other examples now shown in textbooks!

Julie Barlow
That's interesting, because in a way, there is less resistance to using English in France than there is in Quebec, where we say a "fin de semaine". In France, English is sort of stylish, while in Quebec, using English words is often perceived as a sign of ignorance.

Kay et amis-Washington State
So, did we miss the answer? Is French still relevant?

Lee
Please say "oui!"

Victor - Toronto
Why is English perceived as a sign of ignorance? It seems that Quebecers actually use more English in their language.

leslie anne
Hopefully "oui", and how do we convince more high school students to sign up for French at university than English?

Jessica - Williamsburg VA
Victor, in Canada, the French continue to fight for recognition--or status. Incorporating English is a kind of defeat.

Julie Barlow
Oui, French is relevant. Not only because, as I argued earlier, it remains solidly the world's second global language, but because it represents an entirely different world view, one shared by French speakers across the planet.

Murray - Vancouver
Jessica, the Francophones in Canada have both rights and status. The language laws protecting French in Quebec were put in place as sort of a dam against being flooded out by the sea of English that surrounds the province.

Julie Barlow
Murray, that's our argument in a nutshell. Thanks for doing my job.

Jessica - Williamsburg VA
Yes, I know that, but the gut feeling is not necessarily as confident of their survival.

Victor - Toronto
I'd like to know more about the social aspect of it though. Why would they think that it's "ignorant" to use English words?

DiJohn - Middletown
I don't know that former French colonies share the same world view as the French...?

Julie Barlow
It is difficult to generalize about the entire world view of half a continent, but they certainly do share a Francophone outlook. West Africans (along with Canadians) were behind the formation of the Francophonie organization.

Murray - Vancouver
My impression is that the Francophonie is somewhat more united than, say, the British Commonwealth. But that said, relations between former colonial powers and their ex holdings tend to be tense at times.

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Julie, how did you first become interested in French?

Julie Barlow
Betty, I learned French at age 20 because I fell in love with a Quebecker, who is now my husband. So the answer is "for love."

NANCY - BROOKLYN
We've just spent some time in a French class examining some ads that were part of a recent French advertising campaign intended to attract visitors to one of the departments in Picardie. The slogan is « L’Aisne it’s open ». I was surprised to see a mix of French and English. One of the ads touts l'Aisne so close to Paris reaching it is nearly as easy as taking the métro, and you come out of the train station into a gorgeous bucolic setting. The text reads « Ce week-end, direction the camp’Aisne ». American words for the Anglophone visitors, a play on words for the Francophones? A little something for everyone (apparently with no qualms about offending language purists).

Julie Barlow
Murray, in some ways it is because in defending French against English on the world stage (a big part of their mandate), they are definitely in an underdog position. With that said, the organization has taken decades to get its act together and find a purpose. It hasn't been easy rising from the ashes of colonialism.

Murray - Vancouver
Julie, can you comment on the current state of secondary languages in France -- Occitan, Basque, Celtic tongues. Are they still vibrant?

Julie Barlow
Local, or regional languages are protected under laws of the European Union. In France, that has sparked a sort of revival of many of them (and yes, many are still spoken quite widely), after literally centuries of efforts by the French state to eradicate them.

seahedges
Linguistic diversity is desirable in itself, to allay the boredom of monolingualism. Regional languages in France are experiencing a comeback.

Julie Barlow
Well, as I was saying, regional languages have been very actively suppressed in France since the French Revolution. And by the way, did you know that at the time of the French Revolution, three-quarters of the French didn't speak French? It was a big turning point in the history of the language, as revolutionaries sought to impose French and thereby create a new basis for national identity.

Laura S. - Chicago
Ginny- as a French teacher one of my issues with current French text is the fragmentation of the culture, history, etc. The beginning French learners never seem to get a clear picture of France, and its history, nor of other French-speaking countries/cultures.

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Julie, what languages did the French speak in 1789?

ginny - hinsdale
I think we need better French language texts which introduce cultural readings, poems, literature, songs from the Francophone world, etc at an earlier stage. One can learn a language for many reasons.

Julie Barlow
Ginny, not sure where you're writing from, but let me say that in our travels, we saw lots of examples of just what you are saying. French high school students in Dakar were using text books with reading from Quebec, Lebanon, North and West Africa as well as France.

leslie anne
Julie: before we run out of time, could you please address the issue of encouraging students to take French (in high school and university)? Merci!

Julie Barlow
Sure leslie anne. I'm not a teacher, but writing SOF did fill me with a sort of missionary sense about French. The best way to encourage students is by giving them an idea of the almost limitless opportunities available to people who can speak both French and English. Humanitarian work, diplomacy, high finance, you name it.

Julie Barlow
Laura, I think there are several chapters of the Story of French that would give your students good, concise summaries of history, both of France and the French speaking world.

akshayr - Singapore
Bonjour Julie, my question is about the degrees of fluency in French on a global stage. We've had articles out here on the AWAD mailing lists talking about how English is becoming global ('Globish') and how that's reducing the entry barriers for non-native speakers. You can, the article was mentioning, make do these days without knowing too many idioms and phrases, for instance. What is the French experience in this regard? How much has the language changed (or will change) because of globalization?

Julie Barlow
Big question, akshayr. Not sure I have time to answer satisfactorily. French is a global language, it's always changing and always has. The difference is in this adherence of French speakers to a "norm", as I mentioned earlier. To some extent, the belief in the possibility of speaking "perfect" French is what unites French speakers across the planet -- even though they all use the language very differently in day to day communication. It's paradoxical, but there it is.

A good illustration of this obsession with the norm is French speakers' love of spelling contests (la dictée). Millions watched Bernard Pivot's popular televised dictée. It's a very peculiar trait shared by French speakers (though not only).

DiJohn - Middletown
Leslie...I think the burden is on the teacher to take the information in the basic French text to the next level through hands-on research projects, service-learning exchanges, etc. Multi-cultural days, interaction with the community, French clubs, reading circles, parent education can all contribute to the promotion of the French language.

leslie anne
Thank you! As a matter of fact, many of our students go to Africa with their français .... merci!!

leslie anne
Good ideas, DiJohn.

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Do the French have spelling bees?

Julie Barlow
Not sure!

Laura S. - Chicago
Julie, I did a dictee in class with my French I students and they loved it. They thought it was fun testing their spelling and listening skills at the same time in context.

Julie Barlow
But they certainly spend a lot more time talking about spelling and word usage than, say, your average Anglophone does.

akshayr - Singapore
Merci Julie. Think that answers my question. :-) Would it be correct to surmise, then, that, while _participation_ drives most non-native English speakers, _perfection_ (as you put it) is what drives Francophiles to the language?

Julie Barlow
Yes, akshayr. But for the French, perfection is participation!

Anu Garg
Last question before we wrap up.

Nancy - Brooklyn
Are you working on another book?

Julie Barlow
Not at the moment. I'm working on teaching my recently adopted French-Creole speaking twins English (and French). The Francophonie at work, as my husband says. We've just adopted them from Haiti. But we're hoping to take on a history of Spanish in the coming years.

Anu Garg
Merci, Julie Barlow, for being here today and discussing the French language!

Anu Garg
For more, please visit her Web site nadeaubarlow.com.

TheFallibleFiend - Lorton(va)
Thanks for putting it on, Anu.

Betty-D.C.Suburb
Merci beaucoup, Ms. Barlow.

Julie Barlow
My pleasure, Anu. Thanks for having me!

leslie anne
Thank you, Julie!

akshayr - Singapore
Thank you!

Murray - Vancouver
Merci a tout.

TheFallibleFiend - Lorton(va)
And thanks for coming, Julie.

Julie Barlow's picture

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