French – It’s Elegant
With more than 260 million speakers throughout the world, French is spoken on five continents. To ensure quality of learning, the Minister of Foreign Affairs has developed a network of organizations and French cultural centres abroad. All in all, there are 430 establishments present in 150 countries. We take a guided tour of one of these schools located at the end of the earth, in Aleppo, Syria. Delphine Martin:
Aleppo, in northwest Syria, is the country’s second largest city with 3 and a half million inhabitants. It is known by tourists for its souk (bazaar), its soap made from olive oil, and its magnificent citadel. Away from the congested and noisy streets, we fall upon the French Cultural Centre of Aleppo where 350 students have enrolled to take French classes.
On the classroom walls there are photos, a map of the regions of France, a poster of the Eiffel Tower. Six instructors oversee the classes, among whom there is Katia, a young 27-year-old Frenchwoman. In her opinion, her subject, French as a Foreign Language (FLE), holds a great capacity for change.
-FLE is French as a Foreign Language. It’s teaching French to foreigners. Each audience is different. Depending on the region of the world, the methods are different. We can’t talk about the same subjects. I think that we can talk about anything, but of course we don’t go too far into political subjects. However, within French politics we can talk about everything.
In a country which lived under French authority after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, between 1920 and 1943, French is sometimes still a part of family tradition. Such is the case with Hélène, who is a teacher, and who still speaks French with her family. She takes classes at the cultural centre to perfect her French.
-For me French is very important because when I was young, my mother always talked about it…in French. French culture has been with us for a long time. We still have French songs, and French culture is still a part of me.
And what don’t you like about French or about the French language?
-The grammar, I hate the grammar because the grammar is difficult even in Arabic. We have very, very difficult grammar. In English is easier!
-So, the little words which express “the reason for”?
-There is “since”, too. “As”, which has the same meaning as “since”.
-“The reason being”, “the reason being that he…” You can replace it with “because”.
-Critics have long made fun of him because he had a simple style, or the reason being he had a simple style.
Students from the centre often come from rather privileged circles. They are students, lawyers, teachers or doctors. For Antoine, to learn French is practically a declaration of love.
-Quite frankly, I like to learn languages, and I’ve always dreamed of being a polyglot. A polyglot… someone who speaks many languages, isn’t that right? If I visit France some day, I would like to speak their language. I like to speak a country’s language in order to be appreciated and so that they know that I appreciate them.
Next to Antoine, there’s Dia, who’s been taking French classes at the centre for four years. He appreciates them because they allow him to better understand French culture and politics.
-There is an enthusiasm in the French political life because in Syria we are always… we have the same way of talking about politics. But in France there’s the left, there’s the right, there’s socialism, there’s capitalism, so there are a lot of things to do in politics.
Dia would like to work internationally and for him learning French was the second logical choice after English.
-In Syria, English is the most important language for work, and after that French, and a few people are beginning to learn Spanish after learning French.
As a general rule, learning French is done more out of enjoyment that out of necessity, as is explained by Ranime, a student from the cultural centre and also a teacher in a private school.
-English is better known than French. If you speak English, you have more choices than with French because, here, work is based on the English language not on French. It’s too bad. But people are beginning to like French here in Syria. I think that people here like to learn French for its pronunciation–they think it’s very classy, very elegant to be like the French actresses and actors–but not I think for French culture.
For many years, French has thus paid the price as a result of English’s unquestionable economic edge. But things are changing in the Middle East, according to Jean-Michel Ducrot, managing director of the French Cultural Centre in Aleppo.
-There are indeed a lot of French-speaking families who foster a French language tradition and who want their children to continue to learn French. We certainly have those who also learn French simply because they realise that learning another language other than English is important. It’s a region which is developing in tourism. Before the war in Irak, the tourism had been incredible. It’s turning out that tourism is again beginning to expand progressively, so we have more and more need to have people with good linguistic skills in both French and English. This may very well explain why we have more and more students coming from the tourism industry who are interested in the language.
In fact, we were never in competition with other languages, and the policies led by the British Council or by the Goethe Institute are completely different. So, the objective is not to be in competition with English because it’s clear that, in any case, it’s an international language and a language spoken worldwide. The objective is to collaborate, so we are indeed lucky to have a foreign minister who is involved and who takes charge of some of it, mainly the costs, and this is the reason why France is developing a policy for school fees in the French cultural centres, fees which are much less considerable than, for example, those for the Goethe Institute or the British Council.
With this support of French outside of French territories, teachers are at the forefront. These professionals are often contracted under local jurisdiction in unstable conditions, and their training is still not well recognised in France.
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