By Mackenzie Carpenter
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jaclyn Davis, of Akron, Ohio, may be as American as apple pie, but when she answers the phone at La Gourmandine bakery in Lawrenceville, her accent is as rich, fruity and authentically French as the tarte aux fraises sold there.
And therein lies the problem: the 22-year old cashier at the new bakery is also a student at the University of Akron, working towards a teaching certificate in French, a culture she adores but a career choice she has to defend to her fellow Americans nearly every day.
“When I was working at Home Depot, I’d get wisecracks all the time,” Ms. Davis said, mostly from people who couldn’t understand why she’d want to learn French. “They’d say, ’Oh, the French are cowards, they didn’t fight with us in the Iraq war, what do you want to do that for?’ “
Ditto for Megan Leinbach, a German major at the University of Pittsburgh.
“My classes are full,” said Ms. Leinbach, 21, who hails from Lancaster County. “But some of my friends say German’s a dying language, and I have to remind them that Germany is an economic powerhouse, so I don’t think it’s dying, exactly.”
Once upon a time, they were known as The Big Three: Spanish, French and German, and they are still the top three languages taught in colleges across America — although Spanish leads the other two by a mile.
Think about it: in what is widely referred to as “The Asian Century,” nearly a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese. Nearly half a billion speak Spanish. And now, a raft of studies are showing that higher percentages of American students are likely to tackle Pinyin — the alphabetized version of Chinese — than the intricacies of the French subjunctive or German punctuation.
Ach!! Is French passe? Is German kaput?
Not exactly, but signs of decline are there, locally and nationally: Some of Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities are seriously debating whether to offer French and German majors after current students graduate. Enrollment in French classes is shrinking in Pittsburgh’s public schools, and one high school is considering phasing out its longtime German program. Shady Side Academy, a private school with campuses in Fox Chapel and the East End of Pittsburgh, is eliminating French and German from its middle school curriculum to focus on Spanish, Mandarin and Latin.
A study released this year by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that elementary school students taking French decreased from 27 percent in 1997 to 11 percent in 2008.
At the college level, “The Big Three” still predominate in terms of numbers of students, with Spanish first at 822,985, French second at 206,426 and German third at 94,264, according to a 2006 study by the Modern Language Association.
But that same study found that percentages of enrollment growth for those two languages from 2002 to 2006 was in the single digits, compared to double-digit growth for Chinese and Spanish and triple-digit growth for Arabic.
Of course, fashions in language change. In the 19th century, all well-educated Americans studied German and French. Russian took off in American schools after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Japan’s economic boom — and subsequent bust — set off a similar cycle in that language’s popularity.
These days, neither French nor German is considered central to the modern American’s life or sensibility, says John McWhorter, a linguist and contributing editor at The Manhattan Institute, a New York City think tank.
“The emphasis on French learning back in the day was based on a logical desire to teach people a language that most foreigners they were likely to meet could speak,” he said. “Today knowing some French is one part a marker of middle-class propriety and one part a key to reading ’Madame Bovary.’ “
Tight budgets are forcing the issue for many schools, notes Martha Abbott of the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages. As the effects of the economic recession hit school districts, “… when you have to choose between math and a foreign language, you’re going to cut out a foreign language.”
Budget concerns weren’t directly to blame for some state-owned universities in Pennsylvania placing French and German majors “in moratorium” — which means they will not be accepting new students, although that could change.
In some cases, State System of Higher Education spokesman Kenn Marshall said, only a handful of students were enrolled in those classes.
“Given the resources we have available, we want to be sure we’re offering students programs they want and need and that also meet the state’s needs, since we’re public universities,” he said.
Some of the colleges in the system have been talking about combining resources to preserve French and German majors, he added.
Pennsylvania is one of the few states in the Northeast with no foreign language requirement for high school graduation, said Marsha Plotkin, who heads the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ world language program. Citing the state’s 500 school districts — one of the highest numbers of any state — “requiring a foreign language for every small school district would be a big expense.”
Nonetheless, “the decline of French is puzzling to me because of all the emerging economies in Africa where many educated people speak French,” said Ms. Plotkin, who notes that Pittsburgh once had two French and German magnet elementary schools and now has only one of each — while it has two Spanish magnet elementary schools and a third offering a special focus on Spanish.
Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and Pittsburgh Schenley offer French and German along with three other languages, although there have been discussions about phasing back the German program at Allderdice. Other city schools, faced with budget cuts, have responded in different ways: French language was cut to a half-day at Pittsburgh Westinghouse High School, although at Pittsburgh Oliver High School the principal cut Spanish rather than French. At Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, the principal kept French, Ms. Plotkin said.
In Mt. Lebanon, French enrollment has declined slightly, while interest in German has been “fairly steady, with slight ups and downs,” said Nancy Campbell, who supervises the district’s language program. Shady Side Academy decided to end French and German in middle school in order to focus on Spanish, Mandarin and Latin — in part because it was more difficult to schedule five different language classes. When parents were notified, “we didn’t hear a word in response. Not a peep,” said Amy Nixon, head of Shady Side’s middle school.
French holds its own in some quarters. Springdale Junior/Senior High School just added it at the request of parents, and French classes at Carnegie Mellon University are filled, with a 25-person waiting list for introductory French next fall. Bonnie Youngs, a teaching professor in CMU’s modern language department said students use the language to read architecture and engineering texts and for drama and music.
“The death of French is greatly exaggerated,” contends Richard Shryock, chairman of the foreign language and literature department at Virginia Tech.
French is spoken on all populated continents, he said, while Spanish is mostly confined to the Western Hemisphere. Twenty-seven of our trading partners are French-speaking countries, many of them in the emerging economies of Africa, he added.
Bob Kubiak, 54, of Park Place, is taking French classes from Christine Frechard, who offers them at her art gallery in Squirrel Hill. He is a huge fan of French cinema. And as a technology consultant and fine arts photographer with contacts in Paris, he’s polishing his language skills.
“Spanish has a little more applicability, but I’m just more interested in French culture,” he said.
These days, younger students — and parents — seem more attracted to the language of commerce rather than of diplomacy. “Children everywhere are learning Chinese!” shouts a headline on mandarinadvantage.com. Even English is touted as the new global language of business — one book recently called “Globish” the new lingua franca of commerce.
Still, “It takes three times as long to master Chinese, and a lot of people don’t realize that,” Mr. Shryock said.
Louis Schwartz, president of China Strategies LLC, a Squirrel Hill-based company that advises on trade and investment with China, said he took his first Mandarin course in the 1970s after graduating from Allderdice and before heading to the University of Michigan, where eventually he earned a bachelor of arts degree in Asian studies. A year spent in Taiwan helped him achieve proficiency in the language.
“My interests in China grew out of an interest in the culture and the language and the people,” he said. “It was only later that I felt the need to turn a strong interest into a vocation.”
So will the languages of Moliere and Goethe become a luxury and not a necessity for a well-rounded young person living in “The Asian Century”?
Perhaps, but China is hardly a cultural wasteland.
“I don’t want to disparage France. It’s a lovely country. And we have a lot of history with France,” said Mr. Schwartz. “But I think there is probably no civilization with as deep and rich a cultural heritage as China.”