The Decline of a Cultural icon

In The Decline of a Cultural Icon: France in American Perspective, by Bertram M. Gordon, Copyright © 1999:

Recent reports from both Britain and the United States show a decline in French language classes. Richard Needham, trade minister of Britain, in May 1995 stated that schools in the United Kingdom did a disservice to Britain’s students by teaching French instead of Spanish, when growing business opportunities in Latin America called for training in the latter language. According to Needham, “French is a difficult language and it’s not a language of world business. Spanish is easier and it’s a gateway into French anyway.”1 A BBC study published three years later showed French language classes with a 5 percent lead over Spanish for adult education students, a decrease from the 18 percent lead a year earlier. The reason given for this was the jump in British tourism to Spain.2 Twenty-five years ago Spanish overtook French as the most popular second language taught in U.S. schools; university enrollment in French courses dropped about 38 percent between 1968 and 1990, while Spanish rose 46 percent. By 1990, according to the Modern Language Association, 534,000 U.S. college students were studying Spanish, twice the number of those studying French. Gladys Lipton, president of the American Association of Teachers of French, reported a 25 percent decline in French studies at the U.S. university level between 1993 and 1998.3
Symbolically, de Gaulle’s death in 1970 marked the closing of an era of French iconicity in America. The last wave appears to have corresponded to the gastronomy peak in the 1970s. Since then, study of the French language in the United States has declined. An Alta Vista search on the Internet in 1998 showed English with about 77 percent of the listings by language. Japanese was about 7 percent. German, followed by French and Spanish, were all pegged at between 2 and 3 percent. Adding the French minitel to these figures, it might not be unreasonable to estimate the French proportion at roughly 5 or 6 percent—in other words, similar in proportion to the Japanese.88

1. Paul Marston, “Minister Urges Schools to Teach Spanish Not French,” Electronic Telegraph, 18 May 1995, Home News, http://www.telegraph.co.uk.

2. David Millward, “Spanish to Overtake French in Classroom,” Electronic Telegraph, 21 Sept. 1998.

3. James Brooke, “North Dakota, with German Roots, Adopts Spanish as Second Language,” New York Times, 2 Mar. 1996, 6. See also Merri Rosenberg, “Teachers Try to Renew Interest in French,” New York Times, “Westchester,” 25 Oct. 1998, sec. 14, 14.


88. Internet search on “language/nationality” retrieved on 2 Oct. 1998 using the Alta Vista search engine.

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