“So why French?”

I found out last Saturday that I succeeded in passing the DALF (that heinous French test I took in Portland a few weeks ago) at the C1 level!

According to the Centre international d’études pédagogiques and the Common European Framework of References for languages, this means I am a “proficient user” of the French language: I “can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning; can express myself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions; can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes; can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.”

This is ridiculously cool and valuable because it not only validates all the hard work I’ve poured into honing my French skills during the past eight years, it also translates them into a nice, neat alphanumeric package.

This means that I can tell people across the world that I have a C1 diplôme in French and upon hearing this news they will, theoretically, know what I’m capable of.

In the weeks leading up to and directly following the exam, I had several conversations that all went something like this:

Interrogator: “So what was this test for, exactly?”

Cara: “It’s a language proficiency test and if I pass, I’ll easily and concisely be able to declare my French abilities to the world.”

Interrogator: “What does it entail?”

Cara: “Listening comprehension, an oral presentation, reading comprehension and written production.”

Interrogator: “So you’re basically fluent in French?”

Cara: “Yep. I was a French major, I spent the last year writing a kick-ass, 60-page honors thesis in French, I read books in French for fun sometimes, I’ve lived in France…”

Interrogator: “That’s cool I guess, but why French?”

It’s not like I haven’t heard this question before. It’s cropped up in various forms and guises since my freshman year of high school when I first elected to study French (I grew up in Southern California where Spanish is indisputably the more practical option).

It became more and more frequent, pointed and judgmental once I started college and a year later officially declared that I would be devoting the rest of my undergraduate career to the pursuit of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and Literatures—French. And now that I’ve graduated with that fancy degree, it’s a question I field weekly, if not more frequently.

This is what I tell people:

Why I chose French—

  1. I took the equivalent of a semester of Spanish in middle school (split into two quarters over a period of two years). I disliked the classes and the teacher’s teaching style, and when high school rolled around offering me different choices, I took advantage of them.
  2. French sounds beautiful and I wanted to speak it. (There are certain grammar rules that exist solely to circumvent a harsh guttural stop.)
  3. French literary analysis demands the same essential skills as English literary analysis, but makes you work at a more challenging and elevated level because of that whole I’m-not-operating-in-my-native-language component.
  4. French is a difficult language to learn: complex grammar, tongue-twisting pronunciation. I like challenges and I like succeeding at them.

Why, if I could go back and do it all again, I would still choose French—

  1. In studying French I got so much personalized attention from teachers and professors and had a richer, more collaborative education because of it. At Whitman, the French department is extremely attentive, nurturing, and demanding of its students. My professors really know me (as a person and as an academic). They’ve watched, and have actively participated in, my growth and development these past four years. Specialized attention also means incredible opportunities: language tutor positions, summer research grants that morph into honors theses, etc. Majoring in French at Whitman is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
  2. As I discussed in an earlier post, language and culture are inextricably linked. Learning one (well) means you learn the other. I’ve experienced French culture through studying its words, its grammar, its history, its literature, its films. I’ve also lived it by studying abroad for a semester (and will do so again when I’m teaching there this fall).
  3. Experiencing a new culture is inseparable from expanding one’s world view. If you encounter different cultures, different values and ideals, different ways of thinking, it throws your own world view into perspective. In confronting and interacting with something foreign, you come to better understand yourself.
  4. I’m bilingual! I can read, write and converse (really well) in TWO languages! (That’s more than many Americans can say—though still leaves me trailing behind most Europeans…)

Whatever will I do with my liberal arts degree in French?

I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet. But I have several ideas:

  • Teach (abroad, in the United States, elementary school, middle school, high school, adults…)
  • Translate
  • Work for the government
  • Go after a French PhD and test the fates of professorhood
  • Work for a multinational business or corporation

I may not be professionally trained and poised to embark on a set career path at this very moment, but I really do believe that my education and my French degree will, in the long run, open more doors than they’ll close.

_________

For further reading on the values of foreign language study (and the merit of French as a foreign language of study) check out this piece by Robert Lane Greene from the March/April 2012 issue of the Economist’s magazine Intelligent Life.

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