Dialect and Prestige: Re-thinking basic French-language education

Nomade is a 23-year-old Mauritian graduate student living in the United States. She is interested in the areas of Francophone culture, bilingual identity and post-colonialism. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, painting and writing fiction.  

As a child, I would often spend Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s. White, French and deliciously snobbish, she always made a point to correct any mistakes I made and to compare my pronunciation to my cousin’s. Unlike my cousin, I did not start life speaking French. It wasn’t until I was five that I hesitantly began to acquire the language, because although I had a Mauritian – and therefore Francophone – father, I had an Anglophone Kenyan mother. For many Sundays, I was acutely self-conscious about my way of speaking and made it my goal to be as native-like as possible. I met this objective in my late teens and for many years felt a blush of pride whenever a French person heard me speak and asked me whether I was French. It is only now, when I am completely at ease with the way I speak the language that I realize that modifying my accent wasn’t quite as essential as I once believed, and that there is a lot more to this experience than an insecure young girl and her comme il faut grandmother.

My grandmother is a product of our culture as are the French teachers who instruct students on how to pronounce words “correctly”. She is a product of a culture which places France at the centre and the rest of the Francophone world on the margins. She is the product of a culture that venerates the image of the White Parisian woman walking down the Champs Elysées speaking in the clipped tones typical of Paris with her Hermès scarf trailing behind her. She is the product of the same culture that urged me to imitate a piano teacher who was educated in France and develop a crush on him at the age of sixteen. Culture is pervasive, invasive. However, we are not powerless before it; culture doesn’t just happen at home or at street fairs. Culture is perpetuated through media and institutions like schools. This is why I propose making changes to the way college students are taught French, especially in introductory courses. These students are particularly impressionable and vulnerable to internalizing reinforced stereotypes about what it means to be “true” native speaker of a language.

The variety of French taught at colleges and presented as the “standard” is nothing more than an idealized dialect of the language, which has been given prestige at the expense of other varieties. If the so-called standard French recorded on the audio materials that my students use to learn is the “correct” way of pronouncing the language, then what becomes of the French spoken by a native Senegalese French speaker? If the syntax and expressions presented as “proper” in textbooks are the standard, then what become of the grammar and idioms of Moroccan French speakers?  Whenever a particular dialect is held up as the standard, other dialects are branded flawed ways of speaking. Instead of being held to their own standards, they are held to the arbitrary standards of a separate dialect. There is nothing new about the pervasiveness of standard language ideology. Before it was named, it existed in 12th century France, when Francien was the ideal and others dialects such as Picard and Norman were deemed “corruptions” of the pure language. It continues today, when Old French scholars continue to perpetuate the myth of the “degradation” of the language. It is alive in the Anglophone world, where Spanish-accented English is considered unacceptable in U.S. schools.

The erasure of the variety of dialects and Francophone cultures from textbooks not only takes from the legitimacy of these cultures but also perpetrates the violence of colonialism. Furthermore, when these cultures are mentioned, they are constructed as peripheral to what is truly, essentially French. Why is one small French-speaking region of the Francophone world still the focus of attention in so many textbooks currently used? Why isn’t my French-speaking country’s culture just as valid and worthy of more than a blurb at the end of the chapter? Why are the habits of Frenchmen seamlessly integrated into the grammar and vocabulary sections, while the habits of my people aren’t considered interesting enough to discuss?

To destroy the France/Francophonie dichotomy, we must revise the way that the language is presented in the classroom. A simple acknowledgement of the fact that the variety of French typically presented is just that would be a good start. A second step could be to introduce other ways of pronouncing words and constructing sentences alongside the version already used. Third, hiring more instructors who do not fit the stereotype of what it means to be a native French speaker would show students that there is more than one way of speaking French in a way that is understood by Francophone people. Finally, I would eventually like to see more courses dedicated to exploring Francophone language and culture outside of the West. Perhaps it is ambitious, but it is the only way of restoring the humanity of constantly erased peoples. It will be a happy day when we no longer see the Mauritian hesitant to speak his own language, in his homeland, to a French or Belgian tourist, for fear of derision.

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