Excerpt taken from the book The Story of French (Ch.11)

French flag behind wine glasses

Photo: Carlos Porto

Most teachers of French we met and interviewed during the research for this book confirmed to us, with regret in their voices, that French was indeed waging an uphill battle against English in the war of second-language studies. Naturally we were curious to find out what kept them and their students so enthusiastic about French. The teachers cited a wide variety of motivations, ranging from extremely practical reasons to a kind of generalized idealization of the language. But one striking theme shone through in almost all their answers: People learn French to get access to French culture-or a certain idea of it-whether it’s France’s lively literary and artistic scene, French cuisine, French intellectuals, French films or just the French way of life.

In the history of any international language, there are two reasons why it spreads: It is either forced on people or people are interested in learning it. The global growth in French speakers in the nineteenth century owed a lot to French colonialism. Yet during the same century, the language continued to gain speakers outside of France’s colonial empire, in places as diverse as Argentina, the U.S. and Germany. The reason? People wanted to speak French because it gave them access to what was modern, sophisticated and state-of-the-art.