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Business French—An Asset for American Students and Language Departments

Alexandre Holle, Head of Innovation and Partnership Department, Paris Chamber of Commerce Dr. Cheryl Toman Chair of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department, Case Western Reserve University

Over the last 5 years, the Embassy of France in the United States has been supporting the development of French for Professional Purposes, notably through facilitating annual training courses for university professors in French for professional purposes didactics, in partnership with the CCIP (Chambre du Commerce et de l'Industrie de Paris Ile-de-France).

In Fall 2018, during the ACTFL Convention held in New Orleans, Dr. Cheryl Toman, Chair of the Modern Languages and Literatures Department at Case Western Reserve University, gave a 45 minute presentation on the benefits of French for Professional Purposes at the invitation of the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France. During this presentation, Dr. Toman described the benefits of learning professional French in the United States through the experience of her department, and offered guidelines on starting this type of course.

You will find below significant excerpts from her speech translated into English.
In 2010, shock waves were felt across academe when a major university announced the closing of all of its degree-granting programs in French (…) and with that, the positions of seven tenured professors were eliminated (…) The alarm bells had sounded. (…) As professors in this field, we insist on hanging on to a classic structure for our departments and of course, we are enamored by this model because it worked so well for us (…) But at the same time, we cling to this classic model too much for our own good, thinking that it is the best if not the only way to organize a language department or program and this is where we might be wrong in our thinking because in reality, statistics show that this model no longer is working. (…) Parents are requiring their children to choose the most practical courses that will land them good jobs and assure them a lucrative future (…) and in this vein, courses in French for professional purposes have the potential to save our French departments in the United States for the simple reason that they are an answer to what students are seeking out in today’s world (...).

I know that it is not so simple to change. American universities are hiring less and tenure-track faculty (…) our young colleagues are no longer as numerous as before and it is this very group that has typically had the most energy and motivation to take on such a transition (…) without these young colleagues nudging us in this direction, we tend to favor our traditional curricula (…). It is for this reason that departments that cater mostly to literary studies are dying little by little.

(...) So what should we do ? I’m not at all suggesting that we completely eliminate literature courses. (…) But we can entrust certain professional courses to our non-tenure track professors if we ourselves do not want to take them on (…). And if this works, and if we see once again thirty students in a French course instead of three (…) maybe we will see the return of our tenured positions. How so? Because if we convince those at the highest levels of administration of our utmost importance in this effort and because professors of professional courses in French do not work in isolation but rather in partnership with business schools, law schools, medical schools (…) our colleagues in other departments and in other schools and units of the university will realize that they do need us (…) and if we manage to convince these same colleagues that our students will never be able to work for a multinational company without a certain level of proficiency in French for example—this in an enormous feat (...).

It is time for us to give up on the idea that we can attract students with literature and a classic curriculum in French, all while offering just a course or two in professional French on the side. We can no longer hope to recruit majors and minors in literature courses exclusively as we have done in the past—but on the other hand, in order to fill our literature courses, nothing is stopping us from recruiting amongst these same students who are taking our courses in professional French (...).

In fact, the market has changed and it is still changing and that is what is making our students seek different opportunities today as opposed to what we ourselves were used to. More than ever, Business French has an added value for our students to get them to the careers to which they aspire. The ability to speak French is no longer just an asset but often it is a necessity for obtaining certain positions.

The full version of Cheryl Toman’s speech in French is available here.

For more information on the Embassy of France’s initiatives towards the development of French for Professional Purposes in the U.S., visit this page.