French: From Classroom to Community and Back Again

by Elizabeth Zwanziger
@ezwanziger

A few years ago, I ordered a stationary bicycle for my home. When the two delivery people brought it in and started putting it together, they began to chat in very technical terms – in French! It turns out, they were from Togo and had relocated to the Upper Midwest a couple of years prior. As a French teacher, I was thrilled to hear them speak a language I also speak and to join in when they explained to me how to use my new equipment.

The French language is becoming more and more commonly spoken in locales some might consider unexpected around the U.S. For the past several years, I have regularly met francophones who have immigrated from countries such as Cameroon, French Guiana, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and settled in my home state of Iowa. Of all individuals entering the United States as refugees in 2019, the DRC was the leading country of origin, at 43%.1 Data USA, which compiles U.S. Government data, reports that the number of French speakers in Iowa increased from 4976 to 9733 between 2016 and 2018, placing it as the fourth most common non-English language spoken at home in the state.2

Although the raw numbers may not sound astounding to those in larger metropolitan areas, the number of French speakers has recently doubled, and this is having a noticeable impact on our state. Interacting with community members who speak other languages is becoming more and more common in daily life.

About five years ago, students began approaching me with French language questions for their jobs, ranging from vocabulary for specific purposes and in various disciplines to how best to respectfully ask and answer customer questions. Places of employment such as pharmacies, grocery stores, insurance companies, real estate firms, and medical facilities are asking students of French to use their language skills and cultural competence for work-related exchanges with francophone community members. Students are building on their knowledge of French and investigating the cultural perspectives of their clientele to use that knowledge for real-life purposes in interactions within the community. These conversations start in businesses around town and become the content of our classroom discourse.

It turns out, the increase in linguistic and cultural diversity in our region is leading students to set their own authentic goals on their path toward linguistic and intercultural proficiency outside of the classroom. When I consider this phenomenon as a language educator, my mind goes directly to ACTFL’s World Readiness Standards for Learning Language3 and the Performance Descriptors for Language Learners.4

The French language is a passport for communication at a local level, an interpersonal tool that is more relevant than ever, and a practical choice as a language to study. Community engagement activities once simulated in class or organized as an extension of a class are beginning to present themselves organically beyond the walls of the classroom. Opportunities for students to use languages and intercultural skills they are learning at school may be awaiting them right outside their doors.

1Refugees and Asylees: 2019 (2019). Office of Immigration Studies Annual Flow Report. Retrieved January 13, 2021 from https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2019/refugee_and_asylee_2019.pdf

2Data USA (Iowa)(2016, 2018). Census Bureau American Community Survey. Retrieved January 13, 2021 from https://datausa.io/profile/geo/iowa#:~:text=4.19%25%20of%20the%20overall%20population,next%20two%20most%20common%20languages.

3ACTFL World Readiness Standards for Learning Languages. (2014). Retrieved January 13, 2021 from https://www.actfl.org/resources/world-readiness-standards-learning-languages/standards-summary

4ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners. (2017) Retrieved January 13, 2021 from https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/publications/ACTFLPerformance_descriptors.pdf


Dr. Elizabeth Zwanziger’s passion for languages began during an under-graduate semester abroad through Luther College, where she quickly discovered that oral language is distinctly different from the written language in textbooks. Her interest in oral language continued to develop while teaching world language with a communicative approach and while completing a Master’s at the University of Missouri in the Department of Romance Languages. Through her Ph.D. work in Applied Linguistics at Boston University, she was able to study language development across various languages, including French, Spanish, German, Latin, and Inuktitut. This work continues to inform her instruction in both world language and teacher education courses at the University of Northern Iowa.

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