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January 30, 2024

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Learning French language and culture still popular, but reasons have changed

When François Chambraud, French director of Alliance Française de Shanghai, appeared in a recent video on Shanghai’s one-stop information and service portal City News Service, many viewers recognized him and the non-profit organization he leads, demonstrating its far reach in the local community of people passionate about French culture.

Founded in Paris in 1883, Alliance Française promotes French language and culture worldwide. In the past 140 years, it has developed about 830 centers in 135 countries and regions, including 16 on the Chinese mainland.

The Shanghai connection with Alliance Française dates back to 1886, when the organization sponsored the then Franco-Chinese Municipal School, now Shanghai Guangming High School.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Alliance Française launched its first center on the mainland in 1989 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province and the second in 1992 in Shanghai.

The Shanghai center is a cooperation between the alliance and the Hongkou Community College, offering classes in French language and culture to about 4,000 students a year. It’s one of the alliance’s 15 largest schools around the world.

“The Hongkou Community College, formerly known as Hongkou Spare-Time University, was an ideal partner because it was open to the whole society, mainly for in-service workers to improve their own qualifications, and its French program was very good,” said Huang Xiaoji, Chinese director of Alliance Française de Shanghai.

The Shanghai campus now has 20 full-time teachers, 10 French and 10 Chinese, as well as about 30 part-time staff. There are classes for students of all age groups, from 3-year-olds to adults, following the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages program.

Huang said her choice of French as her second language was an instantaneous decision.

“It’s hard to explain,” she said. “One reason I can think of is the ‘The Last Lesson’ by French writer Alphonse Daudet, which was in our middle school textbook. In this story, the patriotic teacher said French was the most beautiful language when he was teaching the last French lesson in 1870 as France was occupied by Bismarck-led Prussian forces and the village school was ordered to stop teaching French. I think it was the patriotism and nostalgia that impressed me so deeply that I picked French when I chose my major.”

Now, the reasons why students learn French is diverse, Huang said.

“We have students who are from mixed Chinese and French families, or whose Chinese parents have learned French and wish their children to follow. Some parents just want their children to learn more skills, such as a language other than English, in the hope of opening up more opportunities for them,” Huang said.

“There is another group of students who are from French families in Shanghai and international schools. Their parents want them to have more exposure to the francophone environment to keep their French at a native-speaking level.”

For adult learners, some are preparing for overseas study or immigration into French-speaking countries, and some are working in French companies where speaking French may gain them advantages in the workplace. About 70 percent are learning French out of personal interest or curiosity, according to Huang.

“Some of our students have been with us for more than 10 years. They’ve taken all of our courses and keep coming back to attend events here. That’s why we are developing more themed courses or activities,” she said.

Besides general classes, Alliance Française also offers training for specialized focuses, such as grammar, writing and speaking, and workshops to engage learners in French culture and lifestyle, such as wine tasting and cooking. It organizes more than 100 activities every year, ranging from exhibitions, lectures, concerts, plays, and meetings with artists, so as to build up a francophone community in Shanghai. It also boasts the largest French library open to the general public with a collection of more than 20,000 documents.

Having served the alliance for more than 20 years, including five years directing the Beijing center between 2009 and 2014 and the Shanghai center since 2021, Chambraud said he has seen Chinese people showing increasing interest in French language and culture.

“But not in terms of quantities because our students have changed a lot. Ten years ago, half of our students wanted to go to France to study so they would come to us to prepare for their trip there. Now they can go to France for an English master program using English as the communication language, so they feel they don’t need French anymore. Now we have more people who are interested in the French language or in the French culture just for their own personal interest rather than for a very clear target,” he said.

He said there is a high level of interest between the two countries with Chinese and French sharing much in common, such as a love of travel, food, and art.

As this year marks the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic ties between China and France, the Alliance Française de Shanghai will organize many activities for celebrations, Chambraud said.

“Everything will be about the 60th anniversary this year. We start with our singing contest of francophone songs next March, on the occasion of the ‘Francophonie’ month, every year in March. And then throughout the year, we’re going to work hand in hand with the Consulate General of the Republic of France in Shanghai and the French Embassy in Beijing to create more opportunities for specific events. But on top of these events organized for the 60th birthday, we celebrate the Franco-Chinese relationship every day, because we have people coming to take classes, we have people coming to borrow books, we have people coming to watch films and many other activities, we do that absolutely every day.”

As Paris prepares to host the Summer Olympics for the third time, the Alliance Française campuses in China are currently training 28 volunteers, the majority of whom are Chinese university students. These volunteers will serve at the sporting event in July and August.


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