NEW YORK » In the fugue of tongues on New York’s streets, French has never been a dominant voice. And as surging numbers of Asian and Latino immigrants continue to tip the balance of foreign languages toward Chinese and Spanish, the idea of learning French, to some, may seem kind of quaint, even anachronistic.
Yet in the city’s public school system, the French dual-language program, in which half the classes are in French and the other half in English, is booming. Eight public schools offer a French/English curriculum for about 1,000 students, making it the third-largest dual-language program, after Spanish and Chinese. And demand continues to grow, with two more schools scheduled to join this year and at least seven groups of parents in different areas of the city lobbying their schools to participate.
But even though the program is a signature feature of the city’s public schools, one of its most enthusiastic benefactors is not even American or, for that matter, local. It is the French government.
Several levels of the French government — including the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, the Senate and the National Assembly — have helped nurture the program, giving seed money and grants to individual schools in New York as well as paying for teacher training in France and course books for students.
Now, the government is intensifying its commitment by spearheading a fundraising campaign intended to accelerate the growth of the program.
Officials from the French Embassy’s cultural division, housed in a landmark mansion on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park, are going cap-in-hand to French corporations and affluent parents — expatriate and American — whose children use the program. Their goal is to raise $2.8 million in five years to help support the expansion of the program to new schools.
The campaign seems to resonate with a certain existential importance for France, which once controlled a vast empire stretching around the globe. The country’s identity is inexorably tied to French, and officials suggested that in promoting the teaching of the language worldwide — including taking a leading and unusual role in a public education initiative outside its borders — they were not only helping to enrich children, but also reinforcing and building the country’s economic, political and cultural ties with other countries.
"It’s urgent because at the crossroads of many priorities are the language and the youth," said Antonin Baudry, the embassy’s cultural counselor. At stake, he explained, is no less than "the future of the relationship between France and the United States."
Parents, teachers and program administrators cite a range of reasons for the success of the French program in the New York public schools, including the desire among multinational families to be able to move comfortably among cultures and languages and the advantages of multilingualism in an increasingly globalized world, particularly for a student’s future employment prospects. Some point to recent studies suggesting that bilingualism can improve cognitive skills and the brain’s health.
Officials at the embassy and its nonprofit partner, the French American Cultural Exchange, are now hoping these supporters will reinforce their enthusiasm with cash.
Fabrice Jaumont, the embassy’s education attaché in New York, who is spearheading the campaign, delivered a blunt pitch: "If they are using these programs and benefit from these programs," he said, "they should come up with the support."
The campaign, begun last month, has drawn contributions from about 200 people, he said.
The French dual-language program in the city started in 2007 at three elementary schools. The curriculum is now offered at six public elementary schools and two middle schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan; two more middle schools, also in Brooklyn, are scheduled to be added in the fall, bringing student enrollment to about 1,300, Jaumont said. The city’s other dual-language programs include Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish.
Robin Sundick, principal of P.S. 84 in Manhattan, said she had received hundreds of applications, including requests from other boroughs, every year for the 18-seat French and English kindergarten class, which opened in 2008. (She added a second kindergarten class this school year in response to the demand.) Most of the requests, she said, have come from nonnative French speakers.
At Middle School 256 in Manhattan, more than 300 families have applied for next year’s program in the sixth grade, said Naomi Fraser, a parent who helped begin the program at that school last fall.
Some families have moved into neighborhoods zoned for dual-language schools just so their children can attend those classes. It is a shift that has spurred the settlement of a broader French-speaking population in some areas, a dynamic particularly evident in the brownstone precincts of Brooklyn where four of the schools are.
Several of those neighborhoods are dotted with French-owned cafes and restaurants. One street is blocked off every year on Bastille Day for a street fair: The tricolor flies from shopfronts, boules are played, crepes are eaten. The area — predictably — has been called Little France and Little Paris.
Officials at the city’s Education Department said other foreign governments had supported dual and bilingual programs, including the consulates general of Mexico and Spain.
But France’s level of involvement appears to be extraordinary. Jaumont, who also serves as a program officer at the French American Cultural Exchange, estimated that the government assistance, direct and indirect, had totaled at least $100,000 to $200,000 in grants, seed money, teacher training in France, books and the use of embassy staff time and buildings. "But I might be way below," he added.
Severe budget concerns in France have compelled embassy officials to turn to private contributions for additional support.
The fundraising campaign seeks to tap the largess of a relatively affluent population. For households headed by a French-born person, the median income is about $84,500, well above the citywide median of about $50,400, according to the latest Census Bureau data. About 15,800 French immigrants live in New York City.
The goal is to create a seamless dual-language programming from kindergarten through 12th grade and increase student enrollment to about 7,000 within five years.
According to the Census Bureau, about 84,400 New Yorkers older than 4 — or about 1.1 percent of the city’s population — primarily speak French (including patois and Cajun French) at home. French officials see in these figures a significant population of potential participants for their dual-language initiatives, in addition to students who speak other languages and want to learn French.
One of the main goals of the fundraising campaign is to provide access to the dual-language program in less affluent neighborhoods with growing Francophone populations, including areas of central Brooklyn populated by immigrants from Caribbean countries like Haiti, Guadeloupe and French Guiana; pockets of North Africans in Queens; and immigrant enclaves in the Bronx with residents from sub-Saharan countries including Guinea, Mali and Senegal.
"We’d like to serve families in underserved areas," Jaumont said.
Diana Limongi Gabriele, an American-born parent married to a Frenchman, is trying to bring the program to Astoria, Queens. In only a few months she has mustered the support of about 60 families living in a swath of the borough.
She has even received interest from parents in Brooklyn.
"I’ve had emails saying, ‘The only reason I don’t live in Queens is that these programs are in Brooklyn,’" she recalled. "’If you can open one in Astoria, I’ll gladly move to Astoria.’"
Jaumont’s office has also become a resource center for advocates from other communities seeking guidance, including representatives of Russian- and Italian-speaking parent groups and regularly fields calls from French-language advocates around the country seeking to establish their own dual-language programs.
"I call this the French bilingual revolution," he said.
Kirk Semple, New York Times