Saturday, July 07, 2007
Online Finishing School for Ladies: Why Languages and Culture?
I had an inconvenient, but not serious accident with some electric hedge clippers this morning. I'm grateful that I only caught a bit of skin on my thumb. It could have been a lot worse!
DH made a wonderful doctor, I'm happy to report. I'm even happier to report that the injury was not serious enough to require the services of a real M.D. I'm really happy to say that it doesn't hurt much at the moment. But, it is a wake up call for me to be more careful with electric power tools! Anyhow, my left thumb is heavily bandaged as I type, and I'm a little clumsy with the keyboard.
This upcoming week, I'll be posting about France and French culture. Then, the week after that, our dear Julieann is baking up a special treat for us in her kitchen!
Julieann will post the steps for making this delicious treat on her site. Then, when she is finished, we can each follow her instructions in our own kitchens, if we like. (I can't wait to practice, myself!) I'll post the link when she's ready for us to start class at her place!
So, why are we looking at French culture this week? And, why do we have another week or two in our schedule about other cultures, as well?
Well, young ladies of the past who attended finishing schools were sometimes expected to learn about other cultures and languages. For example, a biography of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of President Jame K. Polk reveals that these were among the subjects she studied at finishing school: The unusually strong curriculum included English grammar, Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing, and sewing. Most finishing schools taught French, as well.
If you've seen the most recent version of Pride and Prejudice, you'll remember that Miss Collins entices Elizabeth Bennet into a discussion of what makes a woman "accomplished". She suggests that a truly educated woman would know Greek and Latin, as well as a few modern languages.
Of course, Miss Collins, who prides herself on her elegance, is actually showing a lack of good manners. Instead of using her fine education for good, she wields it as a measuring stick to judge other people. She looks down her nose at those who have not had the opportunity to receive the training that her wealth and position in society afforded her. Yet, even though Miss Collin's motive is unkind, it does give us a glimpse of what some families of her day considered to be a necessary education for a young lady.
There were a number of reasons why young ladies -- and even more so, young men -- were expected to speak at least one second language tolerably well. There were reasons, also, for young people to have some knowledge of other cultures and their customs:
1) The people who established western educational methods were influenced by Greek and Latin classics. Therefore, educators generally believed that a knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin was essential to a young man's education. In some cases, people did not see a need for women to learn the classics or the tongues in which they were written. But, some women did receive such training, just as men did.
2) Ancient Greek (as opposed to modern Greek) and Latin were both once languages that were spoken by most of the western world. (See the note about lingua franca below.) Therefore, traces of Greek and Latin ideas and languages remain in western culture. A knowledge of these languages helps western people to understand where these influences came from and how they still affect our modern way of thinking.
3) Some students studied Greek and Latin in order to be able to read the original manuscripts of the Bible. It goes without saying that this was valuable in many ways. Today, this is a main reason why people still study these languages.
4) Latin, as we know, contributed to the lingos of law, medicine, and science. Therefore, a knowledge of these was thought to be a good starting point for a career or hobby in these fields. (In the 18th and 19th centuries, some men and women made a lifelong hobby of a particular science, such as botany. Some amateurs even contributed new discoveries to the scientific world.)
5) Many English words and words in the Romance language have Latin origins. Learning Latin was considered to be a great basis for improving your English vocabulary, as well as for learning the Romance languages.
6) It was considered beneficial for young men and young women to know modern languages, as well. French was usually the language of choice, but many studied German or Italian, as well. Those who were interested in being missionaries studied whatever language was spoken in the country where they would work.
7) If a young lady learned both ancient and modern languages in finishing school, she would then be prepared to be a governess, teacher, missionary, or to take her place in some other field.
8) If a young lady learned modern languages, she would be prepared to marry a man whose career involved either foreign travel or entertaining foreign dignitaries. For example, Mrs. Polk used her fine education to assist her husband in his duties as President. Similarly, the wife of a foreign missionary fared well if she understood the language of the country in which she and her husband might work.
9) If a family could afford to send a daughter to one of the top finishing schools, they were also likely to have the means to travel abroad. Many young ladies in Europe spent time in countries other than the land of their birth. For example, some young ladies from colder climates wintered in Italy. Also, it was customary for American young people to take a "Grand Tour" of Europe upon accomplishing whatever education they received. Remember that Aunt March had promised to take Jo on such a trip to Europe, but took Amy instead.
10) Many of the finest finishing schools were located in countries such as Switzerland, France, and Germany. People from all around the world sent their daughters to these countries to finish their education. Naturally, it was helpful if a young lady spoke the language of the country in which she studied. Princess Di went to a boarding school in the French part of Switzerland.
11) English literature contains many foreign phrases, particularly French. A knowledge of these phrases helps a student understand what the author means. For example, Jane Austin used some French in her work. Even that famous writer of British mystery cozies -- Agatha Christie -- laced her novels with French phrases.
Why did so many finishing schools emphasize learning French, in particular? They did so because French is a "lingua franca", and it was even more so in prior centuries.
A lingua franca is a language that many people from many different countries learn so that they can communicate with each other. It was first applied to a medieval pigeon language that was used in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This tongue, which was still spoken as late as the 19th century, contained words from Italian, French, Persian, Greek, and other languages.
Later on, the term lingua franca came to mean any language that was broadly spoken beyond the lands of its native speakers. For example, we look back and say that Latin was once a lingua franca.
Linguas franca develop because explorers, colonizing rulers, diplomats, merchants, teachers of various religions, etc., move about the world and take a native language with them as they go. Eventually, if a particular language catches on, it becomes a standard way of communicating. Usually, this is because commerce is conducted in this language, but the particular lingua franca can arose from another field, as well.
French was a lingua franca that became known as the language of diplomacy.
At one time, relations between countries were often conducted in French. Certainly, diplomats and rulers in many capitals learned to converse fluently in French. This spread out to businessmen and to other people, as well. Thus, there were people in almost every civilized country who could speak French. In time, French left its mark on political thought, decorating, cooking, fashion, business, manners, the arts, literature, philosophy, etc. You can see why it was considered such an asset to know this language.
In prior days, (and to some extent now) a knowledge of French was common across Europe, in the Middle East, in large regions of Africa, in Russia, in the Caribbean, in certain parts of Canada and in certain parts of the U.S.
A nineteenth century British traveler might not have been able to speak to a citizen of Morocco in his original tongue and vice versa. If both spoke at least some French, they could understand each other tolerably well.
Nowadays, French is still widely spoken. A knowledge of it can serve you well. However, English, Mandarin, Spanish, Arabic, and are star linguas franca of our day. Hindustani or Hindu-Urdu might be considered to be a lingua franca, as well.
As some of our readers from around the world can attest, people in other countries are often puzzled by the typical American citizen's lack of fluency in a second language. I remember that when I was seventeen and staying in Paris for the summer, we took a weekend trip to Geneva. There, an elderly gentleman befriended our little group when he overheard us speaking French -- though I'm sure that to his ears we must have butchered the language horribly! He, himself, had grown up learning how to speak several languages. Being able to talk and think in several tongues was as natural to him as it was for me to know that 2 plus 2 = 4.
The man was thankful that we were making an attempt to speak French. It countered his general impression that Americans are rude and self-centered because we made so little effort to learn other languages than our own.
What the old man did not understand is that back then, Americans could travel two or three thousand miles within our own country and not hear one word of another language. Even if you did know another language, chances are you wouldn't have many chances to use it.
Yet, in the man's own tiny native Switzerland, there are three official languages: Italian, German, and French. In Europe, if you travel the equivalent distance of three American states, you will cross the borders of three or more countries, each with its own language. So, you see, in other places, people are more used to hearing and even speaking a number of dialects and languages.
The Swiss gentleman had a point. Sometimes, we Americans do come across as being either naive or arrogant in this respect. Often, people from other countries assume that our average citizen has little understanding of what is happening outside of our own borders. Rightly or wrongly, other countries perceive that we make so little effort to learn about the way other cultures operate simply because we just don't care.
Of course, though there may be a grain of truth in this, it is largely a misperception. If you are a busy American wife and mother, you have little time left over for learning another language. And, you may have no time to delve the intricacies of another culture, either. This may be a low priority on your list, because you don't really need to know another language in order to go about your daily life. That's OK. There's no need to feel guilty about that!
However, even just a little knowledge of another country and its language can enrich your life. It can also help you relate to neighbors or relatives who have moved to your area from another land.
No matter from what country we each hail from, it might do us all some good to acquaint ourselves with at least one other culture -- if for no other reason than to pray for that country.