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.

Enjoy!
Elizabeth

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

This upcoming semester I'm taking French. I know it's going to be hard (I've only had a little bit of German), my college advisor looked at me bug-eyed when I told I'd be attempting it with no previous experience. (Prayers would greatly be appreciated.....)

Thank you for your post, it's given me a lot of encouragement.

Don't feel bad about your thumb. Almost the same day he got it my Dad almost cut off his leg with a chain saw.

Many blessings,

Charity

Mrs. U said...

"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."

How true, how true!!! I am always amazed at how happy someone is when you attempt to speak their language. I've taken French, Spanish and Latin. When attempting French or Spanish with a native speaker, I am always amazed at the kindness of them to want to help me communicate better. They are happy because I am trying to communicate in their tongue.

We were in China in February/ March this year getting our daughter, Elizabeth. China speaks mostly Mandarin but we knew in the particular province we would be in that they speak Cantonese. We simply learned "hello", "thank you" and "good bye". That's all. Three simple little sayings. The people were SO happy that we were attempting their language!! It made me want to try all the more!!

Lovely post. I feel that everyone should learn a second language. No, I do not think one has to be fluent (I'm not, by any means!!!), but at least familiar with it. The Lord is so very creative in making all these languages and He knows them ALL!!!

Thank you for sharing this!

His,
Mrs. U

Emma said...

I am so sorry about your thumb! I hope that it heals quickly and doesn't cause you too much pain!

I am looking forward to your week of classes!

Robin said...

This post is wonderful. I was fortunate enough to take French in college and travel abroad as part of my education. I spent almost 3 months in Tours, France, at a school called L'Institut de Tourraine. It's the French equivalent to an ESL course - foreign students travelling to France to learn French.

One thing I found incredibly helpful in my maturing as a young adult was discovering that the US was not the center of the universe. That's a most valuable lesson.

Samantha said...

What most people in Europe don't understand (and I have friends all over Europe, I meself am Dutch) is the fact that American schools don't pay any attention to foreign languages. That is often seen as arrogant. In most European countries, people learn more languages than just their own.

For example the Dutch school system. (I will use ages instead of grades, as grades differ in each country). Around age 11 you first start to learn a little English. When you are 12 or 13, depending on which grade you are in, you start to learn three foreign languages: English, German and French. These three languages will continue to be taught untill you are 17 or 18, depending on what education you take. Optional is Latin and Greek if you are on the highest level of education. You get two years of both languages and most people concentrate on one language for the rest of the three years of education.

So you see, time really doesn't have much to do with anything. Here we learn in in school. No, we are not fluent, but we can speak it a little. Although almost everyone speaks English very well.

I myself learned (besides Dutch, wich is also mandatory) English, German, French, Latin and Greek, with only two years of Latin and five years of Greek. I can honestly say it is an enrichment of my life.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Charity,

I hope you enjoy the French class! You can do it! Maybe, you can get a head start by looking at some of the resources I will post.

Yes, I am thankful to only have a slight injury to my thumb and not something as serious as what your father experienced! I hope he is recovered now!

Hi Mrs. U.

Thanks for sharing your thoughtful
comments. Thanks for your example in learning so that you can communicate with others!

If you are willing, you might do a post about the three Catonese phrases you learned and leave a comment about that on my post. Then, those who wish can visit your blog to learn a little more about that.

Hi Emma,

My thumb is coming along quite nicely. I am so blessed that it's only a minor injury.

Hi Robin,

Didn't you love France? I have very fond memories of a summer study course/tour of Paris when I was seventeen.

Yes, it is a great thing when American have opportunities to travel. It does expand our view of the world, doesn't it? Both of my children have gotten to go abroad -- my son to a very poor part of the Philippines and my daughter to Italy -- and I was grateful that they each had this experience.

Hi Samantha,

Thanks for giving us a European perspective on this issue!

Your language skills are impressive! I am so glad that you shared with us how the Dutch educational system works with regard to langauges and how this has enriched your life.

Enjoy!
Elizabeth

PandaBean said...

I was unfamiliar with the term lingua franca, it's wonderful to be learning all this new stuff! Did you know French is the official language of the United Nations?
I love languages, but I don't have (or don't think I have) the resources to learn them. I've had 4 years of French, 1 of Spanish, a semester of German and self-taught a lot of American Sign Language (unspoken languages count!). My grandmother is French (Elle est francaise) and I've asked her to speak in french to my daughter, even though she's only 5 months old. :) She already can tell a difference; we had an english/spanish mass for Corpus Cristi and every time spanish (which is closely related to french) was spoken, DD perked right up!

Elizabeth said...

Hi Panda Bean:

It sounds like you have a headstart on learning many languages. I would love to know ASL!

And, what a wonderful thing that your grandmother is starting to talk to your DD in French! Both you and your DD will pick this up. That's a great resource in itself.

Have you tried these ideas?

Check out foreign language tapes or CD's from the library and listen to them in your car or when you work about the house.
Buy a Bible in a language that you want to learn or improve and read it simultaneously with your English Bible. Memorize verses in both English and the language you want to work on.
Listen to a free online radio station that plays music or news in a language you'd like to learn.
Tape language education programs from public TV channels and watch them. Even kids programs are great. One of our public channels has language immersion classes for older students in French, Spanish, and German. I've figured out when the French ones are, so DH has set up our recorder to tape all of them for me. As soon as I figure out when the Spanish and German ones are on, I want him to tape some of those for me, too. The Spanish and German will be harder for me, as I don't have a foundation in those languages. But, I want to give it a whirl.

Would your French grandmother be so kind as to tell you a few things about French culture or housekeeping or cooking that we would all be interested in? If so, would you post them on your site and leave a comment on mine letting me know you've written a post about this. I could would read your post and link to your site.

Rebecca said...

This finishing school has all been so interesting! One question. In your reference to Pride and Prejudice, could you have meant Miss Bingley? I remember no Miss Collins only a Mrs. Collins after Miss Lucas married Mr. Collins.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Rebecca,

Yes! Thanks.

I will correct the post before putting it in the Fnishing school archives.