France has its own history of linguistic subjugation, forcing French language instruction on students in its colonies and attempting to eradicate other languages. As for the former colonies of France, their relationship with the language is complicated. In some, like Algeria, the French language is losing ground as the nation’s leaders consciously try to shed the remnants of the country’s colonial past.
My attachment to French comes down to some parallels between the history of France and my Korean heritage. At various times during the 19th and 20th centuries, Germany and France wrestled over Alsace-Lorraine and thus which language would be spoken there. Koreans are well versed in language-based conflict and linguistic dictums. Japan’s government forbade the use of the Korean language during that country’s occupation of Korea from 1910 till the Japanese surrender in World War II. In South Korea we learned about the banning of the French language through a storybook that was assigned in elementary schools, Alphonse Daudet’s “La Dernière Classe” (“The Last Class”). I read it in school, and the story also appeared in my parents’ sixth-grade textbook in the 1950s; that’s how deeply it resonates.
“La Dernière Classe” is about an idle schoolboy, Frantz, who lives in Alsace around the time of the Franco-Prussian War, circa 1870. He turns up late for school one day and finds his teacher Monsieur Hamel looking grave. The teacher explains that Germany has taken over the region, that he will not be seeing them again and that all instruction commencing the next day would be in German. “This is the very last French lesson you will have,” says the teacher, “so I entreat you to pay attention.”
Frantz listens to his French grammar lesson for the very first time, wondering why he never appreciated the elegance of the past participle. He tells the reader, “Monsieur Hamel told us that French was the most beautiful language in the world, the clearest, the most solid: that we should protect it and never forget it, because even if a people become enslaved, as long as they retain their language, it’s like a key to the prison.”
At the end of the class, Monsieur Hamel writes in big letters on the blackboard, “Vive la France!”
A lover of words, I was captivated by the idea of a language being part of your humanity and identity, driving every cell in your body. Reading “La Dernière Classe” made me vow to one day learn the French language. And I did.