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The Singing Linguist: Popular Songs on Fin-de-siècle Language Learning

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Hannah Scott


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In the nineteenth century, France was no nation of modern language learners. This was not by any means because France was isolated from other nations: on the contrary, its increasing desire to expand its colonies, its international links through diplomacy, trade, and culture, and significant levels of immigration into France, all positioned it at the heart of a multicultural, multilingual global network. However, for much of the century, modern languages were widely considered to be a rather decorative accomplishment; it was only with France’s devastating defeat by Prussia in 1871 that the dearth of language skills among the French population began to cause widespread concern and to be seen as a worrying national weakness. Although lengthy texts and speeches mediated and scrutinized this dramatic shift for the upper classes, for the popular audiences of workers, artisans, and lower-middle class clerks and shopkeepers it was often café-concert song that confronted its novelty and its strangeness. Dozens of songs were written between 1870 and 1914 about teachers, pupils, dubious accents, and mediocre exam results. This article explores these songs - about Spanish, German, and English - to question how they reflect upon attitudes to language learning, upon popular perceptions of France’s neighboring nations, and upon the audience’s own sense of identity as Parisians and as French citizens.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Scott HL

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Contemporary French Civilization

Year: 2021

Volume: 46

Issue: 4

Pages: 373-393

Print publication date: 01/12/2021

Acceptance date: 23/11/2021

ISSN (print): 0147-9156

ISSN (electronic): 2044-396X

Publisher: Liverpool University Press


Notes: The 9th Lawrence R. Schehr Memorial Award Winning Essay.