The French Department is one of the larger departments at Wellesley College, with about 20 majors graduating each year.
The French language gave me an entrée into another culture. It allowed me to discover different means of expression, a different way of life, different values, a different system of thought. Because when you’re a judge and you spend your whole day in front of a computer screen, it’s important to be able to imagine what other people’s lives might be like, lives that your decisions will affect.
—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer
Courses in the French Department target fluency in the language of France and French-speaking countries and open doors to cultures that are rich in tradition and have pivotal roles to play in a rapidly diversifying Europe and a rapidly contracting world. With few exceptions, our courses, elementary to advanced, are taught in French. The subjects we teach in literature and culture span ten centuries, from the Middle Ages to the present. In addition to covering a broad cultural range, our courses are designed to help students develop a number of critical life skills—linguistic, analytical, interpretive, expressive, creative.
Why French? Because French affords access to cultures—both historic and modern—that are vital and that offer a fresh perspective on our own time and culture. Becoming a sensitive observer of a French-speaking culture means learning to understand and respect its unique set of values, and, by extension, to embrace many different kinds of otherness. A student who has mastered French well enough to enter sympathetically into cultures different from her own has learned to push beyond what currently exists and to express herself in a new way. She is likely to be more complexly understanding, more subtly perceptive, more keenly articulate, more expansively communicative, a better collaborator and a better listener than a classmate who has not. To move freely and securely among multiple frames of cultural reference, to inhabit the alternate personae that come with mastery of another tongue, to have the sounds and songs and idioms of French in one's head—these are all deep intellectual pleasures. They are also highly useful tools in the real world. As the above quote from Justice Stephen Breyer points out, the ability to project oneself into the attitudes and expectations of others, to step into their shoes and see reality from their standpoint as well as from your own, is an extraordinarily valuable skill in today’s world—in diplomacy, business and politics, and, of course, in human relations.
Beginning in our language courses, students work with materials from different parts of the world and from historical periods that range from the medieval to the contemporary, in a variety of genres and media. They acquire skill as well in a number of different approaches to reading and analyzing texts: historical, sociological, psychological, and literary—including the perspectives of race and gender. Students who graduate from our program have gone on to further study in areas as diverse as the law, medicine, international relations, museum science, art and art history, English, French, and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as to careers in publishing and on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Graduates who are professionals in industries from tech to finance to media routinely report that their skills in French are a significant asset in their careers.
The French Department is proud to provide a strong base in Wellesley's tradition of liberal arts education (see this report on the long-term professional success of liberal arts majors and this article on what you can do with a liberal arts degree).