DeKALB – When asked what she did in school this week, DeKalb High School senior Bethany Billips can say she got to talk to a French diplomat in her top-level honors foreign language class.
Billips, 18, of Cortland, said she is a dancer and has already made connections between ballet terms and the French translation. She's thought about getting a minor in French while studying elementary education after high school, but for now, she's enjoying how the French program within the foreign language department at DeKalb High School has been growing over the past few years.
On top of that, Billips said, it was enlightening to learn how visiting Consul General Guillaume Lacroix represents France within the Midwest and helps facilitate relations between the U.S. and France.
"It was just cool to see that he takes care of the French community here," Billips said. "I didn't even realize that there was a big French community here around the Midwest."
About a dozen fourth-year French students including Billips listened to the Chicago area’s French consulate talk about his job and the benefits of learning a foreign language Wednesday afternoon at DeKalb High School.
Lacroix talked to the students – mostly in French – about the importance of learning another language in fostering a better understanding of other cultures in the world. In turn, students also got to ask him questions – also in French – about his job and his 20 years of experience as a diplomat.
Although French is spoken on five different continents and his expertise is in French and U.S. relations, Lacroix said, one of his main goals in his position is to support language diversity overall in children. He said many Midwesterners have dual citizenship in different countries and that is becoming more common in a more connected world.
"In learning foreign languages, not only do you learn other cultures, other people, other habits, but you also learn how to be free, in a way – how to become a good citizen," Lacroix said.
DeKalb High principal James Horne said the school historically has had one French language teacher, but enrollment for classes in the language has increased in the past couple of years to the point where the school had to hire another teacher for the subject. Any time educators can take class content and connect it to the real world, he said, students will benefit from that experience.
"They get to understand that what they're studying can have an impact on global society," Horne said.
While the French language program is growing at the school, others in DeKalb County are experiencing a decline in student numbers in the subject.
Angelo Lekkas, principal for Genoa-Kingston High School, said this is his first year in the position but he was told that the high school stopped offering French a couple of years ago after it was difficult to fill the teacher's vacancy. He said Spanish is the only world language the school offers and remains the school's main language focus, but school officials may look at adding more languages down the road.
"Obviously, that would be something that would be determined by student interest and community input," Lekkas said.
Sycamore High School Principal Tim Carlson said the school only offers Spanish and French as world language subjects. He said the number of students signing up for Spanish classes keep going up while numbers for French classes keep going down.
Carlson said other schools currently within the Northern Illinois Big 12 Conference are seeing a similar trend, if they're offering French as a world language subject at all, and the future of French being taught in the Sycamore School District 427 depends on how many teachers the school has, how many students are requesting it and how much money the school has to support the program.
Carlson said students are starting to become a lot more perceptive and seeing more of a value in learning a world language aside from the enjoyment of learning about another culture.
“Any work world you’re going to be in, you’re going to be in a bilingual situation probably nowadays, whether you’re a student starting out and working your first job or whether you’re an executive,” Carlson said.
Lacroix said he wanted to visit DeKalb because it wasn't far from Chicago, where he is based, and he has spent a lot of time visiting French and international schools in larger cities in his first year as the area's French consul general. For his second year in the position, he said, he wanted to start visiting smaller communities to get a feel for the general public's view and value of other languages being taught in schools.
Lacroix said he has been impressed with what he has seen so far in Illinois. He said it's good to see that most schools in Illinois view foreign language as a priority and not a luxury in school curriculum.
"It's a plus to know, to master or even just to have a little exposure to a foreign language," Lacroix said. "It's an additional tool to your career."