New Flophouse Address:

You will find all the posts, comments, and reading lists (old and some new ones I just published) here:

Monday, October 14, 2013

Transplanted Women and the Transmission of Culture

Arun Kapil very kindly passed along an article I'd been looking for by Gabrielle Varro about Franco-American couples in France that was published in the July 1993 edition of Hommes et Migrations.

Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages.  In 1972 she worked with an organization here in France called the Association of American Wives of Europeans (AAWE) on a study that became a book called The Transplanted Woman:  a Study of French-American Marriages in France.  I read that book years ago and am still trying to get a copy of it at a reasonable price. 

What is so interesting about French-American marriages and families?  Certainly if you are in one, it is of personal interest to you (and to me).  But why would someone want to make that a subject of serious research?

Because we can learn a lot about bi-national, bi-lingual and bi-cultural families by looking at this particular mix.  Consider the following:

1.  No developed/developing country dynamic.  Both France and the US are developed countries with high standards of living.  A woman or man who moves in either direction to join a spouse is probably not going to see a huge rise (or fall) in his or her standard of living.

2.  A different category of migrant:  Because the standards of living are so close, it's very unlikely that a French spouse in the US or an American spouse in France will ever be accused of marrying a national just to get a Green Card or a Carte de Resident.  When asked "Why are you here?" the answer, "Because I married a Frenchman or woman" is considered more than satisfactory by the natives.  (Though as an answer to a home country national's question, "Why did you leave?" it can provoke interesting and sometimes hostile reactions.)     

3.  Powerful cultures:  Both countries have a certain cultural "rayonnement."  French culture is widely admired the world over.  American culture is perhaps less attractive but certainly prevalent all over the world.  So there is some equality on the culture and the language front.

By excluding those things as factors, other things come to light.  Perhaps the most important of these is the relative power of each person in that marriage.  Is there inequality in spite of the relatively equal status of their appartenances étatiques?  And how could the power dynamics of such a relationship be measured and studied?

Varro decided to look at both the couples and the children of such marriages.  These are households with at least two cultural and linguistic possibilities.  The choice of language, the number of visits allowed to the other country, certain cultural values, and even religion show the rivalry that occurs in the molding of the identity of a bi-national couple's offspring.  Varro chose to focus on two variables:  language and religion.

Let's think about that for a moment and consider some concrete examples.  What happens to a Franco-American couple where the American woman is a Protestant Christian and her French husband is Catholic?  Perhaps the two can agree to disagree at the time of the marriage but when the children are born the questions begin:  In which church will the child be baptized?  Where will they send the child for religious education?  In the case where they cannot agree and decide to do nothing, who can be said to have "won" here?  It's not obvious and it's not a decision that can be made unilaterally.  The American woman may be deeply unhappy about the final decision but gives in for diverse reasons.  One of the reasons I have seen is that it is very difficult for an American migrant woman here to face down not only her French husband but his entire family who may not be particularly croyant but do expect a baptism at the local church, to be tapped as godparents, and to have a big party complete with the distribution of dragées.  For someone raised as a church-going Southern Baptist, that is not a small concession.

On the language front is a very similar battle.  It is very rare for a French spouse in France or an American spouse in the US to refuse outright to have the children learn the language of the other spouse.  However, that does not mean that they want the same weight given to the two languages.  By word and by deed there can be a subtle undermining of the non-native spouse's efforts. It can be something as simple as a withdrawal - not hindering but not helping either - a refusal to make it a common project.  This sends a message to the children that learning the other language is "nice to have" but Papa (or Maman) doesn't think it's very important.  And, alas, Papa or Maman ( Mom or Dad) are backed up by an entire nation of people who think the same way and see no good reason why a child raised in France or in the United States should be learning another language at the same time and at the same level as the official one.

In 1991 Varro followed up her original research and sent out a questionnaire to 89 Franco-American couples living in France and their parents. She also sent it  to 171 of their children aged 18 or older and  their spouses and 60 of their children.   Four generations.   The results were published in the 1993 article Couples Franco-Américains en France:  Genèse et devenir d'une mixité.

About that second generation -  the children of the original Franco-American couples living in France -    Varro makes this observation about them and their American mothers:
"Le bilinguisme des enfants représente pour les mères américaines le seul compromis acceptable dans une situation qui, sans lui, risquait de voir disparaitre leur langue d'origine" 
(The bilingualism of the children represents for American mothers, the only acceptable compromise in a situation where, without them, their language of origin would disappear.)
That's a very true statement but the question is why is it so important?  Of all the things that an American mother could pass on to her children while living abroad why does English matter so much?  Does it really make a difference if an 8-year old French/American child can read, write and speak English fluently?   The French public school could care less and may even be hostile to the idea (especially with very young children).  It is perfectly possible that the English can wait until the children are older and I know Franco-American families who did this with perfectly good results.  

I'm going to speak from my own experience here and say that it mattered very much to me.  In retrospect, it was a reaction to many things and had as much to do with me as a woman migrant as it did with my children.  

Guilt:  a certain residual guilt reinforced by my compatriots back in the homeland that I was something less of an American because I married a Frenchman and lived in his country.  So some of it was a signal that I was not less, and to prove it and my loyalty to the homeland I went to extraordinary efforts to pass on this one thing - pure, unaccented, standard American English.  

Pressure:  That came from family and friends back in the US.  The grandparents wanted to be able to speak to their grandchildren.  All very normal.  But there was stress associated with that expectation.  When I sent the Frenchlings home I always braced myself for comments about their English.  Would they pass?  It was definitely wrapped up with the sense that I was being judged as both a mother and an American.

Identity:  There were times over the last 20 years when the pendulum swung too far for my own comfort in the direction of assimilation.  I didn't feel like "me" anymore and it was frightening.  To be able to speak English in my own home made me feel better.  A place to retreat and regroup when things weren't going so well.  

Something extra:  English, like French, is a high-status language.  Like all parents I wanted to give my Frenchlings something extra - a language that is spoken all over the world - with nearly no effort on their part.  It was a gift that I believed would serve them well.  Not unlike making children start piano lessons when they are young and malleable.  "You'll thank me for this when you get older."  

Power:  And finally there was the question of power.  To be able to pass on my language was a way of showing that I was an equal partner in my marriage with equal influence over the children.  That my culture and language mattered just as much as his and this would be reflected in part of me being included in the making of them. 

What does Varro have to say about all this?  Well, though I and other Franco-American women in France may have aspired to language and cultural equality in our bi-national marriages, the reality is that the battle is not and never was an equal one.
Dans le cas des couples residant en France, l'avantage revient au père Francais car les enfants parleront de toute manière la langue du pays de residence.  Leur bilinguisme est certes une "victoire" pour la femme transplantée, il signifie qu'elle a réussi à transmettre une partie importante de son identité, mais il est difficile d'evaluer le prix subjectif de ce qu'elle a "donné" pour l'obtenir.
(In the case of couples living in France, the advantage is to the French father because in any case the children will speak the language of the country of residence.  Their bilingualism is surely a "victory" for the transplanted woman, it signifies that she has succeeded in transmitting and important part of her identity, but it is difficult to evaluate the subjective price of what she "gave" in order to get it.
L'homme a obtenu que les enfants soient elevés dans sa religion (catholique, le plus souvent) mais lui, par contre, n'a pas du "donner" sa langue, puisque les enfants sont, non pas anglophone, mais bilingue avec le francais dominant.
(The man won the right to raise the children in his religion (usually Catholic) but he did not have to "give" his language because the children are (not English-speakers) but bilingual with French as the dominant language.)
This is what I refer to as the "home court advantage."  The native spouse does not have to do anything in his or her own country to transmit his language and his culture.  Not much effort is required here.  But for the foreign spouse it is a battle that is waged over years and has uncertain results - children with varying degrees of competence in the other language, though most are bi-lingual in some sense.  But even if they are bi-lingual, the language of the country of residence will most likely be dominant over the other one.

What happens in the third generation?  Varro looked at language transmission from the second generation to the third.  In two cases out of three the effort at bilingualism (English/French) had disappeared.  Only a third of the grandchildren were being raised bi-lingual.  


I recommend without reservation Varro's work.  I have scanned the article and will happily send it to anyone who would like a copy.  Hopefully I will be able to get a copy of her book soon so I can re-read it.  She has another article that I'm looking for called Americans in Europe, a Sociolinguistic Perspective. Probes in Northern and Western Europe in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language n° 133.   If anyone knows where I can obtain a copy, I would be most grateful for the information.

 Just a few final observations and questions here from my read of this article:

1.  American and French culture and language are not any more powerful than any other culture or language in the world.  "Language loss" will occur just as it does for any other migrant group over time.

2.  The assumption that having an American or a French parent means that the children will speak the language well and receive all the "important" cultural goods wherever they happen to be living is simply not the case.  Relying entirely on the migrant parent to shoulder this responsibility (or placing unrealistic expectations on him or her) will yield uncertain results.  

3.  Gender matters here. France or the US,  where the father is a native and the family is living in his country, the transmission of the mother's culture and language can be much more difficult.  The lack of relative power comes from the dual status of migrant women - they are women and foreigners. Coming from a developed country does not overcome the basic inequality of women in these marriages.   It would be interesting to know if this is globally true - even of other countries which have more egalitarian societies.  I would also be very interested in hearing from American and French men who are living in their spouse's countries.  What is their experience?

4.  Since both countries transmit citizenship via jus sanguinas (blood) there can be a complete divorce here between culture, language and citizenship.  Under both countries' laws it is entirely possible for someone to speak no English (or French), to know nothing of French or American culture, but to still be part of the nation. 

I would not argue from the last fact for more restrictions in citizenship laws.   What I would argue for is more attention and services for these countries' diasporas.  There is clearly a desire on the part of American men and women abroad (and I assume French as well) to transmit at least the language to their dual-national children.  Knowing that this is not an easy task for American and French migrants alike, funding for language and basic civic classes would be very helpful and in the best interests of the homeland as well.

And perhaps services like these would make some Americans abroad more willing to swallow the bitter pill of double taxation.

Just a thought.


French Girl in Seattle said...

Such an interesting piece, Victoria! As a French national living in the United States for the last 18 years, I can certainly relate. Even though I did not push hard (enough) for my son to attend a bilingual school here, I have always wanted him to speak the French language well. Mostly so he could speak with his grandparents and relatives, and I insisted we visited them each year, and we did. Also because I consider it a huge privilege and fantastic opportunity to get introduced to at least two cultures early on in life, and to be able to transition smoothly from one to the other.

The interesting thing in my case, is that I moved here with a Frenchman who was so determined to make a new life for himself in the US and to become an American, that he immediately refused to teach our son about his French roots, never speaking French to him, etc. Having an American son was part of his American dream I suppose.

I noted your comments about the "power" struggle within bi-cultural couples. It did became a power struggle in the end, but between two French nationals and expats.

We are currently in the middle of a divorce. Maybe this was written on the wind... :-)

Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Blaze said...

While I was visiting my sister last week, I met her neighbour, a French Canadian man,who speaks only French to his three-year old daughter. The American mother seems accepting of it, but it's clear the American way is the dominant force in the family' life and likely always will be.

Unfortunately, there is no where else in their community where she can speak French. No bilingual schools, no French programs for toddlers, etc.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Veronique, Thank you for sharing that. That's another dimension - two migrants with different integration/assimilation points of view. That would not be easy.

I am not a fan at all of radical assimilation. Love where you are from, but bloom where you're planted. I know my mother and grandmother both deeply regretted that my great-grandmother Celeste never taught them French or much about the family in Quebec.

I'm sorry to hear about your divorce. Not an easy time for you or your son. All my very best wishes to you.

@blaze, I just thought of this when I read your comment. One way to show support and solidarity is for the native spouse to learn the language of the foreign spouse. That sends a clear signal that both languages are valued.

Anonymous said...

I think the home court advantage is largely the determining factor. No matter how much effort parents make - and important to make the effort - where kids grow up will likely be a bigger influence.

Donna said...

Hi, Victoria--a fascinating topic, thank you for your post! I lived for 15 years in England as the American spouse of an Englishman, with two stepsons who were 13 and 10 when I arrived. Even there, language was still a struggle -- one doesn't realize the vast differences between British English and American English until one lives there! While the boys' usage and accents were immutably English, I held onto my accent and usage as though my life depended on it -- as you mentioned, it was my identity. The other area which, at that time, defined my American-ness and in which I could assert it, was food. What I cooked, and how I cooked it, even how it was presented.

We've been back in the US for five years, and my husband has gone through some similar challenges, meeting them with much more grace than I was able to do in the UK. But the biggest shock to me is that I now realize that I feel more European than American; this is no longer my culture. So when we return to Europe next year, it will be like returning home.

Anonymous said...

And what will I be transmitting to my child born abroad about the US now? Luckily I am not able to transmit the taint of a lifetime of US taxable personhood. I was never uncritical of the US - as I saw it as my duty as a citizen to sound the alarm when it did not live up to ideals, justice, ethics, etc. I do not see it as patriotic to swallow whole and uncritically the actions of nations based on a birthplace or citizenship or even of residence.

But the US ate up a big chunk of my Canadian family savings in accounting and legal costs though I owed zero US taxes and my accounts were all legal local and taxed by my home country. Some were primarily made up of the wages of my non-US spouse - the breadwinner.

No justice there.

What does the US think my Canadian child, spouse, and extended family believes about the US now and forever more? This is not the kind of event that passes into the mists of time. It had a direct and tangible family impact. And there are plenty more just like this.

FATCA and US arrogant extraterritorial taxation is a direct threat to the wellbeing of myself and my Canadian family. That is the lesson that the US has writ on my eternally taxable personhood and transmitted via my US citizenship and identity like a parasite or disease that attaches itself on another entity unwanted and inseparable.

FATCA is going to have longlasting political and social consequences no matter what comes next.

DL NELSON said...

Since I write a series of mysteries about a Third Culture Kid with language being part of my heroine's identity I found this very interesting. And of course living in Geneva makes these cross cultural issues a part of daily life. It is great to see it expressed.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@D. Nelson, Oh thank you for the comment and did you mean to leave a link to your mystery series? Let me see if I can find the link and post it. Sounds like a very interesting read. I'd love to have the perspective of a TCK.

Bruce B. said...

Very interesting post, thanks for all the food for thought.

I'm an American guy who's been living in France since 1990 (except for 4 years when I was allowed out for good behavior to go back to the US sometime in the middle). Was married to a French woman (also bilingual) for about 7 years, but no kids, so the question of language/cultiure transmission didn't come up in the same way. However, as an American emigrant (and am I an American emigrant, or a French immigrant?) who was living with a French national in France, there was also the question of language/cultural transmission between the ex- and me. Or maybe that should be "non-transmission" because we ended up divorced?

Long story short (or at least one part of the story): I now have both US and French nationalities.

I'm currently working on a bac+4, diplôme universitaire in Coaching en entreprise professionnel. There's a end-of-year thesis to write (work analysis + research), and the theme is about how language and cultural differences can be a useful tool in a systemic approach to individual and group coaching.

I'd love to get a copy of the Couples Franco-Américains en France : Genèse et devenir d'une mixité article if you still have it. I also have access to university library accounts (= all sorts of paid subscriptions via the university), and I'll take a look and see if I can find the "Americans in Europe, a Sociolinguistic Perspective" article you mention.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Bruce, Thank you for sharing your story here and I'm glad you liked the post. I think you are BOTH an American emigrant and a French immigrant. :-)

Where are you getting your degree?

I should have the Varro article in my files. Just send me a note at and I'll send it to you.