Academics Blog

Archive for the Category French *



Name: Natalie Berkman

Year: Class of 2011

Hometown: Clarence, NY

Major: French, Mathematics, Writing Seminars

In Diderot’s novel Jacques le Fataliste et son maître, the title character claims at one point: “Je prie à tout hasard” or that he prays to all chance. While the book is horribly misleading – for one, Jacques isn’t a fatalist– I found during my Introduction à la littérature française class while reading this book that I really enjoyed that line. This might have been because it a combination of random chance and serendipity that led me to be a French major. I’ll explain:

So, I chose Hopkins because I was indecisive. I liked creative writing and math, and wanted a school that could offer me courses in both subjects at a high level. For the Writing Seminars major, one requirement is a foreign language through the intermediate level – after all, does a monoglot ever truly understand his or her own language? My Intermediate French TA was German, spoke English without an accent, and French with the perfect accent. One day in class, we asked her which language was her favorite, and she responded (after some reflection): Spanish. She apparently also spoke Italian.

This is just one example of what makes the French department incredible: no matter what your level in French, through the language classes, it is virtually impossible not to improve. While you might think that being taught by a TA isn’t as fruitful as being taught by a professor, trust me when I say the graduate students in the French department are fantastic teachers, and supervised by professors. If your goal is to speak French fluently, the language courses work. I can personally attest to that!

My sophomore year was crucial in perfecting my French. Even though I had completed the language requirement, I decided to take advanced French. I had an incredible TA who was just studying at Hopkins for a year through our exchange with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. During her office hours, she compiled a list of about forty French books she thought I would enjoy. As a double major, I had a lot on my plate, but I made time to read one of the books my TA suggested. It was fantastic. The problem was, every time I read a book she suggested, she would recommend more – you can imagine how quickly this list grew into something impossible to finish.

Victor Hugo’s house in La Place des Vosges in Paris

That is another unique aspect of the French department – it’s not just limited to just the permanent professors who teach here in Baltimore. While most TA’s are doctoral candidates, there are endless amounts of visiting lecturers, students, and professors. With an exchange program with the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris (one of the most prestigious grandes écoles in France) at the graduate level and another with Sciences Po (another prestigious grande école devoted to political science) at the undergraduate level, the department provides direct contact with the brightest and most successful minds in France at every level. And it goes both ways as well – undergraduates can spend a year in Paris at Sciences Po (or through various other exchange programs) and graduate students can study at the ENS in Paris or the Université de Genève.

The Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris

The next year, I had exhausted the basic language courses, so I took the first semester of the Introduction to French literature class with Professor Jacques Neefs. The course basically started with the beginning of French literature and finished in the middle of the 18th century. That course really prepared me for my semester abroad in Paris. I studied abroad in Paris through an organization called CUPA (Center for University Programs Abroad). Directly immersed in French culture, I lived with a host family, took courses at three different French schools, and attended intellectual and cultural events in the greatest city in the world. While I was taking French literature, history, and philosophy courses to satisfy my remaining Writing Seminars requirements, I realized that I wasn’t, in fact, thinking of these courses as satisfying requirements. I loved French thought, French literature, the language, and everything about it! I was facing the very real prospect of graduating with a double major in Writing Seminars and Mathematics and never being able to take another French course. That was just unacceptable. I came back to Hopkins and added French as a third major last September (then rearranged the order so French would be my first major).

Springtime in Paris

Studying abroad is a crucial moment for a French major at Hopkins, and even though I wasn’t technically a French major while I was abroad, the importance of such a total immersion wasn’t lost on me. Time abroad is meant to be a chance to apply what you learn in your classes and gain a different perspective. The French methodology is different, but logical, and learning to write a dissertation in the French style actually helps your academic writing in English. The vocabulary you pick up in a homestay living situation is valuable as well – there’s no way to realize which common words you didn’t learn in a classroom without being constantly placed in new situations.

That’s basically my story, and overall, even though I’ve only been a French major for a few months, I love it! There is a wide range of courses offered beyond just language courses – you can take either cultural or literature ones to satisfy the requirements. I’ve taken mostly literature courses in which I’ve read such authors as Dumas, Verne, Hugo, Queneau, Balzac, Sand, de Troyes, etc. But, you can also take advanced French language courses – Eloquent French, Medical French, Legal French, Real French – to enrich your background in the language. As for cultural courses, there’s a two semester sequence of La France Contemporaine, as well as film courses and various other options that aren’t really literature based. For the major, you need six courses beyond the two semesters of introduction to French literature, one of which must be the Senior Seminar. In this course, you write a forty page senior thesis in French. Don’t be intimidated – it’s highly structured and they help you every step of the way. Since they let you choose whichever topic you find most interesting, you aren’t limited to writing a forty page book report (unless you want to, of course).

So, why is the French major at Hopkins so awesome? Because French is awesome! And I love that I was able to discover that at Hopkins, even if only by accident. Despite becoming a French major late in the game, I’ve gotten to make crêpes and quiche with the French club, attend conversation tables, read a ton of French literature, study abroad, and attend conferences. And knowing another language in this day and age is only a plus. You can teach French in the United States, teach English in France, become an interpreter, work for the government, translate. There are plenty of options available to students who graduate with a degree from one of the most respected departments at Johns Hopkins. I’m going on to a Ph.D. program in French literature next year, which leads me to another great aspect of the department – since it’s small, the individual attention you receive is incomparable. This type of situation is ideal for getting letters of recommendation, advice, or just having discussions.

Overall, I feel as though I’m not out of line in saying that the French department here literally changed my life. I went from doing writing and math to getting accepted to several fully funded doctoral programs in French literature in one semester, which attests to the efficacy of the department and the level of language instruction, even to those who aren’t French majors. There’s a reason a degree from our French department is recognized by the French government (one of only three such programs in the US). The plentitude of opportunities available to those who speak French goes without saying. When you can write a long blog entry about the French major without mentioning the food, you know it has to be good.

Me in Paris eating the best ice cream in the whole world – Berthillon!


Click here to access more information about the French Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the French questions thread.



Name: Stephanie Kallab

Year: Class of 2008

Hometown: Baltimore, MD

Major: French and International Studies


Baguettes, Chanel, cheese, Tour Eiffel, wine, Champs-Élysées, croissants, Yves Saint Laurent, really the list goes and on. France was and will always be the beating heart of culture and the « savoir-vivre ». So, I will be honest. The reason I started studying French probably is extremely similar to any travel guide to France. I really love French food, French wine, French designers, French architecture, French history and really anything that could be French (except maybe Parisians). At the time (aka freshman year), I was really unsure as to the origins of this somewhat obsessive love affair, so I decided that I needed to take as many classes as I could in the French department to find out why I loved it so.

Essentially, I was just going to be a regular International Studies major and just have my French ones fulfill the language requirement … that turned into my French classes being my elective courses… which ended up into becoming a double major.  So along with my courses in the IR department, I took a series of courses in the French one. And not surprisingly, instead of falling out of love, the French department at Hopkins actually made me love it more and I ended up taking all of the required courses for the major which are: a year in a class called Conversation and Composition that involves reading multiples texts and talking a lot in class, a year of Introduction to French Literature which allows you to read almost all of the major French novels, then you get to choose six courses in the department and lastly you have to write a senior thesis.

DSC00504 So first, I will briefly talk about the French department, and then I will go into further detail about the courses offered. So the French department at Hopkins has a fabulous ratio of students to professors because it is very small so it is extremely advantageous for us students. All of the courses are taught by professors or visiting professors from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the Collège de France, the two branches of the École Normale Supérieure (Ulm & Fontenay/St Cloud), Paris 4, Paris 8, the Institut National de la Langue Française, the École Nationale des Sciences – Politiques, the University of Geneva. These visiting professors actually come routinely, so that students are not limited to the existing full-time faculty and that the breadth of interests is constantly expanding with something for everyone!

There are currently 5 permanent full time professors in the Department, each specializing in certain centuries of French literature from the medieval times to the 20th century. But there is also a series of professors from the History department, to Political Science, to Art History, to the Humanities (and even among the Library staff!) all of which are cross-referenced with the French department. The visiting professors not only give courses, but they also have seminars and colloquia open to anyone interested which allows all students, no matter their French level, to get to participate and take advantage.

So onto the important stuff: the courses offered. This is where I was really surprised, because I thought that the department would only offer courses in Literature, which is nice, but not always the most … interesting. Personally, I was extremely surprised when I looked through the course catalogue- you really get a taste of the department when you see the course titles. For example the current 2009 spring course listing offers: Erotisme et Religion, Monsters, Maidens, and Meals in Medieval French Literature, Rire et Philosophe, Le Roi Artur, le Saint Graal, et les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, and Savages, Women and Eccentrics: The Invention of Society in Eighteenth-Century France etc. Rarely are the same courses offered twice, unless of course DSC00618 they are required for the major, so the courses are always changing.

Now, probably the most intimidating part of the major is the senior thesis. Man, just remembering how I felt hearing those words before I wrote my own makes me feel uncomfortable. But in all honesty, writing my thesis was the highlight of my entire academic experience at Hopkins. I was able to combine my IR interests with my French major because I wrote about the concept of nation in 18th and 19th century literature. It is a minimum of 40 pages, in French, and the topic is completely your choice as along as it has to do with something French. In my graduating class, there were topics ranging from French wine, chemistry, contemporary French rap music etc. So, it is really flexible and interesting!  You are not left alone; each student is given a faculty advisor to meet with on a weekly basis to help with the project.

So aside from all that technical stuff, studying abroad is also a major part of being a language major.  Basically you can go wherever you want, as long as you have the approval from the department and certain advisors. Hopkins does offer two special programs, however, at one of the premier schools in Paris- Sciences Politiques. They offer a junior year study abroad, as well as an accelerated 5 year BA/MA for students studying political science and French. I am a part of that program, and I am currently in Paris!

Being a French major was really wonderful and it was a nice addition to my IR major, but many students have been pre-med/pre-law with a major in French, or engineering or any of the humanities/social sciences. It would, however, definitely be substantial on its own, as well. You acquire some serious analytical, research writing and language skills being a French major at Hopkins – all of which looks great on your resume. It is also really cool to tell people you wrote a thesis… and then you get to say IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE! It’s pretty fabulous/awesome/impressive.

Also- it does not matter if you have never spoken French before, or if you are a native speaker because there are classes for all. But by the time you graduate, you will be pretty fluent. The degree is recognized by the French government (one of the two in the US) and is ranked in the top 10 French departments nation wide!


Click here to access more information about the French Undergraduate Program of Study.

To further your exploration of this academic program and ask any question you may have of current students, be sure to visit the Hopkins Forums’ Academics: The Insider Perspective and the French questions thread.