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Teaching French at Harvard and “L’Abeille Françoise”

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(The following is a post by intern Molly Smith, European Division.)

Harvard Gate at Harvard University. Detroit Publishing Co., 1899, Prints & Photographs Division.

The teaching of French and the institutionalization of the French language at Harvard University have an interesting and multifaceted history. Although Harvard was founded in 1636, and is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, the university did not begin teaching French as part of its regular curriculum until 1787, over a century and a half after its founding.

The original curriculum of Harvard, like many other early colleges in the United States, was based on the classical schools in England. The only languages that these schools taught were Latin, Greek, and occasionally Hebrew. Modern languages such as French and Spanish were not introduced at many universities until the mid- or late-18th century. This meant that most university students—unless they had both the money and the interest needed for private tutoring—did not have much knowledge of modern languages. In 1725, less than 1 percent of the 4,000 books in Harvard’s library were in French. A decade later, that number had increased only slightly, and most of the focus was on science rather than French literature or culture. The change in university curricula to accommodate modern languages was slow and, even once this change began, there was a backlash against it.

Harvard College Quadrangle. Edward Stanwood. “Boston Illustrated.” J.R. Osgood & Co., 1872.

One reason that Americans were so hesitant to learn and teach French was the fear of French Catholicism. The New World was established on heavily Protestant foundations and beliefs, and there was a lingering fear of Catholicism even until the mid-19th century. This can be seen in Harvard’s first foray into offering French instruction to its students: the appointment of French tutor Mr. Langlosserie in 1733, to teach the language as an extracurricular activity. Mr. Langlosserie’s appointment did not last long, however. By 1735, rumors were circulating that Langlosserie, who had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism, was indoctrinating his pupils in Catholicism. As a result, Harvard officials asked him to leave, and French was not taught again at the College until nearly four decades later.

Mr. Langlosserie’s appointment at Harvard as a tutor, instead as a professor, was not uncommon in early colleges and universities. Because modern languages were not integrated into the curricula of most universities until the late 1700s, much of the teaching of French in the late 17th and early 18th centuries was confined to private tutoring. These tutors often advertised their schools or tutelage in local newspapers and journals.

Major centers of French speakers were found in large cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, that had large immigrant populations, or were culturally and ethnically diverse. These were areas where most French tutors advertised their services and took on students. These cities also fostered other Franco-American cultural connections, such as bilingual newspapers, journals, bookstores, and libraries.

An advertisement for a French tutor in “Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser.” Philadelphia, PA: September 17, 1794.
Advertisement for a Franco-American bookstore in New York. “Almanach et directorium français des Etats-Unis” (French almanac and guide to the United States), 1851.












Early French tutors often had to rely on textbooks that were imported from France or England, or were reprinted in America. Thus, teaching methods in the United States were heavily influenced by those used overseas. This began to change, however, when French teachers and tutors in America started to write and publish their own textbooks.

One such textbook that was highly influential on the development of French teaching and learning across the country was entitled “L’Abeille françoise, ou Nouveau recueil de morceaux brillans, des auteurs françois les plus celebres: ouvrage utile à ceux qui étudient la langue françoise, et amusant pour ceux qui la connoissent” (The French bee, or new collection of brilliant pieces by the most famous French authors: a useful book for those who study the French language, and amusing for those who know it).

P.J.G. de Nancrède. “L’Abeille françoise.” Belknap and Young, 1792. The signature of an earlier owner reads “Wm. Andrews.” Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

“L’Abeille françoise” was published in Boston in 1792, and a copy may be found in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. The author’s introduction discusses the importance of learning French, and the benefits that French language and culture have provided to the United States. The book consists of five sections, with various exercises focused on teaching students French. The book contains works by well-known French writers and thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Bernadin de Sainte-Pierre. Each section covers a  different category; for instance, the section entitled “Contes et Fables” (Tales and fables) includes a selection of well-known short stories and fables, while the section entitled “Dialogues” includes a selection of famous plays and dialogues between characters.

The section on tales and fables from “L’Abeille françoise” (The French bee). Boston: Belknap and Young, 1792.

The section on tales and fables from “L’Abeille françoise” (The French bee). Boston: Belknap and Young, 1792.

Although not the very first French textbook published in America, “L’Abeille françoise” was groundbreaking in providing parallel texts in French and English. It was integral to both Harvard’s French curriculum and to the growth of French studies at American universities nationwide.

The history of the textbook reflects the life of the man who wrote it. French by birth, Joseph Nancrède immigrated to America in the late 18th century, and became Harvard’s first salaried French instructor. It was during his tenure that the French program at Harvard truly began to grow and flourish. Nancrède, a man of many careers and talents, wrote “L’Abeille françoise” between publishing one of the first, though short-lived, French newspapers in Boston, and opening his own French and English bookstore. He also led an eventful life even before immigrating to America.

Nancrède was born Paul Joseph Guérard in 1761 in Héricy, France. His parents died when he was young, and he was raised by his grandfather. Nancrède entered French military service in 1779, shortly after France had formally become allies with American colonists and entered into the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. He ended up serving under the Count de Rochambeau, fighting in the American Revolution at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

Surrender of the army of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19th, 1781. The Count de Rochambeau directs British General Charles O’Hara to present Cornwallis’ sword to General George Washington. François Godefroy, artist. Paris: Ponce et Godefroy, 1784? Prints & Photographs Division.

Two years later, Nancrède returned to France, but because he had lost many ties to his homeland, he did not remain there long. In 1785, a passport was issued, allowing him to travel to America under a new name, Paul Joseph Guérard de Nancrède. Arriving in Philadelphia in the same year, he settled in Boston and began teaching at Harvard in 1787.

Cover page of the first edition of “Le Courier de Boston: affiches, annonces, et avis” (Boston Courier: posters, announcements, and reviews). Boston, Mass.: Samuel Hall, No. 1, April 23, 1789.

Part of the impetus for writing and compiling his own textbook came from Nancrède’s desire to see current and future Harvard students receive a proper education in French, something that he thought his textbook could uniquely provide. In 1795, he finally left his post at Harvard to open a French and English bookstore in Boston, where he oversaw the translation and publication of hundreds of bilingual books, textbooks, plays, and other works.

Nancrède aspired to forge a stronger connection between French and American cultures, and his accomplishments during his time in the United States certainly reflect that. In 1799, he became an American citizen, and although he returned to France five years later, he visited the United States often. Joseph Nancrède’s passion for strengthening Franco-American relations and for making French culture known to Americans not only earned him a place in Harvard’s history, but his textbook also became an important landmark for French studies in America.

Comments (3)

  1. Very interesting to see the story behind this early French reader. Students of French still use this method as one can see from all of the bilingual readers we see today featuring some of the same French authors! I wonder what Nancrède thought of the French Revolution. It seems like his time here in the U.S. kept him safely out of the fray. Lovely photos too-thank you!

  2. Very interesting article. J’ai beaucoup aimé l’histoire de l’abeille françoise. I wonder why Nancrède chose that name …

  3. Very interesting facts. I am wondering how Nancrède chose the title for his book – L’abeille françoise.

    It seems that all French stories have “a conte de Rochambeau” connection.


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