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French Language

Although Thomas Jefferson learned French as a student, he did not acquire verbal fluency until after he had spent some time in France. The references below shed more light on his knowledge of and opinions of the French language.

Primary Source References

1784. (Martha Jefferson to Elizabeth House Trist). "I fear we should have fared as badly at our arrival for papa spoke very little french and I not a word."1

1784 August 18. (Jefferson to William Temple Franklin). "I understand the French so imperfectly as to be incertain whether those to whom I speak and myself mean the same thing."2

1785 August 19. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "You are now I expect learning French. You must push this: because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, &c. will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French."3

1785 August 19. (Jefferson to Walker Maury). "My intention had been that he [Peter Carr] should learn French and Italian, of the modern languages. But the latter must be given up (for the present at least) and Spanish substituted in it’s place."4

1786 July 11. (Jefferson to St. John de Crèvecoeur). "Being unable to write in French so as to be sure of conveying my true meaning, or perhaps any meaning at all, I will beg of you to interpret what I have now the honour to write."5

1787 July 6. (Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph). "... the question arises, where you shall fix yourself for studying Politics, Law, and History? I should not hesitate to decide in favor of France, because you will at the same time be learning to speak the language of that country, become absolutely essential under our present circumstances. The best method of doing this would be to fix yourself in some family where there are women and children, in Passy, Auteuil or some other of the little towns in reach of Paris. The principal hours of the day you will attend to your studies, and in those of relaxation associate with the family. You will learn to speak better from women and children in three months, than from men in a year."6

1788 April 2. (Jefferson, Notes on a Tour through Holland and the Rhine Valley). "... there was not a person to be found in Duysberg who could understand either English, French, Italian or Latin. So I could make no enquiry."7

1789 June 21. (Jefferson to Dugald Stewart). "The French language is unquestionably an important object of education. The habit of speaking it can only be acquired by conversation. This may be done either in France or Canada (for I learn here that the French of the genteel Canadians is very pure). While learning the language in France a young man’s morals, health and fortune are more irresistibly endangered than in any country of the universe: in Canada he would be acquiring a knolege of the country and it’s inhabitants which cannot fail to be useful in life to every American. On this point I have long ago made up my mind, that Canada is the country to which we should send our children to acquire a knolege of the French tongue."8

1790 January 8. (Jefferson to Reverend Matthew Maury). "[Dabney Carr] is at present disposed for Physic. We have not absolutely decided in it’s favor. But in the mean time Greek and French will be essential for that profession and proper should he adopt any other. I could wish therefore that he could apply with might and main to these two languages."9

1794 September 24. (Jefferson to Dabney Carr). "As I think the learning French essential to the study of the law, I cannot help being anxious that you should do it, and that without loss of time, as for want of understanding it you must read every day is a disadvantage."10

1815 June 1. (Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes). "French is become the most indispensable part of modern education. it is the only language in which a man of any country can be understood out of his own; and is now the preeminent depository of general science, every branch of which (Medecine excepted) is better treated in books of that than of any other language in the world. the difficulty of getting instruction in it’s true pronuntiation had made me very anxious that Francis should have passed his last vacation at Monticello, where his aunt, who speaks it as a native, & all his cousins who have got it well from her, could in a short time have so advanced him as to go on afterwards by himself."11

1817 April 12. (Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine). "I was educated at William and Mary college in Williamsburg. I read Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English of course, with something of it's radix the Anglo-Saxon."12

1818 March 14. (Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell). "The French language, become that of the general intercourse of nations, and, from their extraordinary advances, now the depository of all science, is an indispensable part of education for both sexes."13

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