Federal File

May 03, 2000 1 min read

French lessons

When Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley spoke at the Embassy of France on April 19, he brought a rather unusual gift: a Valley Forge elm sapling from the National Arboretum.

The tree, Mr. Riley explained, was the first of 10,000 that will be sent to France by students in Fayette, Ga., which has a sister city in that country.

The students were so upset when they saw pictures of the devastation caused last year by a massive ice storm in France, in particular to such landmarks as the grounds of the palace at Versailles, that they raised money to buy saplings to replace some of the trees that were uprooted or damaged, Mr. Riley said.

“As a result of this wonderful gesture, our friendship with France continues to grow stronger,” he said.

To present the gift, Secretary Riley asked twin sisters from Greenbelt (Md.) Middle School to translate the message of friendship into French for him.

And he couldn’t resist the chance to encourage schools to consider dual-immersion programs, which teach two languages at the same time, such as the program in which the sisters are enrolled.

Mr. Riley recently has been promoting the need to learn a second language, in part because he is not fluent in a foreign language himself, said his press secretary, Erica Lepping.

Considering how much he’s been traveling internationally, that’s a skill he wishes he had learned, she added.

But the secretary isn’t entirely monolingual. He took two years of Latin in high school and studied Spanish in college, and he can read in Spanish pretty well, Ms. Lepping reported.

He’s also picked up quite a few foreign words and customs.

Mr. Riley demonstrated some of that knowledge when Francois Bujon de l’Estang, the ambassador of France, kissed both of the students on the cheeks to thank them for the elm tree.

“The French do a lot more kissing than we do,” Mr. Riley told the audience. —Joetta L. Sack

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2000 edition of Education Week