English invasion

Keith Spicer, Citizen Special

Published: Monday, September 08, 2008

It was bad enough that 17 singers at July's Francofolies festival of "French songs and music" performed in English -- including Sébastien Tellier, France's shades-sporting, caveman-chic choice for last May's huge Eurovision songfest. President Nicolas Sarkozy told education minister Xavier Darcos to "make France a bilingual nation." Now Darcos offers free holiday English courses to French high-school students. French youth must become fluently bilingual, he warns, or be "handicapped."

Mon Dieu! What's happening? History is happening. And six weeks before Quebec City's Francophonie summit of 29 French-speaking countries (plus 26 sympathizers), it's worth asking where history is going.

Why is France prickly about its language? For three centuries (17th to 19th), French was the world language of diplomacy, and a prestigious intellectual and scientific tool. By the early 20th century, English was catching up. Two world wars put English on top, entrenching it ever deeper as the new world language of politics, science and economics -- even (see book translations) literature.


Flashback to Charles de Gaulle. After his humiliating wartime refuge in London, he refused to speak English. As president in 1958, he ordered his ministers to speak publicly only in French. In 1966 he set up a "High Committee for the Defence and Expansion of the French Language," which reported to Prime Minister Georges Pompidou -- a French literature professor and anthologist of French poetry. (In those faraway days, speaking English in a Paris restaurant could earn you a snarl. Today's waiters flaunt their English).

President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing famously used English to talk with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Unilingual bookworm-president François Mitterrand showed his love of French at every turn. So much so that unproven allegations have emerged that he favoured Hutu killers during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Why? Allegedly because they were French-speaking -- while exiled Tutsi leaders were English-speaking.

Gaullist president Jacques Chirac stomped out of a European summit in 2006 -- "profoundly shocked" that France's big-business boss Ernest-Antoine Seillière gave a speech in English "because that is the language of business." Chirac was a fervent partisan of la Francophonie, though proud of his English skills.

La Francophonie -- for which Canada and Quebec show much enthusiasm -- plays a valuable symbolic role for French-speakers. It also runs some useful programs. But its production of grand papers, rhetoric and official banquets leaves room for more concrete action. (Disclosure: somehow I got parachuted into the gloriously-named, 30-member "High Council for la Francophonie." We were so useful that our bosses abolished us after three years.)

On rhetoric and reality: French intellectuals and governments have long argued that French is the world's richest, most precise and most beautiful language. A little home-team vanity. Rich? France has maybe 100,000 non-technical words. English has well over 600,000. Precise? One of French's distinctive merits is rather its allusiveness: think romance, wine, politics, philosophy. Notes Francophile-but-iconoclastic historian Bill Bryson: "The French cannot distinguish between house and home, between mind and brain, between man and gentleman."

As for beauty, millions of us find French a joy to read and speak. But almost every nation in the world (with the possible exception of those self-deprecating Dutch) finds its language poetic.

Mystique is partly to blame for French's weakness: resistance to change. English is a vacuum-cleaner: it cheerfully steals or invents new words wherever it can. French is a fortress: Its gate-keeping Académie Française fights to keep foreign or too-novel words out of the national tongue. This creates a huge disconnect between purists and people. Ordinary folks find English "modern," "sexy" and "useful," so they welcome handy English words.

This -- plus English's now-dominant place in European Union and world affairs -- shows why France now soft-pedals rearguard linguistic battles. Accepting reasonable Anglo-reality is only a "defeat" to nostalgia-mongers. Even they are coming around: When Sarkozy threatened to make France 24, the "French CNN," kill its English and Arabic channels and broadcast only in French, he had to back off. Killing those channels would have sold French ideas only to a tiny French-speaking audience.

Today's French scientists publish mainly in English. Several French multinationals use English as their "internal" international language. Intellectuals and journalists lard their commentaries with English references -- and, sadly, with so many English words that franglais ("Frenglish") is now more than a fashionable joke.

Bad English is indeed the world's most widely spoken language. Darcos's new English courses can help France talk "Anglo world-speak" better, and thus compete better. It doesn't matter that Sarkozy, as the French expression goes, speaks English like a Spanish cow. His bilingual France meets today's world head-on.

For this, rock-singer Tellier makes a zippy motivator. Francofolies boss Gérard Pont, a militant French promoter, admits: "Banning English at Francofolies would be suicide." De Gaulle spins in his grave. Happily, Sarko and Darcos also plan to teach French much, much bette

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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  1. We should not forget that the international vocabulary of English largely comes from French. English wouldn't have that large impact if it were only limited to its Germanic part of its diverse and rich inventory of words. And the inventive capacity of English would'nt also be so strong if French wouldn't exist. English is indeed partly also a Romanic language.
    I mostly agree to your ideas, although I think that Africa cannot admit a world in which English would be the only master. I am German and not an African. But as an African I would support La Francophonie in so far as it really promotes a polyglot world, where understanding means more pure information or infotainment. French should be promoted but not only in its European colours. African, Carribean and North-American traditions should also enter this wonderful language moulding it to an idiom of everybody who likes to speak it.
    But I also would dislike a neocolonialist trend that certainly is not totally eradicated in this movement.

  2. Wie geht es Ihnen?

    I used to speak and write fluently in German but runned out of practice.

    I just wonder why Africa as a whole sould have packaged solutions?

    I would like to see anybody bold enough to say that the Europeen Community must stick to one language..

    As an African, I cherish my heritage and I am ashamed that my knowledge of my mother tongue is so little.

    One of the African language that can compete on the continental scale, would be, according to me, swahili.

    But in Africa, we don't think that English or French should compete.

    The knowledge of one or those languages is definitely a plus.

    But more of thinking of the neocolonial trend, we are still claiming our past and our roots.

    Ich hoffe dass Ich nach Koeln irgendwo wieder kann

  3. Sorry, but European Community will not adapt to one language, because it would destroy European unity. We are a mosaic of many cultures and it is understandable that this fact finds its expression in a variety of language. It may be quite useful to make decisions in one or two languages, but official communications will not be heard if they are not expressed in a familiar tongue understood by a cultural community.
    Languages widely used in the EU are in fact English, French and German which is still gaining ground, for it is the most spoken language in Europe after Russian. 92 Million

  4. Likewise for Africa...

    You have some countries in Africa with so much dialects that the only way to communicate is the use of the language that the colon left.

    When you look at the African Union, they are using four languages, if I am not mistaken: French, English, Arabic and Portuguese.

    I remember the difficulties I had while learning German.

    My solution was to buy comic strip and my target was to learn 30 new words per day.

    My continent Africa has not reach its full potential.

    There is more Africans who know their way overseas than intra Africa.

    There are no reasons that Air Africa, the continental flag went bankrupt when other carriers are out of the red zone.

    The most populated country in Africa is Nigeria which is an English speaking country.

    But not far from Nigeria, you have another big country, Ivory Coast which is French speaking

    People from Ivory Coast communicate with those of Sierra Leone by a language called pidgin.

    I was with two ladies in a car from Johannesburg to Durban.

    Those two ladies were using pidgin to talk to each other..

    Communication has never been a problem in Africa..

    Kongolese music is liked everywhere in Africa but the people who are able to understand the lyrics are few..