French language influence has been declining in Africa

Posted On: 2008-03-05 at www.afroarticles.com: 

The end of the Cold War unleashed a debate in France as to whether France should continue with its traditional role of a special relationship with its former African empire, or re-focus its orientation towards east and central Europe, and become a major economic and diplomatic force among former members of the Warsaw Pact.

French Europeanists are still urging a re-orientation towards new opportunities in Russia and Eastern Europe. The Africanists among the French are still insisting that what Africa has to offer France is a cultural and linguistic empire, which can never be realised among former members of the Warsaw Pact. Russia, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia will never adopt French as their official language but Zaire, Senegal, Cote d ivoire, Guinea (Conakry) already have.

Which way should France turn? It is possible to argue that globally the end of the Cold War has partially interrupted the decline of the French language, while in Africa the post-Cold War era may set the stage for a new decline of the language. Look at these two trends more closely.

In what senses, if any, can a world language be declining in influence on the global stage? Before the end of the Cold War the decline of the French language was easier to recognise than the decline of English. This was partly because French was, in some cases, losing ground precisely because of the growing importance of English.

Many smaller European countries had decided since World War II on giving priority to the teaching of English in their schools, often at the expense of French and German. This included Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), the Netherlands, Greece, and elsewhere.

In the former French Arab colonies (dependencies of the Arab world) Arabic had been gaining ground at the expense of French. This was certainly true of Syria and of some of the former French colonies of North Africa, the Maghreb. While the French language was still strong in Algeria, the Arabicisation policies even before the present Islamic challenge had challenged the supremacy of French.

Earlier than that, the collapse or decline of European aristocracies had already reduced the prestige of French in the cultural stratification of Europe. In the first half of the 20th Century the nobility of most European countries still extensively used French as the language of status and sophistication.

By a strange twist of destiny, the French revolution of 1789 was one of the first catastrophic blows against the aristocracies of the whole of Europe, but France thereby helped to weaken the status of the French in European capitals as well.

Through its revolution of 1789 (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), France helped to unleash the forces of egalitarianism in Europe. Yet, it was precisely those forces of egalitarianism that subsequently favoured English at the expense of French in much of Europe in the second half of the 20th Century. One of the gaps of scholarship in the world is research into precisely this wider field of linguistic consequences of the French revolution.

The collapse of the USSR and the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact at the end of the 20th Century left the US as the undisputed superpower. This added to the prestige of the English language as a global means of communication. In some cases this was at the expense of French . But was it also opening up new possibilities for French in Eastern and Central Europe?

Promotion of French language

The end of the Cold War may be having complex linguistic consequences. As Eastern Europe opened up with economic possibilities for France, is France likely to invest less and less in promoting its language and culture in Africa? Will the French language and culture in Africa be compromised in the wake of the end of the Cold War?

Also complex are the fortunes of French in Asia in the post-Cold War era. French colonies in Asia were more linguistically homogenous than British colonies in Asia. French colonies in Asia included Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the former French Indo-China. Each of those colonies was linguistically homogenous indigenously.

And so upon the departure of the imperial power, the native national language could more easily assert supremacy, especially when it was accomplished by militant nationalism and radical socialism. What the end of the Cold War has done is reduce the militancy of nationalism in Indo-China and de-radicalise its socialism. French in Vietnam and Cambodia may have a new lease on life but definitely in the shadow of English.

Conversely, the major British colonies in Asia were linguistically heterogeneous. Each of those big colonies needed the imperial language as a lingua franca, a bed among the native populations. This included India and what later became Pakistan. It also included Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and to a much lesser extent Burma (Myanmar). Malaysia is caught between English-proficient Chinese and Baharia proficient Malays.

The greater the indigenous linguistic diversity, the greater the need of the imperial language as a lingua franca. The end of the Cold War made little difference to this equation. And so English has survived better in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka than French did in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos until the post-Cold War era gave it a partial revival.

As the 20th Century came to a close, the story of French globally may have been a case of "Decline and Rise". But as Africa entered the 21st Century, the direction of change may have been the reverse. The story of French in Africa may have been a case of "Rise and Decline".

If France stops fighting for its legacy, French in Africa in the 21st Century will be subject to the challenge of English and indigenous languages. The linguistic heritage of France is therefore bound to experience a downward trend, for better or for worse.

Ali A. Mazrui  

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