La Franco Phony - Why the French Won’t Speak English

In ezine, 2005:

What is it with the French and their fear of the English language? Every couple of years or so there is an ugly backlash against l’anglophonie that crops up like a nasty patch of herpes simplex, and everyone starts scratching at it. Official proclamations are made about how they must protect themselves against the insidious encroachments of English on the sacred territory of the French language.

Back in the 80’s it was then Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, who spearheaded an “awareness campaign” to alert French citizens to the dangers of using words like “weekend” and “parking” to substitute perfectly good French words that were already part of their vocabulary. The French language had to be preserved against “impurities” like these that would only most surely bring an end to the august “Language of Moliere”.
Ten years later, under Prime Minister Edouard Baladur, a law was passed making French the required language in all government documents, public billboards and even on menus at restaurants.

Now, just when it seemed that maybe the French were starting to face reality after a government-sponsored report recommended that English be compulsory for ages 8 and up, the same old anglophobia is breaking out in hives. Teachers, unions and some legislators immediately went on the attack, denouncing the report as just one more threat to the sanctity of French.

What I don’t get is why these people haven’t read the writing on the wall yet. In terms of numbers of speakers, French is now ranked 11th in the world, in spite of all the governmental efforts to promote the language outside of France. English is third, behind Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, but is far more world wide in its distribution than all other spoken languages. English now dominates international diplomacy and business, is the language used on over half of the world’s websites, and is by a large margin the foreign language studied by most school children throughout the world. The French, desperate to keep English from entering their mainstream, are already standing under 50 feet of water with their fingers still plugging holes in the dykes.

And really, shouldn’t teachers be the first to recognize the importance of giving children an early start in learning English? I have run a language school in Portugal for 16 years and have seen first hand the benefits derived from starting language learning early. The Portuguese Ministry of Education has recently passed legislation that makes English in schools mandatory from 6 years old. They have embraced the reality of English dominance, and the results are present everywhere. Kids speak and understand English with ease. Any traveling tourist in Portugal will always be able to get by with English because so much of the population can speak it.

But France remains in denial. In Portugal, English language films are never dubbed into Portuguese, so everyone is used to hearing English as it is currently spoken. In France though, films are generally dubbed into French. To see a film in its original language, people have to go to special V.O. (original version) theaters.

I remember going around the peripherique, the huge ring road that circles Paris, when France was hosting the soccer World Cup.
This is a large, international event, bringing people from all over the world, but as I drove around that complicated and confusing stretch of road, with its multiple exits and entrances, I didn’t see a single sign written in English. There wasn’t a word of English on the electronic sign boards that send messages to drivers about road conditions or alterations, and I kept imagining hordes of Japanese soccer fans driving around in endless circles like sinners in Dante’s Inferno.

This is just one example of where this misplaced resistance is hurting the French. Any tourist to Paris can tell his own story about the English-averse waiters and other linguistic nightmares.

I’m not saying they have to speak English. It’s their country. But I think now, at the start of the 21st century when communication and information exchange is facilitated by a common language like English, it might just be time for the French to swallow the bitter pill. English is here to stay, and it’s not by demanding that French citizens use “fin de la semaine” instead of “weekend” that English will go away.

Kurt Stewart

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