Fury as France chooses anthem ... in English!

Words of honour: in a world dominated by English, does French have a future?

France has chosen its song for Eurovision and its anthem for Euro 2016. The snag: they are both in English. Some French are furious; others are wondering whether their language is doomed…

Last week, a French minister sent a furious tweet. ‘France team anthem for Euro 2016 in English!’ it read. ‘French entry into Eurovision – same! Appalling and unacceptable,’ it concluded, before adding: ‘Francophones, rise up.’

The news that they will be represented by English songs in two international competitions has gone down badly with the French. In a country that takes great pride in its language, the creeping intrusion of foreign tongues is not welcome. English is a special concern.

To understand why, a little history is needed. The French have long seen their language as a key part of their national identity. In 1635, the government founded the Académie française, an elite institution whose members – called ‘immortals’ – were charged with keeping the language ‘pure and eloquent’.

Their pride was soon justified. French became the language of diplomacy and high society in Europe, displacing Latin. German and Russian princes conversed in it. Treaties were signed in it. As the French empire grew, it spread across the globe, from Canada to Cambodia.

Until the 20th century, French could claim to be the greatest language in the world. But then things changed. As the US rose in importance, so too did English. Television, and then the internet, carried its influence worldwide. English words began to infiltrate other languages.

The French reacted with alarm. The government passed laws requiring broadcasters and advertisers to stick to French. The Académie came up with native equivalents for English loanwords. Yet most people ignored these rulings, and ‘Franglais’ – French with English influences – continued to grow.

Some welcome these changes. In 2013, the newspaper Libération took a stand by publishing a front page entirely in English. Others get defensive – like former president Jacques Chirac, who stormed out of a meeting when a colleague began to speak in English. Or the minister who sent the angry tweet.

Either way, the debate over the ‘decline’ of French rages on. Is it really on its way out?

Au revoir?

Pretty much, say some. In France, people are learning English in ever greater numbers. Abroad, students are giving French up for Spanish and Mandarin, which are now more useful in the modern world. The language is still handy if you want to read Proust or holiday in the Languedoc. But its days of global supremacy are over.

Hang on, reply others. It may be declining in the West, but you’re missing the big picture. It’s still spoken in many parts of Africa, where the population is growing. Globally, French is booming – one study even predicts that it will be the world’s leading language by 2050. It is certainly changing. But dying? Pas du tout.

You Decide

  1. Which foreign language would you most like to learn? Why?
  2. Should governments interfere in how language is used?

Activities

  1. ‘Croissant’ is an example of a French word that has entered English. Find five more. Write a sentence (in English) for each one.
  2. Choose a passage of English that inspires you (it can be song lyrics, an excerpt from a novel – anything). Read it to the class, then explain why you like it. Focus on how it makes good use of the English language.

Some People Say...

“Learning another language is like becoming another person.”

Haruki Murakami

What do you think?

Q & A

If English is the world’s leading language, why should I bother learning another one?
Well, most people still don’t speak it. Unless you’re in the West or a former British colony, it probably won’t get you very far. More generally, learning a language opens up new books, new friendships, new ideas. And it makes you more employable.
I get you. So should I learn French?
Depends on your interests. French is spoken in much of Africa, and is an official language of many big international institutions (such as the UN). So if you want to work in politics, journalism or charities, it can be useful. Of course, it also gives you access to France, a country with a stunningly rich culture. Learning a language isn’t easy, so before you choose one, think carefully about what it offers you.

Word Watch

Francophones
French-speakers.
English songs
In fact the Eurovision entry, J’ai cherché by Amir, is mostly sung in French. Only the chorus is in English. (See Become An Expert)
Loanwords
Words taken from another language. English loanwords in French include ‘weekend’ and ‘email’. Instead of the latter, the Académie française recommends ‘courriel’ – but this is rarely used.
Proust
Marcel Proust (1871-1922) is one of the most famous French writers of all time. His seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu) is a towering masterpiece of French literature. But it is also notoriously hard to read.
Languedoc
A region of southern France known for its seaside resorts, historical monuments and natural beauty; very popular with tourists.
One study
Conducted in 2014 by French bank Natixis. It estimates that around 750m will speak French in 2050 – up from 275m today. The study reached this figure by adding up all the estimated populations of countries where French is an official language. Critics pointed out that many of these people would not actually speak French.

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