Sacré Bleu! French culture ‘under attack’

The French Education Minister wants to expand English teaching in schools. But are language lessons a threat to the nation?

The French blogosphere is heating up. One commentator called it a surrender to ‘the colonisation of the mind.’ Another called it a ‘shredding’ of French culture.

But what’s causing all the fuss? This week, French Education Minister Luc Chatel announced a plan to ‘reinvent the apprenticeship of English’ in France’s schools.

English lessons will now begin at three years old. ‘New technology’ will be deployed into classrooms to aid learning. French teenagers will be sent on more exchanges to English and American schools.

Many would say these reforms have been too long coming. France lags behind other European countries in English skills. An international English test in 2008 put French students far behind rivals in Germany and the Netherlands.

With a score of 88 out of 120, France is closer to countries like Bulgaria, Latvia or Belarus, which have far more limited educational resources.

You’d think that any effort to improve these scores would be a good thing. But many French people worry that the promotion of English will come at the expense of France’s own language. Linguist Alain Bentolila warned the government ‘not to build a second language on the ruins of our mother tongue’.

In online comments, France’s President Sarkozy was labelled ‘an American’ who ‘knows nothing’ and ‘is ashamed’ of French culture. This reaction may seem odd, but it comes from a long French tradition of defending French language and culture against influences from outside, especially from America. English speaking countries have increasing cultural influence in France due to the spread of Hollywood movies and US music and TV shows.

In fact, France even has a special institute, the Académie Francaise, which is charged with maintaining the purity of the French language. The forty members of the Academy – known as ‘the immortals’ – fight the spread of invading English words, (e.g. ‘email’) and replace them with newly invented French equivalents (’courriel’).

Mot juste

Are the French right to defend their language with such vigour? The ‘immortals’ see themselves as the defenders, not just of French language, but of French identity. By maintaining the language to a pure and universal standard, they create a ‘shared inheritance’ for the nation.

But languages, say critics, can’t be pinned down. A living language is one that constantly evolves – taking in new influences from outside, growing and developing with changing times.

You Decide

  1. How do you feel about learning other languages? Is it useful? Or interesting?
  2. In the 19th Century, idealistic linguists dreamed of creating a single world language called ‘Esperanto’. Would it be a good thing if they had succeeded?

Activities

  1. French isn’t the only language to have adopted words from other cultures. There are many of these so-called ‘loan words’ in English. See how many you can list, and where they come from.
  2. Do some research into some of the many regional or minority languages (eg Basque, Welsh, Kurdish) around the world – then give a presentation to your class about one of them. What does it mean to its speakers and why is it important to keep it alive?

Some People Say...

“Having different languages is stupid. Why can’t everyone just speak English?”

What do you think?

Q & A

How many people really speak French these days?
Actually quite a few. The old French empire left an estimated 500m French speakers around the world, from Canada to Cambodia. It’s for the same reason that English is spoken in countries like Kenya and India.
And why does the French government want to teach more English?
English is thought to be the world's most spoken language. In today's globalized world, many business people and scientists from different countries use English to communicate, even if they don't speak it as a first language.
Have French politicians always felt this way?
Not at all! No fewer than five French heads of state have been members of the Académie Francaise, and President Charles de Gaulle, back in the 60s, refused to speak English in public at all.

Subjects