French vs. English as World/Global Languages

Sun Oct 1 21:22:08 UTC 2000

>>Actually, in my experience of visiting France several times over the past few years, I believe the feelings of the French are >>ambivalent, not counting the silent majority that seems indifferent to the issues. It is mostly the leadership of la Francophonie >>that shows concern. To understand this, it also helps to factor in the conerns of the Academie Francaise about the endangered >>purity of French. 

Your mention of the silent majority is very pertinent here. My PhD research was about the attitudes of French speakers, both in France and abroad, to anglicisms and the English language in general. I began with the feeling that the French were very concerned about the issue, that they would all be up in arms about it. After all, that is the impression that one gets from the French media and French intellectuals (far more than the Académie Française, whose role is negligeable, if highly symbolic). It's most certainly not true of the French people in general, who, by an overwhelming majority, are simply indifferent to the encroaching anglicisation of their speech. Anglicisms are not seen as a threat, but neither are they enriching for the language. They simply are. This does not prevent scores of newspaper articles, pamphlets and books being written to decry the effects of English on French, and more generally to bemoan the current state of French. Some French speakers do, however, regard anglicisms as a threat, but they are not French French speakers, but African francophones (my study was conducted in Senegal, Benin, Cameroon and Madagascar), for reasons too complex to be stated simply here. The difference between African francophones and European francophones (the study included French-speaking Switzerland) is very striking indeed.

When I first came to live in France, I was not sympathetic to French concerns, or rather what I perceived to be as such. But this has changed. The real problem is not so much the corpus of the language, the so-called purity of the language. Yes, it *is* intensely irritating to hear French business people refer to "le monthly report" when "le rapport mensuel" would do, but irritating is all it is. It's not a grave matter for the future of French, because the influence doesn't go much beyond the lexical. What I do find more difficult, and where I sympathise with French concerns more (and where, incidentally, more French people *do* show concern) is in the status of the language, by which I mean its use, or non-use, in many domains. Sure, English is used in practically all scientific conferences, to quote an example that has been used in this discussion. That is good news for American, British etc. scientists. It is *not* good news for French scientists, who will never acquire the same level of linguistic competence and will inevitably find it more difficult to convey their ideas. Not to mention the unfairness of a British scientist being able to concentrate in the laboratory, and a French scientist having to take time out to brush up on his or her English. This is not good for science. People who believe otherwise have not spent huge chunks of their time helping French scientists colleagues prepare anxiously for a forthcoming presentation, in English, in France, to the conference of a French association, with French sponsorship. Sure, you can find plenty of English-speakers in the streets of Paris - I fail to understand the advantage of that. OK if you're looking for the public toilets or a shop to buy a roll of film, I suppose. One last example, because I have bored you long enough already, and I'm not really sure how this falls within the remit of the ADS, anyway. The French government had to move heaven and earth to ensure that French would be used during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. I can't remember whether it was the mayor of Sydney or the Chairman of the Organising Committee, it was reported here that whoever it was pretexted that they spoke no French and were not prepared to give any part of their speech in one of the two official languages of the Olympics (and until recently, THE official language). A few years ago, I would have thought the French were daft to kick up such a fuss. I now agree wholeheartedly - it would have been wrong to give English all the stage in Sydney. We anglophones have it too good as it is.




Dr. Jim Walker
Departement d'anglais
Universite Lumiere - Lyon 2
86 rue Pasteur
69365 Lyon Cedex 07

Jim.Walker at
Jim.Walker at

Tel/fax (pers.) +44 4 74 62 08 48

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