French vs. English as World/Global Languages

Paul Frank paulfrank at WANADOO.FR
Mon Oct 2 14:49:51 UTC 2000

For the life of me I can't understand why the French, or at least some
French, still insist that French is a world language. It ain't and probably
never will be. More people speak and read Chinese, Hindi-Urdu, Spanish,
Russian, Indonesian-Malay, Portuguese, Arabic, and Bengali than French, if
one counts native _and_ non-native speakers of these languages. There are
also more native speakers of Japanese and German than of French. The other
day I heard a French talking head claim on TV that French was the langue de
culture par excellence (if you'll pardon my French). Readers of Spanish,
Arabic, and Chinese would beg to differ. The French have long made
universalist claims for their language. It's part of their charm or their
obnoxiousness, depending on your perspective. I'm married to a French
speaker, I live in France, and I love the French language, but am bemused by
the linguistic delusions of grandeur of many if not most French speakers. As
for English, if it has become a global lingua franca of sorts, it is thanks
to 200 years of Pax Britannica and Pax Americana (a misnomer if ever I heard
one). In a sense, though perhaps not in an intentional one, British and
American economic and cultural imperialism has been a huge language
engineering project. But without the military, economic, and political might
of the English speaking peoples this project would have gone the way of the
dodo a long time ago. Not that it has been an entirely successful project.
English is a difficult language for non-Indo-Europeans to learn. Two out of
three people on the planet still don't speak English. I doubt that most
Chinese or Japanese people will ever speak and write good English. I have
yet to meet a Chinese or Japanese person who never left his country and
managed to attain high level of English. I wholeheartedly agree with Jim
that English is an easy language to learn badly. I reckon that Esperanto
would be a far better candidate for a world language than English. Go ahead,
laugh. Yes, Esperanto is an artificial language, insofar as it was created
by a single man, L.L. Zamenhof. Yes, hardly anyone speaks Esperanto, and
those who do have no political clout anywhere. But Esperanto is a real
language. Those who have taken the trouble to learn it will tell you that it
is just as "natural" and subtle as any other European language. Although it
may sound strange to someone who doesn't know Esperanto, to my mind it is
just as resourceful a language as English or German or Spanish or Chinese (I
mention these languages because I have more than a superficial knowledge of
them). Esperanto is just as rich as so-called natural languages, but it is a
great deal easier to learn, even for speakers of non-European languages. In
fact, Chinese students who take one year of Esperanto followed by one year
of French attain a higher level of French than Chinese students who take two
years of French. The reason is that in one year they can achieve fluency in
an easy European language (Esperanto) and with this base they are able to
make good progress in a difficult European language (French). The fact that
French is more difficult than Esperanto does not mean that it is richer or
more flexible than Esperanto. The Esperantist project failed for political
reasons, not for linguistic ones. Latin was once a European lingua franca
for political, military, and economic reasons, not for linguistic ones. If
Esperanto were given half the chance that Hebrew was given in Israel (now
there's an example of successful language engineering) we would see many
more Chinese and Japanese people on the international cultural stage. But
I'm afraid that trying to persuade non-Esperantists of the beauty and
advantages of this language is like trying to win converts to trainspotting
and stamp-collecting. I once had a drop-dead-gorgeous babe in a dance club
tell me to f off because I was so wasted that I started talking about
Esperanto. Go ahead, laugh. On reflection, she would probably have told me
to f off even if I'd talked like the Fonz. I certainly didn't look like the
Fonz. On further reflection, she wasn't that gorgeous...Anyhow, now that I'm
happily married I don't mind coming across as a trainspotter, or
stamp-collector, or...Esperantist. English is a beautiful language, but
unfortunately it is an easy language to learn badly. In America, Ireland,
India, and a couple of other places, English is still a vehicle for beauty
and creativity. In much of the rest of the world English is butchered. And
that makes me sad, because I love this language.

By the way, last Saturday El PaĆ­s (the best newspaper in Europe) published
an interesting article on the impoverishment of scientific Spanish due to
the hegemony of English in international scientific forums (or fora, if
you're that way inclined). If you read Spanish and you're interested in this
question, you can find it here:

Paul Frank
Business, financial and legal translation
>From Chinese, German, French,  Spanish,
Italian, Dutch and Portuguese into English
Thollon-les-Memises, 74500 Evian, France
paulfrank at or franktranslation at

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