When Jack and I got off the ferry in Calais, my bad French figured to be more valuable to us than his pretty good Latin. I was, in effect, my younger brother’s lifeline to the world around him for the upcoming week.

[Note: I wrote this essay last week as one of the models for my students’ research comparison paper. It features an evolving thesis.]

We boarded the train for Paris. Even though everyone on the train had just come from England, the announcements over the train’s speakers were only in French. I recognized few of the words from my high school French classes, so there was little I could do to dispel Jack’s growing anxiety. But I did remember what I had learned in college about the French’s fears of their language being invaded by English words.

This seemingly unreasonable fear continues today. The French have what The Guardian describes as “a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline” (Gallix). The first paragraph in the latest edition of Fodor’s France, one of the most popular tour books available in English, states that “it may be a cliché to say that the French fret over their place in the world, but they do.” To maintain their place, the French “are rallying to protect” their language, Fodor’s reports (Hervieux 10). But when weren’t the French so rallying?

The French have made protecting their language’s purity and influence a national, and even a governmental, policy for centuries. The French government started the French Academy in 1635, and from that point until the present, the Academy has been “the world’s most powerful state-backed linguistic authority.” The Academy’s chief mission is to maintain France’s official dictionary, which is also “a registry of what is officially French.” The dictionary doesn’t get updated often, with new editions coming out no more often than every fifty years or so. If you want to speak true French, your diction is stuck in a time warp and includes just the words contained in the latest edition, which was published in 1935, along with words contained in infrequent updates (Smith).

Besides serving as an official lexicographer, the French Academy serves as “the recognized authority on neologisms, particularly those coined to replace persistent Anglicisms in the language, like courriel for e-mail” (Smith). French agencies send them English words and phrases that have crept into French, and the Academy invents phrases to replace them.

By the time Jack and I left the train and its (to us) incomprehensible intercom, I felt as if we were creeping into France, too, and that we were as unwanted as our American English. I needed to find out how to catch a bus to meet our hosts in a Parisian suburb, so I approached the lady at the train station’s information kiosk.

“Do you speak English?” I asked in flawless English.

She frowned at me. She lifted her head dramatically to face the station’s domed ceiling. She sighed dramatically. She lowered her head, slowly and dramatically, and she stared at me again.

“Yes,” she said, finally. Resignedly.

I determined at that moment to speak only in my butchered French for the rest of the trip. It would be a form of revenge. The person at this information kiosk was by design the face of France, I figured, the first person in France with whom many people from England, at least, would come in contact. Who in the world could relate to this lady, or by extension, to such a people?

After all these centuries, too, the English-speaking world still can’t relate to the French Academy. Britain’s newspaper The Telegraph recently asked readers to imagine Britain’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport “setting up a website called ‘Say It in English’ where you can key in French terms such as ‘cul-de-sac’ . . . and learn that the correct way to say [it] is ‘dead-end road’” (Edge). In other words, the shoe couldn’t possibly be on the other foot.

But it is, in a way. Like the French, the English have an all-encompassing dictionary that takes a select group decades to update. Unlike its French counterpart, however, the Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) doesn’t exist to control the language. Instead, the OED is a sprawling affair, accepting entries so long as its lexicographers find “evidence of widespread currency.” It has over 600,000 words compared with the French Academy dictionary’s 35,000 words (Wallop). As the OED’s web site says, the OED contains “the history of individual words, and of the language – traced through 3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books” (“About”). Comparing the French Academy’s proscriptive dictionary with the freewheeling and labyrinthine OED, therefore, is like comparing Paris’s wide avenues with London’s hodgepodge streets.

A comparison of dog breeds, though, may be more instructive than a comparison of street layouts. English is “a mongrel language” while French is a purebred. The Telegraph points out that English “has absorbed vast numbers of foreign words over centuries of invasion or takeover by Saxons, Danes, Normans, Dutch and Germans [while] the French tongue is more self-contained.” France regulates its language like dog breeders regulate breeding: “French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will.” English, on the other hand, is unregulated and flexible, which “probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world” (Gallix). English is a howling, unpretentious language that roams the streets at night.

As my brother and I roamed the streets of Paris, Versailles, and Chartres for a week that summer after my graduation from law school, I was surprised to find a uniformly positive response by the French to the vengeance I had intended to inflict on them for their representative’s rudeness. For some reason, the French loved my broken French. Everyone I ran into grinned – not with derision, mind you, but with appreciation – as I employed my rusty French. Granted, they patiently corrected me, but never offensively. They wanted me to try.

Was this French friendliness a sign of the French language’s frailty? Were the French so desperate about maintaining their language’s future that they would fawn over any attempt by a member of the English-speaking world to speak their language? Years later, when my wife and I hosted a French teenager for a week in our Virginia home, the case was altered: he never attempted to speak French with us, and we were critical, at least inwardly, of his intermediate-level English. My wife and I were certainly not as encouraging with our guest as I remembered everyone in France as being with me.

French may be frailer than English, but French isn’t dying. In fact, over a recent four-year period, the world’s French speakers grew by twenty-five percent: the “number of French speakers increased from about 220 million in 2010 to 274 million in 2014, making it the fifth most widely spoken language in the world” (Irish). French still doesn’t rival English in world use, but decades after the loss of France’s worldwide empire, French is holding its own. If French isn’t dying, then what explains France’s positive reception to my meager attempts at speaking its language?

The French love all modern languages, not just French. They love to learn them. The French’s arguably self-defeating protection of its own language doesn’t extend to its educational system. Even though the French constitution “states in its second article, ‘la langue de la République est le français’” (Radford), the French child learns two or three modern foreign languages by the time he or she graduates from high school (“Promoting”). In the debate about making English America’s national language, many Americans have associated the argument in favor of officially sanctioning English with the “dumbing down” of foreign-language instruction in American schools. The French have proven that the two aren’t necessarily associated.

France is innovative, too, in foreign language instruction. For instance, each French school, be it elementary, middle, or high school, “must form at least one partnership with a school abroad as a basis for easier organization of language trips and exchanges between French and foreign students.” French schools’ language instruction is reinforced in many French cities by cultural institutes “founded with the aim of highlighting the key role that foreign cultural institutes in Paris play in promoting cultural diversity.” The result is not just a greater number of students taking a greater number of language courses. French students graduate fully proficient in two or three foreign languages (“Promoting”). By contrast, I didn’t graduate from either my American high school or my American college proficient in French, a language I took for many semesters in both institutions.

I’m not an unusual American in this regard. Only a quarter of Americans claim to speak a language other than English well. Of that quarter, “89% acquired these skills in the childhood home, compared with 7% citing school as their main setting for language acquisition” (Devlin). In other words, almost all Americans fluent in a language other than English learned that language at home, not at school. In contrast to French schools’ stringent foreign-language requirements, the U.S. has no nationwide standards for foreign-language learning. Instead, as a recent Pew Research Center report concludes, many “states allow individual school districts to set language requirements for high school graduation, and primary schools have very low rates of even offering foreign-language course work” (Devlin). Given the American public’s ambivalence about the utility of learning a foreign language, it’s not surprising that less than two percent of Americans claim to have learned a foreign language in school.

The French weren’t showing weakness when they encouraged my attempts at broken French. They were showing strength: they love language, and they were encouraging me in my own nascent love. Their protection of French does not come at the expense of their children’s foreign-language education. Perhaps, at bottom, it’s the French people’s love of language that drives them to learn foreign languages while so fiercely regulating their own.

Works Cited

“About.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2016, public.oed.com/about/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Devlin, Kat. “Learning a Foreign Language a ‘Must’ in Europe, Not so in America.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 13 July 2015, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/13/learning-a-foreign-language-a-must-in-europe-not-so-in-america/#. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Edge, Simon. “The British Invasion the French Cannot Ignore.” Telegraph.co.uk, Jul 31 2013, ProQuest Newsstand, http://eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.eznvcc.vccs.edu:2048/docview/1415911317?accountid=12902.

Gallix, Andrew. “The French Protect Their Language like the British Protect Their Currency | Andrew Gallix.” Opinion, Guardian News and Media, 23 May 2013, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/23/language-french-identity. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Hervieux, Linda, et al. Fodor’s 2016 France. New York, Fodor’s Travel, 2016.

Irish, John. “Rise in French Speakers since 2010 a Boost for France: Report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 5 Nov. 2014, www.reuters.com/article/us-france-language-economy-idUSKBN0IP1V220141105. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

“Promoting Multilingualism.” France Diplomatie, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, 2017, www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/french-foreign-policy/francophony/promoting-multilingualism/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Radford, Gavin. “French Language Law: The Attempted Ruination of France’s Linguistic Diversity.” Trinity College Law Review, Dublin University Law Society, 13 July 2015, trinitycollegelawreview.org/french-language-law-the-attempted-ruination-of-frances-linguistic-diversity/. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Smith, Craig S. “Académie Solemnly Mans the Barricades Against Impure French.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 May 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/books/academie-solemnly-mans-the-barricades-against-impure-french.html. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Wallop, Harry. “Oxford English Dictionary: How the Words Are Chosen.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 30 Nov. 2010, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/8168472/Oxford-English-Dictionary-how-the-words-are-chosen.html. Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.

3 thoughts on “The French on French and other languages

  1. C’est vrai a Quebec aussi, Pierre. I loved reading this, and remembering not only my last decade as a transplanted American in New France, better known as Quebec, but also my first trip across the Channel long ago and faltering attempts to speak French in France. Like you, my efforts were received with friendliness and a complete lack of disdain or hostility. Many of my young friends are bi- or trilingual upon graduation; I admire and envy them, and continue to keep learning French and, now, Spanish and a bit of Italian. It’s easier when you’re young, but just as fun and rewarding now.

    1. Beth, the closest I’ve gotten to New France was a summer I worked at Busch Garden’s “The Old Country” in Williamsburg, Virginia. I sold corn dogs in “Scotland,” which implausibly was just down the road from “New France.” My lack of language acquisition makes me feel as if I’ve relied on America’s making it easy for me to assimilate the world around me — a reliance I associate with my summer in “Scotland.” I need to at least take a basic language course. Some of my neighbors would appreciate it, and I hear it’s very good for aging minds like mine.

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