I have waited a long time to write this post, not sure if I had completely decided how I felt about the subject. After all, I am a native English speaker, with a degree in English, who loves the works of Shakespeare and Byron and Twain and Plath.
However, the time has come for me to express my feelings about the sometimes ridiculous imposition of English in France, especially in light of the recent government project to change the existing law that says French is the language of education in France. French citizens mobilising against this law are expressing their fears that French will be replaced by English in higher education, leaving francophone researchers and professionals at a disadvantage in publishing and presenting their work on an international scale. In a country that is shockingly more English-speaking than one would expect before coming (turn on the radio: English songs. Walk in the streets: hear two non-native speakers conversing in English. Look up: Billboards advertising French clothing stores in English. Look down: Brochures in badly-translated English. In certain companies with all-French employees, managers require their employees to speak only English between them), the government and the famed Académie Française have always protected their language (the Toubon Law of of 1994 which protected French in schools, advertising, etc. is a case in point). Now, a French minister is proposing to throw that all away.
The French who are against this project focus on the negative impacts in their country and for their children: the marginalization of their language as worthless and non-competitive on an international scale, the limits imposed on excellent researchers who will be shut out of conferences due to their lack of English skills, and the overall loss of French as English spreads first in universities, then to high schools and elementary schools and finally into all public arenas and even private homes. They point to conspiracies of English-speaking countries (in particular the United States) to take over all global intellectual areas and economic markets, to the benefit of their own economies.
Are these fears justified? Perhaps and perhaps not, but as a native English-speaker with a (sometimes obsessive) love of the French language and culture and a second degree in this field alongside my English one, I can definitely propose the negative consequences that will come to light for foreigners such as myself if French is slowly marginalized and thrown out of its own educational institutions.
In support of the French, the French language and French culture, I wish to explain the negative impacts of “English-imposition” in this country not only on the French, but foreigners in general and in particular native English speakers.
In 2010 I arrived in France for a university exchange in Lille. I bounded off the airplane, excited that I would be surrounded by the language to which I had dedicated my studies, giddy at the idea of spending a whole semester immersed in the French language. Finally, I would improve my accent! I thought. Finally, I would be able to construct whole sentences without putting in much effort or searching my words! I hailed a taxi and asked the driver in a perfectly grammatical sentence (practiced in advance!) to please take me to the address of the university residence.
“Ah, you are English?” he replied in my native language. “How is the weather there?”
“No, I am American,” I replied in French, suddenly deeply aware of my strong accent.
“Oh American!” he continued in English, heavily-accented as well. “I love Michael Jordan.”
I tried to continue in French, when he cut me off and said that he loves to speak English, so could I please speak English with him? I gave in. After all, it was only a short taxi ride…
… which quickly turned into a whole semester of struggling to speak French. In France. Almost every conversation was the same, in restaurants and bars, tourism offices and even in the street when asking for directions.
I did everything I could to immerse myself. I took extra French classes for international students. But during our breaks and after class, they spoke English between them… to the great frustration of my two Spanish friends, who had hardly any notions of the English language, and like me, had come to France to learn FRENCH. I remember one day at dinner between a group of international students (all except myself being non-native English speakers) when my Spanish friend suddenly stormed out. I followed him, thinking he was having girl troubles again.
“Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” I asked him. “What’s wrong?”
He explained that he couldn’t understand anyone at the dinner because they were all speaking English. I rolled my eyes and agreed. Afterwards, when he was present, I was conscious to encourage everyone to speak French. To no avail. We would converse in French for three minutes and then always end up back in English, despite the fact that they were all quite capable of having French conversations. Again, I was usually the only native English speaker in the group. Mary* was there sometimes, and as an American she too expressed her frustration at the lack of French in France. We sometimes had to resort to practicing with each other; and as anyone knows, conversing in a foreign language with someone who shares the same maternal language is a bit awkward.
In another example of such frustrations, I took a French-to-English translation class with some Germans and Belgians. They refused to speak French with me.
“French is harder than English,” one girl said. “And we are English majors. We have to study our English.”
My polite nature kept me from sighing, “So why didn’t you study abroad in England? It’s only another 1.5 hours from Lille…”
I did try to hang out with the French kids in my linguistics classes. They were great about teaching me French. One of the American girls in my classes told me it was “weird” how I always hung out with French kids.
Of course, I had nothing against these people or their desire to learn English. It’s a wonderful language and these people were all amazing friends with whom I spent wonderful moments, whether in English or in French.
I went home with a slightly better accent and an improved vocabulary, but not as much as I had hoped. I was still unable to “think in French” all the time, and still found myself doing translations in my head. The immersion had never happened. My efforts to learn French had mostly been self-imposed (watching television, hanging out with the French or exchange students who didn’t speak English, reading extra books alongside my classes)…
Compare that to the French students who came to my American university, who struggled at the beginning of the semester and in just a few months were speaking fluidly and easily, thanks to the almost complete immersion experience.
I’m not the only one to complain about the difficulties for an English-speaker to learn a foreign language. And it’s not because of my American accent that people try to speak English with me.
A French friend who loves German and speaks only basic English studied abroad in Austria. As soon as people heard her accent, they started to speak to her in English. Frustrated, she had to answer that she did not speak English, but French, and spoke German as her foreign language, not English. Her experience is an example of how English-speakers are not the only ones who must struggle to learn a foreign language when they go abroad. Everyone assumes that these students study abroad to learn English instead of the official language of the country.
I used to be one of those snobby people who criticized Americans for not making efforts to learn foreign languages. Now, I understand why. I could have given up my hope to learn French after my first stay in Lille, seeing how “useless” French had been in that situation, and I wouldn’t blame any English-speaker who does. After all, the message there was clear: « Everyone speaks English, so, dear native English speakers, don’t bother. »
Happily, I carried on throughout these frustrations, knowing that one can only truly understand a culture and the art, literature, music, and ideas it produces by speaking its official language. I’ve even returned to France, where I’ve put several techniques into use to avoid speaking English: for example, saying I only speak French and Rodolfu, an obscure (and non-existent) language on a fake Caribbean Island when someone hears my accent and tries to converse in English. Either they believe me, or they get the point: I speak fluent French, I want to speak French, and this is why I bought a $1000 flight to come here.
My point is that France is already too “English-ized” as it is, without the government giving its legal consent and approval to make it superior to French and imposing it everywhere in the professional world.
Why did I write this essay in English if I am so pro-French? Because it is the language in which I express myself the best. It is the language in which I can get my points across the most clearly, having intuitive knowledge of the nuances and structures that best describe my thoughts and feelings. Let’s allow researchers and professionals of whichever nationality and linguistic background, whether francophone, English, Spanish, or Czech, to do the same. Let them choose the language in which they want to work. Let’s not allow brilliant minds to be held back in their fields because they have not perfected an imposed foreign language. Let them spend more time studying science or math or engineering instead of a field in which they have no interest. Let them publish and present in the language of their choice and be translated or interpreted by professionals who can perfectly explain their projects without being hindered by linguistic difficulties. Let’s put an end to linguistic prejudices. Let English speakers in France take advantage of the opportunity to learn French and thus be better immersed in its culture. Let linguistic freedom live on!
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