The Observer

Everyone Speaks English. Or Do They?

According to British journalist Simon Kuper, who penned a series of articles for Le Monde, French is losing its utility, while English reigns supreme. Quelle idée !
© Léa Chassagne

There is no point reading the translation of this article. Or anything else in French for that matter. Because France and the French can remain globally relevant only in English. Or so says British journalist Simon Kuper in one of a series of articles published recently – in English and French – by the Le Monde newspaper. According to Mr. Kuper, French is a second-tier language that ever fewer people will bother to learn in this era of global English and machine translation. In short, he argues, French is losing its utility, while English reigns supreme.

To be fair, la langue de Molière (and Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Pasteur, Monet, Sartre, et al.) is certainly not the only language to be eclipsed by English, which is promoted – usually by native speakers – as the answer to the Tower of Babel. One prominent American educational organization even argues that learning the language can make you “smarter.” (On closer reading, the claim is that learning any language enhances a person’s cognitive and analytical abilities.) The adage that someone who speaks several languages is multilingual whereas a person who speaks only one is either a Brit or an American used to be a witticism; now, it’s seemingly a reality. One of the inevitable consequences of what’s sometimes called linguistic imperialism is a sharp, lamentable decline in foreign language uptake at schools and universities in both the U.S. and the U.K. America’s Modern Language Association has reported that colleges lost more than 650 language programs between 2013 and 2016, a sharp increase on the previous three-year period. In Britain, an equivalent study by the University Council of Modern Languages reveals similar declines, as well as a strong tendency for languages to be merged into other disciplines, resulting in a perceived downgrading of the subject. Why waste time learning a second language when everyone speaks English?

Or do they? After decades of translating and teaching languages, I have found that the English spoken by so many non-native speakers is actually a sort of pidgin or a creole that uses simplified words and grammatical structures to communicate often quite complex ideas. (This international contact language is sometimes referred to as Globish, which is actually a formalized subset of basic English, with a 1,500-word vocabulary and pared-down grammar.) In its basic form, international English can be truly basic. A company CEO I once taught would learn a simple verb – “to go” or “to buy,” for instance – then make sentences such as “I go yesterday” or “I buy tomorrow,” pointing forwards or backwards to indicate the relevant tense. And it worked! My wily student never took an English exam, but almost always got his meaning across. At a much more sophisticated level, academic papers written in English by non-native authors often contain fundamental errors that are overlooked by editors who argue that good science is more important than good grammar. “For determining interest rates is used the consumer price index” – a common example of the cart (predicate) before the horse (subject) – is the kind of sentence that might appear in a highly technical analysis of, say, price evolutions – sorry, fluctuations. If corrected, the disgruntled author would argue: “I won’t apologize for my clumsy English! It’s the world language.” In this context, grammar rules and syntactic principles are old-fashioned, and insistence on “proper” English is decried as colonialist.

Which brings us back to Mr. Kuper and his insistence on utility. The French poet and critic Alain Borer, who is also visiting professor of French literature at the University of Southern California, insists that adopting an instrumentalist conception of languages is an intellectually fatal error. If language were a tool, he says, it would be found in a DIY store. But every language determines a certain way of thinking, a particular vision of the world linked to original practices: “That’s why philosophy consists in learning all languages to understand the world, while foolishness requires only one.”

© Léa Chassagne

Of course, language is – and has always been – intensely political. In the U.S., repeated attempts to establish English as the official medium of expression have floundered because, quite often, the aims are not solely linguistic. Organizations such as Official English, U.S. English (aka English-Only), and ProEnglish have long sought to achieve their objectives through legislation. The most recent initiative, the English Language Unity Act, has been introduced in each Congress since 2005. But the practical benefits of officializing the use of English have been overshadowed by doubts about the various movements’ broader underlying aims, notably with regard to immigration and bilingual education. (Not all these activists master their own language: One sign brandished at an English-Only demonstration read: “Respect Are-Country: Speak English.”)

French, too, carries plenty of political and historical baggage. It has been the country’s sole official language since the mid-16th century, when it replaced Latin. From the 1789 Revolution onwards, constant efforts were made to enforce the use of French in public life by outlawing dialects and regional languages. In the early 20th century, for example, Breton was banned in schools and churches. Today, the onward and upward march of English has spurred French politicians to prioritize the defense of their language. Cynics may suggest that these noble efforts are actually intended to counter the prevalence of so-called Anglo-Saxon ideas, which is code for rampant capitalism. Surely not?

For the current French administration, raising the international profile of the language is a major cultural project. Among the landmark initiatives is the pending opening of the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française, an institution dedicated to the French language and French-speaking cultures. Symbolically, the CILF is based in the northern city of Villers-Cotterêts, where the original edict establishing the primacy of French was signed 450 years ago. The announcement of such assertive policies comes at a time when language has become a tinderbox issue in some of France’s former African colonies. Algeria, for example, has announced that French will make way for Arabic in official correspondence and that English will henceforth be taught in primary schools. “French is a spoil of war, but English is an international language,” declared the Algerian president. Other countries, including Gabon and Togo, have also moved closer to the Anglosphere.

Nevertheless, France’s persistence in encouraging a multilingual world seems neither a political ploy nor a case of wounded pride. French no longer belongs solely to its homeland. With some 300 million speakers worldwide and the status of official language for some 30 nations, it has broad international reach. According to President Emmanuel Macron, French has upped its roots and now belongs to everyone. Africa, he says, is “the epicenter” of la francophonie because it is there that people are “writing, inventing and innovating in a language that is their own and that they are constantly reinventing.” This insistence on openness and inclusiveness is crucial because it means that French is growing organically, while maintaining its linguistic integrity and the values it wishes to embody.

English, meanwhile, has evolved to such an extent that it has become plural: “Englishes,” or indeed “global Englishes.” These have split into subspecies in a process whereby Standard English – the variant “used by the powerful,” according to the late American linguist James Sledd – has been eclipsed by World Standard English, used as a – or rather, THE – global language by an estimated 1.35 billion people. And there lies the rub. Owing to the omnipresence of English, native speakers often find themselves at a disadvantage because the language no longer belongs to them, and “proper” usage is not the only template. In a multinational meeting or lecture, executives or academics from, say, Chile, China, and Greece will converse and communicate quite happily in their own form of English. When an American or British participant weighs in, the conversation comes to a halt. “Sorry, what you say?”

Simon Kuper may well insist that other people need to learn English in order to be relevant. But since non-native speakers are now in the majority worldwide, it’s the Anglophones who need to look to their laurels. Or perhaps they ought to learn French.

Further Reading

Ahead of the opening of the Cité Internatio- nale de la Langue Française next spring, the Franco-Moroccan journalist and novelist Leïla Slimani (Adèle; The Perfect Nanny) asked a dozen personalities, including the Franco-Chinese novelist and filmmaker Dai Sijie and the Benin-born singer and activist Angélique Kidjo, to reflect on what the French language means to them and the role that it plays in our society. The short essays, published under the title Nos langues françaises, offer fascinating insights into the importance of the French language, which “might be seen as one of the last refuges of the promise-laden motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”


Article published in the November 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.