The Slow Death of French Language

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 2/09/2010 01:13:00 AM
In bygone years, French was the language of diplomacy--especially so during the heyday of balance of power politics in Europe. Ebbing use of French in commerce is understandable: how many countries in the former Indochina use French, for instance? However, the more recent decline of French in diplomatic discourse has caused some alarm for the French. To use a trade analogy, I think of the French as the ultimate "language protectionists." If their language were all that, then they wouldn't have to maintain an Academie francaise (see some of its reps in the picture) or try and prop up the language by government intervention. In contrast, English only increases in popularity even if the British Empire is long gone due to its willingness to embrace new words and terms from predominantly English-speaking countries, and increasingly, those that are not. One is stuffy and old; the other is receptive to, ah, linguistic innovation.

Perhaps appropriately, the FT pours barely disguised scorn on this latest French attempt to shore up a language losing market share. From castigating international organizations for not accommodating French speakers to criticizing Baroness Ashton (the first EU foreign secretary) for her poor command of French, it reeks of fighting a losing battle:
Senior French officials are mounting a rearguard action to defend the use of French at the UN and other international institutions as a language of diplomacy, in the face of the inexorable rise of English. Paris has renewed its efforts to secure the future of French in international circles, partly prompted by the appointment of Britain’s Lady Ashton to head the European Union’s foreign policy in November.

Her faltering French, once unthinkable in a senior EU official, has been seized upon by the French media, reflecting concerns in Paris that the diplomatic machinery she is building will be Anglophone. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the former prime minister who is President Nicolas Sarkozy’s special envoy to promote French, was in New York at the end of last week to insist that its status as one of the two working languages at the UN must be respected.

The French démarche is the latest attempt to halt the rising tide of English as the dominant medium of diplomatic discourse. Mr Raffarin told journalists at a French-only briefing at his country’s New York mission: “President Sarkozy has asked me to approach international organisations to ensure the presence of French and to express, positively but firmly, a certain intransigeance francophone that the rules must be respected,”

Mr Raffarin’s visit obliged Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, to summon up his knowledge of a language he has been working hard to master since he took up his post three years ago. “The secretary-general insisted on having the conversation in French, with the aid of notes,” said Mr Raffarin, “and he proved he could speak French”.

French sensitivities about the declining role of the language were emphasised mid-week when Gérard Araud, France’s multilingual ambassador to the UN, declined to outline the programme for his country’s presidency of the UN Security Council in English, even as aides scurried to set up translation facilities. “I don’t speak English. Point [full stop]!” Mr Araud told the UN’s mostly English-speaking press corps. “It’s unacceptable,” he said. He said the UN had six official languages: English, French, Russian, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic.

Mr Raffarin last month delivered a similar message to Brussels, where in the past decade the European Union has evolved from being a bastion of French-speaking diplomacy to adopting English as its de facto working language...About half the EU’s citizens speak at least some English, about double the figure for French or German, according to the Commission statistics.
Deal with it, mon ami. It's time to get with the programme. Like for the rest of us, learning English as a second language is both easier and more practical than learning French. The writing is on the wall: this world will not take foreign language imperialism from a bunch of old guys who dress funny, monsieur!