On a global scale French is perhaps one of the most respected languages; this language which is so fiercely protected both on the continent and overseas has long been used in diplomacy, gastronomy, viticulture and fashion and is the primary language used by a number of important international organisations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières. However, as the use of languages such as English, Mandarin and Arabic becomes more and more widespread, should French take a back seat?
Both in Francophone Canada and in France itself the battle to protect the French language from foreign interference is ongoing. However, some native French speakers believe that it is time to break down these linguistic barriers and relax the legislation put in place to protect their native language. These francophone citizens are proud of their language and its global prestige, but these are also people who recognise the importance of linguistic diversity. France’s Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso recently introduced a controversial bill that would allow certain lectures at French Universities to be taught in English, this was proposed with the intention of attracting a higher number of students from the BRIC countries, thereby improving the international reputation of some of France’s most prestigious universities. This new legislation would be an amendment to a law passed in 1994 which stated that teaching and lecturing should only be done in French, except in the case of foreign language training or visiting professors. The new bill has divided French academics, the Académie Française was quick to dismiss the proposed legislation and published an open letter listing the negative impact that such changes could have, whilst a collective of supporters of the bill (comprising Nobel Prize winners and leading French business figures ) published another letter in Le Monde outlining the benefits of teaching in English. One important factor highlighted by the latter was the dominance of English in the field of science, the group expressed concern that teaching students in French alone could reduce opportunities for home students in multinational organisations.
The global popularity that the English language has experienced over recent decades in undeniable: science is only one of many fields in which the language is prevalent. The influence of English is nothing new, it has been an official language for influential organisations including the UN and the EU for many years, so perhaps the French are right to protect their language from anglo-interference. However, it is one of a handful of languages which are growing in numbers of native and non-native speakers, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish are all becoming increasingly influential. The importance of these languages is illustrated in the Economist’s ‘Johnson’ blog, which discusses language use. The article ‘Languages of diplomacy: Towards a fairer distribution’ suggests that Spanish might be a suitable potential successor to French as an official language at the UN; not only are there a higher number of Spanish speakers in the world (410 million people, compared with 220 million French speakers), they also represent a wider demographic. The same applies to Arabic, which is spoken in a wide number of countries; however, it is the keen interest that Latin American countries have shown in international affairs that sets Spanish apart as a more influential language. For example, unlike the majority of countries where Arabic is the primary language, nearly all Spanish-speaking Latin American countries claim membership at the UN-affiliated International Criminal Court.
The Economist is not the only publication to have noted the increasing influence of the Spanish language, a recent article published in the Spanish national newspaper El Pais entitled ‘‘Excusez-moi’, deje sitio al español’ (Excusez-moi, leave room for Spanish) suggested that French should play a lesser role in diplomacy and European politics and allow Spanish to be used more frequently. Of course, this is unlikely to happen in the near future given the historical use of French for diplomatic matters, however, Francisco Moreno Fernández, academic director of the Instituto Cervantes (The Spanish Government body which promotes the study and teaching of Spanish) has set his sights on what could be a more achievable goal (sorry)- UEFA. Moreno Fernández said that “Given the space that Spanish football occupies in Europe and the ample understanding that its professionals show of our language, it is shocking that the official languages of UEFA are English, French and German and not Spanish. It would be more than reasonable for the Champions League Anthem to include a sentence in Spanish.”
The relevance of the French language use on an international level seems to be dwindling, however, it is unlikely that it will become entirely redundant. Years of international diplomatic use and staunch national protection of this language will certainly ensure that its use is perpetuated in global forums. This decreasing relevance does leave room for other languages to be used alongside French; while the UN is unlikely to take on another official language in the near future, football could be a very good starting point.