In recent weeks, amid all its woes over rising unemployment and a declining economy, France seemed to be embroiled in yet another impending disaster, at least to some French people. The French Assembly was about to vote on a controversial proposal that would ease legal restrictions on courses taught in English at French universities. Watching the positions publicly unfold, I understood the benefits to be gained from more exposure to English particularly for French researchers and students. I further recognized the challenges that France must face in making the new law meet its stated goals. Yet I could not help but lament the potential loss for American and other foreign students studying at French universities.
As this drama played out day after day, it brought to mind my concerns a number of years ago when my son was considering study-abroad programs. I was then taken aback by the fact that Sciences Po Paris was offering courses in English as an option. (That number has now reached one-third.) My son’s American university, to its credit, nonetheless insisted that students take their entire program in French along with the French students. As a parent I was a bit apprehensive. My son, on the other hand, rightly saw this as a reasonable charge that ultimately carried lifelong dividends. His French vastly improved, he learned a new approach to organizing and presenting an intellectual argument, and he developed transatlantic friendships that have endured.
The passions evoked in the French media also brought to mind the words of the French writer Stendahl, that "The first instrument of a people’s genius is its language." Perhaps no people have taken this premise more to heart than the French. And perhaps never have the French felt their language more threatened than from the current rise of English as the global lingua franca. The idea of English replacing French as the language of intellectual endeavors has struck a particularly sensitive nerve for many French leaders and educators. The surrounding debate has plumbed the depths of national identity, cultural pride and the inevitable consequences of globalization. It also has given rise to pragmatic issues that bear on the quality of instruction and the effect on the learning experience for both native French speaking students and those visiting from elsewhere.
A key point of contention is the "Toubon law." Adopted in 1994, the law is a broad sweeping mandate on French usage, including a requirement that education at all levels, other than foreign language classes, be carried out in French (with a few exceptions). From the beginning, various purposes have been ascribed to the law: to insulate French from being overcome by English, to maintain France’s political and economic position in the face of transnationalism, to protect the country’s status as a nation-state within the European Union. Underneath the Toubon law, and the present opposition to weaken its force, lies an unshakeable mindset among many of the French that their language must remain a symbol of cultural preeminence widely recognized in centuries past.
The Assembly, France’s lower house, approved the new measure on May 23rd following hours of rancorous debate invoking the nation’s literary giants. The law permits university courses to be taught in another language (presumably English) if they are part of an agreement with a foreign or international institution or if they have financial support from the European Union. Several amendments (link is in French) were adopted in the course of deliberations: the use of English must be justified by "pedagogical necessities," foreign students must also learn French, and French proficiency must factor into the awarding of the diploma.
According to Geneviève Fioraso, France’s minister of higher education and research, the new law, part of a comprehensive package of higher education reforms, will place the country in a more competitive position on several fronts. It will allow French universities to attract the brightest foreign students, especially from emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil where France has economic interests. France now ranks fifth as a destination for foreign students, behind the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany.
The law will prepare French students for a job market where English language skills are increasingly a requisite and not merely an asset. And it will enable French researchers to contribute to and gain from a knowledge base, particularly in the sciences, where English is now the common currency.
As the positions unfolded, discordant voices could loudly be heard. The Académie française, the official guardian of the French language, denounced "the dangers of a measure" that favors the "marginalization of our language." The Observatoire européene du plurilinguisme, an organization that promotes linguistic diversity against the forces of English, sounded the alarm (link is in French) that a uniformity of thought in English among scholars would "kill the innovation" tied to the "history of words" embedded in a particular language and culture. Various prominent professors spoke of the project as "suicidal," a "self-destructive impulse," a "war" on the French language, where the stakes were nothing less than national pride and French identity itself.
Those lacking job security, particularly part-time faculty, feared being replaced by native English speakers. Lawmakers weighed in, renouncing the use of French taxpayers’ money to promote American and British interests.
Others, including several Nobel laureates, made public claims to the contrary (link is in French). Noting the dangers of France’s “linguistic bunkerization,” they argued that placing international students in English classes would enhance the ability of French students to communicate and learn in English and offer them access to the global economy. Some chastised the opposition for being out of touch with reality. After all, many of the elite grandes écoles and business schools already offer up to one-quarter to one-third of their courses in English, apparently bending the Toubon law with no questions raised. Some, including the minister of higher education, believed the changes would eliminate these inequities, allowing all French university students and not just the most privileged the opportunity to learn in English.
For still others the debate was pointless since the law merely would allow and not mandate the use of English and only within narrow parameters. The left-leaning newspaper Libération offered the most graphically forceful support in a front page story, totally in English, with a headline reading “Teaching in English: Let’s Do It.”
Surprisingly, throughout the accusations and denials, no one even mentioned the European Union’s repeatedly affirmed goal for every citizen to gain practical skills in at least two languages beyond the mother tongue to promote European integration. The English question seems to have eclipsed that project. Or perhaps the unstoppable spread of English is more efficiently achieving that end, though without the intended multicultural understandings.
As countries like Germany have learned, there is a definite economic and academic advantage in expanding English language courses. With the world becoming smaller by the nanosecond, a common vehicle of communication has become a necessity. For better or worse, depending on one’s view, English has taken that place. While some might rail against the trend with charges of linguistic "imperialism" and cultural "hegemony," this is a course with no end in sight. The shift toward English as the preferred language of scholarly publications and colloquiums worldwide is moving at breakneck speed. Many academic publishers now accept manuscripts only in English.
According to a large-scale study (link is in French) conducted by the Institut national d’études démographiques between 2007 and 2009, 77 percent of French researchers, across disciplines and ages, believed that English had become so dominant that there no longer was a choice. Among those born in the 1980s that figure rose to 90 percent, though 42 percent overall reported being limited in their own use of the language. Younger researchers also were less inclined to equate the use of English with the domination of Anglo-Saxon culture. Within the hard sciences, 96 percent of laboratory directors reported using English in their work. From my own observations, as academicians across disciplines increasingly work in a comparative mode, the trend has moved even further in favor of English in the intervening years.
The problem is that France’s resistance to English has prevented it from preparing its citizens for the change that other countries are now more ready to institutionally embrace. Among native speakers within the 27 European Union countries, France ranks 23rd on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, just barely ahead of Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus and Montenegro (ETS). A 2012 European Commission study of over 50,000 students aged 14 to 15 similarly found France far behind 12 other European countries in mastery of English.
France undoubtedly is on the right track in accepting the utility of English as the common language of academic discourse and commerce. That being said, though the new measure imposes certain limits, there is always the temptation to exceed defined bounds, as the end runs around the Toubon law have proven. Universities must understand the dangers of storming ahead without first addressing the challenges, most notably the lack of English proficiency among French faculty and students. If not, then the project will encounter many snags. Some French professors will struggle to convey their thoughts at a level only commensurate with their weak English language skills, simplifying the content and sapping the material of its emotive meaning.
As one of the law’s detractors put it, it would be like forcing a right-handed person to write on a chalkboard with the left hand.
At the same time, many native French-speaking students will struggle to process merely the letter and not the spirit of what is taught while foreign students likewise will get less than what was promised from the prized French university experience. In the end, whatever gains may be had in competitiveness will be lost in intellectual rigor, classroom interaction, and intercultural growth.
These problems are not unresolvable or unavoidable. For the short run, French universities would be well-advised to move slowly and cautiously, limiting participation to faculty and students with adequate English skills while providing others with intense language instruction to quickly get them up to the task. Judicious use of visiting Anglophone faculty might be an interim solution. Faculty exchange programs with Anglophone universities would further enhance English language skills among French-speaking professors. For the long run, the French education system must make a stronger commitment to teaching English in primary and secondary schools. The ultimate goal would be to prepare students who can function at a high intellectual level in English by the time they enter the university and, for some, the professorial ranks.
At the same time, universities should continue to offer a sizeable number of courses in French at least as a choice, especially in the humanities and social sciences, and to demand of foreign students a basic competency in French as a requirement for the diploma, as the new law mandates. French professors still can participate in the global academy and even publish in English as they continue to intellectually engage their students in French. Meanwhile, French students will strengthen their English language skills through enhanced offerings in English and contact with foreign students.
The most serious danger, and one that France cannot fully control, is that American and other Anglophone students will become lulled into the false belief that foreign language study is useless or that one can fully appreciate Flaubert or Sartre in translation. To do so would deny the joys of truly accessing a people and understanding its culture, values, and worldview, not to forget the lyrical beauty of the language itself, as only the original allows. Above all, the rise of English should not mean the end of French. Each plays a uniquely important role in the world of scholarship and the exchange of knowledge.