Parlez vous français?
By Michael Gregson
France's new President Emmanuel Macron is an ambitious man – and proud of his country's culture. So much so that, he aims to make French the world's first language.
Speaking to students in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou last week, he said his native tongue would 'be the first language of Africa' and 'perhaps of the world.'
Mr Macron, who has been on a tour of West African nations, added that it should not be viewed as a 'relic of a colonial power.'
A 2014 study by a French investment bank suggested that French could be the most spoken language in the world by 2050 – but that assumed an enormous population increase in Africa.
However, given that French is currently the first language of only 75 million people, most observers still bet on English or Mandarin Chinese as the world's most widely used tongue.
Perhaps Macron's real message is that France remains relevant and talking up the French language is a way of talking up the importance of France itself.
France's postcolonial equivalent of the Commonwealth is an explicitly language-based club: the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (International Organisation of the French-speaking).
There is of course, the Académie Française, created in the 17th century to protect French from the noxious influence of foreign languages and which today sees global English as the great enemy. It continues to issue decrees against English loan-words such as 'email' and 'weekend,' and called a proposal to allow some French university courses to be taught in English 'linguistic treason.'
French is still one of the official languages of the UN, NATO, the International Olympic Committee and Eurovision. But the days of its global grandeur, when it was the language of international diplomacy, and spoken by much of the global elite, are long gone.
The French also seem to have conceded defeat when it comes to international broadcasting. France 24, the French equivalent of the BBC World Service TV, transmits in English. The same is also true of Russia's RT and China's CGTN. The networks know that their audiences would be tiny if they stuck to their native languages.
But giving ground to English is not easy for the French.
For many in France, the English language can be typified by the coarse native Anglophone who cannot converse in any other tongue. As the French writer Claude Gagnière once observed:
"A man who speaks three languages is trilingual. A man who speaks two languages is bilingual. A man who speaks one language is English."
As a native Brit, I have to admit that Gagnière is spot on. The British almost take pride in their ignorance of other languages.
But that's partly because we don't need to speak other languages because so many others speak ours. Out of the world's approximately 7.5 billion inhabitants, 1.5 billion speak English — that's 20% of the Earth's population. However, most of those people aren't native English speakers. About 360 million people speak English as their first language. In addition to being widely spoken, English is by far the most commonly studied foreign language in the world, followed by French at a distant second.
In 2015, there were 54 sovereign states, including Sri Lanka where English was an official language. That compares to just 29 for French.
One of the better things the British Empire did was to spread English around the world from the 17th and 20th centuries. France never had that kind of reach. The emergence of the United States as a global superpower and the influence of Hollywood and the internet have secured the position of English as a world language.
English has become the leading language of international discourse and the language of business as well as in professional contexts such as science, navigation and law.
Everyone seems to realise the pre-eminence of English – the language of Ceylon Today – except France, where Monsieur Macron is leading a desperate rear guard action.
Like it or lump it, his dream of a mainly French-speaking planet almost certainly won't come to pass. But as much as he might hope otherwise, the departure of Britain from the European Union will probably fail to help the status of French as an official language.
English is already the lingua franca of EU business because it is everyone's second language. Brexit won't change that.
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