By Julie Barlow
I read a bit more French than English-language media these days, so I was startled to see this statement in a recent New York Times article: “At Tour De France, Default Language Now Is English.” The journalist, discussing the increased use of English at the Tour, concluded, “The French language’s protracted worldwide decline has finally come home to roost.”
Well okay, I can see how you might jump to that conclusion. In Paris last week for the first time in years, I was amazed to see how much English was plastered across the city’s billboards and storefronts, words like “savings,” and English advertising lingo like “smart buy” and “best-ever.” I even saw “good value,” a concept so thoroughly Anglo-Saxon I can’t picture exactly what the French make of it.
The telephone company Orange, where I went to add money to my prepaid cell phone, proudly vaunted their English vibe with service packages called “Open Zen” or “One Silver.” Like the pizza company “Speed Rabbit,” these “faux” English terms have a long history in France. There’s just more of them now.
That said, I’m not sure there’s actually more English coming out of French mouths. But it’s possible. In a first – and I lived in Paris for three years – I witnessed a post office clerk actually serve a British tourist in English. It was arduous, but he stuck it out. Up until then, I had never heard a French civil servant speak English.
The New York Times article quotes the Tour de France’s official translator as stating: “French is disappearing here,” meaning the Tour. Fair enough. She would know.
But from there, to declaring the decline of French in the world, as the journalist claimed. Seriously?
While in Paris I visited the school my daughters will be attending when we move there this September. I asked the principal, Monsieur Cerruti, how much English instruction there would be at his school. He rolled his eyes. “It’s not worth the trouble of trying to teach English in France,” he says. “The French can’t learn another language.”
So much for the English invasion. Almost all the English I saw on Paris was on billboards and in advertisements. English might be cool, but that doesn’t mean people actually speak it.
And as for the end of French in the world, well, it’s either a little early, or a little late to declare the death of French.
“Early” because, as more and more people in the world learn English – and that’s undeniable – the number of people learning French increases too. Languages are not a zero-sum game. Since we started research for The Story of French almost ten years ago, the number of French-speakers in the world has increased by 20 million. That’s a hefty chunk of speakers. In fact, the increase in native speakers is about the same for both English and French.
“Late” because, whether they are aware of it or not, English-speakers who declare the end of French are just adding their two cents to a cultural contest that has been going on for a thousand years – ever since the Norman Duke William seized the English Crown in 1066 and turned French into an elite tongue that would eventually prompt a reflex of quiet scorn from all English speakers. Dissing the French and their language just feels good to English-speakers and we are not going to undo a thousand years of tradition any time soon.
French, of course, did fall from its pinnacle as the world’s language of diplomacy. But that was hundred years ago. And it didn’t spell the end of French. The fact that English is becoming the predominant tongue of France’s premier international event might hurt French pride (or maybe not – English is cool!).
But it’s probably not a sign French is over.