Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau tear his argument to bits, point by point.
Last week Gary Girod published an article in New Geography entitled The Decline and Fall of the French language? This article is so loaded with false information, bogus theories and slanted assumptions that we decided to write a point-by-point rebuttal. (We also invite Mr. Girod to read our book The Story of French, which he will find instructive.)
1. English speakers are right to be proud of the global success of their language, but that success is not coming at the expense of other international languages, including French. Languages are not a zero-sum game. The progression of English as a second language does not mean anyone unlearns his or her mother tongue.
2. More people now speak French than any time in history. A conservative estimate is about 220 million people. This number has tripled since World War II and is still progressing. After English, French is the world’s most international and globalized language. Only one third of its speakers are native to the language – about 80-85 million. All the others learn it at school. In that respect, there has been no cataclysmic collapse of French. The number of native speakers is growing at roughly the same rate as English speakers (we cite British linguist David Graddol on this). In the 15 years that we researched the topic, estimates of the number of French speakers in the world have increased from 175 to 220 million.
3. The number of people who are learning French is impressive in comparison to any language except English. If you exclude the countries where French is a native language, there are roughly 110 million people learning French every year. A quarter of the second-language teachers in the world teach French. We are presently researching our next book, on Spanish, and can assure you that the statistics on the teaching of Spanish, while good, pale in comparison to those of French.
4. Mr. Girod links the geographic spread of francophones to the supposed decline of French, but his simplistic conclusion is false. Links between francophone regions have increased steadily in the last 40 to 50 years through the multiplication of networks, associations and information media. Examples: Vietnamese agronomists are helping Senegal improve rice production techniques. New-Brunswick jurists, who master common-law in the French language, were involved in the writing of Mauritius’ constitution. Veterinarians from Algeria follow closely the work of their colleagues of Quebec, who export their expertise in artificial insemination.
This global networking is partly the result of the work of an international organization called the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie which links 750 institutions of high learning in 80 countries – the most represented being France, Canada, Algeria and Vietnam. There are many hundreds of other associations that network francophones world-wide.
5. Mr. Girod’s theory that French is declining in Africa flies in the face of facts. The exact opposite is happening: Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is becoming the world’s largest French-speaking city – ahead of Paris. While it is true that English (and Mandarin) are making inroads in French-speaking countries, people who learn these languages do so after being educated in French. French is essential for obtaining everything from a driver’s license to a university degree.
French is so important in Africa that Nigeria has made it a mandatory second language. In Algeria, after decades of failed attempts to Arabicize the education system, the government has reintroduced French. (As to “Zaire”, Mr. Girod should take note that it has been called The Democratic Republic of Congo since 1997). As to the case of Rwanda, it is true that president Kagame declared English the official language, but this was a political gesture and it is far from certain that the policy will succeed anymore than similar policies did in the past in Madagascar or Algeria.
6. In the Far East, specifically Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, there are twice as many people learning French as during colonial times. French teaching is making similar progress in Thailand, despite student protests.
7. In the Middle East, French universities, colleges and high school are doing very well. Like in the case of the African elite, it is not because francophone Lebanese learn English that they unlearn French.
8. In the United States, with the exception of Spanish, the teaching of all languages declined between 1990 and 1995 – not just French. Most languages declined more than French, whose numbers have been stable for over 50 years. In fact, after Spanish, more Americans study French (1.5 million) than the other five languages on the list combined.
9. In Canada, the number of French speakers is not falling at all. It is true that their proportion has declined, mostly due to immigration. On the other hand, 325 000 students, or about 10% of English language students in the country, are enrolled in full French immersion programs. The number of French students enrolling in English outside of Quebec is not rising sharply. In fact, the 632 French schools outside of Quebec are so popular they have to turn-down many non-Francophone candidates.
10. There is no debating that European elites are more inclined to learn English than French as a second language, especially in Eastern Europe. Still, more people speak French in Europe today than anytime in its history. Two centuries ago when French was the “universal language” of Europe, no more than 25% of the population of France actually spoke French. Likewise, when French was the universal language of the elites, only about 5% of the population of Europe was educated. In short, when French was prestigious, relatively few spoke it. Today, 20% of 500 million educated Europeans speak French. (Mr. Girod should take note: from a historical perspective, the prestige and popularity of a language alone do not explain increases in native speakers).
11. According to some utterly incomprehensible reasoning, Mr. Girod cites, as evidence of the decline of French, the fact that New York’s Metropolitan Opera refused Canadian singer Rufus Wainwright’s French-language libretto, “because he wouldn’t translate it into English.” The only thing this demonstrates is how stubbornly attached Wainwright is to French (yet he was raised in English). For that matter, many of today’s renowned “francophones” express themselves in French even though they don’t speak French as a mother tongue.In the last 25 years, the prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, was attributed to five authors who did not speak French as a mother tongue, the last two winners being an American and an Afghan.
Moreover, in the United States, French films represent 50% of all foreign films viewed by Americans, and 30% of books translated. Half of the foreign language books translated by US publishing house were discovered and first translated by French publishers – the most famous case being Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.
12. The present budget of La Francophonie is about 7 times the six million euros Mr. Girod claims it is. Not to mention the budgets of two other valuable agencies of cultural diplomacy: Agence universitaire francophone, which links 750 universities worldwide, and TV5-Monde, the world’s most widely distributed TV channel after CNN and MTV.
13. The 150 million dollars attributed to the British Council pale in comparison to the billion dollars that the French spend each year in cultural diplomacy through the Alliances françaises, the French Institutes (equivalent to the British council), the Missions laiques françaises, the Alliance israélite universelle, France 24 and dozens of institutions responsible for promoting film, books and other forms of art.
Mr. Girod evokes Darwinian theory, of all things, to conclude that the survival of the French language is at stake. It’s a pretty silly conclusion to an article piling up false evidence to support a baseless assumption.