Kathy Stein-Smith asks what the real story is on the French/English language dynamic in the EU
While the 2016 UK European Union (EU) Membership Referendum launched the current public conversation on the status of English in the EU, it has been—just as much, if not more—a conversation on the future of French within the EU.
In order to understand the significance of this conversation about language, and languages, it is necessary to begin with the significance of multilingualism as a core value of the EU, which has implemented and supported plurilingualism, often referred to as “mother tongue plus two,” as a pragmatic educational objective.
In alignment with this core value of multilingualism, Europe accounts for more than half (53.9%) of the global language-services sector, which is valued at USD 38.2 billion per year, and the French Hewlett-Packard’s Application and Content Localization group (HPPACG) is the third-largest language-services provider in the world.
From the original four official languages of the European Community, the number has grown to 24, with English, French, and German (in alphabetical order) the informal de facto working/procedural languages, and the French government has long been an active advocate for the use of French.
But as the UK prepares to leave the EU, leaving no member nation with English registered as its official language, the role of English within the EU has been questioned, with suggestions made that French and German should be the sole working/procedural languages.
French as a Global Language
Languages spread, grow, and increase in influence due to a variety of political, economic, and cultural factors, and the present and future role of French in Europe can be best understood if examined in the context of its status in the world.
A global language, French is widely spoken around the world, with 274 million native speakers, and is the fifth-most-widely spoken language in the world. It is considered one of the most useful languages in international business and is one of the official languages of the United Nations and many other international organizations, including the Olympic Games.
“English is losing its importance in Europe.”
“L’anglais perd son influence en Europe, au profit du français.”
According to the report La langue française dans le monde, French is the third language on Amazon and the fifth language on Wikipedia, with knowledge of French considered a personal and professional advantage and a tool to access information around the world.
It is a language of global communication with international media like TV5Monde, France24, and RFI each reaching tens of millions of viewers and listeners around the world, and it is the fourth-most-widely used language on the internet. French films and books are popular around the world.
The economic and political impact of France, the fifth-largest economy in the world, and the French-speaking world, the sixth-largest global geopolitical area, is considerable, accounting for 16% of the world’s GDP and 20% of world trade in goods. A report titled “The Global Economic Importance of the French Language” demonstrates the positive impact of French as a common language in trade among members of the global French-speaking community. It is also important to take into account the soft power, or appeal, of French language, culture, and lifestyle.
Not only is France the most popular destination for international visitors in the world and the third-most-popular destination for international students, but Paris has also long been considered the best city for students in the world, second only to Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, in 2017.national students, but Paris has also long been considered the best city for students in the world, second only to Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, in 2017.In addition, 125 million people are learning French, and it is especially interesting to note that during the period 2010–2014, the number of students learning French increased by 2% in North America, 7% in the Middle East, 44% in sub-Saharan Africa, and 43% in Asia and Oceania.
With just under 40% of French speakers living in Europe and enrollment in French in Europe down by 2% during the 2010–2014 period, the inevitable conclusion is that the future of French is increasingly global, less dependent on Europe than ever before, but—at the same time—all the more impactful, precisely because of the interconnectedness of the globalized world.It has even been predicted that, by 2050, French will become the most widely spoken language in the world.As important as the current situation may be, it is also important to remember that there was another period in history—the 18th century—when French was the global language, as chronicled in Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French—“when the French were at home wherever they went, when Paris was every foreigner’s second homeland, and when France became the object of Europe’s collective curiosity.”In conclusion, more people are speaking and learning French today than ever before, and promotion of the French language is a priority for the French government.
The Promotion of FrenchThe promotion of French “is a priority for French diplomacy.” In addition to the appeal of France, Paris, and the French language, culture, and lifestyle, the French government actively promotes French, with more than 700 professionals and a budget of €600 million (USD 750 million) a year. Priority areas include Africa and the Middle East, Europe, the G20 countries, international organizations, economic life, and the media and online.Efforts include the teaching of French through the Alliance Française (445), French Institutes (132), and French Cultural Services, as well as through French international schools (486), teacher training programs, and the promotion of French within specific professional areas.
The Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), with its 80 members and overall population of one billion, is an example of the global reach of French, and the French government actively supports the French language through a wide range of programs around the world, including the Forum mondial de la langue française and TV5Monde.La Fédération internationale des professeurs de français (FIPF) supports the professional development of French teachers around the world.In addition to its efforts to promote French, the French government has embraced the rise of bilingualism and heritage languages, with its “révolution bilingue,” the French Heritage Language Program, the importance of multilingualism and linguistic diversity through its ELAN (Ecole et langues nationales en Afrique) multilingual education program in a dozen African nations, and many more.
The Future of FrenchThere are more people who speak French now than at any other time in history. French is predicted to become the most widely spoken mother tongue in Europe by 2025 and the most widely spoken mother tongue in the world by 2050. In addition, there are approximately 125 million French language learners around the world, and French is actively promoted by the French government and the OIF. The future of French around the world seems assured, and in a globalized and interconnected world, the global resurgence of French is likely to be felt within Europe and the European Union. For those convinced that English is the global lingua franca, it is necessary to remember that English is only spoken by 25% of the world population (British Council).
For those who say that English is—and will always be—the global language, the future is generally difficult to predict. The use of English around the world has been driven by a combination of historical, political, and economic factors, heavily reliant on the former British colonial empire and the role of the U.S. as a global superpower. However, in the 21st-century European context, the UK does not have a pre-eminence of that magnitude, and it is not difficult to imagine an EU functioning solely in French, as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made the point in a May 2017 address.
The same forces that have caused the rise of English in the world may do so for French, and the global rise of French may impact the status of French in Europe. Just as English benefited from the synergy of multiple forces in the 20th century, French may benefit from the synergistic effect of a globalized francophone culture in the 21st century.It is interesting to note that only 36% of native French speakers live in Europe, a powerful indication that while French is indeed a European language, its future is global and its status is impacted by the same global forces that have led to the rise of English. In May 2017, Juncker chose to deliver a speech in French rather than English, saying, “l’anglais est lentement, mais sûrement en perte de vitesse en Europe.”
Concluding ThoughtAs the UK and the EU move toward Brexit, it is important to note current reports of increased interest in foreign language within the UK. Are these merely a coincidence, or a belated response to numerous reports linking foreign language skills to business and professional success, or are they a signal that French is on the rise? Either way, the importance of the French language and francophone culture can no longer be ignored.
Fumaroli, Marc. When the World Spoke French. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: NYRB, 2001.
Kathy Stein-Smith, PhD, is associate university librarian and adjunct faculty in foreign languages and related areas at Fairleigh Dickinson University—Metropolitan Campus, Teaneck, New Jersey. She is chair of the AATF (American Association of Teachers of French) Commission on Advocacy. She is a member of the ATA (American Translators Association) Education and Pedagogy Committee, the CSCTFL (Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advisory Council, and the NECTFL (Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Advisory Council.
She also serves as French language facilitator at MLOW (Many Languages, One World). She is the author of three books and several articles about the foreign language deficit, has given a TEDx talk, “The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit—What It Is, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do about It,” and maintains a blog, Language Matters.