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English in France? Mais Oui!
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
France's President Jacques Chirac

Should English be a required subject for all French schoolchildren alongside of math and French?

Yes, according to a report of France's Higher Council of School Assessment. Non, said France's President Jacques Chirac, a number of French politicians, and leaders of French unions.

For many countries the idea of English as a basic subject is already a reality. Italian schoolchildren begin to study English in elementary school. The same goes for many European countries.

In some other countries such as South Korea, English is viewed as such an important language that some parents even go as far as putting their kids through a frenectomy — a minor surgery which lengthens the tongue by about one millimeter. The idea is that having a longer tongue will significantly improve the kids' pronunciation when they learn English.

Although there is little doubt that English has been the lingua franca for much of the past century and will be for the foreseeable future, it's difficult for the French to accept it. French had the role of lingua franca before English and the French have tried their best to maintain it although with little success in recent times.

Cut Tongue for English?
A scene from a movie "If You Were Me" shows that a small child gets ready to undergo a surgery in a Seoul clinic for cutting underneath part of his tongue to make it longer for better pronunciation of English. The surgery called a frenectomy — a minor surgery which lengthens the tongue by about one millimeter, is gaining its popularity among the South Koreans.
Photo caption by
Lee Hyun-Ju

Both French and English are considered the working languages of the United Nations. Yet, the French often complain about the fact that English dominates and some U.N. materials are not available in French.

French speakers have even had to defend their language because of the "invasion" of English words, particularly through music, cinema, and of course, pop culture.

Both Canada and France passed laws to limit or stop the invasion of English and maintain French. For example, public signs in Quebec have to be twice the size of their English translations. Some shopkeepers have in fact been taken to court because their English signs were larger than half the size of French. And no English word can be used if a French term exists.

Trying to maintain the predominance and purity of the French language, France passed the Toubon Law in 1994. It mandates the use of French in government documents, public advertising, road signs, etc., and prohibits the use of foreign words if suitable French terms exist. At least 40 percent of the songs broadcast by radio stations in France must be in French. A similar formula is used for television programs.

In spite of these efforts, English has continued to rise and the importance of French has been moving in the opposite direction. That's why some globally-thinking French speakers have decided to join the bandwagon. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Education Minister Francois Fillon support the idea of French schoolchildren learning English.

Children at school in France

Chirac disagrees. He believes that nothing would be worse for humanity if the language "of international communication" would be limited to English.

French teachers unions are also concerned that if English is given predominance, other foreign languages would be severely curtailed. Classes in German, Italian, and regional French, such as Breton would be displaced from the French curriculum.

The rise of English is undoubtedly endangering other languages. The number of people who speak English as their second language tells you something about its power. It is estimated that 400,000,000 people speak English as nonnatives, while 350,000,000 speak it as their mother tongue.

Ironically, fact that more people speak English as a second language may also pose a danger to English itself. It's likely that as English becomes everyone's second language, it will be seen as nothing more than a tool like math, Fortran, or Algol.

To stay in touch with our humanity, we'll have to resort to the language which represents our culture — the language we learned from our parents. And that language for most people around the globe will be something other than English. So French, like many other languages, may not have much to fear.

The French should let their kids learn English. What foreign language should American kids learn?

Other Articles by Domenico Maceri
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    Legal and Illegal Immigration: A Winning ...
    World Cup: Beyond the Soccer Field
    John Kelly's Fails English and History

Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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