The French speak English

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHAT has struck me most during my holiday in France — a country I am visiting after 25 years — is that today communication is much easier for someone who cannot speak the French language.

You come across quite a few French men and women who speak and understand English. In fact a number of them are very fluent in the language which previously they had shunned out of national pride.

This has made France a more interesting place for me. I can speak with the natives and learn to see their country from their perspective. Had it not been for this phenomenon I couldn`t have compared notes with Catherine Humblot about Le Monde, the paper for which she worked and for which she still writes music reviews. Journalists never retire, we agreed.

Le Monde, internationally the best known newspaper of France, had a connection with Dawn. The two joined hands in 1979 along with 13 other publications to bring out the One World supplement. The brainchild of Jean Schwoebel, Le Monde`s diplomatic editor, the project became the print media`s version of the North-South dialogue in the pre-Internet age. Through this supplement, newspapers from the industrialised, developing and socialist countries reached out to one another`s readers to give them different perpectives on the same issue.

The languages of communication in our editorial meetings were French and English with simultaneous translation. Today the interpreters would be redundant as English is so commonly understood that one is not required to play dumb charades as a group of English-speaking students had to in the 1960s when they came for a holiday in France from England. They tried to mimic a cow when ordering steak in a restaurant and in the bargain were served a glass of milk.

Those were the days when France was basking in the glory of French being recognised internationally as the lingua franca of diplomacy and culture. Hence why should the French speak any other language when others were speaking theirs? Small wonder, author Claude Gagnière could remark cynically, “A man who speaks three languages is trilingual. A man who speaks two languages is bilingual. A man who speaks only one language is English.”

Even today when English has emerged as the language of international relations there are 130 million people speaking French as their first language while 600 million are conversant in it. But to get on in life the French are learning English, which has emerged as the language of trade, science, civil aviation, Internet and even pop music. Above all, as more and more people worldwide speak English it serves as a useful link language for people of different nationalities.

Then there is tourism — France heads the list of world destinations. With over 79 million travellers and holidaymakers flocking to France every year, the French know very well that they will have to be more open language-wise to welcome the foreigners who visit this land of culture and civilisation that gave the world a legacy of liberty and democracy. At Perouges, an ancient village declared a heritage site, I saw a sign in English warning visitors against thieves!

This doesn`t mean that the French language is losing its charm. Far from it. In fact at one time there was considerable resistance from some quarters to popularising English. Take the case of the law adopted in 1994 and piloted by Jacques Toubon, minister of culture, that made the use of French language mandatory in official publications, advertisements, commercial contracts and government-funded schools. It requires all print ads and billboards with foreign expressions to include a French translation.

Coming from Pakistan where the language question has always been a hot issue, I was curious to know how the French learn English which they now recognise as an important international language. In the state schools all the teaching is in French — the medium of instruction — for that is the mother tongue of most children. Every student is required to learn a second language from the age of 11 years at the secondary level. The preference is preponderantly for English.

Significantly this approach works. Students are learning English as a foreign language because they want to — the Internet and pop music being the greatest motivators. They may not be perfect in English but they can communicate with ease. For those requiring proficiency — as in science and higher education — universities arrange additional English-language courses.

It makes me wonder why our policymakers equate academic quality with the language of instruction. The general belief back home is that if you teach a child in English his education is ipso facto of a high standard. But that is not true. Quality is determined by the curricula, pedagogy, training and commitment of teachers and, above all, the textbooks. And if the mother tongue is the medium of instruction it enhances the advantages offered by the other factors because a child does not have to make an extra — at times futile — effort to understand what he is being taught in a language he does not understand.

Obviously our entire approach is rooted in our psyche that is class-based. English has been taught in private schools that give high-quality education but are affordable only for the privileged. The state schools adopted the local language but failed

to impart good education not because of their medium of instruction but other factors. Now the government is trying to standardise education. It is planning to introduce English as the medium of instruction in all schools. This will be disastrous. When most teachers don`t understand English themseves how will they teach the children?

Zeenut Ziad, a writer and editor of The Magnificent Mughals, who is fluent in Urdu and English, has a point when she says that our language policy is linked to the insecurities of our policymakers and “you have to be very insecure personally and intellectually to dump your language like a load of trash”.