18 October 2006

Why not English -- On French as a language (4)

Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said that the most important phenomenon of the 19th Century was that America spoke English. At that time, the sun was not yet set on Great Britain and the Eagle's feather was not strong enough for it to soar high in the sky. However, the two successive powers across Atlantic spoke the same language, is a historical phenomenon with very few precedents.

What was France doing at that time? France was first under Napoleon III in the process of Haussmannization of building grand boulevards and glittering cafes, and later the building of the Third Republic. It was all about being "Frenchy", a tag for cultural and identity pride.

Thanks to the Sun King, French had long been the "official language of Europe" unbeatable even by the British Navy. When the cook sportif woke up the country, the American diplomats were already standing in the Hall of Mirror demanding the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to be written in English as well, making the treaty a first in roughly 500 years of European history to have an English version. Should Jacques Chirac had been there, he would have said "No!" to the Americans. Earlier this year, this die-hard advocate of French (against English) stormed a EU meeting because his fellow Frenchman, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, chose to speak English. Why? Because "such snobbery from the leaders of some international companies to speak only the American business language is intolerable."

To the non-French-speaking tourists, Paris is "intolerable"-- no English signs, no English menu, no English local newspaper, no English chanels, no English broadcast...These are absent in the defense of French as a language. The French society and education environment don't encourage English. In scientific and medical researches, for example, France insists on publishing in French, this resulted in a great gap between the country and the world. New adventures and important discoveries remain unique to the francophone countries and incomprehensible to the outsiders. On the other hand, translation is quick to catch up the world trend. Almost all literary work published in other languages, including English, will soonly be translated into French. There is an efficient division of labour, the experts are doing the job so we people don't need to harsh ourselves to read English... even those "elite" students from l'ENS or la Sorbonne choose French translations than English originals, despite the fact that they are Postgraduate researches in the English Department.

However, it doesn't mean the French refuses to speak English. Once the students joined in the workforce, especially in the commerce, they know they have to deguise themselves with an international suit and they are more willing to speak English. In France, l'homme d'affairs, businessmen, do love to speak English, so do the cafe waiters and waitress in their penguin suit! Though it might be politically incorrect to request BBC English from every lips and tongue, the french just love their french accent when they speak English and they strive to keep their french trace, just like all spoiled kids love their milk moustache to remind you that afterall, they are kids!