Presenter Jeremy Paxman recently hailed the victory of English “in the battle of global tongues” in an article for the Financial Times in which he also claimed that French was “useless” and “bad for you”.
Why such a needless attack on Britain’s closest neighbour and favourite enemy – unless he is trying to court controversy to generate interest in his forthcoming documentary on the UK’s relationship with Europe?
First of all, no language is useless: it serves communication between people. While languages may differ in the number of users and the practical and economic advantages attached to their mastery, they bring similar intellectual and developmental benefits. And multilingualism combines and increases all these gains by favouring personal mental agility, widening horizons and potentially contributing to overcoming parochialism.
Let us now focus on Paxman’s attack on French. Are his barbs aimed at the language or at the people? It’s difficult to say as he confuses countries and languages throughout his column. While he concedes that: “France has enhanced civilisation”, he argues that its influence has long gone. It is very true that the rise and fall of a language greatly depends on extra-linguistic factors such as politics and economy – and France’s current situation does little to enhance the international prestige of its mother tongue.
Does that mean that the French language is doomed? Clearly not, as French is the official language in 29 countries and France only represents between a quarter and a third of French speakers in the world. Perhaps we might stop to consider, en passant, why Paxman’s analysis does not extend to Britain and English. How much has the elevated status of English worldwide got to do with Britain in the 21st century?
Speaking in tongues
Paxman writes that: “English is the language of science, technology, travel, entertainment and sports”. And he’s right – to an extent. As we know and as all academics can testify, there is huge pressure to publish in English (without necessarily achieving the heights of Shakespeare’s language). And our daily life has been turned upside down in the past 30 years or so thanks to the discoveries of Silicon Valley (which wasn’t in Britain the last time I looked).
When travelling, an ability to master at least “pidgin” English comes in very handy – although it didn’t get me anywhere in Beijing in 2005, and I had to revert to speaking French while in Italy. As for entertainment, of course, people are flocking from all around Europe to take part in Britain’s got Talent … but Hollywood may have a role to play on the global entertainment stage as well.
Like Paxman, I would not expect the singer, Johnny Hallyday (who is, in fact, Belgian-born), to be “the future of pop” – he probably deserves a break after his stellar 50-year career. But the rising global fame of the singer Stromae (real name Paul Van Haver) – the son of a Rwandan father and a Flemish mother – seems to show that entertainment through the medium of French may still have a few good years ahead.
Paxman also argues that “France never really decolonised” and its continued influence is stifling development in former colonies by imposing French on their higher education systems rather than English which, he says, would be far more useful. The linguistic imperialism of France certainly does not apply to all former colonies, as eloquently illustrated by the disengagement of France in Djibouti, to the dismay of Francophile locals.
The accusation of colonialism against France appears nonetheless a bit ironic from a British citizen. The Commonwealth is an organisation of British former colonies where Britain played an instrumental role. In contrast, Francophonie – the official use of the French language – was adopted in Senegal by poet and politician Leopold Senghor, in Tunisia the decision to adopt French was taken by Habib Bourguiba and in Cambodia by Norodom Sihanouk.
English and French have coexisted and exchanged words and phrases for a millennium and more. From a 2016 perspective, there is no denying that English has become the most widespread and used language of the two, but it may be worth remembering that for the first half of this coexistence, English was the poor relative and has only taken off as the lingua franca (oh, the irony) since the late 18th century.
History teaches us that civilisations and their language soar and collapse – what would Alexander the Great make of Greece’s current situation? With that in mind, Paxman may be well inspired to moderate his triumphalism. How will the global English language fare in five centuries – will it suffer the same fate as Latin? And even if it could be argued that our hyperconnected civilisation may prevent the death of English, there is no dearth of evidence from the blooming field of “global English” studies to show that the language changes as it conquers the world.
Your language has won the latest battle, Mr Paxman – but no more than that. As you say, the future may belong to those who speak English – but above all, it belongs to those who speak English fluently alongside other languages. And, as former US president George Bush discovered, French is very useful if you want to acquire a really sophisticated vocabulary in English.