Via The Economist
Emmanuel Macron’s plan to boost French-speaking puts means before motive
REMARKABLY, a French president had never addressed the Académie Française before. The French have a soft spot for authority, and the mighty presidency (atypical for Europe) and the academy (founded to guarantee the purity of the French language) are both symbols of that. So when Emmanuel Macron told the academicians—modestly known as les immortels—of his ambitions to revitalise French around the world, it was a very French affair indeed.
In some ways Mr Macron constitutes a break with Gallic tradition. He speaks English not only well but gladly, in contrast to his predecessors, François Hollande (whose ropy English was the butt of jokes) and Jacques Chirac (who often pointedly refused to talk in English, though he could). But in the best French tradition, Mr Macron spoke with passion about French and confidence in its future. He announced more money for the Alliance Française, for example, to teach the language, and more support for teaching French to refugees who have arrived in France. His aim is to see French go from being the world’s fifth-most-spoken language to its third.
It is very French to think that this can be accomplished by determined state action. Yet people don’t learn a language because somebody has built a fancy new school nearby. These days there are plenty of language-learning options, especially online. The cost of learning a language is mainly measured not in money but in time. You have to give someone a reason to do the work, before even bothering with the means and opportunity.
Think about the rivals to French. One is English. Americans and Britons might think foreigners learn English because their culture is appealing. But if that was ever true, it no longer is. Foreigners learn English simply because there are already a lot of people to speak it with—a majority of them, today, outside the chief Anglophone countries. A Swede learns English to do business in Brazil. This is why, despite the irony, English will probably still dominate the European Union after Brexit.
Or consider Chinese, a language of booming interest to foreign learners. It is in a way the opposite of English: the vast majority of its speakers live in just one country. But what a country. China’s economy will soon be the world’s largest, and its people still do not speak very good English. Learning Chinese is an obvious way to exploit an unrivalled economic opportunity.
Finally, take German. In the 19th century it was a posh language of science and scholarship, expected of all educated Europeans. Early Zionists pondered making it the national language of the Jewish state. But two wars, horrific atrocities and four decades of division wrecked its image. However, it has recovered. As Germany’s economy roared back from a long post-reunification slump, German-learning increased by 4% between 2010 and 2015 (a lot, in historical terms). Perhaps more surprisingly, a country once considered stolid and conservative has developed a reputation for cool. Berlin is seen as the hippest capital in Europe. German is both useful and attractive.
French could combine all these attributes. Like English, it is found around the world. Like Chinese, it is economically important: French-speaking countries account for 8.4% of global GDP. And like Germany recently, France has long had cultural cachet. How, then, to revive the optimism for the language itself?
Much of the work will be done outside France, and by growth in Africa in particular. Mr Macron knows this; after an initial announcement, in Burkina Faso, that he wanted to give new vigour to the French-speaking world, he was seen as neocolonialist. His speech at the Academy was better, conceding that French had “emancipated itself from France”. He told the Academy that it was high time French schools began teaching literature written in French outside France.
By one projection, in 2050 there will be 700m French-speakers—80% of them in Africa. To keep that forecast on track and keep Africans speaking French—not switching to English, as Rwanda did—France would be wise to continue this approach of fraternité rather than autorité with its African friends, by helping those countries develop economically. And the best thing Mr Macron could do at home is release the talents of the French people. Reforms that get the French economy growing as Germany’s has done would do more than all the shiny new French-teaching schools in the world.