While, yes, the French tend to be passionate about their own language, as a world tongue, it’s not always very visible. There are currently around 270m native and non-native speakers of French in the world, with the largest populations outside Europe in Canada and large swathes of Africa, in places such as Kinshasa and Brazzaville in the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, and Madagascar. However, France seems to have plans to expand its global reach, beginning at home.
French tends to be one of the most popular second languages with English speakers, largely due to the spread of accessible learning tools. There are various online language portals that offer lessons in conversational French, which stretches to about 3,000 new words. As these lessons are usually delivered one-to-one with a qualified tutor, albeit via webcam, they help reinforce the value of talking as a gateway to fluency. French people have never enjoyed playing second fiddle to the English in their own backyard, though.
Following Brexit and a change at the helm of the Council of the European Union (to the government of the French president Emmanuel Macron) in 2022, the French language could become mandatory in all EU business dealings. This would include meetings and all correspondence. In order to force the issue home, France may also start offering language lessons to civil servants and, if the Politico website is to be believed, ignoring everything written in English.
The obvious question is why? While, at first glance, it may appear that France is just engaging in a little political posturing – even a bit of nationalism – the loss of the French language is a genuine concern for the country, not least because Brexit had the opposite of the expected outcome for France. The EU used to be a French-speaking entity yet the departure of Britain didn’t return any of France’s lost dominance in the Union. In fact, post-Brexit, the European Court of Justice was pitching to add English to its one business language, that being French.
Making matters worse for Francophiles is the fact that English continues to grow in importance and popularity around the world. The tongue has been considered the language of business for more than a decade now, something that eats at what many French believe is the survival of their own culture. Of course, from an outside perspective, the reduced importance of French in the EU isn’t so much a dying tribe as a fallen empire. France wants its throne returned.
Unfortunately, for Macron and co., at least, France is staring down an impossible task. English was introduced to European politics so that people had a common language to discuss the issues of the day. Rebadging Europe as a French entity almost overnight greatly increases the capacity for misunderstanding in a bloc that doesn’t speak the language. Logic dictates that, in a Britain-less EU, the new language should be German, which is understood by 36% of the population (29% speak French and 18% Italian).
In any case, France’s ascension to the top of the Council of the European Union could herald interesting times indeed.