x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

For both Britain and France, the other's tongue is a talking-point

In France, President Nicholas Sarkozy is pressing for children to learn English from the age of three, even as others attack the excessive use of English terms by French speakers, while in the UK, learning French is said to be under threat because of a trend towards commercially more beneficial languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

CALAIS // On both sides of the English Channel, the narrow strip of water that separates the United Kingdom and France, new ways are being sought to solve an age-old problem shared by these close but squabbling neighbours.

For all the lofty aspirations of those who talk of the entente cordiale, the French and the British are notoriously bad at learning each other's language.

According to stereotypes, the Englishman tries to make himself understood in France by talking his own language more slowly and loudly, while the Frenchman hopes he will ooze enough Gallic charm to get by,

Now the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is hoping to address the French side of the problem by requiring children to learn English from the age of three.

And in Britain, academics concerned that the study of French at universities could be doomed are suggesting a broader approach recognising that the francophone world extends beyond France.

Mr Sarkozy's education minister, Luc Chatel, says an inability to to speak English is a significant handicap.

He wants to reinvent study of the "language of Shakespeare", exploiting the adaptability of young children and using the internet to bring the learning process up to date.

The idea has drawn plenty of criticism as well as praise. French language purists say the education system should concentrate on falling standards of oral and written French in schools.

One primary schoolteacher, contributing to the debate at L'Express news magazine's website, said children's French vocabularies were declining gradually each year.

Some of Mr Sarkozy's critics have also suggested that the president should remedy his syntax and style when speaking French before calling for toddlers to be taught a foreign language in which his own capability is modest.

The socialist parliamentarian François Loncle, a former minister, even put down a formal written question about the president's "vulgar" use of French. Mr Sarkozy's defenders, including Mr Chatel, suggested his plain-talking manner should be applauded.

In Britain, the fear is that successive shifts in government policy have made a difficult position for modern languages tougher still.

Professor Charles Forsdick, the James Barrow professor of French at Liverpool University, said that whereas the Labour administration dropped the obligation on 14-year-old pupils to learn a foreign language, it at least attached weight to French tuition at primary level.

This had effectively been reversed by the Conservative/LibDem coalition. Moreover, he said, French was under threat because of a trend towards commercially more beneficial languages such as Arabic and Chinese.

Professor Forsdick has lived in the Brittany region of western France, where he encountered expatriate British residents who refused to learn French or integrate.

"There seems to be residual resistance on the part of some Britons to learning foreign languages," he said.

"The joke used to be that if you spoke three languages, you were trilingual, two made you bilingual and one meant you were American. Now, because of the advances of Spanish in the US, speaking only one makes you British."

But as French writers and linguists have acknowledged, resistance is also commonplace on their side of what they insist is La Manche.

There is even an organisation calling itself L'Académie de la Carpette Anglaise (the English Doormat Academy) which makes spoof annual wards for the "spineless" surrender of French public figures or institutions in the face of Anglo-Saxon cultural encroachment.

Past 'winners" have included a city mayor who chose English terms for two new public services, the Busway and Mail, and a television director who allowed programmes to be broadcast with such titles as Top of the Pops and Dancing Show . The French socialist leader Martine Aubry was the 2010 victor for the systematic use of English phrases in party slogans.

For another British academic, who has been honoured for his work in furthering Anglo-French cultural relations, one answer - perhaps of benefit to both countries - lies in treating French as too important to be left to those who "like France too much".

Professor Andrew Hussey, dean of the University of London's Institute in Paris, wrote in a recent newspaper column that the job of making France fit for the 21st century depended in part on making French a world language and not the preserve of "braying Brit holidaymakers".

"Writing in French, from Morocco to Senegal to Quebec, has much to teach us in Britain about the hyper-complexity of the post-colonial world," he said. "For this reason, it should be read by all classes, all races, and not just those who are lucky enough to go to a pubic school."