French Goes Global – On Its Own Terms

Category: International Business, Language

Every few years, French purists talk about the supposed decline and fall of the French language. Then there’s a vain attempt to ban words like le t-shirt or le weekend. This language patriotism tends to coincide with elections, anti-immigration initiatives, non-conformist music fads (i.e. French-Arabic rap), and anytime France falls into a periodic malaise.

A malaise is going on right now fueled by a stark economic crisis, decline in global superiority and influence, lack of popular support for the government, and fundamental, yet unavoidable, changes to a way of life that has persisted for centuries.

Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times writes about this latest crise of identity and language in the midst of a world that’s going global. And the French are going global with it — kicking, screaming and throwing their exception-riddled subjunctive tense into the poubelle.

To this, a person in Cameroon, where one of the official languages is indeed French, would ask the rhetorical question “On va faire comment?” (“What can you do?” with the unspoken answer of “nothing”) — a complacent and completely, under the circumstance, pragmatic approach to the latest French language debate.

What can you do? Well, not much. Languages change and evolve. And that’s vrai (true) for French as well. Just the phrase itself, spoken by over seven million francophone Cameroonians, is a case in point. The phrase isn’t French French, it’s Cameroonian French.

For over 20 years I’ve been a Francophile and have lived, extensively traveled, worked and studied in France and other Francophone countries (including Cameroon, Belgium, Switzerland, Morocco and Canada). The language is alive and well, and I would say thriving despite the doomsday predicament. Is it going to stay pure? Non! But ironically, it will more than likely stay purer outside of France than inside and that’s what have French language purists in a pickle. And that’s why too, it’s a bit of sweet revenge.

France colonized (and some say, still practice de facto colonization) many countries. Colonists imposed on the native populations the French language along with the French education, economic and government system. Yet, even if you conformed to these systems, a native in a colony was not considered French. To this day, this idea of separate but (sorta) equal still persists.

An example is simply going into FNAC, France’s much better version of Barnes & Noble. You’ll have to go to the Francophone section to find books written in French by writers born outside of France. Even online, you’ll see Francophone books categorized with foreign novels. (That said, I highly recommend the female Cameroonian writer Calixthe Beyala, who broke the “Francophone language ceiling” as it were and won one of France’s top literary prizes, Le Grand Prix du Roman.)

Going to a Francophone country, especially those outside of Europe, is like stepping into a purists-sanctioned French language lesson. The accent, cadence and some words may be a bit different but the language itself isn’t sprinkled with endless slang, dropped syllables, Americanisms (c’est cool, on y go, etc.), and the race to be the fastest French talker in the universe (try and understand a 16 year old in Paris and you’ll see what I mean).

And all that French fuss about grammar, dictation, word games, composition, and in-depth linguistic analysis has rubbed off on the Francophone African education system. Here, where students, even if they are three hours from a land line and living in a house without running water or electricity, learn the intricacies of the written-only literary verb tense of passé simple.

Even outside the classroom, French is prevalent around the world. You can be in the middle of the dessert, rain forest, or downtown Istanbul and you’ll more than likely come across the excellent, French government sanctioned Alliance Française — a trésor trove of books, films, language classes, arts and more — extolling the world of Frenchness.

All said, the French have done a great job of proselytizing French around the world, yet they can’t seem to keep it French enough within France. And this is for a variety of reasons beyond their control: globalization, immigration, the internet, dominance of English as the language of business, and many other factors that contribute to the “loss” (as purist would claim) or, conversely the “evolution” (as others would claim) of French in France. Soon, this will spill into other Francophone countries that are currently more isolated from these factors and then, French in these countries will change as well.

Tragique? More like tout est bien qui finit bien (all’s well that ends well). The French language will survive, just not Baudelaire’s, DeGaulle’s or Chanel’s French, but rather the people’s French.