Monday, August 12, 2019

Is France protecting the wrong language?

By Gwyneth Dixon

Gwyneth Dixon is a junior in Global Studies and Political Science at The University of Illinois. Gwyneth’s future plans include pursuing a JD. Gwyneth wrote this blog post in the 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ course in spring 2019.

Stock photo of the Union Jack and the French flag.
Source: Pxhere
With 300 million speakers worldwide (BENCHMARKS), French owes most of its popularity to France’s history. In the seventeenth century, the nation-state benefitted from an influential role in the arts, a strong economy, and a powerful, successful military (“Studies on translation,” 2010, p. 13). Combined, these factors ultimately resulted in the nation’s prominent role as one of “the main political powers” of the world (“Studies on translation”, 2010, p 13). With this influence and power, French soon became the language of commerce, arts, and academics, and as more and more people recognized the benefits of learning French, the language became a global lingua franca (Wright, 2016). With France’s continued dominance, French remained largely unchallenged for centuries (“Studies on translation”, 2010, p 14), but as France began to lose influence and power as a result of the World Wars, the world’s attention shifted to a new language, English. While scholarship argues that the widespread use of English results in increased use of indigenous languages for identification purposes (House, 2013, p. 4), this is not the case for France. Threatened by the displacement of French as the dominant lingua franca, France’s anti-English sentiment, conveyed in its language policies, instead further marginalizes and endangers the nation’s regional and minority languages.

A leading sociolinguist in France, Louis-Jean Calvet, argued that French should be strengthened against the “global dominance of English and the unreasonable demands of minority languages” (Kasuya, 2001, p. 249), and French legislation and language policies seemed to achieve these goals. In an attempt to “defend…against the monopoly of English” (Kasuya, 2001, p. 235), the ideology of “Francophonie” emerged to unite French-speaking nations. In its traditional sense, Francophonie refers to the French-speaking community worldwide, but the Francophonie ideology is also imbued “with colonial motives” that try to compensate for the “lost international status” and economic influence of French (Kasuya, 2001, p. 247). To counter this loss of status and prestige, there have been various efforts initiated by the government to promote French and to limit the influence of English. One example was an amendment to France’s Constitution, which stated that “the language of the Republic is French” (Määttä, 2005, p. 173). While this amendment worked to strengthen and solidify the status of French, it also hindered the protection of the nation’s multiple regional or minority languages. In 1999, the Constitutional Council of France determined that the nation could not ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages because it would undermine this very amendment (Blanchet, 2004, p. 127-128). French language purism has also produced similar consequences. While language purism works to “cleanse” a language of outside influences by discouraging nonstandard language use and promoting the language as independent and of high-status, these same efforts also threaten the “ethnic or national identity of [a] society” (Shapiro & Jernudd, 1989, p. 54)  because they alter the recognition and prestige of various dialects and regional languages in a nation. In the case of France, where “in order to progress in the French social order, one must get rid of any perceived regional stigma” (Joubert, 2015, p. 172), such policies greatly discourage minority language use.

Simply put, France’s efforts to preserve French as a relevant, dominant language at home and around the world can be counterproductive. Although France continues to struggle with the fact that English is the new dominant lingua franca, French is not under any kind of threat. As the International Organization of La Francophonie’s website boasts, French is still the fifth most widely spoken language on the planet. Additionally, scholars have shown that English lingua franca users maintain attachment to their first languages (House, 2013, p. 6); thus, even if France were to promote English as a lingua franca, the usage of French in domestic affairs would remain largely unchanged. Instead, what seems to be at stake is the global status of the language, yet even from this perspective, France must consider how lingua francas are subject to change. Lingua francas are learned for utilitarian purposes (Wright, 2016), such as increased opportunities, and as the sociopolitical climate of the world changes, English itself might be replaced by another language as the dominant lingua franca. Thus, instead of pursuing initiatives that prevent the spread and influence of English, France should instead focus on maintaining the integrity of all of the languages in its territory to assure inclusion and social cohesion for its citizens. While regional or minority languages spoken in French territory are truly threatened by shrinking domains of use, the policies that work to protect French from English only further limit these domains of use and thus are likely to further endanger regional or minority languages.


BENCHMARKS. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2019, from

Studies on translation and multilingualism. (2011). Luxembourg: European Union.

Blanchet, P. (2004). Provençal as a distinct language? Sociolinguistic patterns revealed by a recent public and political debate. International Journal of the Sociology of Language doi:10.1515/ijsl.2004.037

House, J. (2013). English as a global lingua franca: A threat to multilingual communication and translation?. Language Teaching, Available on CJO 2012 doi:10.1017/S0261444812000043

Joubert, A. (2015). Occitan: A language that cannot stop dying. Policy and Planning for Endangered Languages,171-187. doi:10.1017/cbo9781316162880.013

Kasuya, K. (2001). Discourses of linguistic dominance: A historical consideration of French language ideology. International Review of Education, 47: 235.

Määttä, S. K. (2005). The european charter for regional or minority languages, french language laws, and national identity. Language Policy,4(2), 167-186.

Shapiro, A., & Jernudd, B. (1989). The politics of language purism. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Wright, S. (2006). FRENCH AS A LINGUA FRANCA. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics,35-60.


Post a Comment

The moderators of the Linguis Europae blog reserve the right to delete any comments that they deem inappropriate. This may include, but is not limited to, spam, racist or disrespectful comments about other cultures/groups or directed at other commenters, and explicit language.

Cookie Settings