What good fun this recent debate about courses being taught in English in French universities.

It all started with Genevieve Fioraso, the Minister of Higher Education, modestly suggesting a reform to an old law that was already willfully ignored by the majority of Higher Education institutions, particularly by the most elite.  The law being that within France’s universities all subjects (apart from foreign languages of course) must be taught in French. The reform would officially permit what has already been commonplace for many years, namely the teaching of core courses in English.

Elite campuses with an outlook to International competition for the best exchanges, foreign partnerships and to attract the best foreign faculty and students, have been offering whole programs in English. These schools argue that it is the only realistic way to remain competitive.  Research needs to be published in English if it is to garner any significant revenue or International attention. Top specialists offered places at different universities around the world are only interested in offers which permit them to work in a language they are familiar with and which permits their work to continue to be recognized.

A French universities in Montpellier France

Those who disagree with the reform may be considered to fall into two different camps.  The first and most stereotypical are the French exceptionists.  They are jingoists one might be given to imagine with a tri colour sash around one shoulder and tied at the hip, holding an annoyed sounding discourse while brandishing a baguette. For them, French is the greatest language and these new reforms are only going to marginalize the language and the culture. A living language needs to be present in the advance of all domains and it should never be beholden to another language to express itself in any subject.  It is the job of French universities to protect, cherish and uphold the countries language and culture.

Speaking as a Francophile I have sympathy for this first group and their sentiment.  I have put considerable time and effort in to learning French and I would hate to see that arduously acquired skill become obsolete.  They are right about the marginalization of the language too.  But let’s face it, in so far International business, science and technology goes, those battles are lost.

There is no sense in arguing which language is better, the market has spoken, the die is cast and that ship has sailed.  Young people who want to succeed will have to learn the language of Shakespeare, or at least John Wayne.  But are they learning it?  Not at the same rate as their European neighbours according to the latest surveys, at least not in an egalitarian sense.  It is the children of the most priviledged social classes that have the highest mastery of English.  Where the National education system hasn’t provided they have found tutors, private language classes and trips abroad to get an edge.

The second group that disagree with this reform are those who fear that French professors who are incapable of teaching their subjects in English will be forced to do so and thereby reduce the quality of the pedagogy while hurting the ears of their listeners.  They also fear that students lacking the necessary English competences will simply not understand their lessons.

Therefore, more lessons of higher quality teaching English as a second language is what is needed most. It has been argued that one of the impediments to adequate English learning in France has been the proliferation of a kind of 2nd class English or English according to the French National curriculum.  A book called ‘Sorbonne Confidential’ by Laurel Zuckerman documents the bewilderment of Anglophones trying to get work as English teachers in the National schools of France and finding that they have to re-learn “the English” as it is according to panel of French judges presiding from Paris.  In this context the Francophone “English teachers” were systematically preferred over Anglophone candidates in National exams and classroom assessments.

While “La Sorbonne Confidential” is a semi fictionalized manifesto it may go some way towards explaining how so many French students spend so many hours reviewing grammar rules so fruitlessly.

So what can this debate mean for Anglophones living in France?  Maybe there will be more job opportunities in teaching, particularly if you have high level University qualifications in either a business or technology related field.  Maybe there will be more clients for private English schools and tutors.  Maybe you will be able to use this information to fire up a good debate over an apero with French friends or just maybe this debate may serve as a reminder of how fragile languages are and if you love French culture you should get out there and support the French film and literature sectors and encourage them to flourish amidst this Anglo domination.

Brad Jeffrey

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