In France, a to-do over how to parlez vous

Teachers redraw battle lines over reforming the French language as they meet to discuss making French easier for foreigners.

Defending the purity of the French language and nurturing its expansion can take on the appearance of a religious crusade that touches the very heart of France's identity and place in the world.

So it was no surprise that the battle lines were redrawn this week when 3,000 of the world's French teachers gathered here for the 10th Congress of the International Federation of French Teachers. The source of discord? A proposal to reform French orthography to make it easier for foreigners to learn the language of Molire and Victor Hugo.

The congress might as well have considered tearing down the Eiffel Tower. In 1990, the Superior Council of the French Language and the French Academy jointly proposed modifying the way some 600 words are written, such as dropping use of the circumflex (as in mrement, "carefully, thoughtfully") and changing "ph" to "f" in words such as tlphone. Hardly a revolution, yet the reaction was so visceral and negative that the changes were never adopted.

"Simplifying the spelling system will not change anything as far as the diffusion of French is concerned," insists Claude Hagge, a professor at the prestigious College de France in Paris. "English, whose worldwide diffusion is excessive, has a spelling that is as incoherent as the French. Just like French, English is not written the way it is pronounced." Mr. Hagge and others argue that the extent of a language's popular use depends on external factors, especially the economic and political power of the country where the tongue is spoken. Although he did not say it directly, Hagge was referring to the United States and to the rapid spread of English, given added impetus by the Internet.

In Europe (other than Britain) for example, figures released by the European Statistical Office show that while nearly all Danish students learn English in high school, only 20 percent study French. In Spain, where until recently most people studied French as a second language, about 90 percent of high school students now choose English. The same is true in Germany and the Netherlands. In Italy, about 75 percent of students learn English, with nearly 40 percent studying French. (Some, obviously, learn both.)

But it is in France itself that one can see the major change. Most well-educated young people know at least enough English to engage in casual conversation, and an increasing number speak it fluently. The traditional surly Paris waiters, who used to smirk at American tourists struggling to order un caf crme, now take pride in blurting out occasional English phrases. Many newspaper ads for high-paying jobs are written in English. In a 1999 report, a group called the Association for the Right to Understand warned that French nationals who do not speak English may be the victims of discrimination in the job market.

Reformers argue that the time has come for the French language to reflect the realities of our time, and be more open to the different ways people speak it in places like Quebec or former French colonies in Africa. "We should accept the diversity of French as a source of wealth, a bridge between continents, a language belonging to all humanity and not just the property of a colonizer and its former dependencies," Jacques Attali, former President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, told the congress.

Some 82 million people currently study French around the world, a figure that is steadily increasing, according to Charles Joselin, minister of cooperation and francophone matters. Yet while French speakers can claim some victories (Nigeria has made learning French mandatory in school), the fact is that French is at best the ninth-most widely spoken language, far behind Chinese, Hindu, English, and Spanish.

For some academics, reforming the way French is written is a more serious matter than may at first appear. France, some historians say, did not become a truly unified country until the government's order that all primary school teaching be done in French took effect, between 1880 and 1920. Until then, a variety of regional languages such as Breton, Occitan, Alsatian, Basque, and Catalan were in common use. "To a large extent France became homogenized by the dictatorship of the written word," says Claude Duneton, a writer who specializes in the French language. "Spelling was in a way the cement of a national consciousness."

Today regional languages are making a comeback, part of the increased role regions are playing in France and throughout Western Europe. Last week, for example, the Corsican regional assembly demanded that the local language become mandatory in schools. The result is that French is being challenged not just by English, but within France itself.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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