The Anglo Invasion: France Debates Teaching Courses in English

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FRED DUFOUR / AFP / Getty Images

French students at the Arago high school in Paris take the graduation exam on June 17, 2013

When I opted to send my child to an all-French school, rather than one of the expat-heavy ones catering to Americans in Paris like us, I braced myself for some complications. And indeed, three years on, much baffles me, like assignments that requires one to memorize Breton librettos or the work of 19th century poet Paul Verlaine — all before the age of 7. But now, with first grade winding down, one baffling aspect of French education has jumped the school wall and into politics, as President François Hollande’s government takes on a contentious issue: how to persuade — or even allow — the French to speak more English, while preserving their own cherished language.

On May 21, France’s Minister of Higher Education introduced a bill in parliament aimed at overhauling universities, with one of its most controversial proposals a measure markedly expanding the use of English, the global lingua franca for the sciences and business, not to mention the Internet. Until now, the government has allowed classroom English, from kindergarten to graduate school, only in lessons that teach English language and literature. So, for example, reading Harvard Business School case studies in their original is, by the strict letter of the law, interdit. Hollande’s government argues that the restriction risks leaving French universities increasingly isolated. “India has 60 million programmers, and sends us only 3,000 students,” Geneviève Fioraso, the Higher Education Minister for whom the new law is named, told reporters. “We need more partnerships, and for that, we propose courses in English. Otherwise, we’re going to be five specialists on [French novelist Marcel] Proust sitting around a table.”

Logical as it sounds, the proposal, part of a much broader attempt to make French universities more competitive in the world, has ignited a firestorm. Last month’s debate in parliament raged for 29 hours, and barely squeaked through, with 289 to 248 votes. And on Wednesday the French Senate began a three-day debate on the bill, wisely timing it just as most universities have closed for the summer. The Senators look set to approve the law, probably on Friday night.

But victory has not come easy. Left-wing parties have threatened to vote against the law. Trying to calm the furor in the Senate, Fioraso told the lawmakers, “The world is moving fast. We have to adapt,” and said the law would “not in any way call into question the primacy of education in French.”

France, of course, is hardly alone in guarding its language from intruders. Bilingual education has been a political flashpoint for years in California, Massachusetts and other U.S. states, with some fearing that immigrant communities might not integrate fully if their children are not compelled to study in English. But with English now the dominant international language, the effort to retain the importance of French seems urgent to many purists — and to others, a pointless, losing battle. The Académie Française, the official body founded in the 17th century to preserve the purity of the French language, creates alternatives for neologisms like email, le weekend or le web to stop the English terms from appearing in official documents and public broadcasts and helps enforce laws that, for example, forbid rock radio stations from playing mostly English-language music. Hence, the countless French versions of standards like “Hotel California.” When I mentioned the rule to a friend who runs a rock radio station in Paris, he laughed, saying, “We break that law all the time.”

In fact, with French youth logging many hours a day online, the academy’s standards are virtually impossible to maintain. And indeed, the French have long concluded that learning English is crucial for their prospects. About 92% of French surveyed in a 2010 E.U. poll thought English was the most useful language for their children’s future. To the linguistic purists, though, the new law has seemed like a mortal blow. The leading French writer Bernard Pivot wrote in the Catholic paper La Croix last month that if English were introduced into universities, French “will become a commonplace language, or worse, a dead language.”

If this argument seems confounding, you probably do not have a child in French school.

When the school year began last September, about 10 of us English-speaking parents of first-graders — Americans, Brits and others — suggested to school authorities that we volunteer some classes for our bilingual children. After months of meetings with the school director and the English teacher, a transplant from Springfield, Mass., whose job includes teaching 6-year-olds some basic phrases, we won the right to hold eight half-hour bilingual sessions, on condition that we used no English flash cards or taught any reading or writing in English, which the director explained would for the moment impede their French learning. We filled a box with crayons and paper, which my son hauled into his classroom, boasting to friends that it was for “les enfants anglais.”

The enfants anglais never saw the contents, however. One week before the sessions were to begin, the director canceled our program, explaining in an e-mail that there was no spare room in which to hold it.

Although the official version stuck, most of us wondered whether the truth lay elsewhere. Our minirevolution was sure to cause upset from the start, in a system rigidly governed by the national curriculum — a fact that in and of itself chafed against our American individualism. In fact, a few days after the e-mail arrived, a member of the school’s parent-teacher association explained that some teachers had rejected our idea, saying that it contradicted government pedagogie, which is geared to preserving French. As one American parent wrote in the e-mails that zipped around the parents’ group, “Nothing surprises me anymore about French educational philosophy.” Not even a fierce political battle to allow university professors to conduct some of their teaching of business, physics, or philosophy itself, in English.