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French Language and Identity: Are the French a little bit too defensive?

Updated on May 29, 2013

Language and Identity Intertwined

In understanding the French language more, you may come closer to the realisation that for the French, language is much more than what you speak. The French language is, in fact, intimately tied in to the French identity, what it means to be French.

For English-speakers, this connection between language and identity is nowhere near as intense. I think it is probably because English is spread so far and wide, with the United States being the largest English speaking country, not the United Kingdom, let alone England. England is not the cultural heart of the English-speaking world in the same way that France is for the French.

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Académie Française: Protecting the French Language

English-speakers will probably find some of the issues surrounding the French language odd. For instance, there is something called the "Académie Française" which acts as a sort of guardian over the French language, actually banning foreign words (these days, mainly English, but when it was founded in 1635, it was to keep out Italian influence), and replacing them with newly invented French ones. For example, when French people started to speak of "hashtag" or "email" then the Académie replaced them with "mot-diese" and "courriel."

But very recently it was announced that the Government wants French universities to be allowed to teach more courses in the English language, mainly to attract foreign students from places like India and China. To the alarm of many, the higher education minister, Genevieve Fiorasco, went so far as to say that if English were not introduced, then French research would be reduced to "five Proust specialists sitting around a table". Ouch. You can imagine the outcry. The Académie even referred to the proposal as "linguistic treason".

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Parallels in English-language Identity Attatchments

English speakers may see this reaction and, indeed, the whole French position that their language is something that should be policed and protected by a central authority as absurd. But this sort of sensitivity and protectionism may have parallels in the English-speaking world. For example, the British identification with the pound sterling -- although it has been a wise, sound and far-sighted economic decision, from today's perspective -- is based on more than just economics. It is bound up with British, especially English, identity. On the American side, their obsession with their flag, that historically transient piece of cloth, is barely comprehensible to most other countries of the world. Australia and (English-speaking) Canada, as per their national character, don't have any similar hang-ups. (Don't speak about French Canada, however!)

In the end, then, when you are learning French, it is much more than simply about words and grammar. You are being almost let into another world, which they believe you must cherish and respect. Indeed, in French colonialism, for example, a black colonial subject could achieve equal status by mastery of the French language and full acceptance and integration into its culture, in a way that was simply not possible under the British. So the obsession with culture over race, for example, has its interesting implications.

Mais Non! French Universities May Teach in English



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    • Second Language profile image

      Anita Rai 4 years ago

      I think I agree with you. I admire the fact that the French form a real nation, and the French language is an integral part of that. Perhaps there are disadvantages to it, but for a native English speaker, it is quite an enchanting and romantic idea to think about people who have such strong attachment to their language and identity.

    • mbwalz profile image

      MaryBeth Walz 4 years ago from Maine

      Interesting. I love the way the French have protected their culture, as much as can be humanly possible. I have a long history of visiting and while the triumphant and thriving post WWII France I knew in the 70's and 80's is gone, it has transformed itself into a highly multicultural country. I love to see "Les Arabs" - formally looked down upon, now fully integrated into the fabric of society in most places. But this newer generation of French are just as proud, innovated, educated as any previous one. It's very unique, especially when looking from American eyes, to look at a proud nation of people. While often divided and striking and protesting, they fully realize their hard won Republican ideals and practice them regularly while still enjoying a tight-knit French identity.