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French to displace English as the world’s first language? Probablement pas, President Macron

Est-ce que c’est possible? The French President Emmanuel Macron wants to make French the “first language of Africa” and “perhaps the world”.

“The radiance, the attractiveness of French does not just belong to France,” he proclaimed to students in Burkina Faso last week.

Macron may have shattered the mould of the formal French political system when he established an entirely new political party and sensationally stormed the Élysée Palace earlier this year, but when it comes to French language promotion, the familiar old elite Gallic script endures.

The French establishment alternates between chauvinism and paranoid defensiveness when it comes to its mother tongue. After Britain joined the common market in the 1970s English dethroned French as the primary means of communication within the bloc, putting noses in Paris out of joint. An attempt to designate French as the European Union’s benchmark legal language a decade ago failed. But some in France are now sensing that Brexit opens an opportunity for another crack at a Francophone restoration in the EU.

Within France, the language is policed by an official Académie of the great and good, which periodically updates a blacklist of distasteful Anglo-Saxonisms such as “le weekend”. The domestic law has even been deployed in the cause of defending the language. In 2006 a French subsidiary of General Electric was fined €500,000 for issuing one of its software manuals in English.

Yet, unfortunately for Macron and any of his compatriots who are dreaming of a Francophone future, such bureaucratic and legal levers are unlikely to be effective.

Two economic concepts explain the spread of language: network effects and path dependency. Network effects describe how the network becomes more useful the more people join it. If an increasing number of people speak a tongue it becomes increasing worthwhile for others to speak it too if they want to communicate efficiently. Path dependency describes how initial conditions can have a profound influence on outcomes over a long period. 

Today’s pre-eminence of the English language in international commerce and culture stems from the fact that Britain created a globe-spanning empire in the 19th century, which then effectively gave way to an Anglophone cultural hegemony in the early 20th century with the economic predominance of the US. These initial historical conditions, combined with network effects over the decades, are the reason English dominates international communication today.

It could have been different. There’s nothing uniquely or universally accessible about English. For all its glories, the tongue of Shakespeare is by no means the easiest language to learn. What if France had emerged as the dominant seafaring European power in the 1800s? What if French immigrants had settled in the colonies of what became the United States, rather than English ones? A small change in those initial conditions might have resulted in us all speaking French today. We might have been set on a different path.

But why can’t things change? Why shouldn’t France “disrupt” English and become the lingua franca of the 21st century? The French investment bank Natixis forecast a few years ago that the numbers of the world population speaking French could overtake English, Mandarin, and Spanish and become the language with the most speakers by 2050. This was essentially based on projections of rapid growth in the population of Africa (where French is commonly spoken due to the legacy of French 19th century colonialism).

Yet path dependency and network effects are more powerful forces than demography. It’s true an African born in the coming decades might grow up speaking French. But there will remain extremely powerful incentives for that same young African to also learn English if they have aspirations to travel, study abroad, or work in firms that are linked to the global economy.

After all, even today there are more native Mandarin speakers (982 million) than native English speakers (375 million), but English’s domination (with 1.5 billion total speakers worldwide) is as strong as ever, even with the economic rise of China.

The Chinese Communist dictator Mao notoriously argued that power grows out of a barrel of a gun. When it comes to the power of a global language, military domination certainly had a role in the early days, in establishing those initial conditions, those colonies and empires. But today a language’s power is mainly drawn from the peaceful network. One thing it certainly doesn’t flow from is the diktats of French bureaucrats and politicians.

This article was originally published in The Independent on 03/12/2017


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