Does French Stand a Chance Against a Global English-language Tsunami?

French, once the language of high culture, kings and queens, and pin-striped diplomats, is drowning in a global tsunami of English usage in commerce, science, education -- and even at the multilingual United Nations.

The United Nations has six official languages but English and French are considered the "working" languages. Yet without fluent English, journalists can't understand press conferences, diplomats can't negotiate resolutions and officials in the field can't file reports.

Still many of the U.N. peacekeeping missions are in Africa -- and in French-speaking lands, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Mali. Too often senior U.N. officials heading these operations, while fluent in French, are not native French speakers.

At a recent session at the Consulate General of France in New York, Stephane Dujarric, director of the U.N.'s News and Media Division, said:

"So my simple answer is: learn English!

"It's not abdicating in the face of an English tsunami. It's about making sure you know how to swim."

If you don't speak and especially write English fluently you will not be hired in an international organization or you will not be able to prosper in it. Let's recognize that in this very point in human history, English is the dominant language. Nothing lasts forever. Tomorrow it may be Mandarin and a few hundred years later Arabic. But today it's English. That's an indisputable fact.

Dujarric, who was questioned by Margaret Besheer, the Voice of America U.N. correspondent, stressed he was speaking as an "expatriate living as a linguistic minority," rather than a U.N. official. He gave some interesting statistics:

  • At the last U.N. General Assembly session, only 22 of 193 speakers gave speeches wholly in French, while another five countries used French in part of their speeches.
  • The English-language U.N. news site received 470,000 page views last month, the French 44,000.
  • The U.N. twitter accounts in French had 10,000 followers; the English account has 1.5 million.
  • It is rare to see an internal U.N. memo written in French or even a cable coming from a peacekeeping mission.
  • In Geneva, the European headquarters of the United Nations, it is no longer necessary to speak French to work for the world body as was the case a decade ago.

In other words, the only way to bring in more French-speakers into the organization is to make sure that French-speaking staff is able to work in an English-speaking environment and operate with the same ease as their English-speaking counterparts. If you don't speak and write English fluently you will not be hired in an international organization or you can't prosper in it.

Coincidentally, the consulate discussion was held as the French government proposed a law that would require French universities to teach more courses in English. One scholar called the measure a "suicidal project" that would lead to France's sacrificing its language to "Americanization disguised as globalization," the New York Times reported.

Students took to the streets with signs saying "Sauvons l'Universite" ("Save the University"), even though the proposal was not mandatory and would affect only one percent of university courses.

Many words in English, like "weekend" and "cool," are common in French. The French language is also losing ground in Brussels, where the European Union of 27 nations does most of its business in English. Students studying English in France rank 23rd out of 27 EU countries. (One forgets, though, that English is built on a lot of French words and expressions since the Norman Conquest of 1066.)

And yet... international organizations would be quite boring without a plethora of languages. The United Nations produces all official documents into English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese. Billions of people in the world do not speak English, despite the primacy of English in diplomacy and business.

But U.N. negotiations on resolutions are nearly always done in English, even if the drafters are native French speakers. And press releases are drafted in English and translated into French only, prompting a protest from Argentina on behalf of Spanish-speaking nations.

But without French-language speakers having proficiency in English, the pool of French-speaking staff at the United Nations will keep shrinking. "That, in turn, will rob the organization of the necessary linguistic and cultural diversity that it needs to effectively do its job," Dujarric said.

Otherwise the pretense of a multilingual United Nations keeps shrinking. The French can take heart of "poussez" and "tirez" on all doors and recorded voices in elevators announcing the "troisième étage".