In the latest instalment of our series on the ten most important languages for the UK's future, as identified in our Languages for the Future report, we turn to French. Professor Michael Kelly OBE, who heads the Modern Languages Department at the University of Southampton, describes the je ne sais quoi of learning French.
French has a romance to the English speaker's ear
Like most people of my generation, I started learning French at secondary school. Everyone did French, and if you wanted to learn other modern languages, you could start them later. It turned out that I was quite good at it, but I wasn’t really hooked until we got into the culture. That was when the ‘wow’ factor kicked in. I was bowled over by the depth of feeling and still get tingles when I come across poems by Charles Baudelaire. L’Invitation au voyage was my particular favourite, taking me on a journey to a country where ‘tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté’ [quotation from Baudelaire's poem; translates as 'all is order and beauty, luxury, peace, and pleasure']. To this day, that sums up France at its best for me.
One of the attractions of French is that so much of it is close to the English. You don’t need to understand every word to know what Baudelaire is getting at in the lines I’ve quoted. But when you say the words in French they conjure up a world beyond their ordinary English counterparts. What marks it as a romantic language for us is that we can almost, but not quite fully, understand it. We don’t use it all the time, so we don’t get the overlay of everyday meanings that crowd out the magic for a native speaker. Perhaps this is why the British see French as the 'language of love'.
French has left a lasting impression on the English language
Of course, the French do talk and write and sing about love, as do most Western cultures. But the British suspect that the French are more articulate about it, unlike the more 'buttoned-up English', who flounder like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The difference there is in the culture, rather than the language. Culture is a vital factor, of course, and part of the romance of French for us comes from the fact that it was the language of the English aristocracy in the Middle Ages. The Normans and Plantagenets ruled England for 300 years and still have a strong presence in our imagination.
French also has international prestige. Right up to the First World War, it was the language of international diplomacy and the language of culture for the European elites. I discovered recently that the negotiations for the Armistice of 1918 were conducted in French. There were interpreters from French to German, but the French generals and British admirals chatted quite happily with each other in French.
Not surprisingly, French has left its mark on the English language. With so much common history, there are French origins for the names of our kings and queens, like William the Conqueror / Guillaume le Conquérant, Henry / Henri, Mary / Marie and Richard. The Anglo-Norman motto Honi soit qui mal y pense, which still appears on the British royal coat of arms, comes from Old French. French lingers in many of our family names (like the Archers and the Spencers), in our place names (the many –villes and –ports), in our cuisine (pig becomes pork, sheep becomes mutton, cow becomes beef), and in the pairs of synonyms (begin/commence, freedom/liberty, will/testament). We also have many recent borrowings, which become so naturalised that we often don’t notice them. For example, George W. Bush caused many a frisson when he reportedly complained that the French don’t have a word for ‘entrepreneur’.
Some words that look similar in French and English mean different things
The common words and borrowings tend to drift apart as language naturally changes over time -- think how ‘gay’ and wicked’ have changed in English even recently. There are hundreds of words that look similar between the two languages, but many now have quite different meanings. For example, in French ‘assister’ means to attend (not to assist), ‘blesser’ means to wound (not to bless), and ‘marmite’ is a cooking pot (not a yeasty spread). These ‘faux amis’ (false friends) crop up as soon as the British and French start learning each other’s language and are an endless source of amusement or bewilderment.
French is a language of clarity and precision
It was perhaps a side effect of diplomatic French that every effort was made to reduce the ambiguity of the language. Since the 16th century, the French have prided themselves on the precision and clarity of their language, exemplified in the great philosopher René Descartes. This certainly attracted the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who switched to writing in French because, in English, he thought he ended up saying more than he wanted to. The reputation for clarity may be overstated, since many French words and expressions have multiple meanings, but the language has abundant resources to convey subtle nuances. A good example, not unique to French, is the delicate use of the familiar ‘tu’ and formal ‘vous’ to address someone as ‘you’, making it clear what status you think they have.
‘Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français’, coined by the 18th century writer Antoine Rivarol, became a pet phrase in French schools: ‘if it’s not clear, it’s not French’, though ‘it could be English, Italian, Greek or Latin’, he added. There are some who fear that the finely honed precision of French may not be so well suited to the fast-moving world of today, where language often serves as a blunt instrument and a disposable tool. Many of the new words in science, technology and popular culture have come from English in the recent past, and the fear of ‘Franglais’ or ‘Globish’ has prompted French governments to generate lists of French equivalents, with more or less success. It no doubt sounds more beautiful, but tends to be rather long-winded, and doesn’t always sit well in the abbreviated language of social media.
French is an international language, useful for business and tourism
Since France had an overseas empire comparable to that of the British, there are now 30 or so countries across the world where French is an official language, especially in Africa, and several others where it is used for everyday communication. As well as French-speaking Canada, there are groups of French speakers in parts of North America, the Caribbean and South America (Guyana). Others are sprinkled around the Pacific islands and even the Middle East (especially Lebanon). And it is historically a native language in several other European countries (e.g., Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg) and regions (Northern Italy, Channel Islands). So French is a significant language to learn for UK industry because our close neighbours in Europe work in it, and large parts of Africa use it.
Our business relations with France alone make the language important for major industries, including aerospace (from Concorde to the Airbus 380 jumbo jet), defence (aircraft carriers and Eurofighter Typhoon), telecommunications (Bouygues), nuclear energy (EDF), water (Compagnie Lyonnaise des Eaux), fashion and beauty (L’Oréal, Chanel), and finance (BNP Paribas). Regrettably, not enough English people have the French language skills needed to work in these international companies, and that is no doubt a factor in the large numbers of French people now living in the UK, especially in London, which is claimed to be France's sixth biggest city.
Tourism is another big factor in the importance of the language. The British are the biggest proportion of visitors to France, and conversely Britain welcomes more visitors from France than from anywhere else. There is every incentive to learn each other’s language, and it is not surprising that French remains the most popular language for learners in school, in the workplace and for leisure. It is true that other languages are growing in popularity, especially Spanish, but our geographical situation will continue to make French a vital language and a constant invitation to a journey. Bon voyage.
Download the full Languages for the Future report.