France’s debate over English misses the point

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The French government has introduced legislation that aims to attack some of the greatest weaknesses of the national higher-education system, including the fragmentation of public universities and the chronically high failure rate of undergraduates. These problems have been analyzed and agonized over for years, so you might think that the public debate over the passage of this legislation would be about how, finally, someone is trying to fix the problems.

Instead, the bill introduced in Parliament on May 21 by Geneviève Fioraso, the minister for higher education, and scheduled to be voted on May 28, has provoked a controversy over an issue that neither she nor her advisers saw coming. It’s a line in the law that officially authorizes French universities to teach some classes in English.

The reaction has been, well, furious. The Académie Française, which is the official guardian of French culture, immediately petitioned the government to drop the change, saying that it risked “marginalizing our language.” A chorus of intellectuals has taken up the baton. The philosopher Michel Serres says allowing English would be like giving in to “a form of colonization, under which a nation’s own language is unable to express everything.” Claude Hagège, professor at the College of France, has described the law as a “suicidal project.” Even some French-speaking American professors, including New York University’s Emily Apter and Jacques Lezra, and Michael Loriaux of Northwestern University, have expressed their sympathy, signing a petition in the daily newspaper Libération that called on France not to give up using its own language in the transmission of knowledge, “because you will impoverish yourselves and in doing so, impoverish the whole world.”

It’s easy to have sympathy with these arguments; no small part of France’s charm comes from the fact that it fiercely defends its culture and language as essential parts of its identify. Yet they raise the question of how a culture and intellectual ideas can have influence in the outside world if they are expressed only in a language that many don’t understand. Moreover, the protests are less an offensive against a looming external threat than a rear-guard action against an insurgency that has already captured strategic swathes of terrain.

For the best French higher-education establishments, the elite graduate schools known as grandes écoles, have been teaching in English for years. At Sciences Po, the leading institution of the social sciences, about one-third of classes are now in English . At HEC (École des Hautes Études Commerciales) Paris and other business schools, that proportion rises to about a half, and a significant number of faculty members are not French. It’s all part of a deliberate strategy of internationalization that has become commonplace not just in France but across Europe.

The public universities also already offer English-language classes, although to a lesser extent. Campus France, the official agency that promotes French higher-education abroad, boasts on its Web site that more than 700 programs are entirely taught in English. Over all, they amount to just 1 percent of the classes offered in France, but they nonetheless serve as an important magnet for international students. And when it comes to academic research, papers in fields from economics to medicine are almost always published in English. Even in disciplines like sociology, where many still publish in French, the authors routinely provide at least an abstract or a full translation of the findings in English.

In theory, much of this Anglophone activity is illegal, in direct contravention of the 1994 law named after the then-minister of culture, Jacques Toubon, which imposed strict rules about the use of French in public life, including the media, advertising, and academe. That law is why France, unlike most other European countries, systematically dubs American TV shows into French, rather than showing them in the original with subtitles. It’s also the basis on which the Académie Française has a full-time “terminology and neologism committee,” whose job is to devise French equivalents to English words that creep into the vocabulary, especially as a result of technology. One of its most recent pronouncements was that French Twitter users should stop using the word “hashtag” and instead use the invented equivalent, mot-dièse. Sometimes these words catch on, such as the word ordinateur for “computer.” Sometimes they don’t: “mail” has become the norm for “e-mail,” rather than the Académie-preferred courriel. And just try finding someone who calls his or her smartphone an ordiphone.

Minister Fioraso has some important reasons for instituting the linguistic change. Paris remains a powerful magnet for international students, but France is losing out to some other European countries including Germany, where universities offer a multitude of English-language classes. In 2012, about 12 percent of enrolled students in French higher education came from abroad, and Ms. Fioraso wants to increase that proportion to 15 percent.

What the heated public debate over English entirely misses, however, is the quality of the educational experience that non-French students have once they are in France. That’s a shame, because some of the provisions in the rest of the proposed legislation—the parts that aren’t being debated amid the public controversy over English—seek to address the systemic weaknesses that make the experience all too often a mediocre one. Most striking is the failure rate. About 50 percent of undergraduates in public universities currently fail their first year, and either repeat it, switch courses, or drop out altogether. Over all, less than 40 percent receive their bachelor’s degree within four years, a year longer than most undergraduate programs—and about half the success rate in British universities.

These woeful statistics are due in part to the French practice of not selecting students on entry to university, but instead allowing a Darwinian practice of selection by mass failure. In medicine, the first-year failure rate is 85 percent. In law it is 60 percent. This is an enormous waste of state resources, and it has the additional effect of demotivating tens of thousands of otherwise talented young people just as they embark on their lives after school.

Before the May 2012 election of President François Hollande, a think tank called Terra Nova that is close to his Socialist Party proposed some radical steps to change this situation, including by charging tuition at public universities, which are currently virtually free except for a small fee for health insurance. Minister Fioraso didn’t tread anywhere near that idea in her new legislation. The ensuing furor might just have drowned out the fuss over English.

Author Bio: Peter Gumbel is associate professor at Sciences Po, in Paris, and author of France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism.

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