I don’t know if it got any publicity in Australia, but the big story in
Europe at the weekend was French president Jacques Chirac walking out
on a session of the EU summit in Brussels when a French industrialist
addressed it in English. Chirac, who said he was “deeply shocked”, left
in disgust, taking his finance minister and foreign minister with him.

This is just the most recent indication of French disquiet at the way
the EU, once basically a Franco-German club, has become less and less a
sanctuary for French speakers. The last straw was the admission of ten
new members last year, mostly from Eastern Europe – countries whose own
languages will never be universal currency, but whose common second
language is almost always English. The French industrialist,
Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, was only stating the obvious when he told
Chirac “I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of
business.”

But before dismissing Chirac (who, incidentally, studied in the US and
speaks fluent English) as pretentious and out-of-touch, consider his
argument. As reported in the International Herald Tribune he
said: “It is not just national interest, it is in the interest of
culture and the dialogue of cultures … You cannot build the world of
the future on just one language and, hence, one culture.”

That makes a lot of sense. While a monolingual world would have its
advantages, it would be a poorer place – we lose something of the great
literature of the past if we cannot read it in the original language. Different languages offer different ways of thinking,
different windows on the world. Countries whose citizens grow up
speaking three or four languages have some serious advantages as a
result.

So instead of congratulating ourselves on speaking the world language,
we should heed Chirac’s warning against cultural arrogance. Ironically,
next to English-speaking countries like Australia and the US, the one country
that has suffered most from that attitude is France: French pride
in their language has led to their students falling behind in the study
of foreign languages. Maybe what Chirac objects to is not
monolingualism as such, but the particular language that’s been settled on.

Peter Fray

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