Parlez-vous Anglais? No, we prefer French

11th March 2011 at 00:00
France - Nicolas Sarkozy's idea that children should learn English from the age of three has sparked a war of words

The British, or more specifically the English, are said to have little in common with the French beyond an equal measure of arrogance.

There is, however, a further similarity: we are hopeless at learning each other's language.

Doubtless inspired by his own experiences, President Nicolas Sarkozy has set his mind to addressing the French share of that mutual failing. But his belief that children should start learning English as young as three has hit a predictable wall of protest from compatriots anxious to protect Frenchness from Anglo-Saxon cultural dominance.

A few years ago, when a French newspaper rated ministers' command of English, Mr Sarkozy was among the majority classed as peut mieux faire, which translates as "could do better". He has made an effort since becoming president, but clearly still finds it a struggle.

Perhaps his own limitations have made him all the more committed to giving French children a better chance. He is supported by his education minister, Luc Chatel, who describes an inability to speak English as a significant handicap in the modern world.

There is plenty of opposition. The linguist Claude Hagege, who reportedly has some knowledge of about 50 languages, argues that six is a more realistic starting age.

Meanwhile, political and social commentator Eric Zemmour, an arch-traditionalist, has portrayed French resistance to learning English as a subconscious defence against the "colonisation of minds".

In a radio essay, he reminded listeners that a French intellectual of the 1970s, whose view he appeared to share, had likened an obsession with English to learning German during the Nazi occupation.

The debate is not confined to public figures. On the online forum of L'Express magazine, more than 160 comments for and against the idea were posted in eight days.

"It would be better to concentrate on the learning of spoken French," said one reader called Marenostrum. "As a primary schoolteacher for nearly 30 years, I see each year a decline in children's vocabularies."

Renardesneiges agreed, questioning the point of a French child being able to say "cow" if he cannot say "vache". But Othello welcomed the idea, citing the example of his five-year-old daughter. "She has been taking English lessons every Saturday morning for two years in a group of about 10. She already speaks well and it has done no harm to her French."

Almost inevitably, there has been a twist, with suggestions that the president should tidy up his use of his own language before lecturing the French on the need to speak English.

Mr Sarkozy's critics have pointed to a written parliamentary question posted a year ago by Francois Loncle, who served as a minister under former president Francois Mitterrand. Declaring himself fed up with the president's persistent errors and "vulgar" expression, he waited 11 months for a response. It came from Mr Chatel, who defended Mr Sarkozy's preference for straight talk instead of convoluted syntax.

Mr Loncle took this as an admission of guilt. There is, sadly, no recorded response to his remedy: that the education minister who is so keen to "reinvent" the study of English should offer his president night classes in French.

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