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'Plan for degree courses in English is deluded'

Published: 17 Apr 2013 16:30 GMT+02:00
Updated: 22 May 2013 08:55 GMT+02:00

France’s Minister for Higher Education, Geneviève Fioraso, provoked anger among a group of writers, as well as the famous protectors of the French language the Academie Française earlier this year when she announced plans to permit university courses to be taught entirely in English.

Fioraso wants to change the famous Toubon law - which states that French must be the language of all teaching - a move that would enable universities to attract more students from across the globe.

The government wants to bring the level of foreign students from 12 percent to 15 percent at French institutions, whose reputation, according to a recent report, has suffered on a global scale. They believe courses in English hold the key.

Many academics, including Jean-Loup Salzmann, president of the Conference of University Presidents are in favour. "English has become the international Language no matter what the pessimists think," he said.

Although some private universities and the elite Grandes Ecoles already offer courses in English, officially they are breaking the law by doing so. Author Frederic Werst who, along with other writers, is leading the campaign against the minister's plan, tells The Local why the practice should remain illegal.

French universities would only be second choice

Frédéric Werst: "The government says it wants to increase the attractiveness of French Universities. For this reason, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, has developed a bill including certain provisions to achieve this aim. At first sight, one can only rejoice.

"However, the problem is that this bill envisages the creation of university courses that would provide instruction in a "foreign language", which of course, would be English. This would then see French removed from some courses.  As an advocate of linguistic diversity, it seems to me a bad idea. Just as the Académie Française noted, the current bill is far too vague.

"The Minister argues that this move would help attract the best foreign students to France. But this is deluded. The universities of choice for the best English-speaking students will naturally be in Anglo institutions. For them, French universities would only be a fallback option.

There are other languages than English to learn

"Fundamentally, it is clear that excellence is not just about speaking mediocre Globish (global English) but about mastering several languages. This is true today, and it will be even more true in the world of tomorrow.

"Multilingualism is an enrichment of the spirit and an invaluable asset for innovation and success in all areas, including in science and commerce.

"It is true that the level of foreign language ability ​​is not good in France. But it's not by removing French from universities that we will solve this problem.

"We need to promote foreign languages: English of course, but also Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and many others. Obviously French universities should offer more bilingual and multilingual courses. But this is not the spirit of the law proposed by Fioraso.

"The minister is blinded by a utilitarian ideology which believes that knowledge is a commodity and a language is simply packaging. But this is false: language itself is knowledge and the ability to speak several languages is extremely enriching.  

If you want to be competitive and attractive, then this is what we need too promote - not monolingualism, which only leads to poor results.

We are ignoring growing French speaking world

"The minister’s bill also ignores the opportunity that the French-speaking world represents for France and its universities. French is still the world’s second language, even if it is a long way behind English. And the population of the French-speaking world is growing rapidly.

"Thousands of students in French-speaking countries but also in other regions (the Gulf region, Asia) would like to study in France.

They too speak English, but also other languages. These are the ones we need to attract and we should introduce a visa for the whole French speaking world ('visa Francophonie') as soon as possible.

The  Minister for La Francophonie, Yamina Benguigui, has publicly stated her commitment to this idea. We can only encourage her to implement it."

Frederic Werst is a French author best known for his 2011 book "Ward, an anthology of poems and tales on the fictional Wards people", that was written half in French and half in the made up language of Wardwesân. Along with novelists Eugène Green and Olivier Rolin, Werst is leading the campaign against the government's plan, which is set to go before parliament in May. 

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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