Should we worry about the English language's dominant position? Will national languages disappear? Avoiding chauvinism or cheap shots, the linguist Claude Hagège puts the situation in relief. Discussion.
The Week of the French language, which had just ended, was not enough to ease the heart of
As a lover of languages, Claude Hagège defends diversity and vehemently opposes the dominant position of English. Photo Yann Rabarier / L'Express
Claude Hagège's CV in five dates
1955 Entry to the Ecole Normale Supérieure
1966 First linguistic field survey in Cameroon
Since 1988 Professor at the Collège de France
Claude Hagège. There is no escaping the great linguist's argument: never before in the history of humanity, has a language had the "comparable extension in the world to what English now has." Oh! he knows what we will say. That the defense of French is a putrid, provincial, backward-looking struggle. That he's a grumpy old fogey resisting the modern world. He does not care. Because, in his view, the domination by English is a threat to the heritage of humanity. It poses an even worse risk: This "single language" will lead to a "single thought" obsessed with money and consumerism. We should be reassured, however. Hagège is concerned, but he is not defeatist. The proof is in this interview, where everyone get it in the neck...
How does one decide, as you did, to devote his life to languages?
I do not know. I was born and I grew up in Tunis, a polyglot city. But I do not think this is a sufficient explanation: my brothers, for example, did not take this path.
As a child, what languages did you learn?
At home, we used French. But my parents made me take a part of my education in Arabic -- which shows their open-mindedness, because Arabic was seen as a language of the colonized people. I also learned Hebrew in its two forms, biblical and Israeli. And I knew Italian, which several of my music teachers spoke.
How many languages do you speak?
If you mean how many languages I know the rules for, I can say hundreds, like most of my fellow linguists. If it is to identify those in which I can easily express myself, the answer will be closer to 10.
Many French people think that the French language is among the most difficult, and for this reason, it would be "superior" to others. Is this really the case?
Not at all. In the first place, no such "superior" language exists. French was not imposed at the expense of Breton or Gascon because of its alleged linguistic qualities, but because it was the language of the king and then that of the Republic. It is always like that, too: a language never develops because of its rich vocabulary and the complexity of its grammar, but because the state that uses it is powerful militarily - it was, among other things, colonization -- or economically - it's "globalization." Second, the French language is less difficult than Russian, Arabic, Georgian, or Fulani, and especially, English.
English? But everyone uses it, or almost everyone!
Many speak airport English, which is very different! But English of its native speakers remains a formidable language to learn. Spelling, in particular, is terribly difficult: remember, for example, that what is written "ou" is spoken aloud five different ways: through, rough, bough, four and tour! In addition, it is an imprecise language, which makes its claim to universality even less acceptable.
Perfectly. Take flight safety. On December 29, 1972, a plane crashed in Florida. The control tower had ordered: "Turn left, right now", that is to say, "Turn left, immediately!" But the pilot had translated "right now" by "go to the right now," which caused the disaster. Consider diplomacy, with the English version of the famous UN Resolution 242 of 1967, which recommended "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Arab countries believe Israel must withdraw "des (from all)" the occupied territories - with the all implied. Israel on the other hand considers that it is sufficient to withdraw "de (from some)" occupied territories, that is to say, a part of them only.
Is this a reason to violently wage war against English?
I am not waging war against English. I wage war against those who make English out to be a universal language, because this dominance may lead to the disappearance of other languages. I would fight with as much energy against Japanese, Chinese or French, if they had the same ambition. It turns out that today it is English that threatens others, because never before in the history of humanity has one language been used in such proportion on the five continents.
Why should this bother you? Isn't the meeting of cultures always rewarding?
The meeting of cultures, yes. The problem is that most people who say "We need to learn foreign languages" only learned one: English. This poses a threat to all humanity.
At this point?
Only uninformed people think that language is used only to communicate. Language is also a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world, a culture. Hindi, for example, uses the same word for "yesterday" and "tomorrow." This shocks us, but this population distinguishes between what is - today - and what is not today; yesterday and tomorrow, according to this view, belong to the same category. Every language that disappears represents an incalculable loss, like a monument or work of art.
With 27 countries in the European Union, it is not very useful to have English to converse in? We spend fortunes in translation!
This idea is stupid! The wealth of Europe lies precisely in its diversity. In the words of writer Umberto Eco, "The language of Europe is translation." Because the translation -- which costs less than claimed -- highlights the differences between cultures, exalts them, allows the understanding of the richness of the other culture.
But a common language is handy when you travel. And it does nothing that leads to eliminating others!
Think again. All history shows: idioms of dominant states often lead to the disappearance of the languages of the dominated states. Greek engulfed the Phrygian. Latin killed the Iberian and Gallic. Currently, 25 languages are disappearing every year! Understand one thing: I'm not fighting against English, I fight for diversity. An Armenian proverb wonderfully summarizes my thought: "The more languages you know, that many times you're a person."
You go further, arguing that one sole language will result in a "single thought" ...
This point is fundamental. It should be understood that the language structures the thought processes of an individual. Some people believe they can promote French thought in English: they are wrong. Imposing their language is also imposing their way of thinking. As explained by the great mathematician Laurent Lafforgue: It is not because the French school of mathematics is influential that it can still publish in French; it is because it is published in French that it is powerful, because that leads it to explore different ways of thinking.
No people exists without their language, no language without the right to speak
You also believe that English is the bearer of some neoliberal ideology ...
Yes. And it threatens to destroy our culture to the extent that it focuses primarily on profit.
I'm not following you ...
Take the debate on cultural exception. Americans wanted to impose the idea that a book or a movie should be considered the same as any commercial object. For they understood that besides the army, diplomacy and trade there is also a cultural war. It's a battle they intend to win both for noble reasons -- the United States has always felt that its values are universal -- and less noble ones: the education of minds is the best way to sell American products. Consider that cinema represents their most important export, ahead of weapons, aerospace or computers! Hence their desire to impose English as a global language. Even if we can observe for the last two decades a decline in their influence.
First, because the Americans have experienced a series of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which made them aware that some wars can be lost due to a lack of understanding of other cultures. Then, because the Internet encourages diversity: In the last ten years, the languages that have grown the fastest on the Web are Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and French. Finally, because people have shown that they are attached to their maternal languages and gradually revolted against this policy.
Not in France, to read your work ... You take on in the same violent manner "the subservient elites" who would carry on sabotage against French.
I still maintain my position. This is also an invariant of history. Gallic disappeared because Gallic elites were quick to send their children to the Roman school. In the same way, provincial elites later taught their offspring French at the expense of the regional languages. The ruling classes are often the first to adopt the language of the invader. They do the same today with English.
How do you explain that?
By adopting the language of the enemy, they hope to capitalize on the material level, or assimilate with them to benefit symbolically from their prestige. The situation becomes serious when some of them become convinced of the inferiority of their own culture. But here we are. In some areas sensitive to fashion - advertising, notably, but forgive me if I have to tell you -- journalism -- they use English expressions for no reason. Why say "planning" instead of "employ du temps"? "Coach" instead of "entraîneur"? "Lifestyle" instead of "mode de vie"? "Challenge" instead of "défi"?
To distinguish themselves from the people?
No doubt. But those who play these games give the illusion of being modern, while they are only [U.S.] Americanized. And we arrive at this paradox: it is often immigrants who act the proudest of French culture! It is true that they fought to acquire it: they apparently measure its value better than those who simply inherit.
But what do you say to parents who think it right to send their children to follow a language course in England or the United States?
I say, "Why not Russia or Germany? These are growth markets and much less competitive, where your children will find it easier to find a job."
Don't you fear being accused of being outmoded, or even of Pétainism?
But why is it outmoded to use the words of one's own language? And in what way can the defense of diversity be regarded as a fascist ideology? French is the foundation of our revolution and our Republic!
Why are Quebeckers defending French more resolutely than we do ourselves?
Because they are more aware of the threat: they form an island of 6 million francophone people in the middle of a sea of 260 million English speakers! That's where their extraordinary neological activity arises. It is they who, for example, coined the term "courriel" (for email), which I invite the readers of the Express to adopt!
Is the victory of English irreversible?
Not at all. Positive steps have already been taken: A French music quota on radio and television, aid to French cinema, etc. Unfortunately, the state does not always play its role. It complicates access to the labor market for foreign graduates who trained with us, it gives insufficient support to promote Francophone culture, it closes the French Alliances [Note: Organizations to promote French in other countries]... The Chinese, for their part, opened 1,100 Confucius Institutes around the world. There's even one in Arras! [N.B.--a city in northern France near Belgium of 48,000 people]
If there were one step to take, what would it be?
Everything begins in elementary school, where we must teach not one, but two living languages. Because if we do propose to teach one, everyone will rush to English and we aggravate the problem. To offer two is to open up to diversity.
Nicolas Sarkozy often makes errors of syntax: "One wonders what is it that they served ..." or "I'm listening, but I pay no attention." Is it serious, from a head of state?
Maybe less than you think. Look, it boosted sales of The Princess of Cleves since he criticized this book by Madame de La Fayette! But it is certain that de Gaulle and Mitterrand were more educated and had a great respect for the language.
Could French be the bearer of cultural diversity in the world?
The limits of business English
In 1999, the CEO of Renault, Louis Schweitzer, imposed English in the minutes of meetings of directors. One step which it will have to retract, to the great satisfaction of Claude Hagège. "Companies that have adopted this measure have lost effectiveness. For one simple reason, that the former head of Sanofi-Aventis, Jean-François Dehecq describes very well: "If we impose English on everyone, the native English-speaking people work at 100% of their potential, those who speak a second language well, at 50%, and the rest at 10%."
"Moreover, it is wrong to believe that English is essential for trade," Hagège continues. "Sometimes it's the opposite. When you want to sell a product to a foreigner, it works better to use the language of your client, which is not always English! A large French water company recently went to Brasilia. When representatives began to use English, this infuriated the Brazilians, who have, as we do, a language of Latin origin. Through Anglomania our salespeople have turned a cultural advantage into a handicap! "
I am sure of it, because it has all the advantages of a major international language. Its distribution on five continents, the prestige of its culture, its official status in the UN, the European Commission or the Olympics. And also by the unique voice of France. Think about how after the speech of Mr. de Villepin at the UN opposing the war in Iraq, there was an influx of enrollments in French Alliances.
Is it not contradictory to promote French internationally and let regional languages die?
You are right. You cannot defend diversity in the world and uniformity in France! Recently, our country began to grant regional languages therecognition they deserve. But it was not until they were dying and no longer represented a danger to national unity.
Then it is too late ...
It is late, but it is not too late. We need to increase the resources that are devoted to these languages, to save them before we all face a situation where we see that we have allowed one of France's major cultural riches to sink.