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Before you begin working your way to foreign language fluency, it helps to understand the culture behind the language you’re learning. After all, language exists to help a group of people express their ideas and beliefs. France is an old country with a rich history and culture. As you begin your French language program, gaining a strong grasp on this history, the values, and the etiquette will help you rapidly achieve success. In particular, French is a widely used language around the world found in many countries, and its use continues to grow.
French is recognized as the official language in 24 countries: Belgium, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, France, Haiti, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Monaco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Switzerland, Togo, and Vanuatu. English is only western language that tops French in as the official language of so many countries. French is one of the most acknowledged working languages of the United Nations, and the EU’s procedural language, as well as their Court of Justice’s sole language used for deliberations.
It may be surprising to know that around half of all the people that speak French worldwide, live in Africa. It’s one of the fastest growing languages in the world. French is spoken all over the world; Guiana in South America, is a region of France.
The French language is known as the “language of love,” along with Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. These languages are derived from Vulgar Latin, which was the nonstandard form of Latin spoken by the Romans. Vulgar Latin was expanded throughout the Mediterranean region by Roman colonists, until the separation of the Western Roman Empire. Many defeated lands became isolated, and Vulgar Latin became divided into several distinct local dialects, that evolved into the Romance languages used today. French developed from the Gallo-Romance dialects of northern France. François I signed an official proclamation in 1539 that made French the official language of France. Until the proclamation, Latin was the official language.
The French language, including its various forms of Haitian Creole, Cajun, and Quebecois, is the fourth most widely spoken language in the United States. Approximately 200,000 residents of the state of Louisiana, 4% of the population, speak mainly French in their homes.
Located in North America, the Caribbean country of Haiti is home to 10 million people that speak French, about 80% speaking French Creole and the rest speaking French. Most educated Haitians speak both and can easily rotate back and forth or anywhere in between. Due to increased Haitian immigration into the United States from the years 1980 to 2000, there are now roughly half a million Haitian Creole speakers in the country.
Canada is home to about 7 million native French speakers. The majority of them, around 6 million, live in Quebec, where French is the official language. Montreal is the largest city in Quebec and is the fourth largest French speaking city worldwide. There are roughly 2 million people in the country that speak French as a second language. The total population is about 33 million, so approximately 30% of the population is proficient in French. Canada is dedicated to bilingualism and has documented this in its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The country has two official languages, English and French, and the current president, Justin Trudeau, releases all public communication in both languages.
The French are often criticized for being chauvinistic and distrustful of other nations, but for them, self-interest serves a practical purpose. The concept of the French identity and “La Francophonie” (the French-speaking world) is of national importance. This doesn’t mean France is impermeable to outside influences. On the contrary, France eagerly imports novelties from all over the world, but then take ownership of the idea or product.
One way the French preserve and promote their identity is by investing in projects that benefit France’s image and businesses. Another key part of being French is respect for the French language. In school, children are taught to speak, and especially write, proper French. Written French is much more formal than its English counterpart, with a rigid focus on the rules of grammar and punctuation rather than creative expression.
The French take linguistic purity very seriously. For centuries, French was the international language of diplomacy and education. In 1635, King Louis XIII’s chief minister founded L’Académie Française to work “with all care and diligence to give certain rules to our language, and to render it pure, eloquent, and capable of treating the arts and sciences.” Regional dialects, called “patois,” were banned in public institutions like schools in France, as well as its colonies.
Today, L’Académie Française remains responsible for protecting the French language by determining which imported words to accept into the French dictionary, often rejecting those from the IT, food and drink, and media industries. Most French people consider this Academy as an old-fashioned and conservative body and don’t follow their advice.
Language is also a subject of popular interest for the laity. When France’s government proposed banning the “i” in oignon, people petitioned in protest. This also happened in the War of the Circumflex, the speech mark over a vowel in words like “maître” (master) and “forêt” (forest), that often denotes a missing “s” but has little effect on pronunciation. Language games shows are as popular as soap operas. Seven million people used to watch Bernard Pivot’s Grande Dictée, a spelling competition that attracted 300,000 entrants until it stopped in 2005. In November 2017, the French minister for Education reintroduced a daily “dictée” in primary school.
The French expect visitors to their country to respect their language and speak it properly, or not at all except for a few introductory words.
The French love of language extends to literature. The French read widely, and the traditional divide between politics and the arts is much less pronounced than in other countries. President Jacques Chirac described poetry as “a necessity for daily living.”
The other linchpin of being French is French culture. With some reason, the French believe they have made a preeminent claim to world culture in art, music, painting, and thought. They are, if you will believe them (and many do), the premier civilized culture in the world.
There is still considerable French government investment in the spreading of French language and culture through the Alliance Française and French cultural missions overseas. Above all, there is the concept of La Francophonie (a government-supported concept linking the common interests of all French-speaking countries). It’s a concept similar in principle to, but much tighter in practice than, the British Commonwealth of former colonies.
The French people, the Académie Française in particular, go to great lengths to preserve the French language from Americanisms (“le franglais”), advertising jargon, and computer software terminology. French used to be the world diplomatic language and the French do not want the use of English to erode the language. In fact, there are laws in place for the business world that are geared towards the same goal of maintaining the purity of the language. All contracts must be written in French and as of 1994, advertisements, product labels, public signs, and all forms of instruction, must be written or otherwise conveyed in the French language. If a foreign language is shown, it must be translated into French as well.
There have been protests in the academic world over the use of English, some describing it as “linguistic treason.” There is fear that the inclusion or use of English in lectures at universities will oversimplify intellectual content, such as the true language of Shakespeare. The overall consensus is that the true French language and France’s very identity is at stake. A famous French philosopher once likened the use of language to fascism, in that it compels us to think and say certain things. His feeling was that all languages offer a different world view and that the French language is so symbolic of France that it was something to revere, protect, and appreciate.
Companies doing business in France need to be aware of the country’s language protection laws. The “Toubon” law, which is named after a former culture minister, requires all commerce related materials to either be printed in French or translated into French. The purpose of the law is to keep the French language from getting diluted by the introduction of English words, and to protect and promote the French language. France is becoming more and more integrated with other countries because of nearby English speaking European countries and French peoples’ insatiable appetite for American culture. The fine for breaking the law is up to $1,000 for individuals, and up to $5,000 for companies. The English natural cosmetics company, The Body Shop, was fined by a French Court in 1996 for marketing and selling products that did not have French in their labels. Specifically, for using the terms “no frizz” on a hair treatment cream, and “pineapple” on a facial cleanser.
Although French is the main language, there are many others spoken in France and approximately 21 percent of the people either speak or understand a regional language. There are many local dialects to include Breton in Brittany, a German dialect in Alsace, an Italian dialect in Corsica, and Catalan, Spanish, Basque, and a Provencal dialect in southern France. Also, you may come across North African immigrants speaking Arabic.
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