This article was last modified on December 21, 2007.


On French and American Bilingualism

The following conversation took place December 2, 2007 between “Beth M” and Gavin Schmitt. Beth’s name is being withheld due to her being unaware that this would later be used for public display (how was I to know ahead of time?).

While I don’t think either of us can be considered “authorities” on bilingualism, I found the conversation very interesting and engaging. Beth is a brilliant person, and I thought perhaps this would be of interest to others. I have not had the chance to share my views on language diversity elsewhere, and this may be the one chance I get.

Appendices are added regarding the French law, so if nothing else you get that bit of objective information.

On Language Diversity

Beth M: I’m doing research on language policies in American schools and foreign language options compared to European policies.

Gavin Schmitt: Oh, cool.

BM: Yeah, it is cool.

GS: Make sure you write that we should stop teaching French. “Business language” my ass.

BM: (laughter)

GS: Seriously, though. Teaching Spanish I can understand. But there are far more useful languages than French.

BM: (laughter) Well, I would say if you were going to pick a European language — other than English — that would be of use if you went to Europe it would probably be German.

GS: I would agree with you.

BM: But there are so many dialects of German you probably wouldn’t know anything anyways.

GS: I think Latin, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Japanese and German are all worthwhile. But French, outside of France, is dead.

BM: Yeah. But maybe that is part of the reason the French are crazy. And also, probably most of the reason that it’s taught.

GS: I don’t know about the French people, but I think their language laws are crazy.

BM: There are other dead languages that are still taught. It’s funny. France is in this big dispute with Georgia Tech. Did you hear about that?

GS: Nope.

BM: They are pissed because even though the lingua franca of the internet is English, that there was a Georgia-based online university targeted at French students learning English and the classes are in English by English professors and they say that it violates the Toubon Law which says that certain publications have to be completely in French, including websites and what not… so by them directing the site at French people but being English… they want 5 grand for every hit on the site if they win! [For more about the Toubon Law, see note 1. For more on the lawsuit, see note 2.]

GS: I can understand their concerns. But if the website is based outside France, what’s the basis for their argument?

BM: That it was targeted at the French students imposing the English language on them.

GS: But that’s not a legal grounding.

BM: Well, the French say that it is. Because they are French. (laughter)

GS: Then the French don’t understand what the word “jurisdiction” means.

BM: The French don’t care about anyone else’s agenda.

GS: It’s true.

BM: But, I mean, they feel that their language is threatened and a lot of people feel that way about English.

GS: Their language is threatened, they’re not just paranoid.

BM: I can understand the desire for language preservation more in a linguistically diverse setting — but in the United States? If anything, we should be striving to become more linguistically diverse.

GS: Anyone who thinks English is threatened here is close-minded and ignorant.

BM: So many people are giving us a free language card and we’re denying it. (laughter) That’s what my paper is on, too: why people don’t see the need for earlier education of language… because of the sporadic groups of minorities there are large communities of them, and within those communities there are bilingual or immersion schools. But otherwise it’s not seen as necessary, which is the same policy that Europe holds.

GS: I have to say something, though, at the risk of defending the close-minded people. I happen to think that while we shouldn’t be threatened by other cultures and languages, there shouldn’t be a push to slow down the education of those who choose to move here. By which I mean, there’s no need to print signs in English and Spanish.

BM: I agree on that, but also —

GS: I suspect this only slows down the process of joining mainstream society.

BM: Not necessarily, I think… because English speakers should strive to become bilingual as well.

GS: I agree with that.

BM: So putting signs in two languages… or teaching in both languages would make everything meet in the middle more than just saying, “Well, you’re here… learn English now.” Especially for children, who aren’t even fully read in their mother tongue.

GS: Maybe, maybe not. I see your point, and I agree with it for the most part.

BM: Signs aren’t really a major point of education, anyways. Most language learning is done through comparisons and immersion in the language.

GS: Sure. I’m just saying America — mainstream America — speaks English. So we don’t need Spanish signs at McDonalds. It doesn’t serve a purpose.

BM: Thats how it is, but I think there should be a gradual strive to make it different. Not all of a sudden going, “Okay! Everything in Spanish and English!”

GS: I don’t agree with that.

BM: But American children are always going to be a step behind, because they are not bilingual.

GS: I think the mainstream should always be English or the dominant language of the day and we should also encourage other languages. There is no contradiction in this.

BM: I’m an advocate for bilingualism.

GS: I don’t have a problem with bilingualism, I just don’t think it should be universally Spanish.

BM: But encouraging it isn’t enough, because I was encouraged to take a language — forced really — and it got me nowhere. What other language than Spanish is the most vital in American society?
It’s the most taught and enrolled in as it is.

GS: You’re missing my point. If we all spoke Spanish and English, we’d still be at a loss. The goal should be to encourage different languages for different people.

BM: You could say that about any nation, though, and any language.

GS: And I would say that.

BM: Unless we are all read in every language still in existence… all I’m saying is that, there’s a need in other countries for languages and they base their schooling and official languages off of that. Whereas we have no official language, and should really have… many.

GS: I don’t think we should have any official language.

BM: I don’t mean “many” as in we should strive to push for a legally official language. I just meant there are so many languages spoken here, but only like 9% of the people in the US can speak another language fluently. Granted, that is a lot of people [roughly 27 million] but it’s 53 or 63% in Europe.

GS: Yes, but I wouldn’t push for Spanish universally. If the goal is to design education towards learning a second language that would be useful, I’d encourage more Russian or Arabic.

BM: Any language, besides the dying ones, would be considered useful. And even the dying ones, in certain situations, would be of use.

GS: Not to everyone, though. Of the languages I know (poorly), I only use them in very limited ways. Gavin6942: They’re simply not necessary for most people.

BM: And most languages that are spoken in a non-native country are because they share a boundary with the country that uses the language primarily.

GS: Agreed.

BM: Hence French, because of Quebec… Spanish for Mexico and German for the large population of Germans that used to be in the United States. So I can understand the choice of languages taught in high schools.

GS: I understand it as well. But I don’t agree with it.

BM: I just don’t agree with what grade level they are first taught at.

GS: Kaukauna started in 3rd grade, and more fully in 6th. How soo do you prefer?

BM: Most schools don’t start so early. This is all an ideal, anyways. It would be basically impossible to create a full-on immersion technique of language in our society.

GS: And once you reform the language classes, you need to reform broader education policy as a whole.

BM: Hmmm… That’s completely off topic.

GS: We still lag in science and math, so where do you find the room for that if you’re adding in more language classes?

BM: And that’s why I said it was an ideal, meaning I understand that at this time at least it’s basically impossible.

GS: I don’t know if I’d say “impossible”, but certainly a lot of work.
I’m always pushing for reforms.

BM: Yeah.

GS: I guess I’d have different priorities. I fully support language diversity. But with America being as huge as it is, the basic fact is that 75% of the people (if not more) will never need a second language. They don’t share a border with anyone and they don’t travel. With each European country being the size of an American state, their needs of diversity are much more crucial.

BM: Sorry to run out… but I have to finish my research and my outline.

Appendix 1: Toubon Law

via Wikipedia:

The Toubon Law (of August 4, 1994), is a law of the French government mandating the use of the French language in official government publications, in advertisements, in the workplace, in commercial contracts, in some other commercial communication contexts, and some other contexts. The law does not concern non-commercial communications, web pages or publications from individuals or private bodies.

The law takes its common name from Jacques Toubon, a conservative, who was Minister of Culture when it was passed and who proposed the law to Parliament. The law can largely be considered to have been enacted in reaction to the increasing usage of English in advertisements and other occasions in France.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the law is that it makes it mandatory for commercial advertisements and public announcements to be given in French. This does not rule out advertisements made in a foreign language: it is sufficient to provide a translation in a footnote, a very widespread practice. This was justified as a measure for the protection of the consumer. Additionally, product packaging must be in French, generally.

A broad piece of the law is the provision applying to workplaces that “any document that contains obligations for the employee or provisions whose knowledge is necessary for the performance of one’s work must be written in French.” Computer software developed outside France generally has to have its user interface and instruction manuals translated into French to be legally used by companies in France. The law includes an exception that “these provisions do not apply to documents coming from abroad”, but this exception has been interpreted narrowly by the Versailles Court of Appeal.

In addition, the law specifies obligations for public legal persons (government administrations, et al.), mandating the use of French in publications, or at least in summaries of publications. In France, it is a constitutional requirement that the public should be informed of the action of the government. Since the official language of France is French, it follows that the French public should be able to get official information in French.

Other restrictions concerned the use of French in colloquia. These are largely ignored by many public institutions, especially in the academic fields. Some restrictions of the law were found to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council on grounds that they violated freedom of speech.

Appendix 2: Georgia Tech

via Wikipedia:

Two groups, the Association pour la Défense de la Langue Française (“Association for the Defense of the French Language”) and the L’Avenir de la Langue Française (“Future of the French Language”), used the Toubon Law to demand that information on some websites based in France, which they deemed to constitute advertisement, must be in French, and filed a complaint against Georgia Tech Lorraine.

Georgia Tech Lorraine is the French branch of the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology with a campus in Metz, in eastern France, with a current enrollment [circa 2007] of approximately 200 students. Classes are conducted in English, and the faculty rotates in from the main campus in Atlanta. All course descriptions on its internet site were in English, which was supposed to violate French law in the reasoning of the two associations: according to them, these course descriptions constituted an advertisement for this private college and thus fell under the Toubon law.

Should the court have ruled against Georgia Tech Lorraine, the school could have been forced to pay a fine of 1,000 French francs for every day after such a ruling that the site was not translated into French, and 10,000 francs to each of the two plaintiffs. However, the case was dismissed by the court on a technicality, and the plaintiffs chose not to appeal the ruling. Since then, Georgia Tech Lorraine has made its website available in French and German in addition to English.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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