The expansion of the French language lies in Africa

More than 800 delegates from educational institutions including universities in 150 countries attended the 13th World Congress of the International Federation of French Teachers held in South Africa recently. The major concern was how to protect French from contending languages in a fierce global world – and the future could lie in Africa.

French teachers from universities put forward strategies on how to stem the tide of waning use of the French language and encourage its growth. However, these strategies require funding, and the declining fortunes of the French economy may delay their implementation.

The congress in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, had the theme “The Teaching of French: Between globalisation and contextualisation”, and was held from 23-27 July.

In her opening address, newly appointed French Minister of Francophony Yamina Benguigui confessed that the future of French language was not bright in a globalised world.

Benguigui, who is in charge of the promotion and defence of French culture and civilisation – called Francophony – presented in detail obstacles on the path to the expansion of French beyond the shores of France.

She highlighted the growing influence of the English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic languages at the international level. “Even within the European Union, French is not the major language of international conferences and transactions”, she admitted.

Spread of French in Africa

Despite these drawbacks, Benguigui indicated that according to recent research findings, the survival of the French language could lie in Africa. “By 2050, there will be more Africans making use of French as an official language and for inter-personal communication than French citizens in France ”, she affirmed.

Her assertion on the role of Francophone countries in Africa is correct.

With the exception of Quebec in the northern hemisphere, where French is battling to survive the growing influence of North American English, Francophone countries in West and Central Africa remain the only region where French has been reinforced and entrenched – more than all other parts of the world where French colonisation reigned supreme.

The other exception, though less significantly so, is the Francophone islands of the West Indies, where again American English is diminishing the importance of French.

In North Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia, former colonies of France replaced the French language immediately after colonisation, with strong national languages.

These are the 21st century global and historical realities in which the French language finds itself.

Ways forward

Yamina Benguigui called on participants at the Durban congress to develop strategies aimed at ensuring the expansion of French around the world.

It was Mwatha Musanji Ngalasso, a renowned professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Bordeaux in France, who in his paper “Teaching of French in Today’s World: Between globalisation and contextualisation”, suggested the way forward.

Having analysed the growth of the language since the French Revolution in 1789, he noted that for the language to survive there was an imperative to adopt new methods in its teaching.

“We must accept that the world is changing, and the teaching of French must adapt to the changing world”, he declared.

Ngalasso put forward some ideas. He suggested, for example, the teaching of French through the local languages of nation states. The classic method, whereby French is taught directly without taking into consideration the importance of local languages, should be discarded.

“The French language has been, rightly, appropriated by cultures beyond the shores of France. This language is no longer the excusive property of France and French people. Its survival can only be guaranteed by teaching it, outside France, as a language co-existing with other languages”, he emphasised.

Dantas-Longhi Maria, a participant from São Paulo, agreed: “ In many schools and universities in Brazil we teach French through the use of local expressions and idioms in the Portuguese language.

“This is the way we can attract the attention of pupils and students interested in the study of French. This language is alive, but it is competing with English, Portuguese and Spanish in Latin America”, she said.

Professor Mohamed Miled, who teaches French at the University of Carthage in Tunisia, presented a paper titled “A Contextualisation of Teaching of French and its Contact with Existing Languages”, drawing examples from North African and the Middle East.

There, Arabic is the lingua franca and he advised that French textbooks used locally should contain more local illustrations and be translated simultaneously in French and Arabic. “This method will encourage the teaching of French in the Arab world,” he asserted.

French as a path to employment

The teaching of French in universities in India is motivated primarily by economic and financial rconsiderations, Sundaravelu Pannirselvame, a professor of French at Gopal Krishna University in India, told the Durban congress.

In his paper, “Teaching of French in India: Fresh demands”, he demonstrated that students who study French in Indian universities are motivated by the possibility of working as translators, interpreters and bilingual secretaries in French, Canadian, Belgian and Swiss companies operating in India.

“The various international call centres in India require French graduates”, he also pointed out.

Learning French as a path to employment is a common feature in virtually all Anglophone countries in the southern hemisphere, according to Professor Raufu Adebisi of Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, northern Nigeria.

He told the congress that Pannirselvame’s comments about the position of French in India are also applicable to Nigeria as well as to other, Anglophone countries, in Africa, where French is seen in universities as providing much-needed local manpower for French companies.

“This is the attraction of French for our students”, he said.

The decline of French literature

There was also an interesting debate on the obvious decline of the teaching of French and francophone literature the world over.

Marie-Josée Fourtanier, a professor of French at the University of Toulouse in France, and Veronique Tadjo, who teaches French literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, observed that French and Francophone literature does not attract students.

They argued that the culture of reading has suffered severe setbacks. But literature, they said, could only grow where a reading culture exists. Any language can only flourish if people read novels, plays and poems in that language.

Suzanne Richard, a French teacher at the University of Sherbrook in Canada, suggested that information and communication technologies could be used to rekindle the interest of students in Francophone and French literature.

Among the recommendations of the Durban congress was the need for organisations in the private and public sectors in France and Francophone countries to fund the teaching and dissemination of French in a multi-polar world.

With the current economic recession confronting most of these countries, however, there is little hope that funds will be available for such projects.

Participants voted to hold the 14th congress of FIPF in 2016 in Liege, Belgium.