Parlers Patois

Arabic is the second most widely used language in France, with four million speakers, and has been recognized as a langue de France since 1999. An article by Emmanuel Talon in October’s Le Monde Diplomatique (which I missed in my last post because it isn’t in the English edition) looks at the predicament of Arabic in France, where it suffers from being seen as a langue d’immigration. Talon describes how a mixture of snobbery and political cowardice have steadily driven it from the curriculum in the French state system; and how its teaching is becoming more concentrated in community organizations and informal classes, where it tends to take on the role of hyperlink to the divine. In other words, Arabic, as taught to most French learners of maghrebin background, is taught with religion.

This isn’t of course necessarily a bad thing at all. But the drift away from the anyway limited teaching of Arabic since 9/11 has left a bizarre situation in which 6,000 students study Arabic in secondaire (compared to 15,000 studying Mandarin; 14,000, Russian; and 12,000, Portuguese). Meanwhile at least 65,000 study Arabic informally. The Ministry of Education cites little demand and numbers of teachers decline, while the number of people aactually studying Arabic in one way or another is increasing; and numbers studying Arabic at university have multiplied by ten in a decade. At secondary school though, beaucoup de chefs d’etablissment et de recteurs ont pris peur face à tous ces Arabes qui étaient chez nous et qui, justement, fasiaient l’Arabe. In other words, schools seem to prefer not to fill the demand.

I don’t wish to dwell on French attitudes to Muslim migrants (the article has some pretty astonishing quotations on parlers patois and the dangers to public order of bilingualism), but I am struck more broadly by the attitude to language, and the demeaning of the native tongues of minority migrant communities. In Britain we hear constant laments about the decline of modern language learning. Each year the schools exam (A level) results are examined anxiously. This year, entries for German were down 7.6%, French 5% and Spanish 3.4%. One Exam Board Chairman commented: There is a crisis here in modern foreign languages. We have the euro economy in crisis; I think modern foreign languages are in the same place.

What I find interesting about this is the implicit assumption that modern foreign languages consist of French, German and Spanish. But Britain’s enormously diverse population speaks a few other languages, too. A recent survey gives some interesting facts about London’s linguistic profile, derived from surveys in schools. Some 250 languages are spoken in London, of which 40 have significant first-language speaking communities. German, French and Spanish are in there, certainly, at 0.09%, 0.65% and 0.64%. But a great many more Londoners at home speak Bengali/Silheti (4.75%), Punjabi (3.5%), Gujerati (3.4%) and Arabic (1.3%). These too are ‘modern foreign languages,’ and as we lament the decline of foreign languages in Britain we would perhaps do well to remember what an amazing storehouse of linguistic diversity and facility we have at home. And the same is true in France where, as M Talon notes, 4,000,000 or so people speak Arabic. Pas mal.

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