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The rise and fall of French as an international language The rise and fall of French as an international language
by Joseph Gatt
2019-02-04 07:49:30
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Speaking French was once a must in international diplomacy. The main reason is that up until the late 70s or early 80s French was as important as English when it came to scientific literature. In a pre-computer world era, all matters pertaining to medicine, physics, chemistry, history, political science, anthropology or what have you had a literature equally rich in English and in French. Don't speak French and you miss half the world's literature.

french003_400With the computer revolution, the French were oddly not interested in computer science. Neither were the French interested in anything that followed the computer revolution as in computerized medicine or computerized agriculture. More importantly, the French only waited until around the mid 2000s before taking any interest in the research that had been done in English, and catching up with the scientific revolution that had taken place in the English speaking world.

What happened? The Americans and the British were publishing books that were not being read by the French. French and American scientists were not communicating, as many French scientists did not have email until around 2005 and in many cases still refuse to send or reply emails. When French scientists were invited to the United States to give talks, they eventually settled in the United States and shifted to English when it came to publishing papers.

This basically meant that those who remained in France were 30 years behind the scientific revolution. Furthermore, the French did not adopt cable television until the late 1990s, same goes for satellite television, the internet only came around 2003 and was rarely used by scientists. Books that were best-sellers in the United States rarely made it to France due to cultural protection laws, meaning that French books often did not take into account the fact that the world was undergoing a scientific revolution.

This meant fewer people were interested in learning French, and French was no longer a mandatory language at the school level in many countries. Spanish, Chinese and Japanese took over, mainly because of the large number of speakers coupled with a literature that often takes the scientific revolution into account. Only those interested in gastronomy, art or architecture, or perhaps history, bother to learn French.

The decline of French is further exacerbated by the literary blackhole that France has become. France since the 1980s has encouraged researchers to specialize in on narrow area rather than gain general knowledge of broad areas, meaning you have an ocean of specialist literature. But such specialist literature tends to omit general trends and tends not to look at the big picture. Sometimes, due to the lack of general knowledge, French specialists can make blunders when they are not discussing their area of specialization, and in some cases even when they are discussing their area of specialization. Fields medalist Cedric Villani once said Einstein's research was “useless” when it came to practical applications “except for the GPS”, not realizing space exploration would not have been possible without Einstein's findings.

Today president Macron has to give speeches in English when in the past it was many world leaders who gave speeches in French. Fewer diplomats speak French, and French is no longer mandatory to work for the UN (not that it ever was, but it used to be a huge asset).

The next and final big challenge for French scientific literature (now that it has caught up with technology) along with Chinese, Japanese and Korean scientific literature: the overuse of “big” words. You need to understand that those reading scientific literature won't always be native speakers, and need to access clear, simple, plain text so it can be useful in everyday life. French scientific writers since the 1980s have increasingly been using “dictionary” words, but scientists tend not to take too much time to pause and check the dictionary. Plus use of  “dictionary” words tends to compensate for a lack of substance and usefulness in the ideas presented. If you want to sell ideas, you tend to use simple language.

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