Web English in France


How is the Internet affecting the French language? English words such as "sign on," "email," and "start-ups" that are used on the Internet are becoming popular in France.

In a stately and somber 17th-century palace, occupying an imposing position on the Left Bank, the scholars and academicians of the Academie Francaise are engaged in a never-ending struggle to fend off attacks on one of the most cherished aspects of the national culture: the French language. 

"I'm an optimist," said Xavier Tallon, a linguist whose job is updating the academy's dictionary for its site on the World Wide Web. "The media, for example, now pays more and more attention to use of the French language." 

But the threat these days is coming from not the media but some unlikely sources from places such as the Web Bar in Paris, and a gritty billiards club called Sam's in Aix-en-Provence, where Web "surfers" can "sign on" and check their "e-mail." It also comes from the old garment district around the Paris stock exchange, where "start-ups" are enjoying a "boom," thanks in part to "stock options." 

It's the world of the Internet, and the world of globalization. And, increasingly, it's a world in which English is the lingua franca. 

The French have a long reputation for being monolingual, defensive about their language, and downright impolite to anyone who speaks it imperfectly. But language experts and others here say that stereotype hardly holds true today. The country is modernizing rapidly, shedding old habits, embracing the Internet, and learning English at a surprising rate. "If you have English skills, it's much easier to find work in certain areas," said Frederic, a graduate student in Aix-en-Provence who was taking extra courses to brush up on his English. "Even if you apply for the civil service, you have to take an English exam. To be an official of the European Union, you have to be able to speak several languages." 

And because France "has commercial interests all over the world, and she is the first tourist destination in the world," he said, "France needs people to speak other languages. My girlfriend just finished her internship, and she needed to know both Spanish and English and that was to work in Paris." 

"It's the fact that we're in Europe, it's globalization, and it's the Internet," said Gilles Perles, 36, director of the British American Institute, a private language school in Aix-en-Provence. He opened the school in 1997 with no students and three teachers. In a month, he had 69 students, mostly French wanting to learn English, and now he has more than 400. 

A French government commission has been trying to stop the Anglophone invasion along the information superhighway by proposing French equivalents of some common terms. For example, instead of "start-up," the recommended word is jeune-pousse ("young bud"). But in French cybercafes and other places where young people go to surf the Net, most common terms are still English. 

And it's not just the Internet: English words are cropping up in advertising, often without a French translation. A bulletin board for Mr. Clean cleaning products shouts out: "Serial Cleaner," a play on the phrase "serial killer," which is well known here in France from American movies. Nissan advertises its new sport-utility vehicle by pointing out that it has plenty of "le familyspace." A fashion supplement in the newspaper Liberation features the latest American trend in office: casual clothing, "le Friday wear." A popular radio station boasts 20 minutes of music "nonstop." 

Tallon, of the Academie Francaise, said the institution's goal is not to try to block the use of English words and phrases entirely, and he points out that many English words have already become a part of the French language and are included in the Academie dictionary words such as interview, reporter, and bulldozer. "A lot of English words have been integrated," he said. "The problem is the number, the mass. It's not a question of an absolute banning. It's a question of proportion." 

But some people, including Perles, think the Academie is fighting a losing battle. "The mission is to protect the French language, but they can't do anything," he said. "It's just symbolic."

Source: The Record, Northern New Jersey via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company.

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