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Will English always be the dominant language?

Posted on 11 April 2009 | 10:04am

In a Paris cab last week, an Algerian driver picked up on something I said and told me the French word ‘hasard’ (chance) came directly from Arabic. He had seen me on a TV programme the night before and said as an ‘ecrivain’, I ought to know that.

First, I still feel odd when people describe me as a writer. Second, I felt this was a very high level of knowledge expected by cabbie of customer. Still, it was better than the usual London fare of can Lampard play with Gerrard, why doesn’t Gordon smile more and they should hang the muppet who invented roadhumps (I think it happened on Ken Clarke’s watch, but he should not be hanged in my opinion).

I had no way of knowing if my Arabic-French lesson was accurate, but when he started telling me his favourite Shakespeare plays, then reciting from them (in Arabic – again, no way of knowing) I realised I was with a very special taxi driver.

‘Mais vous,’ he said ‘vous avez de la chance.’

‘Pourquoi?’ I asked.

‘Ah, l’anglais monsieur … C’est la langue de toutes les langues.’

It hasn’t always been, and I’m not just talking about Latin. Even when I was at school, and there came the moment of A Level choices, and I was still keen on maths, I remember my parents talking about the Common Market, and how it meant we would all need one or more of the European languages. So English, French, German it was.

I’ve kept up my French, mainly through reading and holidays, but my German, like my bagpipes of yesterday’s blog and vlog, has gone shamefully rusty. Though a lot came back during the World Cup of 2006, there are eleven year old Germans who speak my language better than I speak theirs.

When I lived in France 31 years ago, I used to rather enjoy the efforts to minimise the influence of English on French. Successive French Presidents would try in different ways to halt the onward march of OK, sandwich, burger bar.

But the power of Anglo-Saxon culture, particularly film and music, has been too strong. I’m not sure where Sarkozy stands on the French protection front, but his more pro-US position than Chirac (who spoke more English than he let on) suggests the onward march will continue.

It is nonetheless embarrassing to watch otherwise well educated Brits in French restaurants unable to ask for bread or water without sign language or shouting. And equally embarrassing to watch foreign footballers speak better English than some of ours do. But maybe the US and UK arrogance on languages is what helped make us dominant in the first place.

As for my taxi driver, he told me that when my grandchildren are growing up, either Arabic or more likely Mandarin will be the dominant languages. I doubt it, though he did seem very wise.

Meanwhile, partly to show off, partly to continue to promote my novel (Portugese translation rights latest to be sold) and partly because another only-in-France type TV programme sent me the tape, I have put up on the vlog section the programme the driver was talking about, La Grande Librairie. J’espere que ca vous amuse ou interesse. (Apologies for lack of accents. My computer only speaks English).

  • Alina Palimaru

    I agree with the cab driver regarding languages (he probably used to be an underpaid scholar in his native country, who knows?). The global dominance of a particular language has more to do with the economic and political positioning of the nation(s) that speak(s) it rather than with the difficulty of learning the language. The same theory, in my view, is applicable to codified versions of languages, which explains why today’s standard English is the one we know and not, say, Jamaican English. Therefore, I suspect his predictions regarding Arabic and Mandarin may be accurate, although projected a few decades down the road. Judging by the number of native speakers, Mandarin Chinese is already the most spoken language in the world, followed by Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi and Arabic. Economic and political changes in China, India and the Arab-speaking world already suggest that cultural and linguistic re-alignments are underway.

  • Roy J Thomas

    I too enjoy taxi drivers. We have great drivers in Cardiff . Most are Muslim as we have a fine Muslim community-12 mosques.But forget other languages Welsh is making a come back.

    My favourite story is of a MIT language professor who said “…to lose the welsh language (or for that matter any language) would be like dropping a bomb on the Louvre -losing a civilisation .”

  • Aaron Barclay

    The taxi driver may be right. English dominates because the British Empire once did, and in our lifetimes the USA. If power shifts away to the East,perhaps Chinese languages will come to dominate. Heaven help us if that happens.We Americans are even worse than you Brits at not learning languages

  • Eric Chelsea fan

    Never mind can Gerrard play with Lampard. Can Gerrard play with Michael Essien on his back? No, he can’t, as Barack Obama might say. Liverpool’s secret weapon defused for good!

  • Alina Palimaru

    Speaking of your book, all the French reviews I have read so far are extremely positive. The French are very sophisticated readers and they admit to being thoroughly impressed by the depth and ingenuity of your novel. Here are a few extracts from the French press.

    “Incontestablement, Alastair Campbell a réussi son coup. ‘Tout est dans la tête’, son premier roman, se lit fort bien. Les états d’âme du psy sont décrits méthodiquement. On ressent ce qu’il vit intérieurement. Il en va de même pour la galerie de patients. Leurs blessures psychologiques sont criantes de vérité.”

    Jean-Christophe Chanut
    La Tribune

    “L’intérêt du roman, outre la multiplicité des situations qui toutes sont plausibles mais traitées avec assez de distance pour qu’on ne se croie pas dans une série télévisée, réside dans la composition simultanée, concomitante, du personnage du docteur Sturrock.”

    Stephane Denis
    Le Figaro

    “Avec ‘Tout est dans la tête’, Alastair Campbell a assurément écrit un roman qui « fonctionne ». C’est un drame, dominé par deux personnages : le psychiatre, submergé par les pathologies de ses patients, lui-même borderline . Et puis un ministre alcoolique, qui sera finalement contraint à la démission après avoir suivi un ancien mannequin et être ainsi tombé dans un piège tendu par un tabloïd. De ces histoires dont raffolent les médias britanniques. Les « anciens », comme les « nouveaux ».”

    Thierry Portes
    Le Figaro

    “Le premier roman d’Alastair Campbell révèle la face fragile de l’ancien conseiller en communication de Tony Blair.”

    Roberte Jourdon
    Ouest France

    …and one mention in Switzerland

    “Que fait un psychiatre lorsqu’il a besoin d’un psychiatre? C’est le point de départ du dernier roman d’Alastair Campbell, Tout est dans la tête. Le professeur Sturrock est un psy londonien renommé. Les patients défilent sur son divan. Mais voilà, le professeur n’en peut plus. Il frise la dépression. Le roman d’Alastair Campbell explore la relation particulière qui lie le psy et son malade, sur le ton de la dérision.”

    La Tribune de Genève

  • Brian Hughes

    Having heard how protective the Parisians were of the French language, I was astonished on my first ever visit to Paris in 2003 (why did I leave it so long?) to find le Métro plastered with advertisements for learning English – specifically Business or “Wall Street” English.

    My daughter, after doing her French exchange, made a good point about why it’s easier for French children to learn English than vice versa; they’re bombarded with song lyrics in English from a tender age and so pick up some vocabulary and accent alongside their own language.

    But it’s really American they learn! The owners of the sightseeing boats on la Seine seem to have recognised this subtlety. They offer two sorts of English amongst their 17 or so language commentary options – English English or International English…

  • Alan Quinn

    I just think that, quite rightly the French wish to protect their own culture wheras we seem to import too much crap from the US.
    I also think the French are fantastic people (nothing to do with a certain M. Cantona), we once had a problem with our car in France and it ended up at a VW main dealer, the mechanic thoroughly checked it out, said the car was fine and then proceeded to refuse our offer of payment. “Un cadeau, au revoir” he said.

  • john akroyd

    As an Englishman living in Brittany I reluctantly accept the cultural superiority of France. In fact, they do most things better than us, apart from the quality of their driving which is a disgrace. (French driving instructors should drive hearses and cut out the middlemen).

    Two unconnected observations: any French acceptance of the cultural pre-eminence of ‘English’ language is based almost entirely on US popular culture: shows like CSI and Dexter are massive here.

    I also think a lot of French cultural confidence springs from an instinctual comfort that they live in a big country: like the Americans, and distinctly unlike us. Perhaps if we had a bit more productive land, we wouldn’t be cultural vikings?

  • john akroyd

    …sorry, thought of something else! Does the present decomposition of the global economy mean we will see a resurgence of regional languages? (The corollary being that US economic dominance has been the vehicle for US cultural dominance).

    As a parent of (just) school-age children, I feel a nascent responsibility to encourage them to learn Breton.

    Or should we all learn Chinese and be really well prepared??