Multilingualism à la française

by Anne-Hélène Halbout

Ta-da! France has a shiny new President. At barely 40, Emmanuel Macron is the youngest democratically elected leader of France ever, fresh blood embodying hope and "renouveau". He is undeniably charming and charismatic with social media recently pitting Macron against Canada's Justin Trudeau in the battle for the sexiest G7 leader! Strong-willed behind a seductive smile and calm demeanour, and currently enjoying favourable rating – speaking as a young French woman living in the UK – for me, Macron offers a welcome departure from the same middle-aged, often licentious past presidents who failed to raise France's spirit (let alone its economy). But what is of particular interest in terms of our blog, is his relationship with languages: the new President, whose elegance in the use of the French language has us hanging on his every word, is also fluent in English (with just enough of a French accent to add a certain je ne sais quoi). Indeed, he has already confidently demonstrated his linguistic competence at multiple events and interviews, much to the criticism of his former presidential opponent who used it as a political points-scoring opportunity, attacking his lack of linguistic patriotism. Macron, who is pro-EU, has also been very strategic in appointing members of his cabinet. Not only is it refreshingly gender balanced, but many, including his Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, are polyglots – with a particularly excellent command of German and Slavonic languages among others. The linguistic competences of Macron's ministers has certainly not gone unnoticed, and is only strengthening France's position on the international political scene. In a post Brexit world, can we imagine the UK replicating this model? What will this mean for a self-perceived monolingual Britain to negotiate with a multilingual Europe? As Britain prepares to face the economic and societal complexities of leaving the EU, a command of a range of foreign languages seems more relevant and pressing than ever. Tricky though, with funding cuts hitting modern languages teaching and research in secondary schools and at top UK universities…The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, who published a Brexit and Languages checklist in October 2016 calling on the Government to ensure Brexit negotiations protect the UK’s urgent strategic need for language skills, and the MEITS project, present robust evidence of the importance of languages. It must be a priority for government, since speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. The soft power advantage in the 21st century belongs to the multilingual citizen and nation.

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