SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
France's lower House of Parliament approved a measure this week to allow courses at French universities to be taught in English. Now, until now, that's been against the law. The government hopes to attract more international students, and improve the English language skills of French students. But opponents contend the measure may marginalize the French language. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Bells call Parliament members to order in the National Assembly. French Minister for Higher Education Genevieve Fioraso explains why universities need to start teaching in English.
MINISTER GENEVIEVE FIORASO: (Through Translator) We need to be able to welcome students from emerging countries - like Korea, India and Brazil - to study science, economics and technology. And they don't come to France now because of the language barrier.
BEARDSLEY: Parliamentarian Daniel Fasquelle tried to shock his colleagues.
DANIEL FASQUELLE: And my question is clearly, shall we speak English in these French parliaments one day?
BEARDSLEY: Fasquelle and other opponents of the measure say if science and technology are taught in English, the French language will lose vocabulary, and gradually cease to be a modern living language. His colleague Pouria Amirshahi, who represents the 150,000 French citizens who live in North and West Africa, says France should not strive to be a second-rate copy of English and American universities. France should work to attract the world's Francophone students.
POURIA AMIRSHAHI: Make - no sense. You have in Ivory Coast, in Morocco, in Algeria, in a lot of country, many people who speak French. And they want to come in France to learn in French; sciences, history.
BEARDSLEY: Once the language of diplomacy and the world's elite, French is now the eighth most spoken language in the world. The Acadamie Francaise, set up in 1635 as the official guardian of the language, regularly comes up with French alternatives to English tech words. But terms like "ordimobile" and "mot-diese" rarely catch on with a younger generation that prefers to stick with "smartphone" and "hashtag." Even French newspaper "Liberation" had a front-page headline in English this week. "Let's Do It," it said.
While a 1994 law bars classes being taught in English from nursery school to university, elite private business schools and French grandes ecoles, the equivalent of American Ivy Leagues, have long been teaching in the language of Shakespeare.
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BEARDSLEY: Students take a break outside Sciences Po, a grandes ecole in the center of Paris. The school offers a third of its classes in English, and 40 percent of its student body hails from abroad. Briton Peter Gumbel teaches here. He says the real problem is not English, but a two-tier system.
PETER GUMBEL: Where you have the best and the brightest get the full immersion in an international education including, you know, studying abroad; and then you have the 95 percent who are stuck in a very French-ossified system.
BEARDSLEY: Gumbel says he does understand French concerns over losing its language, but the important thing is to spread French thinking and ideas.
GUMBEL: France attracts enormous amounts of people. Paris is a place people love to come to; students - foreign students, American students. And when they're here, they take their classes in English, but they also learn French. And so it's not that just by teaching in English, you completely cut off French as a language. On the contrary, you get more people interested in France; more people interested in the ideas that French intellectuals have. They get passionate about the place, and so France carries on, living in their imaginations when they've left France again.
BEARDSLEY: That, says Gumbel, is the very definition of soft power.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.
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SIMON: Django Reinhardt - noticed, he played the guitar in French. You're listening to NPR News.