Recently I listened to a debate (in French) on Réplique, a radio program on FranceCulture hosted by Alain Finkielkraut, on the place of English in the French university. The trend is clear: universities want to teach more classes in English so as to attract more foreign students and professors. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has read or listened to a bit of Finkielkraut, his reaction to this general trend was less than favorable. "La langue, c'est l'âme d'un peuple" (the language is the soul of a people) one might say. If we lose our language, do we not also lose our soul?
As an American, I found the whole debate somewhat embarrassing. It is undeniable that English has become the lingua franca of the modern world, and it is not hard to see this as part of a general trend of American cultural dominance (leaving aside the British colonialism that defined a previous era). So it makes me blush when I hear a French intellectual argue (against Finkielkraut) that in order for France to remain in a prominent position, it must learn to speak two languages fluently: the language of its soul (French) and the language of the world (English).
But before anyone (Americans included) jumps on the USA for imposing its culture and its language on others, it might be wise to think about how Americans also imposed this language on themselves. Cultural traditions, especially languages, have often gone to die in the United States. Most Americans only speak one language, but it is hardly the language of their ancestors. Very few of us have bloodlines which are all English. Our ancestors learned English in order to become part of a new people and construct a new nation state. (In recent years in Europe one often sees the opposite happening: nations splitting apart countries in order to preserve their separate peoples.)
If there really is international desire to become one global community (and at least to some limited extent, there genuinely is) it is only natural that there should be a language uniting us. There is simply nothing more fundamental than language when it comes to human coexistence.
Then again, I understand perfectly well the desire to guard one's own language. There is something beautiful about having a plurality of languages and traditions, to one who is motivated enough to learn or at least observe them. For each people, it is difficult to let go of its soul--that is, the language. So if the desire to adopt a new language simply isn't there, it seems rather arrogant or cruel to insist on it.
Yet there is something naïve about this portrait of culture. Take French as an example. To suggest that the French people ought to guard their language as something which is theirs by the purely organic process of cultural transmission would fly in the face of actual history. No, French people speak French because there is a French government which designates in its Constitution that the official language is French, and which insists that in all the schools in France the classes will be taught in French. There exist even today languages and dialects in France that are slowly dying, simply because there do not exist the same kinds of institutions backing them. And that is not to speak of the French language itself, which is the product of a long series of mutations and transformations of various European tongues. Neither have I mentioned the large amount of immigration into France in recent years, which further problematizes the notion of "French people" and calls into question how much the French language truly unifies the country. So to act as if the French people have a "right" to guard what is "theirs" seems a little strange, in a lot of ways.
But if a nation is to exist, it must have a language, right? Indeed, and so anyone seeking to unite as one nation must be willing to learn its language and its culture. Therein lies the paradox for me: we join together with others in forming a nation, so that the nation can in turn form us. This is either the most beautiful of life's paradoxes, or a very cruel irony.
From my point of view, the paradox of language (and culture) can only be beautiful if we refuse to accept the myth of modernity that we construct the world as we choose. There are certain errors committed by progressives and conservatives which are, so to speak, equal and opposite, and which have as their origin the false notion that history is a test of human will. Thus progressives, on the one hand, believe that by leaving old things behind, we can arrive at a new Eden of human flourishing, while conservatives believe that we will accomplish the same thing by instead keeping those things which we are at risk of losing. I believe, on the contrary, that we must accept that most things in history will be lost, whether we wish it or not, and that at the same time most new ideas are bad ideas, which will only be weeded out with the passage of more time and thoughtful criticism. A language neither can nor should be perfectly preserved, and neither can it be invented from scratch (as proved by the dazzling failure of Esperanto to become an international language).
The best we can do politically is, in my estimation, to ensure that people have as much freedom as possible, both to benefit from the culture of their own ancestors and to learn the culture of others'. The United States has, in particular, never had an official language at the level of a constitutional requirement. I have absolutely no sympathy for "English only" movements within the US, which seems to me to run counter to everything that the American experience proves (or may hope to prove) about human beings--that we can, by some miracle, albeit not without pain, unite dozens of cultures in one place and under one system of laws. As for France, I would recommend giving freedom a try, as well. It is not necessary for all students to take classes in English, and the fact that English is fashionable is no reason to push for it in more universities. On the other hand, neither does it make sense to deny a university the right to teach more classes in English (or any other language which might one day be useful internationally).
For God's sake, the French language gave us the phrase "laissez faire." I've never understood why the French themselves are so bad at doing that. But that's a whole other story, I suppose.