French alive in Lebanon but not the ‘in language’ anymore
Beirut - “Hi, kifak, ça va? The short sentence meaning “Hello, how are you, fine?” is a remarkable illustration of the diverse linguistic influence in Lebanon, a multi-religious and multicultural country where Arabic, French and English are mixed up in regular communication.
Lebanon, a former French protectorate and member of the International Organisation of the Francophonie, or French-speaking countries, has, however, been particularly receptive to the spread of English to the detriment of French, considered the country’s second official language after Arabic.
Decades ago, French was mainly the first foreign language that Lebanese spoke and in which they were educated. But in the age of globalisation, English, notably American English, has muscled French aside.
Nonetheless, French is still in good shape in the small country, according to Veronique Aulagnon, director of the French Institute in Lebanon. “We have not observed a spectacular retreat of the Francophonie in Lebanon. With 55% of all educational establishments offering Arabic-French programmes, including 40 well-renowned schools catering for 55,000 students following the same curriculum as in France, we are not worried, but we [still] have to fight to maintain” the Francophonie, Aulagnon said.
Referring to the Francophone Book Fair of Beirut, which held its 23rd edition in November, Aulagnon noted that the ten-day event, in which more than 50 publishers and book stores participated, is the second largest French-oriented one outside France after Montreal and had about 78,000 visitors this year, an increase of 10% from 2015.
“To have this in a country of 4 million inhabitants is nonetheless outstanding,” she said. “It is obviously a very popular event that people look forward to. Moreover, Lebanon is the first market in the Arab world for French publishers, as well as the centre of translation of French books to Arabic… This is very significant; it is happening here, not in Morocco or Algeria or Egypt. ”
For Aulagnon, Lebanon has not lost its Francophone character, but is becoming a place where the three languages are being spoken. “The new generation has become trilingual, expressing themselves a lot in English, especially on social media, because it is the fashion. We know that we cannot win the battle of the Francophonie in Lebanon by opposing English because the Lebanese need to speak it… Also, France has always supported the diversity of Lebanon, including its cultural one.”
Maroun Nehme, president of the syndicate of book importers in Lebanon and owner of Librairie Orientale bookshop in Beirut, believes English is gaining ground quickly because it is the primary language of the internet as well as the lingua franca of business and commercial globalisation.
“French speaking has regressed. Most universities teach in English, while French teaching is mainly concentrated in schools and in the elementary cycle. The visitors to the Francophone book fair constitute the hard core of the Francophonie in Lebanon, but unfortunately they do not represent the Lebanese reality… They represent a symbolic Lebanon,” Nehme said at his book fair stand.
Oddly enough, Arabic translations of French works occupied a large part of Nehme’s stand. “We are seeking to reinforce the Francophonie by attracting a new public, one that is Arabic- or English-speaking, but who would be interested in acquiring knowledge of French culture. It is a means to give them access to the genius of French culture… In a way, we are preaching and converting people to the Francophonie,” he contended.
According to Aulagnon, Lebanese publishers are multiplying translations of French books, including academic and pedagogic material, which are increasingly in demand by non-Francophone Arabs such as those from the Gulf countries.
“Almost two-thirds of French book copyrights [are] being acquired by Lebanese publishers for translation. In other words, Francophone culture is reaching the Arab world through Lebanon,” she added.
The French arrived in Lebanon in the second half of the 19th century, when Jesuit clergy in France sought to counter increasing Protestant influence in the region by dispatching legions of missionaries to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. However, there are strong regional differences regarding the French due to the choices of settlement by the different missionaries and to religious considerations. French missions were often found in Maronite Christian areas whereas English-speaking missions were in the Druze and Shia regions; south Lebanon and part of Mount Lebanon.
Fluency in French is still highly prised in affluent circles, especially among Christians, for whom the language of Voltaire continues to imply good education and high economic status. It is also very common to hear conversations shift easily from Arabic to English to French and back again.
French is far from being dead in Lebanon; it is just that English is an “in language” nowadays.
“The Francophonie is well anchored in Lebanon because French is not only a language of education but of culture as well. It is almost a political language which is presented as part of the Lebanese identity,” Aulagnon said.
“We just need to make it an ‘in language’ again.”