Wednesday, July 14, 2010

La France

Today is July 14, Bastille Day, the national day of France.

France gave us not only French but also half (roughly) of the vocabulary of English, because England was bilingual during the formative years of modern English. And do you know that even today there’s a corner of the British Isles that’s still officially bilingual in English and French?

Estimates of the number of French speakers vary widely between 100 million and 200 million. Since only 45 million of them live in France, this means that most of the rest are in officially bilingual French+ countries around the world (Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Cameroon, Morocco, Vanuatu etc., etc.) or for other reasons know French as a second language.

I was lucky enough to be taught French at school while I was still fairly young. That grounding, though it was more literary than conversational, has stood me in good stead throughout my life. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received came from an official at the Canadian High Commission in London one autumn day in 1965 when he looked at my application form for immigration into Canada and said, “So you know French. You should go to Montreal.” I have reason to remember him with deep gratitude.

France also gave us the metric system, known officially today as the SI System (International System of Units), SI being short for French Système International. It became the official system in France during the French Revolution. Indeed, it’s an event in the French Revolution we’re really celebrating today, the storming of the Bastille prison. The French Revolution also bequeathed us the most inspiring of all political slogans – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! – the most rousing of all national anthems – La Marseillaise – and the oldest still functioning school of translators: the École Spéciale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, founded in Paris in1795, known familiarly as Langues 'O to its students and today renamed Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales (INALCO). One of its founders was the leading French diplomatic interpreter of the eighteenth century, Jean-Michel Venture de Paradis; and not so long ago, one of the best-known contemporary researchers and writers on Expert Interpreting was teaching there: Daniel Gile.

Here in Spain, we should remember that France gave Spain its ruling royal family, the Bourbons, and the best-known piece of ‘Spanish’ music worldwide, the opera Carmen.



  1. Anyway, easier.

    Including translating.

    Incidentally, in case you're still wondering about the corner of the British Isles that's still officially bilingual in English and French, it's Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where the Queen of England is styled Duchess of Normandy.

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