Exploring the French language’s status around the world, a panel discussion entitled “Brussels, City of Words” was held in the Belgian capital to mark International Francophone Day (March 20).
Moderated by Jacques De Decker, permanent secretary of Belgium’s Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, the event brought together a number of well-known figures, including Brussels mayor Freddy Thielemans; Jean-Jacques de Dardel, Swiss ambassador to Belgium; Royal Academy member and philologist Marc Wilmet; Francité director Daniel Laroche; Claire-Lise Dautry, director of the Brussels-Europe Alliance française; novelist and short story writer Jean-Claude Kangomba; author and poet Christopher Gérard; and Christian Rioux, European correspondent for the Montreal-based daily Le Devoir.
What issues are facing the world’s languages? Will people speak a single language one day? These opening questions gave rise to a spirited defence of efforts to protect languages. The broad range of linguistic diversity is essential to the richness of cultural expression and fosters verbal creativity. Languages continue to shift and evolve, borrowing from each other in an ongoing attempt to describe present-day realities.
When the panellists took up the question of the French language’s status in Switzerland, Belgium, Africa and Québec, a consensus emerged: languages should be treated with care, due respect should be shown to other languages and linguistic scaremongering should be avoided. On the international stage, French may appear to be in competition with English, whose popularity cuts across national boundaries. But French itself is spoken on every continent; as the vehicle of a great cultural heritage, it is certainly here to stay!
As Christian Rioux pointed out, the central element of Quebecers’ identity is their attachment to the French language. Although francophones may only account for 3% of the North American population, French is alive and well thanks to various policies and other measures that have been put in place. Although nothing should be taken for granted, Québec now faces the following challenge as a destination of choice for immigrants: how can newcomers to La Belle Province be encouraged to speak more French?