The morality of language: should we learn French?

‘MyFrenchLife™ – learn french - The Idiot's GuideIn March this year, British journalist Liam Mullone published an article in The Spectator entitled ‘Why I won’t let my children learn French’

According to Mullone, his children would not be learning a language so intertwined with oppression during colonial years. The atrocities committed in accordance with the policies in place in French colonies means that, for Mullone, learning the language goes against his very moral backbone. (Plus, he argues, from a business perspective, the usefulness of French is quickly becoming non-existent.) 

Understandably, this article received quite a lot of backlash, not just because of the sometimes historically dubious assertions he makes, but because of his very strongly held standpoint. Given the fact that most languages have been ‘involved’ in horrible draconian government policy decisions, Mullone’s particular discrimination against French seems bizarre. However, despite the fact that I do not agree with his conclusions, it is a well-written and thoughtful article. 

‘Why I won’t let my children learn French’

In the end, Mullone’s viewpoint is fundamentally flawed: it is assigning to language responsibility of human actions or inactions. Rather than focusing on its involvement in past injustices, French should be appreciated for its expressive capacity. Depriving your children the opportunity to expand their grasp of expression seems counterintuitive to Mullone’s well-presented arguments. 

‘MyFrenchLife™ – learn french - language scramble

Now, here at MyFrenchLife™, it would be redundant for us to extol the virtues of learning and speaking French when it’s the very glue that holds much of our community together. Rather, what interested the team when this article did the rounds back in March was the idea of the morality of language. 

MyFrenchLife™ - learn french - Roland BarthesMorality of language

As French philosopher Roland Barthes said, “Language is never innocent”. Barthes devoted much of his study to the structuralism movement of the early to mid-twentieth century. Structuralism was a movement in the social sciences that aimed to remove all elements of the author from any given text and instead for the language to be celebrated for its structure alone. However even when going to such extreme measures as to announce le mort de l’auteur, language, stripped back to its pure essence, still carries with it inherent meaning – it is never innocent. 

With this in mind, is it really justifiable to deny teaching of certain languages for moral reasons? Wouldn’t that mean that every single language, full of inherent meaning by its very nature, can be morally corrupt? 

Instead, language should be regarded as a form of expression: it is through language that some of the greatest works of art have been created. Poets, writers and lyricists constantly evoke strong emotions from their audiences with the power of words.

Language can not only be used to demean – it is also used to inspire, to create and to celebrate. Language is in fact the greatest tool we have at our disposal, and it does not make sense to blame language, the tool, for the way in which it has been wielded. 

Reclaiming of French

Although l’Académie francaise may never approve, the French de la rue is a mixture of traditional French and argot. Magrébins and immigrants have reclaimed French as their own through the use of argot et verlan and have created a new vibrant twist on traditional French. Language is a reflection of its people – the variations of the French language in the postcolonial world should be celebrated as the enriching of the French culture rather than being remembered as a language of oppression.

Language has become a source of empowerment, explains author of ‘Lexik des Cités’, Alain Rey. Responding to a need to create a dictionary that actually reflected the language of les cités, the Lexik captures just a small degree of the diversity of the French language, enriched by other cultures. Given the constantly evolving nature of language, many of these words of argot have different meanings from quartier to quartier.


It is this sort of celebration of the French language in all its forms that should have people wanting their children to learn French, rather than denying it for flawed moral reasons.

Mais oui, French is not an innocent language. Despite being the country of Human Rights, France has participated in its own share of injustices. The French language has been used to conquer and oppress many throughout history. However, French is by no means exceptional in this regard; the same could be said for English, Dutch, Spanish, German and more. 

Given that language is so intrinsically linked with culture, the fact that French (among other languages) was the language of the oppressor should not be forgotten or ignored. Rather, this history should be acknowledged and the language approached in a way that will empower its language learners to use the French language as a new form of constant evolving expression.

What do you think about imbuing language with morality? Is it a consideration for you when learning a language? Please share your thoughts below or tweet me @DesertDeWilson.

Image Credits:
1. French Language by Morgan via Flickr.
2. Language scramble by Eric Andresen via Flickr.
3. Roland Barthes via Wikipedia.

About the Contributor

Sahara Wilson

I have just returned from living in Paris and love to indulge in all things French even when in my hometown of Melbourne. I hope to be a lifelong learner, taking my readers with me as we discover worldly delights! Tweet me @DesertDeWilson or find me on  Google+.

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  1. Jill Craig Oct 7, 2014 at 9:44 PM - Reply

    It’s true that – as Saussure puts it- language carves up our world – it completely shapes our perspectives. But this is true of every language system we use, and to pin all the blame on French seems like a biased and completely unbalanced way of carving up the world of Mullone’s children…

  2. Elise Mellor Oct 8, 2014 at 4:41 PM - Reply

    Can I just point out that this is a British guy talking. In English.

  3. Esme Wakefield Oct 9, 2014 at 7:49 PM - Reply

    Actually it’s a British girl writing. But yes, Elise makes a good point. The British were an imperial power too, as were Belgium, Portugal, Italy, Spain, etc..
    To discriminate against one is to discriminate against all is it not? Where are the boundaries here? Does this man not go on holiday, speak to French people or drink French wine? History is important. Language is an important tool (if nothing else) for picking history apart.

    Re. business sense – I can see Mullone’s point. Many people have said to me “Why are you doing that?” when I mention my degree, thinking of the world becoming ever more Anglophone. But there’s a massive but there. To deny any importance of French is frankly idiotic.

    This is the kind of view that heeds progression and creates division when as Sahara rightly puts, we should approach it with open minds.

    • Elise Mellor Oct 15, 2014 at 11:03 AM - Reply

      Mullone is a British guy, though, that’s what I was saying.

  4. Michael Dorman Oct 14, 2014 at 2:27 PM - Reply

    I’m afraid I find Mullone’s arguments against learning French patently ridiculous. It ignores the colonialist British atrocities, slavery and extermination of aboriginal societies in the English-speaking U.S. and similar action by peoples who speak other languages. Let us not speak German because of Germany’s Nazi past, for example. Why not learn French because of all the kind, generous people in France or because of Medecins sans frontieres, or the Sisters of Charity. Again lets laud the positive aspects of any of this planet’s societies. French is still the second most useful lingua franca after English because of the number of countries that use it a some level to unite people within national boundaries or to communicate to the outside world. By all means learn Chinese but it isn’t a lingua franca and isn’t that useful outside of China, Singapore and Taiwan. In addition why limit yourself to one other language other than your native language? Unilingual English-speakers are falling behind in the world and the multilinguals are becoming the most advantaged. I am always suspicious when I hear people like Mullone make such narrow decisions, that there is some knee-jerk attitude based on some other single factor that is generalized in an intellectually lazy fashon. Aside from the above reasons for learning a language, for me French is one of the most beautifully lirical languages and when spoken, in general, is wonderful to hear and speak and when reading, its sounds resonate like music in my mind.

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