A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's the international language of business, French or English?

August 4, 1989

Dear Cecil:

Our high school French teacher always insisted learning French was important because it was going to become the international language of business. Now I hear English is mandatory in international aviation, and the Chinese students in Beijing spoke English to the international media. Was our French teacher shucking us? Merde!

Cecil replies:

Now, now. He/she probably just didn't know any better. French teachers lead such empty lives as it is that no one has the heart to tell them the awful truth, which is that French is a language on the way down, not up. Once the language of diplomacy, French was used in the royal courts of Germany, Russia, and Italy during the 19th century. Fifty years ago Somerset Maugham called it "the common language of educated men" (women too, one presumes). But it's been in a state of decline since World War II, having long ago been supplanted by — you guessed it — English.

English is the primary language of more than 400 million people and is the second language of hundreds of millions more. It's essential in science, technology, economics, and finance. It's the official language of airport control towers, might as well be the official language of computer software, and of course is vital to a perfect comprehension of MTV, Madonna, and other pillars of modern culture. French is the primary language of maybe 114 million, including such outposts of world commerce as Haiti, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, and is essential chiefly to reading menus at Le Cirque.

The French have been desperately attempting to reverse this trend. In addition to hosting international conferences of "Francophone" (French-speaking) nations, France as of 1986 was spending $750 million per year to support 20,000 French teachers in 155 countries. It also employs language police to guard against un-Gallic intrusions such as le compact-disc. But all in vain.

Not that French doesn't have its uses. Au contraire. It remains the language of international pretension par excellence, having a certain je ne sais quoi that appeals irresistibly to the nouveaux riches. Also, let's face it, je t'aime sounds infinitely classier than "luv ya, babe." But French is more likely to come in handy in the intimate hours after the business meeting than during.

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