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The Equal Dignity of All Cultures Requires the Recognition of Their Diversity

The Equal Dignity of All Cultures Requires the Recognition of Their Diversity

Speech by Jean-David Levitte, French Ambassador to the United States, to The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages during it's Annual Conference and Exposition. Chicago, November 19, 2004. Source: Embassy of France in the United States.

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    Dear Friends,

I am truly delighted to be with you today.

I would like to begin by thanking President Cochrun and the staff of ACTFL for inviting me to join you today. I was very honored to be asked to speak here and to serve on the National Honorary Committee of “2005, Year of Languages.” This invitation went right to my heart and I accepted it with enthusiasm.

The many years I’ve spent abroad have convinced me that international skills are priceless for individuals as well as for nations. They can make the difference between a grim or a bright future for you, for me and most of all for our children.

I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts on the many reasons that make learning foreign languages one of the great challenges of today’s word.

Let me start with the obvious :

  • I/ Learning languages is necessary in a globalized world.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of our society is the extraordinary speed at which people and ideas can move. In this aptly named “global village,” the physical barriers to such movement are falling one by one. We have to make sure that languages don’t impede this remarkable progress.

Globalization is a consequence of man's indefatigable curiosity. We’ve spent centuries exploring and mapping this planet. We are now so familiar with its contours that we occupy every part of it and settle not where we are born but wherever destiny or preference leads us. This is a wonderful opportunity for all nations and citizens in the world. I don't think we want to give it up.

But globalization also means jobs. Do you know that one of every six jobs created today throughout the world is international. It is obvious for most of us in this room that our children need to make sure they can adapt to this phenomenon if they want to succeed. They are very likely to change jobs and maybe continents several times in their professional life. They have to be prepared for that.

What is less obvious is that globalization starts at home, right at our doorstep. You don't need to take a plane to encounter other languages and cultures. You only have to look out the window.

In this country, 14 million young people between the ages of 5 and 25 speak a language other than English at home, and this other language can be Spanish, Arabic or French. This clearly means jobs at home in both the languages of the migrants and of the home country.

In Europe, half of the population is already bilingual and the goal set for every citizen is to master at least two foreign languages. Through its successive enlargements, the European Union is facing a real challenge: Making sure that 25 cultures and nearly as many languages co-exist on an equal footing within a unified political whole. This must be achieved, despite the odds, to ensure that no one in Europe feels discriminated against because of his language or culture.

In this new European Babel, we are trying to progressively accomplish the dream of Jean Monet, one of the founding fathers of Europe, who said, toward the end of his life, that if European integration were to be done over, he would begin not with the economy but with culture.

In France, 14 million citizens out of 60 million are of foreign origin. That is almost one Frenchman or woman in five. As in many other European countries, languages are part of our core curriculum. It is mandatory in France to study two foreign languages at school, starting the first one in grade 6 and the second one in grade 8. Almost all children in the French educational system study English.

Many in France believe that language-learning could be further improved and should begin even younger. A recent report on the future of education in France thus proposed that English be taught to all children beginning in elementary school.

    Dear friends,

  • II/ That said, we must not ignore the fact that globalization also entails the drastic reduction of the number of languages spoken today.

3,000 to 5,000 languages are spoken in today’s world. More than half of them are threatened. 512 years ago, when Christopher Columbus first set foot on this continent, 300 native Indian languages were spoken. There are 175 today and only 20 are spoken by children.

It is necessary to act in order to protect the diversity of cultures and languages in the world. I know you share this aim. The presence of Chief Hawk at this table is a sign of this awareness.

One of the goals of the Year of Languages should be to convince American policymakers and citizens that globalization must reconcile extreme mobility with a respect for identity, and that means preserving as much linguistic diversity as we possibly can.

    Dear Friends, now let me say a few words about America and the world.

  • III/ The spectacular spread of the English language on this planet is not only proof of the need for a lingua franca.

It also reveals the fascination American culture holds for people of all ages and origins. Nevertheless we all agree that the world also expects America to make a similar effort and to be interested and knowledgeable about the cultures and languages outside its borders.

The United States bears a special responsibility in today’s world. Its unparalleled power and influence on politics, economics and culture give it special obligations. The most contradictory intentions are often attributed to America. Some fear it is succumbing to the temptations of isolationism. Others denounce its supposed imperialist designs and its will to impose its own cultural model on the rest of the world.

I strongly disagree with these two views. But, like it or not,you are the only super-power. You have special responsibilities. And , because of that,you must know the world.America must listen, understand and dialogue with other peoples, religions and cultures.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the attcaks of 9-11, it is that you cannot live in fortress America, protected from the outside world. You must develop a positive dialogue with the people of the world. And engaging in this positive dialogue first requires learning foreign languages.

I know that you share this belief and act in consequence each day in your personal and professional lives. I am sure that you are happy and proud to note the latest signs of a renewed interest in languages and international education in the United States.

The most recent studies published last year by the Modern Language Association are encouraging. The enrollment of students in foreign language courses hasn’t been this high since the ’70s. I am of course satisfied to see that contrary to an all-too-common belief, French is stable, although I would love to see a stronger improvement. I would like to seize this opportunity to plead with you today and throughout the year to encourage Americans to learn the language of their oldest ally !

We are particularly proud, at the French Embassy, to be starting a teaching assistant program next year with the State Department and the Fulbright Commission. This will allow more and more French students to come to the US in order to help teachers with French lessons. Already 1,700 American students go to France every year with a grant from the French government to help French children learn English.

    My dear friends,

  • IV/ I want to conclude by returning to the notion of cultural diversity, which includes linguistic diversity.

The equal dignity of all cultures requires the recognition of their diversity. These cultures shape our identities. They are the soil in which we are rooted and from which we derive our future. Each one makes a contribution to humanity’s enlightenment and progress. Every people has its own particular message to deliver.

We often ramble on about the conflict between civilizations. The leading cause of intolerance is ignorance. To defuse frustrations and combat fermenting hatred, there is no better antidote than to learn a language. This effort is a mark of respect toward the other, the acceptance of his difference, the expression of a desire for dialogue.

It is our generation’s responsibility to find the right balance between the need to communicate in one’s own language and the imperative of understanding each other's identity, which pleads for a great diversity of languages.

This isn’t just a priority, it’s an absolute necessity. It’s not just a one-way process but a reciprocal one, a two-way street. It isn’t the responsibility of one but a duty for all.

    Thank you for your attention./.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).