❊ Let's Face It, The French Language In Lebanon Is Dying

The Daily Star:

Experts believe the French language is not at risk in Lebanon despite a clear increase of schools that use English as a language of instruction, saying that two-thirds of the country’s students can still be classified as French-educated. “There is definitely a dominance; a majority of schools in the private and public sector are using French as the first foreign language,” said Fadi Yarak, the director general of education at the Education Ministry.

I definitely feel the existence of the French language in Lebanon, but dominance? Give me a break. The new lingua franca in Lebanon is English by any measure.

Sure every now and then you see a french tweet or french blog post. They’re cute, and in a fun way, uniquely Lebanese. But English is almost universal in the Lebanese online world nowadays. I follow thousands of Lebanese online, and with the exception of a handful, they all communicate in English (and increasingly, some Arabic). The website of the Lebanese Presidency is in Arabic and English only. Most official Lebanese websites are in Arabic and English only, with some exceptions like -fittingly- Le Ministère de la culuture.

But it’s different in the offline world, you might say. Well, as a fun experiment, go to Beirut Drive-by Shooting right now. This is a blog dedicated to taking pictures of Lebanese billboards. I just went there and counted: 19 billboards are in English, only 1 is in French. Dominance you say?

Face it. English is the new king in town. Those who are saying that French is dominant are living in the reality-distortion field of La Francophonie..

I was french-educated in Lebanon, and so was my wife. But we recently made a decision to put our son in an English-only school. After a lot of thinking and a lot of anguish over the beautiful things he’ll be missing, we made up our minds: It’s just not worth it..

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  • http://www.ladynblogspot.blogspot.com NathD

    Well i think it is very sad to lose the french! i mean this is one of the traits of being lebanese, to jungle between arabic, french and english! That was our plus, our differentiation!

    Plus the language is really amazing! the poetry, the literature, the music…

    i first started my blog in french and then noticed that indeed more and more people don’t read nor speak french in Lebanon! so i had to switch to English!

    So sad! in my opinion!

    • Mustapha

      I understand what you mean by “the language is really amazing! the poetry, the literature, the music”, you won’t believe how many times I’ve gone through this, but come to think of it, aren’t Chinese, Italian and Spanish languages and literature amazing too?

      Why don’t we feel so bad if our children don’t speak those other, equally wonderful languages?

      Eventually we’ll face the truth: The only reason we want our children to learn French is because we want them to be more like us and appreciate Aznavour and Nostalgie with us, not because we want to give them a language that will be useful for their future prospects. If by now we’re starting to feel that very little people are using French, what will happen in 20 years when our children become adults?

  • bgemayel

    It’s Le Ministère de La culture :-)

    • Mustapha

      Sorry, I haven’t practiced for a while :) , will fix that right now..

  • http://www.ladynblogspot.blogspot.com NathD

    I totally understand your point of view! And yes other languages might be amazing too since i know a bit of spanish but for the others i have no clue 😛 but i mean it never hurts to have an extra language in their portfolio no? Plus it is somewhere related to Lebanon’s culture and Heritage!

    from what i know from people around me who had a french education… they master well french and english but this doesn’t apply to the english educated people.

    But again, like Greek, french will be dead in decades (if it didn’t start already) and maybe other languages can be more useful for the coming generations.
    I guess i’m very romantic when it comes to french and would always defend it.

  • http://oussama-hayek.blogspot.com OH

    I agree it’s dying. The grip of French in Lebanon always perplexed me. Yes, French missions set up a lot of schools. But, French had a strong grip in “high society”, despite the fact that the best university in the region was AUB, where everyone spoke English. More importantly, why do so many Lebanese prefer to speak French at home? A Francophone friend once explained it this way: many of the wealthy Christian families originally came from cities like Aleppo in Syria. Despite their wealth, they felt awkward with their Syrian accents. Speaking French avoided the problem. So, French lingered and displaced the “original” Lingua Franca of the Eastern Mediterranean which was in fact mostly based on Italian (this is why we still use words like Bagno for a bathtub, and 2amees for a shirt – which sounds closer to the Italian Camicia than Chemise).

  • Shiwa7ad

    I don’t know if it’s dying. It’s certainly not dead yet. Concerning schools, I am pretty sure that you get a much better quality/price ratio if you put your children in a school where the language of instruction is French. All the good schools in Lebanon that teach in English are extremely expensive : the International College, the SABIS network, the American Community School, etc.
    In comparison, there are a lot francophone schools that are much cheaper and which have an excellent quality of teaching. Personally I went to the French Lycee for my secondary education. I think most students at AUB come from francophone schools and it’s certainly not an uncommon occurrence to overhear conversations in French on the campus, when you visit. Also I think the francophone schools do a much better job (by far) in teaching not only the language, but also the Western culture to the students. I really hate the schools that just teach you the language, such as the Hezbollah Al Mustafa schools. (That is not to say, of course, that one can’t communicate the Western culture in English, but it is my distinct impression that English teachers, even in English-based schools, fail to do that in Lebanon.) Perhaps it has helped that French was, at least at some time in Lebanon, a status language. Of course it had a negative aspect, being the language of the snobs; but also a positive aspect, in that the value of learning the language was not limited to the utilitarian aspect, but also included the belonging , or at least the access to, a different culture. As to me, it doesn’t matter much to me whether children will learn English or French, provided that the school uses the language to convey to them a culture, and not just to pass some multiple choice language proficiency exam when they become 18. If I’m given the choice between two schools that are equally good at conveying the culture and the ideas of a civilization, then I’d probably choose the English-Speaking one, like you did. But I have serious doubts concerning the English-language schools in Lebanon concerning that point.

  • dida

    The favorite argument of the pro frenchy is that “you start with French and then English comes easily, but the otherway around is not as easy”… I come frm a purely French background. From lullabies to law school at the venerable Jesuites. Then I went to the States for the almighty “takhassos w Master’s”. And you knw what? French is just uselessly elaborate. It messes the way you think, translating in a heavy sentence structure that takes a long time to shed off. Less then useless. Endless words to say smthg in 2 curt ones in English. The cartesian simplistic American way has proven unbeatable. My son doesn’t speak French. I couldn’t care less. Hopefully he wont be traveling the French speaking African continent. And to order frm a French restaurant and impress the maitre D’…. I’ll do that for him:)

  • Shiwa7ad

    “The cartesian simplistic American way has proven unbeatable. ”

    Cartesian ? Did you make the joke on purpose ? (I’m just referring to the fact that Descartes was, um, French…)

    I won’t enter the debate as to the merits of either language, as it is clear that speakers of both languages made huge contributions both to culture and science, and I believe it is ridiculous to claim either is “better”. However I stick to my opinion that schools in Lebanon that use French as a teaching language have a much better quality/price ratio than those that use English, and that they tend to convey a stronger cultural message. This is in no way because of some inherent feature of either language, but because of sociological and historical factors in Lebanon.

  • Mustapha

    A point that hasn’t been made in the discussion is the french attitude to technology.

    I can easily imagine them sticking to their “petit” Roberts and “Bled” for grammar, their fat (although beautifully illustrated) literature books, and I can easily imagine french teachers explaining the evils of Wikipedia and Google.

    I sometimes feel the French culture just doesn’t sit well with technology. For example, Amazon.fr doesn’t even have plans for a Kindle in france and gently asks surfers to go to amazon.com to get english books for the kindle.

    That was one of the major reasons why I decided that my son should go to an American school..

  • Z H

    Mus, my only comment is “the grass is always greener on the other side” :)

  • dida


    Yes they have good affordable schools in Lebanon… and Descartes was Fransawi… bottom line they had it in a previous century and lost it along the way. Maybe in a few years the talk will be about Chinese schools vs. English ones… But it seems that the US, so far, will remain the brain drain of the world. All the smarties end up here and all the inventions and progress moving the world forward are frm one of the US coasts. And talking about technologie: they HAD minitel way back when! Helas… they just couldn’t run with it…

  • CopyCat

    You forgot one major point: French is essentially a reflection of Lebanese Christian identity. It is not just about the language. Muslims may learn french in school, but they discard it quickly, while the emotional-cultural connection between Christians and France in Lebanon lives on…I do not expect it to vanish anytime soon exactly because of this. This is a country of deep complexes and issues, and it is the crux of the matter when considering any topic, be it language, or otherwise.

  • Willim Abi-Fadel

    Very interesting observation…
    You ‘re lucky that we do not have a linguistic boarders in Lebanon. Come to Belgium and learn how to divide a country in two..
    I am sure you all know about Belgium stupidity..But I do not know if any body knows that when God created Belgium He was tired .. that’s why we have a big mess in this country…
    We should be still considered lucky in Lebanon that we do not have such a problem..
    I am not giving any ideas for being stupid in Lebanon , but I do hope that we do avoid something like that happening…

  • Willim Abi-Fadel

    To Copy Cat…
    Your name is enough to reveal to me that you are still living in the middle ages… Christian , Muslim , Drouze
    or anything , it is about time that you should not any more associate religion with Lebanese problems and identity it is us that made all the misery upon our self by letting our friends and neighbors manipulate our unique
    Lebanese CULTURE and divide it into whatever it is now , and people like you let’s it flourish.

  • Willim Abi-Fadel

    To Copy Cat…
    Your name is enough to reveal to me that you are still living in the middle ages… Christian , Muslim , Drouze
    or anything , it is about time that you should not any more associate religion with Lebanese problems and identity it is us that made all the misery upon our self by letting our friends and neighbors manipulate our unique
    Lebanese CULTURE and divide it into whatever it is now , and people like you let’s it flourish. YOU MUST HAVE WRITTEN IN French NOT English TO GET YOUR POINT.

  • Z. H.

    Ya copycat lezemlak ‘drouze’ bel akhla2 LOL

    On a more serious tone, I really think you hit a sweet spot there. Yes, the French culture beyond its borders does not end in Lebanon, after which all French heritage goes kaput. Let’s not give ourselves more credit than we deserve.

    A more rational approach to this is to study the global Francophone map and decide whether french would really disappear anytime soon. By doing that, you’d realise that Mus has a point that Francophonie is limited to France, some parts of Europe, Canada and West Africa. However, I don’t think that it’ll vanish anytime soon from these geographic locations.

    My only Cynical observation comes from the fact that someone living in West Africa, surrounded by Francophone states, who enjoys visiting Europe and originates from Lebanon would find French useless to acquire. I believe that to be a matter of personal opinion, of course.

  • CopyCat

    William how is my name associated to the middle ages?
    You and everyone else in this blog KNOW this is the truth. French speaker in lebanon = Christian, in at least 90 percent of cases
    You guys also forgot north africa, french is highly relevant in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, despite the colonial heritage. Also the proud state of Louisiania, Haiti, and elsewhere still speak French.
    It sounds from Mustapha’s post that he’s got a beef with French for some reason and to me it smells of anti-Maronitism

  • Peter

    quatre-vingt-dix-neuf … four-twenty-ten-nine

    Enough said !

  • CopyCat

    it should be neufeti-neuf!

  • http://theequalizer.blog.com theequalizer

    here we go again philosophizing on our own, the Lebanese…
    Truth is sad but truth… the Jesuits have become scarce and their pioneering education system has been replaced although the conveniences of being educated in French gives one an edge in this anglicized world.
    But upon reading your blog, I am reminded odf one situation I was in and worth pointing out in relation to your subject; I had to type in somewhere on a website a couple of words in French of course, and so I did. But the restriction to the number of characters used, did not allow my francophone message to be read and mostly to be undestood. And so I started cutting chipping from here from there some words (whole words, not chat typing), but still I could not reduce below the allowed number of characters allowed. I kept my French text and decided to use Word to try to write the same message in English; I succeeded to get mmy idea in… well half the number of characters used in French; to my surprise when using Wordcount, the number of words used was the same in both languages; the issue in the French version was too many ‘blank characters’. Indeed, French ponctuation required so many spaces between words to get the sentence correct; another feature of the gramatical distinction of the language. This has lead me to examine the obsoleteness of old languages and how they were modernized or transformed/shortened. Makes me wonder if those blank spaces used in for example in ‘à la queue leu leu’ or other expressions are not dooming the language of culture, especially in this digital world of ours.

  • passingby

    1- Structuralism told us that the basis of linguistic codes are “arbitrary”. No “logical” or mathematical or “objective”, and surely not “Cartesian” justification to explain why the verb is more or less tortured -ok, conjugated :)- to express details of actors or time of action. No explanations why the verb must come in the beginning or the end of the sentence in any given language or family of languages. No causal or “natural” relation between sounds and meanings. All languages share those, as well as they share, of course, they own inner logic that is indispensable for any communication code. It is their inner mechanisms that make them so marvelous products and tools from human brains. Somehow, all languages share an inner logical doing that makes them all the same. At the same time, they form distinctive systems, based on “arbitrary” connections that make each language unique.
    So no language is “better” than any other. It can be more useful, more adapted to modernity (basically because the new notions and items are created in that language), and easier or more difficult to acquire depending on the linguistic distance between the languages the student already knows and the new one. The more people speak it and the longer, the deeper its pool of history, culture, etc.
    Nobody can deny that the English language is today the Lingua Franca of the universe. It conveys with it a degree of attraction and availability that makes it’s learning so easy. Arabic language had that role once in Al Andalus, for example: I once read a comment from a man complaining –some centuries ago- that Christian youth had taken into learning Arabic in order to study in the Cordoba (I think) University.

  • passingby

    2-Those times are gone, and so is the time when French was the must know language for diplomatic studies etc. A language carries the identity markers of the society that spoke it in the first place, but it carries as well its power in the world’s affairs. English language’s expansion reflected the colonial power of GB’s Empire, and so did the French language’s in the French colonies. That was, nevertheless, the last centuries, and the technological revolution of information and communication has happened since then. That revolution has happened mainly IN English, and this is why is so difficult to “translate” it into national languages (not to mention non official minority languages fighting to survive). It is simply easier to adopt a foreign word than trying to find an existing one that less accurately makes the same sense, all the more when you have notions of that language. Because the language is so widely spread, vast amounts of people are subject to its influence (not only technology, but also songs, movies, etc.), that encourages people to try to speak it and to borrow all the new neologisms, expressions, etc. The process is helped by the fact that English is a quite synthetic language, singularly adapted to a digital world.

  • Justin

    In my opinion, the fact that there are still so many schools that use French as the medium of instruction, as well as universities that do the same, augurs well for the future of the language in Lebanon.

    On another note, your post actually reminded me of a Lebanese flatmate I had in university; although I have a bit of background in both French and Arabic, he mixed the two so seamlessly in his telephone conversations that I often couldn’t tell which language he was speaking.

  • passingby

    3-3. Nevertheless, the use of language by people is, I think, subjected to many considerations that go beyond practicality or modernity. Personally, I acquired the French language in my youth and I used it during post graduation studies. French was later to become my marriage-language. Because we were to move often, when the time came to chose the school for our children, we choose the French, (although it was a second or third language for us). The main reason at the time was that France has a net of officially recognized schools in practically all the capitals of the world, and once you’re in, they guarantee the student a place in any of them even if he/she has to move in the middle of the school year. Later on we discovered that, if the child studies in French during the first cycles, he/she has no problems to pick up the English later, in the same French school, and join English speaking studies at the University later (as was noted by somebody in the comments, this has become a common phenomenon in Lebanon). The process does not apparently work the other way around: once started in English, the student finds it too “difficult”, and “complicated” to learn French. Young people are easily taken by the wave of fast food, fast thinking, fast learning, fast forgetting. Few of them are able to finish a novel or a big history book, not to say a movie in which there is not enough action. English allows you to “manage” much faster than Latin languages or let’s say German. (In the process, a deterioration of the used English is inevitable, take for example these lines I’m writing right here: I dare to post them in a public place like this blog, knowing for a fact that I’m certainly committing many linguistic crimes against English language while doing so. I would never have dared to do it in French, without having them corrected by a Francophone I trusted. I wonder why I feel English is less “sacred” for me? In the first place, I count on the fact that many of the readers will have English as a second language. I therefore assume their benevolence. Secondly and more importantly, I think, is the fact that ignorance is audacious indeed: when a language seems easy, a superficial knowledge of it allows the speaker to go around assassinating grammatical figures with the innocence of an elephant moving in a glass shop, without even feeling at fault or ridiculous.

    To go back to my personal experience, my daughter and son made it through the French Baccalaureate; one continued in French, the other couldn’t wait to switch into English. They also manage well –on the speaking level- in the mother languages of their parents. That has allowed them to bind and keep a close relation with the extended family back each of our homes. My husband and I made it a point that we would pass our linguistic heritage to our children, as much as we could. In my opinion, a language is a treasure worth much more than diamonds or real state. It is one of the fields in which more is definitely more.

  • Fadi

    I have to disagree with u abu steif! Coming from the English-educated world, I found myself lost working in the midical field! Almost all nursing schools in the country are in French, the basic terms and mean of communication in still by far the French language.

    This domination was so huge that inwas FORCED to get my ass to CCF to get French lessons!!!

    And of course, you can’t participate in any intellectual dialogue in this country if you don’t throw your French on the table, it is just the way it is.

    And out of painful experience, it’s very easy for a French-educated dude to learn and continue university in English, but it is almost impossible vice versa!

    But for sure, in the online world, it is far much easier to communicate in English, much simpler and more flexible…..simply put

    In my opinion, being Lebanese is being able to communicate in the three languages, English French and Arabic

    As long as there are Pristage and Achrafieh ladies around, you can bet that French will not die…lol

  • http://threadofdesire.wordpress.com Riham

    Honestly, I disagree. The reason English is used online more frequently doesn’t mean that French is dying in Lebanon. The reason it is probably used more is that you get more reach using it, as you will not be excluding people who do not speak French, Lebanese or not. I think English is much easier and simpler than French, but I still read French books, communicate with some friends in French, and listen to French music. It is a beautiful language that I believe still vastly exists in Lebanon and in Lebanese culture. I just think of my friend who has lived in Saudi her whole life, and went to a purely American school. Now that she lives in Lebanon, she has a hard time because she does not speak French; most signs on the streets are in French, some expressions people use daily are in French. Maybe I am living in the fantasy of “La francophonie”, but I honestly feel the language’s existence in Lebanon.

    English may be more useful globally nowadays, but I would not want my kids to miss out on learning about French literature and French culture..