Sacrificing Education on the Altar of Francophonie

In a feckless effort to spread the French language, France sacrificed the education of children in its former African colonies.

by Sasha Alyson

A century after it ended, historians generally agree that World War I was a case of imperialism gone mad. But at the time, the winners wanted to relish their victory. The Treaty of Versailles was written only in the languages of the winners — French and English — not German. Nor did Germany, as the big loser, get much to say about the conditions. The winners spelled it out: The bad puppy lost its colonies and had to lick up the mess on the floor. Alsace-Lorraine went back to France. France had also wanted the Saar region and its coal mines but had to settle for fifteen years output from those mines. Germany’s humiliation led to another world war, barely two decades later.

But France felt a bit of humiliation as well. Read the above paragraph again. Can you see why?

Answer: For the first time, English as well as French was used in a major Western diplomatic document. Quelle Horreur! (That means, “How unspeakably awful! Let’s punish some children in Africa.”) Until then, French held uncontested primacy in European diplomacy. French was the official language for treaties, it was even the court language of 19th-century Russia.

In Pursuit of Francophonie

The American Century had begun, and the status of French began a long slide. But in contrast to every other nation, France believes that its very soul requires both preserving the national language, and also spreading it through the region known as Francophonie.

Under a 1994 law you could be hauled into court if you referred to “le weekend.” France’s zeal in promoting its language shows in the U.N.’s choice of its two “working” languages: English and French. Things like that don’t simply happen, and it wasn’t Germany that did the arm-twisting.(1) But despite these efforts, French was slipping on the global stage.

And it faced more danger ahead. In the two decades after World War II, most of colonial Africa and Asia won independence. Many of these new nations had fifty or more local languages. The colonial rulers had imposed their own tongue as the national language but on a day-to-day basis, most inhabitants continued to converse in the language of their ancestors.

After independence, each country needed a lingua franca — a national language, spoken by all citizens. In Africa, some chose Swahili. More often, it was convenient to continue with the language of their former ruler. This offered France an opportunity to become known as a world language – albeit one spoken in the halls of Mali rather than Moscow. French aid provided the primary funding for schools in France’s former colonies of Africa, and France ruthlessly exploited this foothold. Through the 1980s, it insisted that students be taught in French. Ericka A. Albaugh, a scholar of this period, writes that:

“[France’s] French-only policy in African schools was nonnegotiable, even after its colonies’ independence. France had steadily provided resources, technical assistance, and teachers to aid in this endeavor.”(2)

A staggering 11,000 French teachers were sent to Africa in 1985, along with aid funds to support French-language instruction. But it wasn’t working; the number of fluent French speakers in former colonies kept dropping. Children in Africa were being taught in French, which they didn’t understand, so they weren’t learning anything at all, not even French.

Everyone except the French government could see that it wasn’t working. An American psychologist observed from West Africa that high school teachers “said that the teaching of French… left little room for instruction in arts and sciences: because the students’ poor performance in those subjects was the result of an inadequate command of the language in which they were taught, instruction in that language had to come first, and remain first.”(3)

Finally, if a bit slowly, Paris realized that it was shooting itself in the foot. This wasn’t an effective way to spread the French language! As educators had been saying for decades, children should first be taught in their mother language. Then, from that base, teach them French if you insist. In 1989 and 1990, France abruptly switched to a mother-language policy. But as Albaugh says: “The apparent concession to the place of indigenous languages in education is actually a means to facilitate African students’ learning of French.”

This vestige of French colonialism had a dramatic long-lasting impact on the former colonies. A UNESCO report, sixteen years later, listed five countries with the world’s lowest adult literacy rates. All five were former French colonies in Africa which had kept French as the official language.(4)

UNESCO table from 2006 shows that worldwide, the 5 countries with lowest literacy rates were all former colonies of France. They had suffered under Francophonie policies, which prioritized the spread of French over local educational needs.
Although UNESCO was silent about the reason, a UNESCO report in 2006 showed the disastrous impact of Francophonie policies, in former colonies where France was still pulling the strings.

This is an obscure example of how aid is manipulated to push state interests. I chose to write about it for two reasons. First, because it is unusually contemptible. And second, because it is obscure. It shows how invisibly, yet deeply, national interests permeate the aid industry. French “aid” was paying 11,000 French teachers to go make education worse for children in its former colonies. I’ve never seen this bit of history mentioned in discussions of aid impacts – I ran across it by serendipity, in an academic volume that I was skimming (largely without success) for data about whether education quality was getting better or worse in former colonies.

Yet an entire generation of children in Africa got stiffed because the guardians of the French language felt insecure.

Comments from Twitter

We announced this story on Twitter, where readers made these comments. Please add your own comments at the bottom of this page.

Adebodun FaKayode, @drdebodun: I now understand why our French teachers in JSS 2 would come into class and start rattling away in French; their education must have indoctrinated them never to explain anything in English. Many of us dropped the subject not long afterward.

Paul El Semental, @Sementalia_: From this, to bombing Algeria in the ’60s, to overseeing the Rwanda genocide in 1994, to ensuring no French colonies have a central bank, to crippling development in Western Africa, to assassinating brilliant African leaders… Man, what kind of demons are the French really?

UCHENNA NNADI, @Uchennannadi: Same way missionaries supported by the colonists almost killed Igbo language for English…!

lisa lee, @MalagasyMamaLee: Madagascar is still paying the price. The woefully inadequate educational system left behind… the stench of the French is everywhere.

[Arabic script], @sam_1bm: Google translates this comment: As an example – and not exclusively – after the revolution, and Algeria’s independence from France in 1962, after a struggle that left at least 10 million Algerian martyrs, France withdrew all its elites, including teachers, professors, and doctors in various fields from Algeria, with the exception of French language professors. This is sufficient indication of its intentions. France did not keep doctors in its former colony to treat the wound it caused, but rather left teachers of its French language.

Notes and Sources

Top illustration: Concept by the author; artwork by Chittakone Vilayphong

  1. France argues that global diversity is badly served if English becomes too dominant. These are tears du crocodile; France has never proposed anything except French as the second language, and if we want diversity, having two colonial Western-European languages share the top U.N. spots isn’t the solution. From a perspective of diversity and symbolism, Arabic would be a better choice as the U.N.’s second language. It has a wide speaker base in many countries, and using Arabic as its second language would show a U.N. commitment to becoming less Eurocentric. But first, the U.N. would need to have a commitment to becoming less Eurocentric.
  2. State-Building and Multilingual Education in Africa, by Ericka A. Albaugh. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2014.
  3. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, by Harlan Lane. Random House, New York, 1984.
  4. Education for All Global Monitoring Report, UNESCO, 2006, page 203. Next to the chart, in large type, is the statement “Initial learning in the mother tongue has cognitive, psychological and pedagogical advantages.” I have condensed the chart to make it easier to view on small screens; to view it in full, ask for page 203 on the UNESCO link given here. It is curious to find this chart, with a clear implied criticism of French, in a UNESCO document. My theory is that someone on the UNESCO team understood the devastating impact of France’s policy. They knew an explicit criticism would be removed, but thought they might get away with showing it in a chart, which could easily be overlooked in the approval process.

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