Integration is more than a word

Dr Tim Blakemore, former senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton, living in France, looks at whether integration is about more than just language

30 August 2017
By Dr Tim Blakemore

Received opinion is that a good knowledge of the French language is essential for integration into French society. Indeed, in his presidential election manifesto, Emmanuel Macron said unequivocally that “we will make mastering the French language the principal criterion for obtaining French nationality”, adding “what better proof is there of the willingness of someone to integrate and become French?” 

He might be convincing on the issue of nationality, but how true is his second assertion? I can understand that a candidate for the French Presidency must show enthusiasm for the French language, as it is a source of national pride. It is also a classic source of irritation for the nationals of any country when foreigners do not integrate, and their inability to speak the language of their adopted country makes their separateness stand out even more so, and so becomes an easy stick to beat them with. 

Yet even the nationality process concludes with questions about French culture, history and society. It is more of a memory test than of a real willingness and intention to integrate, simply expecting a knowledge of the booklet “livret du citoyen”, but it indicates that an ability to speak the language is only one requirement. 

If speaking the language is not the only ingredient in integration, is it nevertheless an essential one? 

Nearly every piece of advice on moving to France will say something about the necessity for learning the language, and I suspect that everyone who moves here tries to follow that advice. It is then that reality kicks in.

As many of us are of retirement age and last encountered the intricacies of learning a foreign language sometime in the Middle Ages, we face the twin ogres of naivety and inability.  Naivety, in that we have no idea how difficult it is to communicate with a native speaker of a language. Lack of ability, because it is much more difficult to learn a language the older one is, especially with no real intellectual background in learning foreign languages. 

Research suggests that, although it is more difficult, learning a new language when older improves brain health and can even protect the brain from dementia. This may not seem to be the case when a headache sets in after another session spent struggling with French verbs, but it is certainly some encouragement to make the effort. 

Then there’s pronunciation. Try asking for directions to a local village, watching with frustration as the French listener’s face creases with incomprehension. Then their face clears and they repeat the name in seemingly the exact same way, while proclaiming the French equivalent of “ah!  You mean....!”.  

Even the French computer keyboard has its peculiarities, as the shift key has to be used to get a full-stop. The apparent lack of importance of the full-stop might well be a reflection of the way that French people speak, but even the French see a need to re-vamp the keyboard, as reported in July’s Connexion.

So the earnest advice “learn to speak French” is fine, and of course life will be much richer if you can chat to the locals and catch up on the gossip, and much easier if you can deal confidently with local tradesmen. But I suspect that the advice tends to come from those who have that ability, or have learnt a language themselves when they were young enough to cope. 

Nick Inman’s article (May Connexion) argued that speaking French can be easier if it is approached as a matter of communication rather than grammar and vocabulary. He has certainly inspired some readers, as letters in June Connexion show. But if integration is the target, then his most relevant comment is that it is all about “attitudes to sharing yourself with another person”.

In an area where none of the native French speaks English except the doctor (fortunately), my own “survey” of about 20 Brits suggests that barely a quarter speak passable French.  The remaining three-quarters have a standard ranging from simple phrases in a heavy British accent, to just “oui”, “non” and “bonjour”. 

Yet they all support their commune’s events, use the weekly market, know the regular traders and employ local tradesmen. Belong to clubs, even run events themselves, play tennis and pétanque with the locals. Have French friends, are invited round for apéros and dinners, and even to weddings and parties. Some go on coach trips and short holidays organised by their communes, mixing happily with a party of French who speak hardly a word of English between them.

All that surely amounts to “integration”.

Of course, an inability to speak the language will exclude the possibility of taking French nationality, as it is one of the legal requirements to pass an oral exam at European standard B1. I have seen it said that this requires a level equivalent to that of a French 14-year-old but this seems strange, as most 14-year-olds are only comprehensible to each other.  It certainly requires more than a knowledge of the French equivalent of “whatever”, “dunno” or “that’s so unfair”. 

Set at a level roughly in between GCSE O’ and A level, those over 60 are exempt but will have to be able to take part in the final interview and cope with the questions about French culture.

Anyway, it would be bizarre to be a national of a country without being able to speak the language, even though in England, English Premiership footballers and young men selling computers seem to be able to get away with it sometimes.

The important point is that one size does not fit all. There are plenty of Brits out there, probably even a majority, who work hard in their local community and feel part of French society despite their inability to master the language. Their voice is seldom heard in these discussions because it is unfashionable and even heretical to acknowledge their existence, let alone accept their situation. 

One of the letters in June Connexion spoke of the “burden of guilt” caused by a failure to be fluent after living in France for many years. I suspect that there are many who feel the same way about their language skills.

I do not advocate that people should simply give up, as a few words should not be beyond even the least able. It is only polite to be able to ask someone how they are, or to reply to a similar enquiry, even if that’s the end of the conversation. 

After all, with only a slight change in tone and emphasis, “ça va” can cover both question and response. An effort at proper pronunciation is also helpful.

Yet there is one final point – is it right to take up residence in a country and take advantage of everything on offer if you are not going to be able to speak the language of your hosts? 

It seems impolite at the very least, and yet are we to say that people who realistically are not going to be able to learn a new language are to be debarred from moving abroad? If they contribute to French society as well as benefiting from it, perhaps that is good enough evidence of their integration and M. Macron, despite winning the election, is wrong on that point.

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