I don’t want to criticize but I will.

This is one of the most iconic photos I have ever taken in France.

I live in one of the most international places in this country, on the border with Switzerland and Italy, next to Geneva, yet there are simply no English books here, only some school-related training books. For those who can’t read French, “anglais” means “English” and “apprentissage des langues” means “language learning”.

This is painful.

My life is split: I work exclusively in French, I breathe in French, then I come home and I read books in English, I watch stuff on the internet in English, and during the weekends I breathe mostly English. Add to this my own native language and the occasional German I encounter online and you can have a picture of how fragmented my mental life is.

I am not a huge fan of the laissez-faire French lifestyle so English offers me what the French can’t. It is mind-blowing to remove the few English books remaining on the shelves while you have scores of English-speaking tourists on the streets and you deem yourself an international location. It is one thing to be protective with your own culture and another thing to be narrow-minded.

Knowledge of foreign languages is truly exceptional in the French-speaking areas. Everything on TV is in French or is dubbed in French (they don’t use subtitles so you can’t hear the movies/documentaries in their original language) and few people speak a language other than French (and they don’t see this as a problem). The delicate situation is however the following: not knowing English disconnects you from everything that is new and throws you in a stiff past that you’re doomed to repeat and ruminate about till the end of time. English is a window that is firmly shut in France; I simply need to extensively use the internet and read ebooks so as to keep updated or relevant.

I’m done with criticizing. But, while looking at this image, I can’t stop reflecting on the future of this country… or whether there is any future at all…

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  1. I live in Poland, have done for 20 years, and as an Englishman have failed miserably to get a grip on the language. We Brits are generally terrible at languages, possibly in the long-held (but quite wrong) belief that everyone else should learn English. So seeing bookshelves like this is not new to me. It didn’t used to be like that: I have always found a good selection of English language titles, excluding text books or language learners, in all the major book and department stores. There were also a number of purely English language bookshops in my home city, Warsaw. Most of the channels on my satellite package offer English language programming (for instance movies) with Polish subtitles, but rarely the other way round.

    But things are changing. Where previously the big Empik department store locally had a couple of bookcases (so about 10 shelves) of English stuff, there is now half that – other branches of the same chain have a couple of shelves maximum or none at all. All but 2 of the English language bookshops have closed completely. There remain, thankfully, about four second-hand bookstores that are now my go-to suppliers, but I fear for their futures. As for the tv, the number of channels offering English soundtracks has also reduced, and nowhere will you find English sub-titles offered.

    I’ve considered the reason for this, because most people here have a good command of English and enjoy reading in that tongue and watching movies and BBC channels in the original too. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s partly because the country now has a right-wing anti EU – Poland First government that is very inward looking (not to mention unpopular, at least in the cities, less so in Old Poland rural communities). But I also think there remains an anti-British feeling that has strengthened here and in my view throughout the EU since the 2016 Brexit referendum, and that has gained in strength since “we” left three years ago (though I would argue we still haven’t completely left….).

    As an Englishman and a proud Remainer, I find that all very sad.

    1. Whether we want it or not, English is the de facto international language. This is due to the initial influence of the United Kingdom and its colonial past plus the Commonwealth, then it’s because of the United States with their economical and scientific impact. In my field of medicine, everything is written and published in English because the States are in the frontline of everything. And I’m sure that in other fields it’s the same. Then it’s the internet which is basically in English. This is good news for those living in English-speaking countries, because they don’t need another language in order to have access to international information; it’s however bad news for those outside the English-speaking areas, as they need to learn an additional language. It’s a matter of luck… And Englishman doesn’t need to learn another language unless it is relevant for his profession or he has a crush on a particular foreign culture.

      I come from Romania and there it is compulsory to learn 2 additional foreign languages at school. For me it was French & English. We have relatively few bookshops which offer English books, but they do exist in the big cities. Then, everything on TV is left in its original language. We have German, British, American, Italian, French, Spanish channels and so forth. Then all the movies on the Romanian channels are subtitled and 99% are in English. The documentaries of Discovery, National Geographic, Travel Channel and the like are all subtitled. I grew surrounded by English and this is a big part of myself and my memories. And, dare to say, my identity. In France there are no English channels among those couple of hundreds available typically. The only exception is CNN. You cannot choose EuroNews in English, you do not have BBC or National Geographic or the Discovery channels. I basically had a TV all the time in the house but I used it once every 3 months or so, just to check if it still functions or not. Because you literally have nothing to see.

      As for books, I used to buy them in Romania and send them back to France or take them with me on the plane. I read both on pdf and paper but I prefer paper because it gives me a different feeling. And I had high hopes when moving from the Cote d’Azur (where there was an English-only bookshop in Antibes) to this region which is so close to Geneva. I guess that the next move will be to cross the border to Switzerland and buy from there…

      I can’t say there is an anti-British feeling in Romania; I guess it’s mostly indifference or even appreciation for the courage of following one’s own chosen way. But it might be a feeling of treason in France, of “how dare they?!”, since the French are psychologically different and this could partially explain the avoidance of the English books. Then there is also the young generation who is practically illiterate, in the sense that it stays too much online on images and videos. Even if it seems hard for the UK now, if we look at the history of what happened to France and the UK respectively during the last World War, we might predict the future quite easily and we might also stay hopeful. Even if the European Union is rather hysterical since Brexit, common interest or common danger will eventually keep the UK and the EU together, based on many shared values. But I guess it will take time to realize that together means stronger, at least strategically if not emotionally.

      Thanks for your comment!

      1. Hi. I agree with your comments – I have travelled and worked in many countries, all around the world, and have never encountered any real problems finding people who spoke English sufficiently well to understand and help me where needed. It is indeed the de facto global language, rightly or wrongly.

        I suspect the Brexit issue will take a generation to work out, at least in Britain. I was there for a couple of weeks just before Christmas and travelled around quite a lot visiting people, all on public transport. There is a run down and poor look to towns and buses and trains – infrastructure generally – that I haven’t seen since the late 1970s (just before Thatcher became PM), and an anger and disillusionment that is completely new. I can’t help but link that to the Brexit hangover and a huge frustration and loss of trust in politics generally and the Tory party in particular. It’s all very sad, and I worry about my family there. I’m planning to write an extensive blog post (probably a two-parter) on the subject, so if you you’re interested perhaps you would be kind enough to Follow me at Stuff by Travellin’ Bob on the Vivaldi platform! Thanks!

        And good luck with your English book search!

        1. What you describe in the UK is exactly what I witnessed in France during the last 10 years. I think this decay is everywhere. Nothing new is being built, the infrastructure is worn out, a lot of feasibility studies are done on paper but nothing tangible is created. Dare to say that it’s not only Brexit or the Covid-19 or the Ukrainian war; it’s something deeper that has something to do with the increasing narcissism and cynicism I see around me. In other words, it’s “me, me, me” and “money first” and “you offend me and hurt my feelings”. A truly fragile generation which is now in its 20s, 30s and 40s…

          I’ve already found you blog and I will follow it. And I will read a bit of it when I have time.

          1. Morning. I agree with your views – there is something wrong with this world at the moment that future generations will have to mend, I’m afraid.

            And I hope you come to enjoy my work too.

            Take are, and enjoy your weekend.