When I was young, French was the international language.
That’s why everyone learnt French at school.
It was the most useful language.
All over the world, people were taught their own language, and French.
So they could communicate with people in foreign countries.
So what happened?
Why doesn’t anyone speak French anymore?
Nowadays English is the international language.
Well, a sort of English anyway.
Actually, many different sorts of English.
None of them correct, strictly speaking.
And that’s the answer.
English is an inclusive language.
French is an exclusive language.
English is a live, ever-changing means of communication.
Butchered and customised to the person using it.
French is elegant, precise, the mark of a cultured education.
But French is a dead language, like Latin or Ancient Greek.
The French authorities exclude anything new, or strange, or different.
The French even have a government department whose sole function is to enforce the correct use of the language.
Consequently they can’t invent new words.
So they have to import words from English.
‘Les sandwich’ or ‘Les weekend’.
Where they have a department to restrict incorrect words, we have the opposite.
The Oxford English Dictionary trawls popular usage for things it can include in the latest version.
In this year’s edition new words include: ‘Chillax’ ”Vuvuzela’ ‘Defriend’ ‘Staycation’ and ‘Simples’.
Because the OED is there to describe how people are using the language.
Not there to enforce obedience to a set of rules.
That may also be why we hear so little modern French music.
They have a government ruling that 90% of all music broadcast on the radio must be French.
So anyone who isn’t any good will immediately start to record in French.
It’s a lot easier to get played when that’s the only requirement.
Which means no one wants to listen to it.
The English language is simpler and cruder than French.
Which is why it’s adapted all round the world to whoever wants to use it.
For instance, there’s a tribe of people in New Guinea that speak Pidgin.
A crude variant based on what British sailors taught them in the 19th century.
Just the bare basics needed for communication.
This can be unsettling.
Australian journalist Clive James was about to board a small plane at a jungle airstrip.
He noticed the stencilled instructions on the engine cowling.
Normally these would have said “To remove engine cover use access holes.”
But the local mechanics all spoke Pidgin.
So what was actually stencilled was “IF ENGINE-FELLER HIM GO BUGGER-UP STICK FINGER BELONG-YOU IN HOLE.”
The great thing about English is we can all work out what that means.
That’s language serving people, not the other way round.
George Orwell said the reason English has thrived is because it’s constantly refreshed and reinvigorated from below.
People can own it, reinvent it, recreate it.
It’s their language.
So it’s passed on.
Which is a great lesson for advertising.
When we include people in what we’re doing, it gets much bigger and much more successful.
When we give them something they can take away and use in their lives, they do our job for us.
They spread our message by word of mouth.
It takes on a life of its own, people become free broadcast media, each usage a free OTS.
When we give them something to have fun with.
When we don’t worry too much about them getting it absolutely correct in every detail.
When we let them play with it.
But when we just lecture them, we don’t get any of that.
When we insist on them getting our message precisely, exactly right.
Then our message becomes hard work and boring.
And they just ignore us.
And we don’t get any word of mouth.
Just like the French language.
Which is why they’re now thinking about taking French off the National School Syllabus.
Because no one uses it anymore.