20 August 2013

Madagascar: Decline in French Language Skills Worry Academics in Madagascar

In the former French colony of Madagascar, the French language continues to play an important role in education, particularly at university level. French and Malagasy are the official languages in the Indian Ocean Island. However, the local Malagasy language is much more widely spoken in the streets and at home. And English is fast becoming the foreign language of choice. The concern among academics is that if people's level of French declines so will standards in academia on the island.

The corridors of the department for French and Francophone studies at the University of Antananarivo are buzzing with students.

But you don't hear them speaking French together, but rather Malagasy.

The head of department, Samuel Razasiarison, says that young Malagasy only speak French during classes.

He attributes the drop in the levels of French among young people to the country's political instability.

"We observe a decline in the command of French language among young Malagasy today. When it comes to school education, there is no stability. School education in Madagascar changes depending on the regimes," said Razasiarison.

President Didier Ratsiraka launched the policy of "malgachisation" at the end of the 1970s until the mid 80s, which made Malagasy the language of instruction in schools and French a foreign language.

As a result, a whole generation of people didn't learn proficient French, including a whole generation of teachers.

This in turn makes it difficult for some who enter higher education, which is mainly taught in French.

"For example, in the department of French and francophone studies, as well as in the other departments, we have to arrange French refresher courses both written and oral," said Razasiarison.

The French language can also be crucial when it comes to finding a job. Jean-Michel Frachet is the General Representative of Alliance Française in Madagascar, a network offering classes of French and French culture.

Frachet, also the General Director of Antananarivo branch confirms that many positions require French skills.

"When job hunting today, you see that job vacancies are written in French and that a decent level of French is required as a minimum," said Frachet. "So people come here looking for professional training regarding the command of French language."

While the French language appears to be in decline here, English is becoming ever more popular, especially among young people in urban areas and those wanting international careers.

"I expected to have to speak a lot more French than I ever had to speak. Especially the young people, they study in schools so they speak very good English, it's been really easy for me to communicate," said Emily Michael who works at the Public Affairs office of the US embassy in Madagascar.

French remains the most widely spoken foreign language here in Madagascar. But that could change in the not too distant future.

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