That the French language remains so central to the culture here wouldn’t surprise most people outside the country. Still, having two teenagers in French middle school has taught me to appreciate how profoundly important it remains for people not just to master their language skills, but to perfect them. Whereas the practice of teaching grammar has slowly faded in American middle schools, our kids still spend several hours each week in their French classes learning obscure verb tenses, drilling into the tiniest nuances of punctuation, and striving toward an accent-less speech. One of the most illuminating exercises is the “dictée.” A teacher stands in front of the class and reads aloud a page of text while students furiously copy it down to be graded later on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It’s impossible for me to imagine a 14-year-old in the United States being subjected to such rigor. The level of eye rolling this would provoke would probably be lethal to the teacher.
In sharp contrast, language remains a serious affair in France, where something as trivial as the introduction of a foreign word into casual speech can spark furious public debates among intellectuals as well as regular folks on social media. During the spring campaign for president, the far right denounced Emmanuel Macron for the deeply embarrassing sin of delivering a speech in English while abroad, an act they considered to be borderline treason. The French language, speaking it well, guarding its purity from unwanted incursions or corruptions by bacterial elements that might weaken it, remains an essential battle.
And so it’s hardly shocking that a radical proposal to rethink one of the core principles of the French language has caused an uproar and divided thinkers across the political spectrum. In this case, the debate is even more combustible due to the concept that lies at the heart of the proposed changed: gender. A movement known as “Écriture Inclusive,” what English speakers would call “gender-neutral language,” is calling out the French language for being inherently sexist because it favors the masculine usage. Proponents have outlined a complex, if awkward, remedy that its adherents argue is essential for correcting the subtle ways the French language creates stereotypes that are biased toward men over women.
Read more: Quartz