Would you surprised that learner is a very-commonly used English word in other languages? Well, not exactly the word learner itself, but the L-plate used on cars to indicate that the driver is a learner. I’d been driving in Belgium for a while, and had noticed that their L-plates are a blue background with a white L, as opposed to the Irish white with a red L. But I never stopped to consider that the L stood for Learner (the French translation would be apprenant or apprenti). Never, that is, until I saw a French learner driver…
Quite a few countries use an L plate, regardless of what the word for learner is in their native tongue. The one we use in Ireland is the same as that used in the UK, India, Malaysia, and Singapore. Other countries, such as Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands and various English-speaking countries (including Hong Kong where English is an official language but not widely spoken) have a different design, but still feature a capital L.
And that makes sense really. It would be nice to match the sticker to everybody’s native tongue, but consider the fact that within a day you could drive through Europe and pass through four or five countries which each use quite distinct languages. It’s only logical that one letter would be used (though other countries do still have different letters), and inevitable that it would be the letter for the English word. It’s simply the most widely-spoken language in the world, and therefore the most recognisable.
France though, is one of those countries that doesn’t use an L, instead opting for A for Apprenti. Now there might be nothing more to that than French authorities using a French word, as of course they’re perfectly entitled to do. But having now spent a little time in Wallonia, I’ve noticed what I think might be some different general attitudes towards English and French between French and Belgian French-speakers.
Very general of course, as individual levels of English, and requirements to know it, vary widely, but there are noticeably different trends between the two countries. For example, both countries have their own versions of the popular talent show The Voice (Belgium actually has two: one for Flanders and one for Wallonia), and while both are known as The Voice, the French version adds the subtitle La Plus Belle Voix (the most beautiful voice). The judges’ chairs on the Walloon version say I want you, whereas the French ones say Je vous veux. Similarly, the French version of the gameshow The Wall is subtitled with Face au Mur (facing the wall/in front of the wall).
The obvious interpretation of this trend of adding a French subtitle, and preferring A to L for learner drivers, is an understandable pride French people have in their language. Yes, they recognise the global dominance of English, but they’re going to make sure that there’s some French mixed in there too (also to make sure that viewers understand, no doubt). And while I’m sure the real explanation is more complex, I think that’s an important factor. And why not? It’s a great language, was the main lingua franca of the Western world from the 16th century up until the middle of the 20th century, when English took over. But it’s still an important international language today, and might become even more important in Europe. I imagine if I were French I might resent English creeping into people’s everyday vocabulary.
Why might French-speaking Walloons not feel the same? First of all, even though it’s their native tongue, the language is called French, not Belgian, so I imagine they might not have the same pride in it, and be more willing to accept the casual use of English. I can imagine that an English person might feel more attached to the English language than me or an American, even though we’re all native speakers. Plus, a lot of Walloons also grow up learning Dutch (the language of Flanders) in school. Even if they chose not to study it, it’s visible even in Wallonia on official signs and on all sorts of products. Even if a Walloon doesn’t speak Dutch well, they grow up in a country with three official languages (there are a few thousand German speakers in the east) and are reminded of the variety of languages in the world, and perhaps therefore a little more open to accepting other languages in their everyday life.
All very general of course, and I acknowledge that there are many, many French people who speak English well (better than I speak French), and I must especially point out that I found people in Paris very willing to speak English at a high level with this Anglophone tourist, contrary to the stereotypes (though I did try to use a few French words, and perhaps they knew I wasn’t English or American!) Still, I think there might be a little more resentment towards the use of English in France than in Wallonia, but I can ensure any French person reading this que j’aime bien le français, et chaque fois que je serai en France (et j’espère que ce sera souvent), je parlerais français! Je vais essayer, au moins!