Language strength

The French-speaking world and the OECD

Speech by Philippe Marland, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of France to the OECD, delivered at the OECD on 18 March to mark the 2009 Journée internationale de la Francophonie, a day dedicated to the French-speaking world.

"Secretary-General, Ambassadors, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I should first like to extend to you my warmest thanks for accepting my invitation in a week devoted to celebrating the French language and in particular International Francophone Day. I am especially touched by your presence here today, Secretary-General, as I know how busy you are but also how attached you are to the language of Molière, in which you express yourself so well.  I am also very touched by the presence of my fellow ambassadors, many of whom speak excellent French and who are always a pleasure to listen to in that language. I am indeed very honoured by the presence of everyone here today, reflecting the attachment of our Organisation not only to the use of French within its walls but also more broadly to the values symbolized by the French language, namely diversity, dialogue and outreach.

On this occasion I would like to say a few words about what the French language represents, in my view, in an institution such as the OECD. I see it as an opportunity, an asset and a vital symbol of the influence of this Organisation.

The fact that we have two official languages is, I feel, an opportunity for all those who are willing - and able - to express themselves in French and thereby allow the language to flourish.

Of all the ties linking people in the community, language is one of the strongest. For a language is not only a means of communication, it is the expression of a certain vision of the world, an embodiment of the imagination, a particular way of matching "words" to "things".  The fact that our Organisation is bilingual offers all French speakers a chance to express themselves in a language that is their own or one to which they feel close.  I am thinking more specifically of all those in the Latin world, of which French is a part. For while the French language is the official language - or one of several - in five OECD Member countries, it is also a language with which many Members have special historical or cultural ties.

I also see it as an opportunity and, for many I hope, a pleasure to be able - through the spoken word - to be part of a linguistic and cultural tradition rooted in over a thousand years of history. For the French you may hear spoken within our walls echoes with the tradition of the Enlightenment, the wealth of our literature and the strength of our values.

But French is not only an opportunity for those who use it on a daily basis; it is also, I believe, an asset to the Organisation as a whole. For multilingualism is not merely the corollary of multilateralism, it is also one of its surest guarantees.

As Goethe said, "Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own". You can only think properly in a language if you know that there are others, which reflect reality in a different way. Our two official languages are therefore the very embodiment of that dialogue between nations which lies at the heart of our work.

And translation is the daily expression of that dialogue. To paraphrase Umberto Eco, the language of the OECD is neither French nor English but translation. Of course, it is not without its technical problems, or its costs, which may sometimes come under the spotlight. But I believe that the operational benefits to the Organisation far outweigh those costs.

At this point, allow me to pay a special tribute to the interpreters and translators who, day after day, ensure that multilingualism is alive and well at the OECD. For interpreters and translators do not merely translate words: they are what might be called "bridge builders".  One linguistics study has found that, in the thousands of languages spoken across the world, only 300 words have exactly the same meaning in every one and they include "I, you; one, two, three; large, small; sun, moon and star". These words are said to represent what Abdou Diouf calls "the smallest common denominator of humanity". Viewed from a different angle, this shows that all other words have no perfect translation, that it is never possible, when transposing them into another language, to convey their full meaning. This gives some idea of the difficulties facing interpreters and translators, and the importance of their work in the daily running of our Organisation.

Finally, the use of French within the OECD is, in my view, a vital symbol of the influence of our Organisation in a globalised world. It is in fact a dual symbol, of diversity and outreach.

It is first a symbol of our internal diversity. All of our Member countries are, of course, deeply committed to the same values which lie at the very core of our Organisation: democracy, the market economy, and economic and social progress.  But these shared values do not and should not mean uniformity. "He who is different from me does not diminish me - he helps me grow" said Saint-Exupéry. Those words may well take on a particular resonance when applied to our Organisation. Accused by some of representing the rich, or the powerful, the OECD must demonstrate unstintingly how diverse and open it actually is. And the use of French in the Organisation makes a noticeable contribution to that effort, for it is the living, day-to-day symbol of that plurality, of that dialogue between cultures and opinions which is central to its work and enriches it by the day.

By the same token, the use of French is a symbol of our outreach across the globe. The French-speaking world, defined by Maurice Druon as "all those whose common heritage is the French language", now numbers 175 million people, many of them living in Africa or Asia. French is, with English, the only language spoken on the five continents. May I point out that the International Francophone Organisation now numbers 70 countries and governments.

French is very often the language of schooling and higher education in many developing countries. The translation of all OECD publications into French thus ensures that its work will reach a broader readership, particularly in the South. It is also a means of extending our outreach towards the emerging nations.

I should like to conclude by emphasizing that the OECD is currently facing some major challenges, and is probably at a crucial point in its history. Faced with the present crisis, it should more than ever assert its role and feature prominently in the new architecture of a tentative form of global governance. For this it boasts some major assets, in particular the values it shares with its Members, its well-proven methods and its world-renowned expertise. But another of its assets may be the fact that it is a bilingual Organisation. The new governance challenges involve restoring the balance of economic forces, but also raising awareness of cultural diversity.  In an increasingly multi-polar world, the challenge for the future will probably lie in reconciling diversity and unity, cultural identity and universality. Preserving multilingualism in every major international forum is one aspect of that goal, but also a means of achieving it. Here too, the OECD should set the example.

I am particularly glad to have had the opportunity of sharing some of my thoughts with you here, at the Chateau de la Muette, before a hand-picked audience gathered to pay tribute to the French language. I am convinced that we shall be more determined than ever to preserve this cherished linguistic heritage of ours and ensure that it flourishes, by never resisting the temptation to speak French. "


See the website of the Permanent representation of France to the OECD

See also OECD's work on France,

©OECD Observer June 2009

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