European Francophones may donate millions to teach Czechs the language of love

EU statistics suggest that while 25 percent of Czechs claim they can speak English, only 3 percent say they have good French skills. Well, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie - an NGO meant to promote use of the French language - wants to change that in time for the Czech Republic to take over the EU presidency in 2009. It may soon put money where its mouth is, if it follows through with a memorandum Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek and others signed last week.

At a gathering of Czech, French and other foreign officials inside the historic Strahov Library, Prime Minister Paroubek announced a memorandum that may bring in millions of dollars to teach Czechs the language of love.

"The reason is to increase knowledge of the French language in the state government. According to this memorandum, we will get 700 million Czech crowns for this purpose: To educate 1,300 people who are working in state government of the Czech Republic."

For now, the French lessons are just lip service. The memorandum does not make anyone do anything. It only indicates that the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, along with Luxembourg and Belguim's French community, is willing to help foot the bill. Exactly who will pay for what still needs to be sorted out, as do all the details about how to educate all of those workers.

Christian DeJour at the French Institute in Prague, which currently teaches French to about 4,000 Czechs each year, may be the man who will organize the classes.

"Well, we have to be realistic. So even though people have to learn, they also have to keep on going with their normal duties. Because of the presidency, these people are more and more busy, which means less and less time for other activities. So being realistic with our past experience, we expect them to learn at least two lessons per week at 90 minutes per lesson. So three hours per week."

State officials must accumulate more than 400 hours of French between now and 2009 to be considered proficient in the language under EU standards. They'll have to balance this with their education in English and, of course, their regular job.

Igor Hampl
Igor Hampl of the Forum Francophone des Affaires says that the Czech Republic, which joined the EU in 2004, isn't the first country to sign up.

"This memorandum has already been signed in several countries already, for instance, in Croatia and Slovenia. So the willingness of the Francophone community to push the French is really, really strong. The Czech Republic is one of the last countries which signed an agreement like this."

The EU requires its members to obtain a higher proficiency level in English than in French. The Francophonie wants to make sure its language isn't left behind, Hampl adds.

"The idea is to have a balance to the English language and to push the language and to get the people in Brussels to use the French language."