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Sarkozy sparks row with plan to teach nursery children English

Nicolas Sarkozy has announced a plan to teach English to French three-year olds, sparking howls of protest among linguistic purists.

Nicolas Sarkozy has announced a plan to teach English to French three-year olds, sparking howls of protest among linguistic purists.

The move has even drawn comparisons to Germany's wartime occupation of France.

Self-styled linguistic guardians insist Mr Sarkozy should instead concentrate on helping the young in their uphill struggle to master their own language.

Eric Zemmour, an outspoken right-wing commentator, praised France's poor track record in learning English as "a sort of unconscious linguistic patriotism against the colonisation of minds".

Citing an unnamed 1970s intellectual, he likened "the usage of English to learning German during the occupation" and noted that General Charles de Gaulle, who had led France's wartime resistance, never spoke a word of the language in public as a matter of principle.

Jacques Chirac famously walked out of a meeting in Brussels when the French head of a boss' union started his address in English.

Mr Sarkozy has no such qualms, despite – or perhaps due to – his schoolboy English, and inability to follow foreign leaders' banter in English without a translator.

Last year he declared that all French secondary schoolchildren should be at least bilingual – leading to English and other foreign languages being introduced from the age of seven.

Last week, Luc Chatel, his education minister, said immersion should start even earlier, as it made no sense to resist the rise of English.

"Not mastering English in France these days is a handicap," he said, adding that teaching methods should be modernised to include computer use and more student exchanges.

Experts are divided over whether much is to be gained from learning English at an age when toddlers are still grappling with the basics of their mother tongue.

"Three years old seems much too young to me," said Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist and teacher. A better age would be five or six, he said.

Others said the announcement was a fig leaf hiding the fact that Mr Sarkozy's reforms will see an estimated 1,000 language teachers lose their jobs this year.

Before taking on foreign languages, the education system should improve standards in French, they added.

One major proponent of the "dumbing-down" of French, say critics, is the president himself.

Last month, one opposition Socialist publicly launched a public diatribe against Mr Sarkozy's "mistreatment" of French. His lax grammar and "vulgar expressions", said François Loncle, amounted to "attacks on the culture of our country and its reputation in the world".

France has traditionally taken the defence of its language deadly seriously.

The Académie Française, a body mostly of old men known as "the immortals" is tasked with warding off the invasion of "anglicisms" into the French language and coming up with Gallic equivalents.

Some of the Académie's inventions, like "courriel" for "email", have stuck. Others like "prix hypotécaire à risqué" for "subprime" have unsurprisingly failed to catch on.