Five years on from the Charlie Hebdo attack, ‘Je suis Charlie’ rings hollow

Jonathan Ervine, Bangor University

After the terror attack on the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7 2015 left 12 people dead, many declared “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) in solidarity. But behind the understandable emotion that accompanied such declarations lay a more complicated reality. Many reactions to the attack were more conservative than first appeared, and not in keeping with the values of the publication. Five years on, “Je suis Charlie” has quite a hollow ring to it.

Before 2015, about 40,000 people read Charlie Hebdo each week. Given that many hundreds of thousands declared “je suis Charlie”, most were clearly not regular readers. “Je suis Charlie” primarily appears to have been a statement of sympathy rather than an endorsement of the brand of humour of this subversive publication. The phrase also symbolised a desire to defend freedom of expression, although not necessarily an agreement with the ways in which Charlie Hebdo has expressed itself.

Charlie Hebdo has traditionally taken pride in describing itself as a “journal irresponsable” (irresponsible newspaper). It has been happy to describe its humour as “bête et méchant” (stupid and nasty). This sometimes dark and provocative humour has attracted criticism over the years, not least from politicians. Yet many authority figures that Charlie Hebdo had ruthlessly mocked were present in the demonstrations that took place in January 2015.

And as was observed at the time, the presence of certain world leaders also pointed to a degree of hypocrisy. Where many sought to defend freedom of speech, there were several leaders who had restricted freedom of expression in their own countries. The international non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders was particularly critical of figures such as Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Soaring over ‘Je suis Charlie’ in the ski jumping leg of the FIS Nordic Combined World Cup in France, 10 January 2015.
Patrick Seeger/EPA-EFE

Commemorating while forgetting

Charlie Hebdo has generally been keen to laugh about anything and everything, and in whatever way it pleases. But despite the focus on freedom of expression in the aftermath to the 2015 attack, there were noticeable inconsistencies. In the immediate aftermath, several topical comedy programmes on French television were not broadcast as writers and presenters struggled to find a way to engage with such horrific events in a humorous manner.

A rare exception was the Canal Plus show Les Guignols, whose brand of humour was sometimes similar to Charlie Hebdo. The daily programme, which featured latex puppets of many well known figures, included several sketches about the attack, broadcast only hours after it had taken place. These included jokes about increased levels of terror threats. It also involved a latex puppet of the Prophet Muhammad distancing himself from the attackers. The show, which was dedicated to the magazine, concluded with a sketch in which several of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who had been killed were allowed into heaven despite having frequently mocked religion.

Yet many sections of the French media, and French society in general, were reluctant to embrace such dark humour. At an event in September 2017, comedian Jérémy Ferrari told of how several television stations cancelled planned interviews with him about his new show in early 2015. Stations may have been making time to discuss freedom of expression, but he said they seemed reluctant to discuss the way his stand-up show mocked war and terrorism.

People who sought to play down or joke about the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in early 2005 also risked being charged with the offence of “l’apologie du terrorisme” (excusing terrorism). In a school north of Paris, a pupil was reportedly disciplined for laughing at a joke about the name of a gunman who killed several people in the days after the Charlie Hebdo attack, and was made to repeatedly write the phrase “one does not laugh about serious things”.

A challenge for comedians

Several years on, as I explore in my recent book on the topic, French comedians seem torn between insisting on the importance of being able to joke about whatever topics they wish and worrying about the consequences of doing so.

In 2015, the comedian Sophia Aram started performing a show in which she defended Charlie Hebdo and its values. She insists on the importance of continuing to freely mock religion and extremism.

Mustapha El Atrassi – a comedian who shares Aram’s French-Moroccan roots and was also brought up in a Muslim family – also insists on the need to keep embracing jokes that deal with taboos. But he argues too that not all comedians are equally free to joke about terrorism. He said that a French comedian called “Maxence” – a stereotypically white, European, middle class name – is likely to get a much more positive response to dark humour about terrorism than someone from his background.

Focusing on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that made Charlie Hebdo a target for fundamentalists, meanwhile, the comedian Stéphane Guillon said in 2016: “If you can die due to a drawing, you can die due to a sketch.” He again evoked his fear of the potentially dangerous consequences of mocking the Prophet Muhammad on stage in 2018. At an event to commemorate the third anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the normally acerbic comic stated: “I don’t want to miss out on seeing my children grow up due to a joke about Muhammad.”

Five years on, France has not continued to embrace values associated with Charlie Hebdo. Shortly after the attack, the magazine’s number of subscribers rose to 260,000 and six months on it was selling 120,000 copies each week via newsagents. But by 2018, it had only 35,000 subscribers and sold a further 35,000 copies per week to non-subscribers. After a further decline in sales, it marked the fourth anniversary of the attacks in 2019 with an editorial that asked its readers: “Are you still there?”

One thing that is certainly not still there is Canal Plus’s Les Guignols, the satirical show featuring latex puppets. Its four main writers were fired in summer 2015 and the show moved to a less prominent slot. In 2018, the iconic show was finally cancelled by Canal.

Ultimately, France seems much less keen to embrace biting satirical humour than it initially appeared back in 2015.

 

 

Jonathan Ervine is the author of:

Humour in Contemporary France: Controversy, Consensus and ContradictionsThe Conversation

Liverpool University Press provides funding as a content partner of The Conversation UK

Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Ligue 1: France gets its first female top flight football referee, but the federation scores an own goal

Jonathan Ervine, Bangor University

As the end of the 2018-19 football season approaches, a match between Amiens and Strasbourg in France’s Ligue 1 would normally attract little attention. However, Sunday’s game has already created headlines as Stéphanie Frappart will become the first ever woman to act as a main referee in the top tier of French men’s football.

Initially, this appointment could be seen as a symbol of progress and inclusion. But the French Football Federation (FFF) announced that Frappart had been appointed as the main official for the Amiens-Strasbourg match in order to “prepare her for World Cup conditions” ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.

The FFF’s explanation seems somewhat begrudging as it makes no reference to Frappart’s experience or talent as a match official. It arguably presents her nomination as a means to an end rather than a logical next step for someone who has officiated in Ligue 2 since 2014. Indeed, Frappart has also been a fourth official or video assistant referee in Ligue 1 several times.

Whether Frappart will establish herself as a leading referee within men’s football in France is uncertain. Pascal Garibian, technical director for refereeing in France, has said it is “still too early to say” if she will become a regular main referee in Ligue 1. In addition, it is unclear if she will referee any more top division matches this season.

It is also worth questioning to what extent officiating at Amiens-Strasbourg constitutes good preparation for this summer’s Women’s World Cup. Amiens’ home stadium can welcome 12,000 spectators, 8,000 fewer than the smallest 2019 Women’s World Cup venue. Seven of France’s nine World Cup stadiums have more than double the capacity of Amiens’ Stade de la Licorne. And Amiens has the third lowest average attendance of Ligue 1 teams during the current season.

Slow progression

Frappart becoming the first woman to referee a match in Ligue 1 is significant, but also somewhat paradoxical. In fact, it highlights the lack of career progression enjoyed by female officials within French men’s football – and across Europe, too.

In September 2017, Bibiana Steinhaus became the first female referee in a European main men’s football league (in Germany’s Bundesliga). But while Frappart’s appointment will see Ligue 1 become the second major European men’s league in which a woman has taken charge of a game, it has taken some time to get here.

In 1996, Nelly Viennot became the first female assistant referee in Ligue 1, yet it has taken another 23 years for the first female main referee. In a top-level career lasting from 1996-2007, Viennot was regularly an assistant referee in men’s football, but never a main referee.

Regrettably, it seems that the FFF has taken the sheen off a notable first. A request from FIFA that its member associations help match officials to “prepare in the best conditions possible” for the 2019 Women’s World Cup seems the main reason Frappart will officiate this Sunday. It is somewhat unusual for someone not selected as a top division referee at the start of the season to officiate in Ligue 1. In Germany, Bibiana Steinhaus had been listed as one of the top division referees prior to the 2017-18 season.

As a referee in Ligue 2, Frappart has at times encountered sexist attitudes. When coach of Valenciennes in 2015, David Le Frapper said that “when a woman referees in a man’s sport, things are complicated” following a match Frappart refereed. Such comments are reminiscent of Sky presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray’s reaction to Sian Massey-Ellis’ presence as assistant referee at an English Premier League match in 2011, when they suggested that female officials “don’t know the offside rule”.

During the last decade, the FFF has provoked controversy when seeking to encourage more women to get involved in football. In 2010, they sought to boost the profile of women’s football in France via a campaign featuring Adrianna Karembeu. Several posters were based on obvious gender stereotypes.

One featured an image of female footballers in a changing room and the slogan “For once you won’t scream when seeing another girl wearing the same outfit”. The FFF had previously promoted women’s football via an image of three leading players posing naked alongside the question “Is this what we have to do for you to come to see us play?”

Nelly Viennot’s presence as the first female assistant referee in Ligue 1 did not herald the arrival of many more female officials in French men’s football. Stéphanie Frappart is still the only woman to have been the main referee in Ligue 2. It is unclear to what extent attitudes to female referees in French men’s football are evolving. It may well be several years before we realise the real impact of Frappart’s appointment as referee for the match between Amiens and Strasbourg.The Conversation

Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Why Paris is the perfect city to introduce break dancing to the Olympics

File 20190222 195857 1nhzl49.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Breakdancers perform in front of the Arc de Triomphe.
Tutti Frutti/Shutterstock

 

 

Article by Jonathan Ervine, Bangor University

Along with surfing, climbing and skateboarding, break dancing has been proposed for inclusion at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. While fans of the sports have been delighted by the news, it has provoked some criticism too, not least from followers of sports such as squash and karate which will not be considered for the 2024 games.

But the inclusion of break dancing in Paris 2024 would not be a complete surprise. Indeed, there are several reasons why it would actually make sense. Firstly, break dancing proved itself as a popular event when it was included in the Youth Olympics for the first time at Buenos Aires in 2018. Secondly, the launch of break dancing as an Olympic sport in 2024 would fit with the very ethos of the Paris games.

The Paris 2024 organising committee plan to locate Olympic events in two key areas – a Central Paris zone and a Greater Paris zone. The Olympic Marathon will pass many central Parisian landmarks, archery will take place near the Eiffel Tower, at Esplanade des Invalides, and the road cycling will travel along the Champs-Elysees. Meanwhile, athletics events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies will take place outside central Paris, in the Stade de France.

So why does this mean that break dancing should have a place in the 2024 games? The Stade de France – like much of the Greater Paris zone – is located in Seine-Saint-Denis, a part of Paris’s suburban fringe that is said to be the birthplace of hip hop in France. Including an event like break dancing would not just be a big moment for urban culture worldwide, but important for French culture in the capital too.

Hip hop culture is big in France overall. Indeed, the hip hop market in France is now the second largest in the world, after the USA. And since the 1980s, break dancing, rap music, and graffiti have been particularly popular in the often-impoverished “banlieues” outside many major French cities.

However, French politicians have often been suspicious of break dancing. Within French rap music, there is an at times aggressive critique of French politicians and the police. Leading rap groups such as NTM, Sniper and La Rumeur have used their music to blame both groups for injustices and inequalities experienced by young people in the banlieues.

In an attempt to change negative perceptions, several films, including Jean-Pierre Thorn’s Génération hip hop ou le mouv’ des ZUP (1996), Faire kiffer les anges (1997) and On n’est pas des marques de vélo (2003), have shown how important hip hop culture has been in giving young people from such areas a powerful means of expression. Thorn’s 2010 film 93, La Belle Rebelle sought to reinforce the idea that areas such as Seine-Saint-Denis are characterised by cultural diversity and dynamism. The film showed how many varied performers have come from the often stigmatised area, including well-known figures such as Serge Teyssot-Gay from the rock group Noir Désir, slam artist Grand Corps Malade and members of the iconic French rap group NTM.

Professor Dayna Oscherwitz has argued too that hip hop culture has become the dominant vehicle for urban youth from the banlieues to articulate their vision of the world. She says that it allows them to describe the reality of life in the banlieues, and to highlight the problems they face.

Including break dancing at Paris 2024 would connect the games with the urban culture of the area surrounding the Stade de France. It would see the French capital embracing a discipline often associated with its outer suburbs rather than the city centre, and provide a means to engage with young people too. It may even go some way to dispelling the negative reports more often coming out of these areas.

Prior to London 2012, sports activist Mark Perryman argued that the Olympics can, and should, become more inclusive. Crucially, Perryman argued that the Olympics would be more successful if more events were free for spectators to attend. He cited the Tour de France as an example of a highly profitable major sporting event that is free for spectators. Perryman also argued that the Olympics should favour sports which are accessible to participants because they do not require expensive equipment. This last point provides a good argument for the inclusion of break dancing. No specialist equipment or professional training is necessarily needed to begin break dancing.

However, it is important to add a note of caution. If Olympic break dancing is to successfully engage young people from Paris’s banlieues, this will partially depend on them being able to buy tickets. The distribution and pricing of tickets for some Olympic events attracted criticism at Rio 2016 and London 2012. Empty seats were visible at several venues, notably due to tickets remaining unsold or being given to sponsors who did not use them.

On one hand, the symbolic importance of including break dancing in the Paris 2024 games should perhaps not be overstated. However, this one event could help anchor the games within the areas in which many venues will be located, as well as re-energise the Olympic movement for a young, urban audience both in France and worldwide.The Conversation

Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

What does France’s World Cup victory mean for the country?

Here is a blog post that I originally wrote for The Football Collective (https://footballcollective.org.uk).

The Football Collective

By Dr Jonathan Ervine

The victory of a diverse French football team in this year’s World Cup created many parallels with Les Bleus’ previous success in 1998. Didier Deschamps was at the centre of both triumphs having captained the team in 1998 and managed them in 2018. In many ways, it was a case of plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.

Just as in 1998, the French footballing media did not demonstrate a universal sense of optimism prior to this year’s tournament. Indeed, this year’s skepticism revolved around similar themes to those which were in evidence prior to the 1998 World Cup in France. Like Aimé Jacquet in 1998, Didier Deschamps this year was charged with being overly conservative and not being at the head of a team whose style of play was not sufficiently exciting to captivate the country, if indeed it could be…

View original post 1,195 more words

Why football may still be coming home… to France

Jonathan Ervine, Bangor University

When England hosted the 1996 European Championships, a song by Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds inspired the popular chant: “football’s coming home”. Ahead of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia, many fans were again talking about football coming home. But were they right to do so? After all, there is a chance that football will still be coming home – despite England’s elimination.

Given their team’s recent performances and their country’s role in the history of football, the French also have reason to feel that football may soon be “coming home”. This idea may be hard to swallow for some English fans, not least those who are getting the lyrics wrong.

Jules Rimet – the World Cup founder mentioned in the chorus of Football’s coming home – was French. So was Henri Delaunay, who is generally seen as the brains behind the European Championships. So was Gabriel Hanot, the L’Equipe journalist credited with founding the European Cup (now Champions League). Indeed, football’s world governing body the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, was founded in Paris in 1904 and its first president was another French journalist, Robert Guérin.

The first World Cup trophy was named after Jules Rimet, FIFA president 1921-1954.
BnF

France has had a long history of establishing international sports tournaments and organisations. This in part stems from influential Frenchmen in the late 19th century such as Philippe Tissié, Paschal Grousset, and Pierre de Coubertin who became convinced of the educational and physical benefits of sport.

De Coubertin is best-known as the founder of the modern Olympics and he initially wanted the first games to take place in Paris, to coincide with the city’s 1900 Exposition Universelle. For De Coubertin and others, the development of international sport provided France with an instrument of soft power.

England were at this time somewhat suspicious of international sporting organisations, as the football sociologist John Williams has mentioned. It didn’t send a team to the World Cup until 1950, fully 20 years after the first tournament in Uruguay.

Nonetheless, England is often perceived as the home of football due to its role in the early development of the game. Sheffield FC (founded 1857) is heralded as the world’s first football team. The Football Association (FA), established in 1863, is the oldest national football association in the world and it is the FA that helped create the basis for the rules of football that exist today.

France’s oldest football team Le Havre were in fact created in 1872 by Englishmen working in the city’s port. Their sky blue and navy halved shirts represent the alma mater of the club’s founders, namely the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Le Havre’s club anthem even adopts the same tune as “God Save the Queen”.

Just Fontaine scored a record 13 goals for France at the 1958 World Cup.
wiki

However, Williams was right that it is not easy to define where football’s true home is to be found. The line “football’s coming home” appears to hint at a sense of entitlement and ownership when it comes to England’s relationship with football.

Yet football is a global game. Its governing body FIFA may have been founded in Paris, but its headquarters are now located in Zurich, Switzerland. England is no longer home to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that is responsible for the laws of football. Its headquarters are now also in Zurich.

‘Never understood anything about football’

Given the role that France has played in football becoming a major international sport, are many French people talking about football potentially “coming home” this summer? In short, they’re not. This is largely due to football occupying a very different place in French as opposed to English culture.

France has a larger population than England, but less than half as many professional football teams. Prior to the launch of cable channel Canal Plus in 1984, relatively little domestic football was shown on French television. Nevertheless, hosting and winning the 1998 World Cup led to increased interest in football.

Since then, high-profile failures in several major tournaments have led to France’s leading footballers facing lots of criticism back home over their bad attitudes. In 2012, French football magazine So Foot hit back and claimed that France was a “country that has never understood anything about football”. These comments appeared in a special issue on “Why France doesn’t like its footballers”. France was also described in the title of a book that year by the journalist Joachim Barbier as “This country that doesn’t like football”, or Ce pays qui n’aime pas le foot, subtitled “why France misunderstands football and its culture”.

At a time when France has faced economic challenges and an increased threat from terrorism, football has the potential to boost the national mood. This year’s World Cup Final will take place the day after a national holiday that marks Bastille Day. A victory by Les Bleus would give France good reason to claim le football revient chez lui two decades after its iconic 1998 World Cup victory.


More evidence-based articles about football and the World Cup:

Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

Here’s why language degrees are still important in the UK

As a language lecturer, I’ve thought a lot about the importance of language degrees following the result of the UK’s Referendum on EU membership. I strongly believe that we still need foreign language skills in this country more than ever, and also the cultural understanding that comes with learning languages, travelling and spending time abroad.

Here are some more specific thoughts about the continued importance of language degrees in the UK:

  1. A good degree in any subject plays a big role in making you employable.
  1. Degrees in modern languages are seen as being highly valuable by employers (in the UK and elsewhere) not just because of the communication skills demonstrated by language graduates, but also because of the soft skills that language graduates possess (cultural awareness, presentation skills, adaptability, and many others…).
  1. If and when Britain formally leaves the EU, language skills are likely to remain important to the UK economy as it tries to maintain trade links with countries in the EU and also outside the EU.
  1. If you’re about to graduate with a languages degree, or are already a languages graduate, you should be proud of what you’ve achieved and the skills that you possess.

Will Les Bleus boost France at Euro 2016?

IMAG0152

Fans cheer on French champions Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc des Princes.

The victory of a racially diverse French football team in the France ‘98 World Cup was heralded as a sign of a tolerant modern France. Almost two decades on, and a very different vision is emerging as France prepares to host the 2016 European Championships.

Last month, Eric Cantona controversially suggested that national coach Didier Deschamps may have omitted Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa from France’s Euro 2016 squad due to their race. In an interview with Spanish sports newspaper Marca, Benzema also accused Deschamps of “giving into pressure from a racist part of France”, while comedian and actor Jamel Debbouze argued that Benzema and Ben Arfa were “paying for the social situation of France today”.

But do Cantona’s claims stand up to scrutiny? Dominique Sopo, head of French anti-racist organisation SOS-Racisme, accused Benzema of “egotistically” taking an interest in racism for the first time. Former France player and 1998 World Cup winner Marcel Desailly questioned Cantona’s credibility and French Football Federation branded Cantona’s claims as “ridiculous”. Deschamps has threatened legal action.

Arguably, it is actually Ben Arfa rather than Benzema who is more unlucky to have been left out. Despite a somewhat wayward career, Ben Arfa has been one of the stars of France’s Ligue 1 with Nice this year. His 18 goals and seven assists played a big role in the largely unfancied team finishing fourth.

In purely sporting terms, Benzema may also feel unlucky after scoring 28 goals for Real Madrid this season. But he is also a player who has not always reproduced his club form at international level.

In addition, he has also been making headlines for off-field matters after allegations – yet to be heard in court – that he was involved in attempts to blackmail international teammate Mathieu Valbuena over an alleged sex tape. While the French Football Federation has said that “sporting performance is an important factor but not the only one” when it comes to selecting the squad, it has previously commented that the allegations were not damaging to the sport’s image in the run-up to the championship.

A beautiful game?

The “affaire Benzema” reminds of previous controversies that have tainted the French national football team. In 2011, senior figures from the French Football Federation reportedly discussed potentially limiting the number of black and North African players in training academies. Then national team boss Laurent Blanc was part of the discussions, but exonerated of any wrong-doing by federation bosses.

One may well ask what has gone wrong for the French football team since 1998. In the short term, their success continued with victory in the 2000 European Championships. Since then, problems have surfaced both on and off the pitch.

The celebrating of the “black, blanc, beur team” of 1998 glossed over certain realities. The West African, white European and North African roots of the team masked divisions within France. Indeed, there was much talk of “la fracture sociale” (social division) in 1990s France.

When France defended their World Cup title in 2002, they were eliminated in the first round. This was also the year when the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked many by reaching the second round of France’s presidential elections.

With the exception of the 2006 World Cup, France have arguably disappointed at all the major finals they have reached from 2002 onwards. Teams have displayed potential but not the overall cohesion and individual flair of the 1998 generation.

Criticism from all corners

The behaviour of French footballers has also been criticised by politicians and journalists on several occasions. This reached a peak at the 2010 World Cup when the French squad refused to train following the exclusion of Nicolas Anelka for insulting team boss Raymond Domenech. Players have subsequently been under pressure to both perform on the pitch and behave off the pitch.

However, tense relations between the French football team and the media can be traced back further. Even in 1998, national team boss Aimé Jacquet was frustrated at the negativity of sports paper L’Equipe preceding the tournament.

In 2012, French football magazine So Foot argued that France was a “country that has never understood anything about football” to explain “why France doesn’t like its footballers”. These comments may sound sensationalist, but many French intellectuals and politicians showed little interest in football prior to 1998.

After 2015 was bookended by the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 and terrorist attacks in Paris last November, French morale is clearly in need of a lift. The Stade de France, as a location targeted by terrorists in the latter attack, takes on a particular significance as it hosts the opening and closing games.

Some may ask if the current generation of French footballers is capable of providing the nation with this lift. However, this is perhaps not the right question to ask. Instead, it is worth considering to what extent footballers should be held responsible for the national mood in such troubling times.

French footballers are at times easy scapegoats and their behaviour has not always been impeccable in recent years. However, focusing on their misdemeanours risks diverting attention away from social, political and economic challenges that France is facing.

The Conversation

Jonathan Ervine, Senior Lecturer in French, Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Bangor University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Football and language in France

Language of football

I was delighted to be mentioned in a fascinating article by Richard Furlong that has appeared on the blog Language of Football. In the first of a series about the countries competing in this summer’s European Championships, he discusses debates about football and language in France.

I’ve also enjoyed the cultural, sporting and linguistic insights provided by Language of Football, so I’d strongly recommend checking it out if you have a love of football and a love of language.

Talking of football, I’m currently working on an article for the website The Conversation about football and identity in France. I’ll be sharing it here as well, so watch this space…

 

Did you miss the good news about foreign languages?

You may not have noticed, but yesterday brought some good news about foreign languages. In fact, it was contained in an article on the education section of the BBC News website that had the not particularly optimistic title ‘Britons “nervous to speak foreign language abroad”‘.

The headline statistic was that “a quarter of British holidaymakers feel nervous at the thought of having to speak the local language when they go abroad”, according to a poll recently carried out for the British Council. The article then continued by mentioning that 40% of respondents were “embarrassed by their language skills”.

Such figures do not make for encouraging reading, especially when taken in conjunction with the declining numbers of school pupils who are studying foreign languages up to the age of 16 or 18 in the UK. However, the article also revealed that, of those questioned in the survey, 65% “thought it was important to learn a few local words or phrases before going abroad”.

This last figure is encouraging given the at times frustrating ‘you don’t need to speak a foreign language if you can speak English’ mentality that is often voiced here in the UK. People who voice such sentiments would do well to remember that it’s estimated that only 7% of the world’s population speak English as their first language and that 75% do not speak any English at all.

What frustrated me most about the BBC News article was that the fact that a quarter of Brits who travel abroad were not confident about using other languages was given considerably less prominence that the fact that almost half (48%) of those polled ‘said they enjoyed trying out their language skills while on holiday’. It’s not just the focus on the negative that annoyed me, it was that there was a positive that was relevant to twice as many of the people who participated in the survey,

Clearly the picture is not entirely rosy when it comes to foreign language skills in the UK, especially given that there are only two countries in Europe where a smaller proportion of people are able to speak more than one foreign language. The fact that many school pupils in the UK do not study a foreign language beyond the age of 14 places us well behind many European countries when it comes to how long our young people have to study languages at school.

However, we also need to work harder to hold up positive examples of people from here in the UK who are using foreign languages and showing what benefits come from doing so. Whilst some of the quotations in the BBC News article had a more nuanced or positive tone than the slant given to the article by its headline, the way in which the headline framed the article placed it within the familiar narrative of Brits lacking language skills or openness to learning languages.

Compared to our European neighbours, we certainly do lack language skills as a nation. But we do need to look for sources of optimism rather than purely beating ourselves up over this. If we continue to bury potentially positive figures about foreign languages within negative rhetoric, we’re hardly going to persuade many people that there is some reason for optimism and inspire people in the UK to improve their foreign language skills. There are lots of figures out there that are not very encouraging when it comes to language skills in the UK, but we need to also seek out the positives.

As a Scot, I was pleased to recently read that this year has seen a 15.2% increase in the number of pupils achieving passes in Higher modern languages (the Scottish equivalent of modern languages A-levels). I uncovered this stat towards the end of an article whose main focus was on this year’s Higher Maths exam pass mark being dropped to 34% due to its apparent level of difficulty.

To see that the Scottish Education Minister Angela Constance had said that ‘students are performing particularly well in English and modern languages’ was music to my ears. And this wasn’t just because English and French were the two subjects at which I did best as a school pupil back in St. Andrews.

Within stories about education in the ‘British’ media, the focus is almost always on England, or at a push England and Wales. It is regrettable that much reporting in media outlets that aspire to be British largely fails to focus on what’s happening outside of England. This ignores the way that education is run in post-devolution UK, and indeed how it has been run in Scotland for much longer.

In the time that I have spent here in Wales as a lecturer in French at Bangor University, I have always been pleased to see the enthusiasm of school pupils who participate in events about learning languages. Indeed, I am delighted to see many of the students that I teach going into local schools to promote languages thanks to projects run by Routes into Languages Cymru by becoming Student Language Ambassadors or participating in the Adopt a Class Project.

As a nation, we need to capitalize on this enthusiasm and encourage young people to keep going with languages. It is great to hear about more and more primary schools teaching foreign languages for an early age and I hope that this will ultimately lead to an increase in the numbers of pupils who pursue foreign languages at school to the age of 16 or 18, and ultimately to university.

Lack of female players in football video games is an own goal

Football video games make it possible to take on the role of one’s heroes. But this is generally possible only if your football heroes are male. FIFA’s Women’s World Cup may start in Canada on June 6 but women have until very recently remained absent from leading football video games.

It was recently announced that EA Sports’ FIFA 16 game is to include women’s teams. Football Manager, another popular football video game, does not yet feature women but there are plans to include women’s teams in future editions. But don’t let this seeming progression fool you into thinking that the scales are being balanced. This is far from the case.

The 12 women’s teams present in EA Sports’ FIFA 16 game will include Brazil, England, France and Australia. However, current world champions Japan and former winners Norway will be absent. It’s worth remembering that there were more than 600 men’s teams in FIFA 15.

And Football Manager’s apparent plans fall behind even this. The game’s creator, Miles Jacobson, said last year that women’s leagues will be included when there are ten of them globally with comparable average attendances to the English Championship.

This may sound progressive, but it isn’t. Football Manager is actually setting the bar quite high when it comes to including women’s teams. The Championship may be English football’s second tier but it attracts larger crowds than the top divisions in most European countries.

It’s not time to celebrate yet.
Christian Bertrand / shutterstock.com

The creators of Football Manager would do well to take a closer look at attendances in top division men’s leagues. The average attendance in the US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) last year was more than 4,000. This means that the NWSL attracts bigger crowds than the majority of top division men’s leagues in Europe.

Football Manager’s creators argue that it is not commercially viable to include women’s leagues, but how commercially viable are certain men’s leagues that are included? What about the second tier of Icelandic or Slovenian football? What about the third tier in Northern Ireland?

Including women’s teams in games such as Football Manager could make them more appealing to women. This very point has been made by gaming expert Mia Consalvo in a recent edited volume entitled Sports Videogames. So: continuing to exclude women’s teams from Football Manager could actually be a commercial own goal.

When I manage my local team Bangor City in Football Manager, they play pre-season friendlies against teams such as Mynydd Llandygai and Bangor University. Mynydd Llandygai is a village side whose players include a former next door neighbour. Bangor University’s football team has previously included students I teach.

So I can currently manage a team in Football Manager in a match against my own students but I can’t manage teams featuring the world’s leading female players. Football Manager has the set bar very high when it comes to what women’s leagues need to achieve before becoming part of the game. Unless they move the goal posts, there’s likely to be a long wait before this changes.

The Conversation

Jonathan Ervine is Senior Lecturer in French, Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures. at Bangor University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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