By Will Smale
BBC News 27 August 2010
The sudden decline in French-speaking could mark the end of a long-held attachment the British have felt to the language.
For nearly 400 years when the country was ruled by Norman kings, it was the language of the ruling class, says Jonnie Robinson, co-curator of a forthcoming exhibition, Evolving English, at the British Library in London. So the nobility spoke French, like everyone at the royal palaces and in the judiciary.
"After the Norman Conquest [in 1066], Norman French became the language of power, although English remained the language of the people. And official documents were written either in Latin, the language of the church, or in French."
There is evidence that its grip on power had loosened a little by 1362, when the opening of Parliament was conducted in English for the first time since 1066, says Mr Robinson. And the Library has a document dating to 1419, written in English by King Henry V, who was fighting a prolonged war with the French and was probably making a statement about English nationality.
In the centuries that followed, French travelled around the world as a colonial language, he says, and played a key part in the founding of the United Nations, the Olympic movement and the European Common Market, hence its status, alongside English, as the language of diplomacy.
For a monolingual country like England (there are generations of bilingual families in Wales, for example), says Mr Robinson, people were impressed to see Tony Blair speaking French in Paris when prime minister, and more recently hear Nick Clegg speaking French, Spanish or Dutch.
But despite the prowess of the deputy prime minister, a spokesman for the Department for Education said the coalition government currently has no plans to make languages compulsory again for 14 to 16 year olds in England.