Francophones in Lebanon

In Lebanon, English overtakes French in universities

Twenty years ago, 70 percent of Lebanese school students studied in French. Today, that number has fallen to around 50 percent and is declining every year. At the same time, more and more students who study in the French system are choosing to attend English-language universities.


An illustration by Art of Boo

French is no longer the predominant language in Lebanese universities. More and more students are opting for English-medium universities and even courses taught in English at French-medium institutions. Does the growing enthusiasm for English, confirmed by higher education experts, reflect a divide between how French is taught in schools and how it is used in universities?

“Today, 55 percent of the French baccalaureate students, and those of the French educational sector, choose to go to English-speaking universities, whether in the country or abroad,” Father Salim Daccache, Rector of Université Saint-Joseph, said.

Daccache links this fact to what he called the overly academic approach of French universities, the attraction of young people to English and the English’s importance in the professional world.

This allure has gradually changed the face of education in Lebanon. “While 20 years ago 70 percent of students were enrolled in the French schooling network, today only half of them are still enrolled in this system,” Veronique Aulagnon, cooperation and action counselor at the French Embassy and director of the French Institute of Lebanon, said.


Significant progress for the English school system

Annual statistics published by the Center for Educational and Developmental Research (CRDP) show a significant year-to-year decline in enrolment in French-medium schools. Out of 1,069,627 students who were enrolled in school in 2017-2018, 549,633 attended French-medium schools while 519,994 attended English-medium institutions. This school year, the number of enrolled students climbed to 1,076,616 (according to preliminary figures), but the number of students in the French system dropped to 543,401 while pupils in the English-language system increased to 533,215.

Considering this new trend, French-medium universities have had to adapt. Some of them have begun offering courses in English while others, like the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, have switched to an English-language based curriculum or advertised themselves as multilingual.

Even Université Saint-Joseph, which has 12,650 students and is known as the preeminent French-language university in Lebanon, now offers 15 percent of its classes in English, according to Daccache. “We have also created degree programs exclusively in English within the faculties of management, banking, hospitality [and] speech therapy… and we will continue in this dynamic path,” he said.

The decision isn’t threatening the francophone identity of the university, which prides its trilingualism in French, English and Arabic, Daccache added.

But the problem is more pronounced among students from less privileged backgrounds who have not studied at elite French-medium schools. “Classes that are taught in French are deserted and empty while classes in English are full,” Karim el-Mufti, researcher and law professor at Université Saint-Joseph, said. “[But] most of the time, the decline in French is happening at the benefit of Arabic,” he added.

Teachers have to be flexible so they do not end up penalizing students who do not speak French well. “We allow students to sit for some exams in Arabic or in English when they have real difficulties expressing themselves in French,” said el-Mufti. “We realize then that the majority of the exams are written in Arabic. The same goes for the transcription of internship reports, which are systematically written much more in Arabic than in English.”

When written exams have to be done in French “the copy is rigged with mistakes and contains Arabic words,” el-Mufti continued. “Often, students even present a blank copy, hoping to make it up during the oral test where they have the right to communicate in arabic,” he concluded with disappointment.


1,700 new Lebanese students in France per year

Representatives of Francophonie in Lebanon refuse to be alarmist or pessimistic about the situation. Instead, they prefer to be pragmatic and point out that France remains the most popular destination for Lebanese students. Around 1,700 new students travel to the country each year–most of them are enrolled in master’s and doctorate programs–and there are around 5,000 Lebanese students in France overall.

The increase in the number of students who study in the French system opting for English-language higher education is a result of parents making a rational calculation about what they think is best for their children, according to Aulagnon from the French Institute. “They enroll them in French schools and then favor another system, in this case English universities,” she said.

One of their goals is “to give their children the chance to emigrate by making sure they provide them with both French and Anglo-Saxon educational background,” Aulagnon continued, pointing to Lebanon’s weak job market.

“French educated students can easily adapt to the Anglo-Saxon system, but the opposite isn’t true… Only francophones are multi-linguists,” she concluded, expressing regrets over the fact the Lebanese curriculum in the English school system is much easier than in the French.


The Francophonie’s reliance on Africa

Herve Sabourin, director of the Middle East office of the University Agency for the Francophonie (AUF), acknowledges the dominance of English at universities. But he also puts the situation into perspective. “It’s not so bad, and it’s definitely not a scandal. It is part of today’s world,” he said. “At the university level, language becomes more of a tool of know-how rather than the development of the person… There isn’t a real fracture between school and university, but a shift towards other issues.”

Francophonie cannot only be equated with the use and the mastery of French as a communication tool, according to Sabourin. “It is much more than that.” he said, pointing to what the francophone universe brings to the world, and especially the Middle East, in terms of know-how, diversity, multilingualism and support for human rights. “The French language will not disappear,” Sabourin added reassuringly.

On the contrary, with Africa’s population growing and the continent’s potential to become a hub for global investment, French is poised to be an important language of dialogue and economic development. “I am certain that the next evolutions in the world will attest to the determination, the tenacity and the work of the Francophonie,” Sabourin concluded.


(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 3rd of April)





French is no longer the predominant language in Lebanese universities. More and more students are opting for English-medium universities and even courses taught in English at French-medium institutions. Does the growing enthusiasm for English, confirmed by higher education experts, reflect a divide between how French is taught in schools and how it is used in universities?

“Today, 55...

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