A rich history

Since the 17th century, Inalco has remained faithful to its mission: “to educate the French in languages” by opening up French education to the Eastern world through the teaching of languages deemed “useful for politics and commerce”.
Sylvestre de Sacy

Key dates

  • 1669 Colbert founds the École des jeunes de langues language school
  • 1795 The École spéciale des langues orientales (special school for oriental languages) is founded
  • 1873 The two schools merge
  • 1914 The school becomes affectionately known as Langues O’
  • 1971 The school is renamed the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Cultures or Inalco (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales)
  • 1985 Inalco is recognized as a grand établissement, the category defining France’s most prestigious research and higher education institutions
  • 2010 Inalco becomes a founding member of the Sorbonne Paris Cité university consortium
  • 2011 Inalco centralizes all its courses under one roof at 65 rue des Grands Moulins in Paris

An innovative royal creation

In 1669, French trade in the Levant was lagging behind that of other European nations (the English, Dutch, and Venetians). This was put down to several factors:
 
  • the Turks had established “extraordinary taxes and provocations […] and slights in order to make money”
  • competition from several trading nations present in the Levant limited opportunities for the French
  • French goods were of poor quality
  • the French did not know how to negotiate and set the price of the goods being traded. 
French merchants complained of ill-treatment and expressed their distrust in the local interpreters who translated negotiations between the French and the Turks. These interpreters were also known as dragomans, a word of Tourdjoumân Arabic origin meaning translator. Their intervention was essential for business; success depended on their loyalty and skill. Colbert, the Minister of Finance, set great store by international and domestic commerce and implemented a determined policy to promote the development of French trade. This included a March 1669 edict exempting from customs duties good traveling through the port of Marseille, and a Royal Trade Council decision that boys be sent to Constantinople and Smyrna to train in oriental languages and become interpreters.

 
Inalco

Colbert therefore proposed that the king found a school in Constantinople to train boys in oriental languages, more specifically Turkish. These young men, called “jeunes de langue" or “youths of language”, were destined to become future interpreters for French trade and diplomacy in the countries of the Levant. Although the only language taught was Turkish, the authorities’ will to train their own subjects in an Eastern language broke new ground in the modern European world.

Watch the video about the establishment of the École des jeunes de langues.

Learning Oriental languages was not seen as an end in itself. In the minds of Colbert and the French merchants and diplomats, the teaching of Turkish should essentially be considered a necessary cog in the vast machinery of foreign trade. The jeunes de langues were trained for a utilitarian and mercantile purpose, as was apparent in the positions to which they were destined (dragomans, consuls, and chancellors in the East). Yet alongside these public service roles in trade and diplomacy, some jeunes de langues devoted themselves to academic research.

Certain oriental languages were in fact taught at the Collège de France for purely academic reasons, yet these were so-called “dead” languages such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Chaldean, and Syriac.

Revolutionary revival

At the time of the French Revolution, the École des jeunes de langues was considered too close to the monarchy and therefore suspicious. Nonetheless, the will remained to supplement the Collège de France with a French institution dedicated to modern languages and centering on “vernacular and diplomatic idioms”. Lakanal’s report to the Constituent Assembly was explicit: “Public and commercial utility alone must guide us in the choice of oriental languages to be taught”.

In 1795, only two young language scholars were left. This meant a shortage of interpreters at a time when trade and diplomacy were of strategic importance for the spread of revolutionary ideas. It became urgent to set up an institution that would train Frenchmen in the modern languages deemed useful by the Convention, in the most appropriate and effective manner. Hence, the Assembly of Representatives of the French people adopted the charter instituting Inalco on 10 Germinal, Year III—the height of the Reign of Terror.

According to the founding decree, the School of Modern Oriental Languages was “intended for the teaching of languages of recognized political and commercial value”. The decree also stipulated that it would be established within the National Library so as to have the necessary academic resources at its disposal.

Institutional and linguistic development

The School opened with three chairs: vernacular and written Arabic, Turkish and Crimean Tartar, and finally Persian and Malay. Events soon showed what important services the state could expect from the new institution. Barely three years after the decree of 10 Germinal, one of the School’s professors, Venture de Paradis, set off as chief interpreter of the Armée d’Orient on the French campaign in Egypt, taking his best students with him.
In the light of these interpreters’ successes, the goal set by the Convention and pursued by the Directoire had been achieved. The School had quickly put itself in a position to meet the needs for which it had been created. To continue to do so, the School sought to develop as an institution, requesting premises suited to its teaching mission and constantly increasing the number of oriental languages taught.
  • Over the 19th and 20th centuries, the School’s status was modified several times, carving out its niche in a political context conducive to its expansion.  The Royal Ordinance of 22 May 1838 brought the École des langues orientales as far as possible into the university framework. The decree of 8 November 1869 reorganized the School to comply with the “original purpose”: all the prescriptions aimed to give the studies a more practical bent without undermining the serious academic nature of the teaching. The School had to skillfully combine its role as an institution of advanced scholarship, for which it had become known throughout Europe, with its mission to train students capable of performing the difficult duties of an interpreter in the East. Finally, the Statute of June 8, 1914 confirmed the previous orientations and granted the School the title of “grand établissement d’enseignement supérieur”, the category defining France’s most prestigious higher education institutions.
Classe de 1909
 
  • For nearly 70 years, the École des langues orientales made do with a small room in the National Library to fulfill its teaching mission. But during the 1867 Universal Exhibition, the School acquired or received donations of a considerable number of oriental works and some ethnographic documents. It became impossible to accommodate these resources in the limited space available to the School’s administration. The School left the National Library permanently in 1868. After a temporary stint in the apartments of the director of the Collège de France, it was provided with a stately townhouse at 2, rue de Lille in Paris by presidential decree in 1873. Renovations were undertaken in the 1880s to provide a fitting institutional and symbolic backdrop to the School’s teaching missions.
1882
 
  • From the four oriental languages set by the decree of Year III, the number and diversity of oriental languages taught grew steadily, reaching fifty languages in the 1969-1970 curriculum.
Affiche des cours 1849-1850

Greater numbers and multiple sites

From the mid-20th century , French higher education encountered many problems to which the School was not immune (a dramatic increase in student numbers, lack of professors, insufficient room for teaching, and outdated learning methods). The events of 1968 led to a significant change in institutional structures and educational practices.
Publication de 1969

The institutional consequences included the School’s change of name to the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures) in 1971, and its affiliation with Université Paris Sorbonne.
Starting in 1968, some courses were taught “temporarily” in buildings that NATO had vacated at Porte Dauphine. Then, in 1969, other courses were set up at the Centre universitaire de Clichy and, in 1971, at the Centre universitaire d’Asnières. From that point on, Inalco was constantly on the lookout for stopgaps—temporary rooms where it could keep teaching its courses.

An institution grounded in history and collaboration

Although the affiliation with the Université Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle brought definite advantages for the administration of Inalco, differences in identity soon made the Institute’s independence inevitable. With the Savary Act of 1984, Inalco was classified among the independent “grands établissements.”

Having regained an institutional status, Inalco’s final battle was to bring all its courses together in one place. Several real estate plans proved unsuccessful. It was not until the 2000s that the plan emerged for a Pôle des langues et civilisations (Center for Languages and Cultural Studies), accommodating in a single building Inalco’s teaching mission and the University Library of Languages and Cultures. This facility has been in use since September 2011.