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'Protectionist' France has worst English in Europe

Published: 12 Nov 2013 17:53 GMT+01:00

While most countries in the world are slowly improving their English proficiency skills, France is one ofthe few nations where standards are actually declining, a new study has revealed.

Despite the pressure on young French people to be fluent in English in order to find a job, the study by Education First, which tested the ability of 150,000 adults over five years, revealed that France is one of the few countries where standards have dipped.

The third EF English Proficiency Index by the international education company, ranked France 35th out of 60 countries where English is not the main language, putting it behind China, Taiwan and Italy and just ahead of the United Arab Emirates in the “low proficiency” grouping.

Most notably it was ranked last out of the European nations studied, falling behind the likes of Germany (14th) and Spain (23rd).

Perhaps unsurprisingly Sweden topped the league table ahead of Norway and the Netherlands.

“What makes the situation more remarkable is that most of Europe has either improved or already demonstrates consistently high English proficiency. France currently has the weakest English skills in Europe,” the study said.

Education First concludes that the decline cannot be blamed on obvious explanations such the amount of time French students spend studying English.

“Most French graduates have spent as much time studying English as other Europeans. English teachers in France have similar qualifications to those in most countries,” the report says.

Adeline Prevost, from the Paris office of Education First told The Local the main problem lies with France’s fear of losing its own culture and language.

“We need to be a bit less protective of our language. If you look at Sweden, they are number one in the world for English proficiency and they have the best of both worlds: they keep their own language and culture but they have a high level of English.

“The French have to understand that just because they are talking, reading or listening in English it doesn’t mean that we will kill our own language. Of course that won’t happen. This is the wrong mentality."

SEE ALSO: The French depression about speaking English

Prevost points to the recent uproar over a law to allow more courses to be taught in English at French universities. The proposal - which was voted into law in the summer - was designed to attract more foreign students to France, but many academics and politicians said it would lead to the “self-destruction” of French culture.

Although the Socialist government won the argument in this case and passed the law, Education First argues that over the years France’s soul-searching over how to deal with the dominance of English has held the country back.

“With debate in France still centered on whether or not English is a threat to French, most of Europe has already embraced English as an international tool. France, however, is on a strikingly different trajectory,” said the report.

Prevost argues that the overriding mentality of trying to protect Gallic culture has knock-on effects that harm the chances of French people learning English.

“French students are less exposed to English than in other countries. For example only 16 percent of films in French cinemas are in their original language. Most foreign films are still dubbed into French. We also have quotas for the number of French songs played on radio and for French programmes on TV.

“Even if we started having more foreign programmes with French subtitles, that would help a little,” Prevost adds.

French schools also to blame

Prevost also argues that one of the problems lies in the French school system.

“English is not really pushed in French schools and we also lack the resources compared to European neighbours, where there is a lot more technology, like “language labs”, made available to teach English.

“Young pupils learn English in primary schools, which is great, but often the teachers level of English is not high. They are qualified as primary teachers, not language teachers, so often their English is just basic.

“It’s not that they don’t want to teach English, it’s just they find it difficult.”

The result is a decline in the level of French teenagers’ English proficiency with a 2012 study by the European Commission revealing French teens had weaker results than students of any other country tested despite having eight years of English lessons under their belts.

For Prevost the French government needs to lead from the front.

“The government needs to invest money to give students the opportunity to go abroad so they can see the importance of learning a language. They have to be aware that English is necessary now. Everyone needs to be able to understand basic English.

“Spain invested a lot of money to help their students go abroad and you can see the results as they have improved their level of English,” added Provost, who also warned  that if the government fails to act then the future job prospects of young French people could be harmed.

SEE ALSO: Ten embarrassing mistakes the French make in English

To see the study in full, which includes detailed reports on individual countries, CLICK HERE.

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Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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