The French depression about speaking English

When it comes to assessing their levels of English, French people are all doom and gloom, two new reports reveal. A European league table of insecurity over English levels, released on Thursday, ranked the French second only to Italy.

The French depression about speaking English
The French are among Europe's most insecure when it comes to their levels of English. Photo: Chariserin/flickr

Many Anglos living in France, especially those who have taught English, know all about the shaky confidence levels of the French when it comes to speaking the language of Shakespeare.

However, two new reports have shed light on how just how low their self-esteem around "l'Anglais" has tumbled.

According to data agency Eurostat, the French are the second most insecure in Europe after Italy about their levels of English. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Swedes topped the confidence table.

Eurostat carried out their survey to mark European Language Day, which revealed that when asked whether their level of English was "proficient", “good” or just “fair”, only 13 percent of French respondents believed they were proficient.

This downbeat self-appraisal was of no surprise to David Stenning, director of Interface Business Languages in Paris.

“The French are insecure about their English ability but I've seen it across all of southern Europe. It’s possibly a Latin thing.”

"Most Anglos, when they speak to French people, are happy to accept mistakes, but the French tend to be down on themselves and lacking in confidence. Really they just need to get over the initial hurdle and get on with it,” Stenning told The Local on Thursday.

Eurostat’s table of insecurity was backed up by another recent survey carried out in France by “1to1English”, which revealed that those in management positions in France have a poor grasp of English.

The survey showed that only 16 percent of managers, known as “cadres” in French, are at ease speaking English.

“There are clearly differences between generations. The younger generations are certainly better at speaking English and many managers and middle managers will be in their 40s, 50s and 60s. So that can play a role,” Stenning said.

And how can we explain the French gloominess towards their English language abilities? Well it’s all down to their schooling, believes Stenning.

“The French school system is built around negativity. There’s lots of telling pupils off and putting them down and in the end they come out of it believing they are bad at languages,” he said. “A lot of French people say that themselves.

“Part of our job is to help them see themselves in a better light,” he said.

Another theory that has been put forward in the past is that many French people still haven’t accepted that their own language has lost its influence at the expense of English.

Eurostat's data showed the dominance of English with a whopping 94 percent of upper secondary school students in the European Union choosing English as their second language, with French a distant second at 23 percent, and German at 21 percent. 

And there are even those who believe France would be a happier place all-round if the French accepted the hegemony of English and got on with improving their language skills.

Scientist Claudia Senik told The Local earlier this year the French would be less miserable if they spoke better English.

However one telling stastitic, most noticable by its absence is how well people in the UK view their own foreign language proficiency. Eurostat said the data was not available but did not explain why. Perhaps the answer is obvious.

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French not required? These are the languages you need to work in France

French companies are increasingly willing to employ people who don't speak French, and German-speakers are finding themselves in demand, according to new figures.

French not required? These are the languages you need to work in France
Photo: François Nascimbeni/AFP

English remains in demand on the French job market. Over the past 12 months, 14 percent of job ads published required applicants to speak English “correctly”. In the marketing sector, 26 percent of jobs included this stipulation, according to a study by Joblift, a jobs search engine.


The number of jobs open to non-Francophones rose by 8 percent over the year. Sales and account management positions accounted for the lion's share of these jobs. These were very much in the minority, though: only around 1,000 positions out of more than a million did not require knowledge of French.


German was the most sought-after language by recruiters, after French and English. German was twice as popular among companies as Spanish, and ten times more sought-after than Chinese. 


The figures indicate that French school pupils may be making poor choices: only 15 percent currently choose German as their second foreign language, against 34 percent who choose Spanish. French trade with Germany was worth €170 billion in 2015, against €63 billion for trade with Spain.


The job market for French people in the UK remains buoyant, with a third of the 5,000 British jobs targeted at French speakers located in London. Demand for French speakers was lower in Germany, with only 800 vacancies for French speakers, half of those in Berlin. For two out of three of those jobs, knowledge of German was not required.