‘Protectionist’ France has worst English in Europe

A global study of English language proficiency in 60 nations revealed that the ability of the French to master the language of Shakespeare is actually declining. The company behind the study tells The Local that France’s fear of losing its culture is to blame.

'Protectionist' France has worst English in Europe
English proficiency in France is on the decline, a new study has revealed. Photo: François Nascimbeni/AFP

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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Ten free, fun and original ways to learn French

Struggling to learn French? Just arrived or been here a while? Not everyone can go back to college, and we can't all afford pricey language schools or private tutors. So here are ten free, easy ways to learn French that you may not have thought of.

Ten free, fun and original ways to learn French
Clockwise from top left: A parrot, Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver', a sweet nothing, and a strange conversation. Photos: Kim Hill, Gomazio ASBL/Youtube, Olivia James, Holly Fisher

French can be a notoriously tricky language to learn. 

There is obviously a big market out there for everything from elite, expensive language schools in France, to online courses and 500-CD audio packages, to private tutors to free websites.

But not everyone has the time or money to sign for a language course or the patience or concentration span to learn online.

So to help those people out The Local spoke to expert authors, teachers, and expat readers to come up with ten original ways to help you master French that won't cost you much at all.

You can try out these techniques while getting fit, lying in bed, going to work, during a night's entertainment, and even making love.

So from now on you'll have no excuse.


This list is by no means exhaustive. Do you have any tips and techniques for how you learned French?

Let us know in the comments section below.

Readers' Experience

Edward Verschoyle says: "You can read as many French books as you want, go to classes, but there is no substitute for speaking with French people every day. I moved to France 11 years ago at the age of 52 with no French. I am now a competent French speaker. Yes I make mistakes, and I learn something new every day."

Food writer David Lebovitz says: "The best way to do it is to be around outgoing French people. They are much more jovial and accepting of mistakes and goofs."

Thanks to American writer Lynn McBride for her expert advice. Her Amazon best-selling book "How to Learn a New Language With a Used Brain" is available at her website Southern Fried French.