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Why is France bottom of the class for English?

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Why is France bottom of the class for English?
Why do the French struggle with English compared to EU counterparts? Photo: Jmar/Flickr
16:40 CET+01:00
A new report this week concluded the French are the worst at English in all of the EU. Given that native English speakers are not really in a position to point the finger at the French, we asked the natives and a local expert to explain the poor showing.

The report by Education First blames France’s place in the ranking on the teaching quality in the public system as well as limited education reforms on language instruction.

But what do the French themselves make of it? And what do the experts say?

The public:

Many of the people The Local spoke to on the streets of Paris on Thursday were not surprised by the rankings and when asked to explain why, came up with a raft of reasons from the education system to French protectionism.

Frederick S, aged 31, believes there is a legacy left over from his parent's generation.

“In France, masters courses are not held in English whereas in most of Europe that’s the case. I mean my English is better than my professors. That’s probably why they don’t teach in English because our parents’ generation can’t really speak it, I think.”

The common opinion appeared to be that France’s educational system is a major cause for the poor performance.

Anaïs, a 17-year-old school pupil isn’t happy about the way languages are taught in schools. “It’s too dry and too scholastic. There should be more speaking exercises. We have terrible pronunciation. Teachers should put us in touch with native English speakers.”

But some argued it’s not just the teachers’ fault and that part of the problem arises from the difficulty of having to master their own language.

“As a French woman, I have to say that French is one of the most difficult languages there is,” said 42-year-old Magali Lucas. “So people don’t want to make the effort to learn a foreign language.”

Others like 29-year-old Damien Gabriel simply believe not enough importance is placed on learning the language of Shakespeare.

“I think there are many kids in school that don’t understand how important it is to speak English,” he said. “They don’t care if they have shitty grades at English if they know they can compensate it with another subject, and still pass their degree.”

And he’s not the only one that believes there is a problem with people’s general attitude towards foreign languages.

Élodie K, a 30-year-old psychologist blamed former Culture Minister Jacques Toubon, who like many placed the emphasis on protecting the French language. 

“There’s this tendency among the French to want to preserve their native language,” she said. “People fear English could somehow destroy French, and want to keep it at a distance.”

Stéphanie S. strikes a common theme, saying if there was more exposure to English then France would be ranked higher in the list.

“I think on the one hand it’s because of the educational system, but also because we translate everything, like films, TV shows or ads.”

The expert:

Many of the views expressed by French people were backed up Adeline Prevost, from Education First, the company behind the survey that highlighted France’s struggles to master English compared to other European countries.

"There are a few reasons we struggle to learn English, and I think one of the main ones is that we lack exposure to English here in France. For example we don't get many films in VO – because French is a widely spoken language, we get translations without a problem.

"In other countries, for example Sweden, where the language is not spoken around the world, translations from English are not available so easily so people have more exposure to English.

However it’s not just about exposure, Prevost says, pointing to Spain as the example.

“Spain is in the same position, with Spanish being spoken around the world and translations easily available, but Spain has made huge improvements in their levels of speaking English, where France has not. This is because their government has invested properly in the learning of English.

“The Spanish government has made English one of the main areas of study in Spanish schools, whereas in France it is not prioritized as much – French school pupils are not required to have such a high level of English by the time they leave school,” she said.

And Prevost says the origin of Gallic struggles to learn English begins at school. “It is not emphasized as being important and the government does not push it,” she said.

And then there’s the issue of protecting French.

"Another problem is that in France we are very protective of our language. We are very good at doing that, and people are actually still more concerned with whether we are speaking good French than good English. Our priorities have not changed, and therefore we have not seen a change in English speaking levels in the last four or five years.

One issue that has been highlighted in the past is confidence, with the French tending to be self-conscious when it comes to speaking English and are often ridiculed by their fellow learners over their Gallic accents.

"If people don't get a chance to practice, they lack confidence and become shy and just say 'I can't do it' because they are not perfect."

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