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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Why is France bottom of the class for English?

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.

Why is France bottom of the class for English?
Why do the French struggle with English compared to EU counterparts? Photo: Jmar/Flickr

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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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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