• France's news in English

It's a myth the French won't speak English

Oliver Gee · 10 Aug 2015, 17:28

Published: 10 Aug 2015 17:28 GMT+02:00
Updated: 10 Aug 2015 17:28 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit
The French have somewhat of a reputation for their bad "eengleesh", and if you read the news you'll see why.
One report in November found that the French were the worst at English in the whole of the EU. "Improving the country’s English skills is not a subject of national debate,” the report said.
And then you have the country's president helping to cement the view that the French are hopeless at English when he made international headlines by signing off a letter to Barack Obama with the words: "Friendly, Francois Hollande".
While they may be considered the poor pupil of Europe when it comes to their level of English, the French are even more reputed for their resistance to the language. 
When the top complaint from French TV viewers last year was that they heard too much "needless English" on the TV and the radio, and the French language police are regularly banning words, then it's perhaps not hard to see where the reputation comes from.
Indeed so much is said about this reluctance to speak English that tourists are often given the impression that if they don't at least try to speak French to a local they will just be abruptly ignored.

(Tourists in Paris are often warned to learn some French before arriving. Photo: AFP)
But while the French may lag behind the Dutch, the Germans, and of course the Scandinavians, (and it needs to be said their English is far better than the typical English speaker's French) when it comes to speaking English, it's a vastly inaccurate cliché to suggest they can't and don't want to speak it.
After spending the year in Paris, I've been amazed at how often French people try to speak English with me. Granted, it could be that my Australian accent is so strong that they're trying to put me out of my misery like a wounded kangaroo... but I'm not so sure.
Even after I've just said my name, French people often love to jump into often imperfect English and I think it's quite an admirable thing to do. Even more so when they add: "But you can speak French with me if you prefer", which they often do. 
While it's mostly the younger people who make the switch, I can also count the friendly middle-aged woman at my local fast-food restaurant, and my middle-aged neighbour. And let's not forget the fact that English jargon is creeping into French workplaces more than ever and the young professionals are only too happy to welcome it. 
It feels like the exact opposite of the stereotypes I was given prior to visiting France. 
It also feels they are doing it out of politeness and genuine enthusiasm, which wasn't the sense I got while learning Swedish in Stockholm. There, it felt like the Swedes were so good at English that they were just showing off, and by doing so were preventing us frustrated foreigners from learning the local lingo. 
A Parisian man who teaches English in a Paris high school said the younger generation is less scared of "succumbing" to English than their seniors.
"Young French people love learning English," he told me at a cafe in the second arrondissement. "The majority of my students are really into it, even when they're no good at it."
"They know they need to learn English if they want to keep up to date with what's happening in the world. They don't want to wait for the French newspapers to translate it anymore," he said. 
He added that many of them are consuming media - especially music - that was in English, and that they wanted to know what they were listening to. 

(High school students in France. Photo: AFP)
And it makes sense. A young man from Grenoble told me that he learned English thanks to a combination of great downloadable American and British TV, and his impatience to wait for the dubbed version. The result, he said, was that he had now travelled more and more confidently than he'd ever have thought possible. 
Story continues below…
Back at the cafe, the teacher said that any Parisian with a shred of common sense would realize that speaking English opened opportunities, not least considering the 83.7 million tourists that visit France per year
"Take this waiter, for example," he said, pointing to a typical polished waiter in a black apron. "He knows that if he doesn't speak English then he could lose a tip, or even a customer."
Almost as if on cue, the waiter approached a family looking at the street menu and ushered them inside naturally, charmingly, and fluently in English. Moments later, he did the same thing in Spanish. 
The idea the younger generations of French people being less resistant to the invasion of English echos comments from the Culture Minister - the chief guardian of the French language. She told The Local in March that there was no point in trying to protect and preserve French because it's "enriched by outside influences".
So whether it's to be enriched, to be polite, to get a tip from us foreigners, or more likely to be able to get a job, the new younger generation of French seem to be devouring English like a warm croissant.
Now it's just a matter of catching up to the Germans.
Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available