Here’s why the French struggle with English so much

Language teachers have united to share the reasons the French find English so difficult.

Here's why the French struggle with English so much
Photo: AFP
A new report from language school ABA English has tried to get to the bottom of why French people have such difficulties learning English, compared to other nationalities like Scandinavians or Germans.
Remember that a recent survey by Education First concluded that the French were the worst English speakers in Europe, and only just ahead of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
But according to ABA English school at least, the French honestly do struggle. In fact, the same school found in a January survey that only four percent of the country's population can actually speak “fluent English”.
Fluency, as defined by ABA English, is being able to “easily converse” with someone in English. 
It also found that 55 percent of respondents claimed to have an “intermediate level” of English, and a further 41 percent said they only have a very basic knowledge, or don't speak it at all.
While many point out that the fact the French still dub foreign TV series and films, reduces their access to English, ABA English, with the help of teachers, has looked at more specific grammar or language reasons to explain why the French struggle.
Here are what they claim to be the five biggest struggles of the French students of English. 
1. Vocabulary 
The main problem here, according to the teachers, is the words themselves. They point out that English is a Germanic language, rather than a Romance language like French. As a result, the roots of the words are different. This means that French people tend to turn to other Romance languages like Italian when they want to learn new languages, rather than try English, which involves a lot more memorization.
2. Grammar
Just like how us English speakers despair at French grammar, the French have the same problem with the English language. Particular sore points included getting confused between tenses, the difference between “to” and “at”, using the verb “to be” when talking about age (rather than “to have” like in French), and getting confused between “when” and “as soon as”. 
3. Irregular verbs
It's comforting to know that the French struggle with irregular verbs as much as many French learners do when it comes to French. And much like when learning the irregular verbs in French, there's not much advice the ABA teachers can give other than “be patient and learn them by heart”. 
4. Pronunciation
As cute as their French accent may be, if they can't pronounce words in English then people just won't understand them, say the teachers. One of the toughest challenges for the French, they said, was distinguishing between a long and a short vowel. And, especially in English, getting this wrong can change the whole meaning of a word (bet and beat, cap and cape, fit and fight, for example). 
5. False friends
Yes, the French find these tough in English. Who'd have thought! If you think about it, many of them are the exact same false friends that we have while learning French (just seen from another perspective). The teachers warned that a “library” is a bibliothèque and a “bookshop” is a librairie, for example. But there's more to it than that. 
They warned that straight translations can often leave people with basic mistakes, like saying “good appetite” for “bon appétit”. “Instead, opt for an “enjoy your meal”, or even just say “bon appétit” – your friends will find it chic, and you'll avoid making a language error. 

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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.


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


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 


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 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.