French improve their English (but they’re still EU’s worst)

France has once again finished last in the EU in a worldwide ranking of English ability, but this time there's a sign that things are on the up.

French improve their English (but they're still EU's worst)
Photo: AFP
France finished 29th out of 72 countries in a new annual world ranking of levels of English.
The score was low enough to land France dead last in the EU, just like last year (and the year before).
With a score of 54.33, the French were deemed to have a “moderate proficiency” in English, along with the South Koreans, the Indonesians, the Bulgarians and the Italians in the league table, presented in Paris on Tuesday by the global language training company Education First.
But the good news is that for the first time in years France actually saw some healthy improvement. 
Indeed, it jumped out of the “low proficiency” bracket last year to “moderate proficiency” in 2016. France also showed the largest improvement levels in English throughout Europe. (see graph)
France facts from the study
  • Bordeaux has the best English speakers (then Lille, Paris, and Lyon)
  • Toulon ranked worst city, with “very low” proficiency
  • Ile-de-France best English-speaking region
  • Worst French regions: Brittany, Centre et Val-de-Loire, Bourgogne-Franche-Compté 
  • French women outperform men 
  • French men and women above global average, below Europe's average
  • English skill level decreases noticeably with age
So could things be finally looking up for the French, who have long suffered (what we think is a slightly unfair) reputation of being poor English speakers?
Benjamin Delahaye, from Education First in France, said the improving results were “encouraging”, but added that as a year-on-year study all changes had to be “looked at with caution”. 
“This doesn't mean French people's level of English is going to skyrocket into the high proficiency level, but it's encouraging,” he told The Local. 
And France may finally be breaking away from the “defensive” reaction to poor results in such rankings, he added. 
“There's a strong cultural identity in France linked to the language, and sometimes the ability to speak English is seen as an Americanization of society. It could be seen as a threat,” he said.
Indeed when Education First published its first ranking in 2011, he said angry commentators just questioned why Americans weren't learning French. 
But he thinks the younger, tech-savvy, gap-year, Erasmus, generation could be changing things shown in the fact young French people's English proficiency was far higher than their older generations.
“The new generation is much more connected to outside world, through internet, video games, and the simple fact that you have On Demand TV and can choose to watch your American series in English or French, that makes a big difference,” he said.
“When I was growing up you could only watch programmes in the original language if you subscribed to cable.”
“Young people are a lot more receptive to the fact that English is the international language for exchange and innovation. I think the older generation probably grew up in the aftermath of France being the official international language of the past,” Delahaye said. 

He added that the youths have a “thirst to explore” and are much less likely to listen to bodies like the Academie Francaise which has fought hard to resist the influence of English over the years.
As positive as it all may sound and despite the improvements and potentially rosy future, we can't escape the fact that France did indeed finish at the bottom of the pile in the EU. 

High school students in France. Photo: AFP
So what's going wrong?
French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis says a lot of it is down to a lack of confidence, social class and where people live in France.
“For many French people the sole idea of sounding or feeling ridicule is enough to prevent them from even trying to speak English,” she said.
There are also geographical challenges, evidenced by the fact that the scores in Tuesday's study were consistently higher in cities. 
“I live in Brittany, in a small town in the middle of the countryside. And I am amazed at the number of people who don't speak English,” she said.
She says young kids in her area can hardly say “hi, my name is…” despite having learned English for years.
“But when I see my nephews and nieces who are in their mid twenties and living in the Paris area, they all have higher studies diplomas.
“They speak English fluently. They watch all the Netflix/HBO series in English (rather than dubbed) and learned American English this way. They also travelled quite a lot and used English in both studies and daily communication,” she says.

“Higher social classes understand how important it is for their kids to master English and send them to study abroad or find a tutor to make sure they do,” she added.
So what next? How can France escape the bottom of the barrel in time for next year's ranking? With the help of some experts, here's an eight-point sure-fire way the French can improve. 
Here's how the French can improve in English

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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.