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.