Here's what the French need to do to speak better English

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Oliver Gee - [email protected]
Here's what the French need to do to speak better English

After the French on Tuesday were ranked bottom of the class in the EU for their level of English, we asked experts to spell out what exactly needs to be done for France to rise up the league table.


It was a miserable result for the French on Tuesday, ranking last in the EU when it comes to English capabilities. But at least they're improving. 
So what do the French need to do to climb the league table even further and reach the dizzy heights of their Scandinavian cousins, who typically top the rankings? Here's what the experts say needs to be done for the French to improve their English (that's only if they want to of course, we don't want to force anyone here...)
Stop dubbing movies and TV
France could really learn from the Nordics - a region that is consistently at the top of the rankings - when it comes to leaving films to their original languages. 
"In France it's only been in the last three or four years that you have even had the option to change TV shows and movies to the original version," says Nenad Djokic, France's Country Manager at Education First, which carried out Tuesday's study.
Adding English subtitles to English TV shows could take things even further, says Stephen Wragg, the managing director of the French-based Business and Technical Languages (BTL) school.
"The problem with French subtitles is that people just end up reading them, they don't listen and learn from the spoken words. Netflix is leading the way by offering an English subtitle option," he tells The Local.
"Language requires repetition. If this means you have to watch your favourite series three times, then buckle down and do it."
Have some confidence in themselves! 
Most French people are better English speakers than they give themselves credit for, Wragg adds.
"Many people have excellent English, but they've acquired a timidity, a reticence to use it," he says. "The French have a lack of confidence, they're afraid of making mistakes, afraid of expressing themselves."
In all classes in school there is rarely an emphasis on encouraging pupils to speak out.
He says that if he could wave a magic wand and take away the self confidence issues, people would jump ahead half a level on the European Common Framework, which ranks speakers from A1 to C1. 
"It's only by practicing what you've learned that you can learn more."

Stop le mocking

Linked to the problem of a lack of confidence is French people's tendency to ridicule each other's level of English - and it’s got to stop!

Whether they are sensitive about their accent or just too scared to really give it a go, the last thing a French English learner needs is to be mocked, but it happens a lot (just see the video below where the president is laughed at for his English)

“The fear of being ridiculed, of making a mistake, and being told off by the teacher is rooted in the psyche of most young French people. So just imagine how it feels when we have to do it in English,” said French student Lea Surugue.

“Being mocked for having a strong accent in English is a fear most teenagers cannot shake off in their language classes and that doesn't disappear into adulthood.”

Stop clinging on to French
"The French still nurture their language when it comes to the arts and culture," says Peter Gumbel, a Paris-based author of a best-selling critique of the French school system.
"There's a whole policy of "francophonie". If you use an English word in a billboard ad, you have to put an asterisk and translate it. The Academie Française thinks English is worse than the plague, and still tries to eradicate it where it can."
A perfect example is its attempts to find French words for tech innovations, like hashtag. Or indeed like smiley, start up, and chat.
"In France, the media and the government don't even use the word 'English'. They just use the phrase 'foreign languages' when they're talking about learning languages," says Djokic from Education First.
Most believe that if the French are to improve in English, they have to embrace it rather than send out the message that it's a dirty influence that needs to be cleansed.
Make teaching more relevant
Education author Gumbel compares learning in France to a chore and not a pleasure.
"Like all subjects in French schools, languages including English are taught in a way that is heavy on theory (ie grammar), light on practical application and not much fun," he says.
"Teachers should focus classroom activity far more on conversation, and less on verb tenses."
Basically learning English has to become fun.
Stephen Wragg from BTL agrees, adding that his 14-year-old bilingual son recently fell victim to the system. 
"This is a boy who is totally bilingual and had just returned from a year in the UK. When he got his English test results back from his French school, he got just 12 out of 20. In Spanish he got 13 out of 20, and he couldn't even order a drink in Spain."
English professor at HEC, Adam Jones, adds that learning can be fun at home too. 
"Students are incredibly lucky when it comes to online resources as the best films and TV series are anglophone (same goes for music)," he says.
Be proud of your accent
Someone needs to get the message through to the French that their accent is a plus point and it shouldn't hold them back.
"You can't imagine how many times I've told people that people are attracted to French accents," says Wragg. 
"In the UK, they use French actors to sell luxury products. The accent is seen as sexy and exotic, something positive."
So come on France, don't hesitate to charm us!
Go abroad more
Author Gumbel thinks that the Eurostar between Paris and London has done wonders over the 20 years since its launch.
"In 20 years' time, many more French will speak much better English," he says.
Wragg from BTL adds that parents need to continue the trend of sending their kids abroad for a year. 
"They realize they need to learn English, and quickly. They won't get fed if they can't ask for food," he says.
"Travelling is so important. If a French person goes abroad, he or she will improve quickly and won't feel so embarrassed by their accent, said Adeline Prevost from Education First. "They won't be in class, ridiculed by other French students, but alone in a foreign country, with the impossibility to avoid speaking to natives," she said.

Lead from the front

Can we really expect the French people to speak better English when the leaders of the country can hardly string a sentence together as the video below shows?

Surely the ministers and the president himself could lead by example, especially in this day and age, where English has become the language of business and diplomacy.

French leaders are often mocked by their own public for their poor levels of English, which you couldn’t imagine being the case in the Nordic countries.

Another version of this story was published in November 2015.


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