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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


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.