Why we’re all rubbish at speaking French

France has been ranked the worst in the EU for their English ability, but let's face it, they still speak English better than we speak French.

Why we're all rubbish at speaking French
Photo: Pixabay
France ranked absolute last in the EU in an English proficiency ranking on Tuesday
I can just about hear the laughter of the Luxembourgers, the snorts of the Swedes, and the howls from the Herzogovinians from their lofty places above France on the list. 
And English speakers in France were quick to share their thoughts too. 
One of The Local's Facebook followers wrote:
“Thank you France. That fact that you're totally inept at English has provided me with a prosperous career which has supported my family, financed my house, paid for my car and funded my healthy alcohol intake for years.”
But while the French may rank among the worst at English, let's be honest it should be us English speakers who cop a bit of flak for our lousy French. 
While we're at it, why are we all so bad at French?
It's one of the most popular languages in the entire world for a start.
And so much of English comes from French, so surely it shouldn't take much to speak it fluently?
Here are a few reasons why we struggle.
France 'to force language tests' on expats post Brexit

Photo: RedBat/Flickr
1. C'est très difficile 
French is a really tricky language to learn, especially for someone who can only speak English. 
Just at a beginner level, you have to learn some fundamental differences like gendered nouns, formal and informal pronouns, verb agreements, pronouncing liaisons, and don't even get me started on the unusually common subjunctive tense. 
And when you've finally wrapped your head around it all, you have to think about your rhythm and accent if you plan to ever be understood.
Sure, some people can learn it quickly, but for most people it's a lifelong challenge to really master.   
French language: Are these the most annoying words?

Photo: John.Hallam/Flickr
2. We just don't have access to French 
Even in the deepest, darkest corners of Africa you can find copies of Hollywood movies or Michael Jackson music. But ask around for an Edith Piaf CD or a copy of Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (the highest grossing French film of all time) and you'll be met with shrugs. 
The spoken (and sung) French word just hasn't left an indelible mark on the world as English has (though that doesn't mean there aren't excellent films to check out, I'd recommend you start here. Or here).
English speakers just don't have access to French from day one, whereas foreigners learning English will see it from when they are toddlers. And that's the best time to learn it, when their petite brains are like sponges.
3. We just don't need it/We got lucky
We can always blame our bad French on our one (quite legitimate) excuse – there's no real need to learn it. 
English speakers are a fairly job-orientated bunch, and learning French isn't pre-requisite for getting a job these days. But luckily for us, speaking English is.
For reasons that we don't have the time or desire to go in to, English has become the dominant language around the world. At least for the moment.
Until that changes, we'll probably never get good at French or any other language.
4. French isn't important anymore
It used to be the language of Europe, the language of diplomacy, and the one foreign language you had to learn in school. But nowadays, kids are more likely to be learning Spanish – especially in the US – or even Mandarin.  
The only time you hear French these days is at the Olympic Games or at the Eurovision song contest – although even at these events the French language appears to be fading away. 
Conchita from the Eurovision Song Contest. Photo: AFP

5. The French people you actually meet speak English well
If you're a tourist in France, or a new arrival, the chances are you'll come across mostly people who can speak English pretty well. Especially in the big cities and tourist areas.
Sure, this isn't a real reason as to why we're all rubbish at French, but it doesn't help people coming to France with the hopes of a bit of practice. 

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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.