Why the French are getting (a bit) better at speaking English

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Why the French are getting (a bit) better at speaking English
Photo: AFP

Previously ranked as the worst English speakers in western Europe, the French have now improved to hit the dizzy heights of number 31 in the international rankings of English competency.


The annual rankings of English competency have been released by Education First, showing France languishing at 31st in the world.

But this is an improvement on last year when France was ranked at number 35, and the country has also overtaken Spain and Italy, so the French no longer take the title of worst English speakers in Western Europe.


Is the French school system to blame for France's poor levels of English? Photo: AFP

At the top of the table is the Netherlands, followed by Sweden, Norway and Denmark while trailing at the bottom are Saudi Arabia, Kyrgyzstan and Libya.

Most EU countries are above France, apart from Spain at number 35 and Italy at number 36.

Within France itself, the greater Paris Île-de-France region has the highest number of English speakers while the Pays-de-la-Loire and Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes regions also scored highly. The Hauts-de-France region recorded the lowest number of English speakers while across the country fractionally more French men speak English than women.

But what do the figures tell us about the French attitude to speaking English?

When discussing the French proficiency in English, three things usually surface - schooling, dubbing and the Académie française.

The French school system is often criticised as overly strict and formal, giving language pupils little opportunity for casual conversation and leaving them lacking confidence in their efforts to speak another language.

In contrast to many other countries where English or American TV shows are widely shown with subtitles, in France almost all foreign content is dubbed. This means that French people get far less casual exposure to English than in countries like Sweden.

Adeline Prevost, from Education First, the company behind the survey that highlighted France’s struggles to master English compared to other European countries, agrees.

She previously told The Local: "There are a few reasons we struggle to learn English, and I think one of the main ones is that we lack exposure to English here in France. For example we don't get many films in VO - because French is a widely spoken language, we get translations without a problem.

"In other countries, for example Sweden, where the language is not spoken around the world, translations from English are not available so easily so people have more exposure to English."

Then of course there's the Académie française.

The French are (rightly) proud of their language and make serious efforts to preserve it and promote it around the world.

The Académie française - guardians of the French language - are ever-alert to any incoming English words slipping into everyday use, and devote considerable effort to coming up with French alternatives to avoid the French language becoming 'polluted' with Anglicisms.

Some are more popular than others - the cumbersome L'accès sans fil a internet is widely ignored in France in favour of the rather snappier le wifi if you're talking about wireless internet access - but they do embody a certain protectionism of the French language.

There are frequent rows and even political pronouncements when it is deemed that too much English is slipping into usage in things like advertising and there are laws stating that official documents and commercial contracts must be written in French.

READ ALSO France's culture minister hits out at advertisers - for using too much English

Photo: The Local

Yet despite all this, it seems that the French are getting better at speaking English.

An average of 57.25 percent of people in France have 'reasonable proficiency' in English, rising to 60.28 percent in Paris. The report doesn't break down age groups, but anecdotal evidence suggests that young people in France speak better English than their parents, so the improvement is likely to continue.

Despite the best efforts of the Academie, English words and phrases are seeping into everyday conversation.

Walk down any French high street - especially at sale time - and you will see plenty of adverts and promotions using English phrases.

And the language seems to be regarded as quite cool, especially among the younger people in cities like Paris, where you will frequently hear people peppering their conversations with odd English words like cool, job, happy hour or guess what. 


It's also surfacing more and more in popular culture.

One of Netflix France's biggest successes this year was the series Family Business, which despite its English title was a French-produced show with a French cast, while the rap song currently ruffling feathers among the French establishment is the police-bashing Fuck le 17 by Parisian rap collective 13 Block.

READ ALSO Why do the French love to say f**k so much?

Embodying this is current French president Emmanuel Macron (not the swearing bit, as far as we know) - he is someone who speaks excellent English and is happy to do so in public, unlike some of his presidential predecessors. He also tweets regularly in English.


Although this habit is not without controversy - when on the campaign trail he gave a speech in English on a trip to Berlin and was roundly criticised for not 'respecting France'.

And before we get too judgemental over French efforts to speak English, it's worth pointing out that while 57 percent of French people have 'moderate proficiency' in English, in the UK just 38 percent of people speak a second language while in the US it's nearer 20 percent.




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