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

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.

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

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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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.