Non-French people might find the accent français endearing and even sexy, with their ‘ze’ instead of ‘the’ and rolling r’s. But French people themselves are very self-conscious about speaking English – or any other language for that matter.
France regularly comes quite far down league tables of English-language proficiency – the latest assessment puts the country at 28th in Europe – but perhaps a lack of confidence is the real problem?
In fact, a recent study revealed that as many as 80 percent of the people asked found it embarrassing when they had to communicate in a language other than French.
Five hundred people participated in the study, which was conducted by Ipsos for the language application Babbel.
Only 8 percent of the people participating in the study said they felt “confident” when speaking a different language. Thirty-three percent reported to feel “anxious,” while 24 percent felt “uncomfortable.” For 11 percent the discomfort was of such a degree that they characterised it as “shame.”
“It’s pretty close to shame,” said Christine, a 46-year-old real estate agent told The Local.
She raised her eyebrows in alarm and told The Local that she spoke un peu (a little) English, but that she thought her “too French” accent made her sound ridiculous.
For the 46-year-old, it's a national problem.
“Even our English teachers have really bad accents,” she said.
In fact, 44 percent of the people who participated in the Ipsos study blamed their accents for their feeling uncomfortable when speaking another language. Twenty-five percent said they feared they would not be understood because of their accent, while 19 percent worried they would be judged.
Only 20 percent said they were proud of their accents. Thirty-four percent said they wanted to erase their accents completely.
In 2013, a few high-speed TGV trains offered English lessons to its train passengers in a program known as “English on Track”. Photo: AFP
If I can avoid it, I will'
When asked if he speaks English, Yannick removed his headphones and said “just a little bit.” However it quickly turned out that the 35-year-old kindergarten teacher was pretty fluent. Why play himself down?
“I have a really good vocabulary, but because my accent is really bad I’m worried that I won’t be understood,” he said.
For Yannick, it’s that he doesn’t “sound English” that makes him self-conscious.
“I understand very well. I can participate in longer conversations if needed,” he said.
“But my accent is so bad. If I can avoid speaking English, I will.”
Yannick said his level of discomfort was equally high when surrounded by other French people as when speaking with native English speakers. This may seem surprising – shouldn't it be less frightening speaking to someone with a similar accent?
But all the people who were randomly stopped by The Local said that, whether in the company of fellow French people or surrounded by English speakers, the level of discomfort remained the same – very high.
'We know we're lousy'
Charlotte, 34, an elementary school teacher, said that “it’s true” that French people are ashamed of their accents – no matter the language.
“We know that we’re lousy,” she said.
“I was recently in Spain and I tried to keep up in Spanish, but I just couldn’t,” she said.
Charlotte qualified her English skills as pretty low, saying je ne me débrouille pas (I don’t speak enough to manage).
“I have a really bad accent and I lack vocabulary.”
Are France's schools to blame for French people's unwillingness to speak English? Photo AFP
'Lack of education'
Christine, the real estate agent, said her son, a 10-year-old who was currently learning English in school, was still too young to feel embarrassed about his accent yet.
“It's probably something that comes later, as teenagers maybe,” she said.
Christine believed the French education system to be at fault for not providing children with strong enough language skills.
“The lack of decent English education leaves us feeling that we’re not mastering the language. That’s why we feel ridiculous,” she said.
“The only time I felt I learnt something [in school] was when I had a native English speaker as a teacher.”
But France is far from the only country where people are concerned about their foreign language skills.
Of the 7,500 people participating in the study on a global scale, more than one third reported to having felt anxious about their accents when speaking a different language than their own.
Anglophone countries topped the list, with the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada all among four embarrassed countries (along with Poland).
Forty-nine percent of British people said they felt anxious about speaking another language, along with 54 percent of Americans. As for Canada, the country was split in two, with English Canadians more anxious than French Canadians about speaking a foreign language (respectively 47 and 40 percent).
However, 55 percent of the French people participating in the study said the English accent was their favourite foreign accent.
So maybe there's less need to worry than people think.