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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

‘I feel ridiculous’ – Why French people dread speaking English

If you feel self-conscious trying out your imperfect French don't worry - eighty percent of French people are apparently also embarrassed about their accents when speaking other languages.

'I feel ridiculous' - Why French people dread speaking English
Photo: racorn/Depositphotos

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?

READ ALSO How France is (slowly) improving its English-language skills

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.”

Other countries

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.

Member comments

  1. We were invited by the local lycée to chat to a couple of classes about why we were in France and our lives in general. It was immediately obvious that we weren’t going to be able to do it in English, so we did it in French and dealt with lots of very interesting, thoughtful questions. BUT their English teacher tried to show off, in front of the class, his mastery of English, and he was totally incomprehensible, so we kept dragging the conversation back into French.
    What hope is there of the lycéens ever learning useable conversational English if the prof can’t speak it? Up until now, they have been able to take a year in England as part of their higher education but, apparently, the UK is refusing to continue to participate further in Erasmus, so that route will, presumably, be blocked.
    The least said about that, the better!

  2. as a brit who has spent most of my life working and travelling in europe and beyond as a truck driver and can “get by in” countries i have found most people struggle with a second language and feel discomfort until proficient it is always the education system that makes the difference. the piece about the french english teacher who couldn’t speak english takes me back to my school days when our english french prof tried to impress a french student who barely understood a word he said rest in peace Mr. Turner

  3. Now which sounds worse? A French accent or South East estuary, or Scouse, or Mancunian, or Brummie, or the Valleys etc….

    I’d say the French have nothing to worry about.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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.

Masculine

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

Feminine

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 

Plural

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 

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.

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