EXPLAINED: What Sweden could teach France about English classes

French people frequently say they are embarrassed to speak English and lack confidence in the language - despite it being a compulsory subject at school. So is there a problem with the subject?

EXPLAINED: What Sweden could teach France about English classes
Photo: AFP

After a recent study showed that about 80 percent of French people are embarrassed when speaking English, we wanted to find out exactly what the problems are for French people when it comes to learning languages. Is it just a lack of confidence or a more systemic problem?

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

To our slight surprise, French schools begin their English education quite early, with a universal requirement of compulsory English lessons starting in 6eme (at the age of 11-12).

Many schools start the English training already in maternelle (nursery), when they are required to introduce a first foreign language (although the language does not have to be English).

We contacted the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA), which does research on foreign language skills across Europe for the European Commission, to ask if French children are really that bad at speaking English and – if so – why?

Here is what we found out.

1. It’s not a myth

The only study comparing foreign language levels in different European countries, the European Survey on Language Competences, found that French people are relatively bad at speaking English.

Although the study was conducted back in 2012, the EACEA said the results were still valid today, as national language skills take time to change.

The ESLC researchers found a large variation in foreign language  proficiency across Europe. Sweden topped the ranking of the 14 countries taking part in the study, with a full 82 percent of students qualifying as “independent” English speakers.

France was at the bottom of the list of English speakers, with only 14 percent of students reaching an “independent” level.

(However British participants did even worse than French when tested in their most popular foreign language, Spanish).

READ ALSO The Paris school with no classrooms where pupils decide what to learn

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to improve English skills in France. Photo: AFP

2. Early is good, but..

So what explains the huge gap between France and Sweden?

The EACEA has identified several factors to explain the diverging levels of language skills levels across European countries. 

France’s emphasis on an early, universal English education is quite recent. Although many French children start their English education earlier, learning English does not become compulsory before the 6ème grade (at 11).

Until 6ème schools may decide the language 'according to the available resources' (depending on their teachers' language skills). And resources can be a real problem, as older French teachers will not necessarily have the skills required to teach their children English properly. 

Swedish children begin their training at seven, and have done so for years.

READ ALSO: What kind of school in France is best for my kids?

3. Structure matters

According the EACEA, the structure of the French education system is less continuous than for example the Swedish system.

In Sweden, children mostly do not switch schools between the ages of seven and 15. A French child moves from maternelle (nursery), to école primaire (primary school), to collège (secondary/middle school) to lycée (high school). Sometimes pupils don’t have the same English level, sometimes they change their language as they change schools.

Plus, French schools add a second foreign language when the children enter collège – in other words the same year English lessons become compulsory. So while Swedish pupils are only learning English for several years, French children are learning two languages at the same time.

EXPLAINED: What languages do children learn in French schools?

4. Environment matters

Some of the language skills gap between countries like Sweden and France must be explained by what happens outside the classroom.

Environmental factors play a crucial role when it comes to foreign language skills, according to the European Survey of Language Competences (ESLC). 

Swedish children are immersed in English from a very early age. TV-channels and cinemas subtitle English shows and movies instead of dubbing them. French children, on the other hand, are used to TV shows being doublé (dubbed). 

This is key in explaining why children in Swedish excel in English, according to the the ESLC study, which, although it was not the first to highlight environment as an important factor in explaining variations in language skills, was the firs scientific study to prove it.

It also explains why Swedish children, fluent in English from an early age, were not doing well when tested in Spanish (their second foreign language).

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What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer


But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.