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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

France - traditionally one of the poorer performers in Europe when it comes to English-speaking - is continuing to improve, latest rankings show.

How France is (slowly) improving its English-language skills
The Eurostar used to offer English training sessions. Photo: AFP

The newly-released annual rankings of English competency by Education First show France continuing its slow but steady rise up the league tables.

France is ranked at number 28 in Europe, well behind the leaders the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, but an improvement on last year's ranking of 31st and 35th the previous year.

The report notes: “Of the Eurozone’s four largest economies, only Germany speaks English well. France,
Spain, and Italy lag behind nearly every other member state – a finding that has been consistent across previous editions of the EF EPI.

“Of the three, only France has made consistent gains over the past three years.”

The English Proficiency Index measures countries by the percentage of people who speak competent English. At the top of the table is the Netherlands, followed by Denmark, Finland and Norway. Switzerland came out mid table at number 18, with France at number 28 followed by Italy and Spain at 30 and 34 respectively. The country with the lowest percentage of English speakers in the world is Tajikistan.

Of the French cities, only Paris made it into the 'high proficiency' group, while the world's best cities for monoglot English-speakers were Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Helsinki.

READ ALSO How easy is it to move to France if you don't speak French?

French children almost all learn English at school, but the survey found that at the age of 15, only a quarter can put together a few sentences in 'more or less correct' English.

The report does not break down proficiency by age, but anecdotal evidence suggests that English skills are more commonly found among younger French people.

In contrast to previous presidents who refused to speak English in public, Emmanuel Macron is proud of his English fluency, happy to speak English on the world stage and frequently tweets in English.

 

In this he is perhaps representative of a younger generation who have fewer hang-ups about speaking English.

Walk down any French high street and you will see English advertising slogans scattered about and the recent attempts to support local traders through lockdown has been universally known by the English phrase 'click and collect', despite the best efforts of the Academie française (more on them later) to introduce a French alternative – retrait en magasin.

 

France's relative lack of proficiency in English is usually attributed to two things – the school system and dubbing.

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.

READ ALSO 'I feel ridiculous' – why French people dread speaking English

And 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 English – 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.”

READ ALSO Why the French passion for dubbing films shows no sign of dying out

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.

Yet it seems they might be rowing against the tide, as more and more English words are slipping into French and among some young urbanites it's actually seen as quite cool to slip the odd English phrase into conversation.

READ ALSO The 10 English words that will make you sound cool in French

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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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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