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

How France is (slowly) improving its English-language skills
The Eurostar used to offer English training sessions. Photo: AFP
France - traditionally one of the poorer performers in Europe when it comes to English-speaking - is continuing to improve, latest rankings show.

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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