« No one speaks English in France » or « You French really suck at languages » – two sentences I hear way too often. It is a prejudice we just cannot get rid of – in France we speak French, and we do not make any efforts to open ourselves to other cultures and foreign languages. Our English is particularly criticized, and we are accused of not having a single clue of what English actually is. As a result, I decided to delve a bit deeper into this matter and try to answer this dramatic question: “Do the French suck at languages?” But what is it really about – chauvinism, inadequate teaching or actual difficulties in mastering foreign languages?
I won’t deny it, I may be French, but I am completely aware of the fact that the level of foreign language skills of French students is far from brilliant. Of course, I am not trying to hold back the absolute truth, but I do think this is quite true. At university I followed a course focusing on languages, and I was really shocked by the level of some of my fellow students who had a lot of trouble making simple sentences and whose vocabulary was extremely limited (well, too poor to follow any conversation in this language…). After about ten years studying English, I think it odd that most of us are completely incompetent in Shakespeare’s language. But what is the right explanation for this, are we really a lost cause? As for me, I don’t believe in an actual handicap towards language learning, but in a real lack of motivation. If some students have been studying English for several years, many of them admit that they never read a book in that language. Even worse, many of them don’t even bother to watch English-speaking movies or series in their original version; they’d rather watch the terrible French dubbed version. I know one thing for certain – if you only rely on language classes that you have at school, you won’t get anywhere. Learning vocabulary lists and irregular verbs by heart just to pass the semester test is not the best path to take towards fluency. To master a language, you have to live it, be curious and listen. A LOT.
There is no denying our level of English is really low. The fact is, the percentage of French people speaking English fluently could not be any lower. We get criticized so often for our foreign language skills, or rather lack of them, because our European neighbours are doing way better. The Germans, the Swedish, the Danish… None of them would have any difficulty in learning English and expressing themselves easily in this language, which is interesting since these countries speak languages from the same linguistic group as English. Only the Finnish are disadvantaged in this matter because their language that does not fit any other linguistic group, but they still manage to master English. Chapeau! Well, there is still an explanation for this. The inhabitants of Northern Europe countries such as Sweden and Finland are a lot more exposed to the English language; for instance, movies are not dubbed for these countries, so they have to watch them in their original version. Furthermore, English is taught earlier and in a more intensive way. We’re not getting anywhere with only two hours of English classes per week…
The French are criticized because they cannot follow the learning pace of the other European countries. However, I have the feeling that we are not the only ones lagging behind. Our Latin neighbours are also likely to have big difficulties when it comes to learning English. I hear that the Italians and the Spanish are far from brilliant… The countries speaking Latin languages are thus not as good at learning English, but this is not so strange. It is true that English pronunciation is particularly difficult for us (hence our accent… that is so French!). And of course, the British, who are ecstatic to speak the so-called “international language”, do not sparkle with their foreign languages abilities.
We are far from perfection in English, there’s no doubt about that, but what about other languages? The problem is quite the same. Not enough classes, not enough speaking, not enough motivation from the students. However, it is still easier for us to learn languages like Spanish or Italian thanks to their resemblance to ours. I won’t even go into learning German, which is becoming a rare language in France and which interests no one because it’s “too difficult”.
Thus it is necessary to reinforce language learning in our country and fast. It has been a long time since French was the lingua franca, and even if it is still an official language in big institutions, we won’t get anywhere if we keep on settling for poor English (when we actually have some notion of it!). It is indeed very rare in France to speak English fluently, or any other language for that matter… Is it because of the late and loose teaching, or because of a real lack of interest and motivation? I am definitely blaming the students’ state of mind. If it is true that language teaching in France is of bad quality, it is always possible to learn a lot with a bit of elbow grease, independent learning and by opening your mind to other cultures. We need to get French students interested in foreign languages!