Do we French suck at languages?

« 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!


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6 thoughts on “Do we French suck at languages?”

  1. Interesting subject, if it could go beyond general speculations.
    I question your first assumption (French being bad at foreign languages). Your post would really gain credibility and added value if it had links to studies proving the so-called poor knowledge of English by French students, for instance.

  2. Wow… You should see how British and Americans REALLY suck at speaking foreign languages!!!! Majority populations don’t have to bend over to learn other people’s language… Thus said, it is not because majority populations dominate their geographic sphere that they should not learn one or two other languages. It is not only a question of retaining brain language cells but a question of respect for other cultures, especially neighbor countries.

  3. When I studied French in high school and college in the USA (1955-1063), I had NO teachers who had even VISITED a country where French was the first language until my final teacher. Then, I lived in Germany for five years and traveled in France quite frequently. My school French was received with smiles (amused, probably, but I tried to ignore that) and careful responses. I felt much better, and my French improved, too. When I got stuck, usually someone would find someone whose English was about the level of my French or better, and we figured it out. Laughter at one’s own stumbles is a great learning tool.
    It’s not that one group or another is not able / willing to learn other languages. It’s about opportunity, need, time, and, frankly, payoff or return on investment, as the business folks say. If someone is curious, likes knowing about something / someone / someplace new, and enjoys playing (making mistakes on the way to success), that person will learn a new language.
    If we who know even a bit of a second or third language besides our own, and if we think that others should enjoy that delight, too, we need to create the environment for that to happen. That includes exposure to speakers of other languages, opportunities to use the language in real life (including watching movies, listening to song lyrics, and the like), and an accepting attitude about learners who are trying!
    I have to add that there are many Englishes (and Frenches) in this world of ours, and acceptance of different versions might also lead to a better outcome. Not everyone speaks British, American, Australian, Liberian, or Indian English, so we all have to be patient and accepting of each other, for example, as we work toward meaning.

  4. It’s quite amazing to read an article written by a French person in fluent English, saying that the French aren’t good at languages. I definitely recognise the reluctance to make allowances for foreign speakers, and I think that the official tendency to try to ‘protect’ the French language from change and foreign influence is misguided, but you’re still doing better than we are!

  5. See, I like this. You successfully evaluated an “issue” with your country without really calling out anyone else or getting defensive. You accept that the French aren’t good at English, just as I accept that Americans are perceived as ignorant, overweight, close-minded retards (I’m American). This is awesome.

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