Why are French people so bad at English?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

That's the title of an article here (Pourquoi parlons-nous si mal anglais?), referencing some recent TOEFL numbers placing France in 69th place out of 109, well behind many other countries, particularly Germany, Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. In Europe, only Cyprus, Italy and Monaco did worse. A few articles on the subject in French are complete with quite a bit of hand wringing and discussion on why the French are so bad at learning other languages.

An article here addresses the question quite well though, and points out a few things.

- It's natural that speakers of international languages are less motivated to learn other languages. France's marks in TOEFL were compared with Germany and the Scandinavian countries, but of those countries only those from France are able to go to certain countries in other continents without having to learn another language. Quebec, many countries in Northern Africa, vacation areas in the Pacific, etc. etc. In other words, out of all these languages it's possible to be a lazy tourist in one's native language alone only with French.

- The previous Minister of Education, Xavier Darcos, wanted to see students become bilingual once they had completed school. But note that this doesn't necessarily mean French+English, simply French+another language.

I would add one other important note: when considering the learning of languages, regional concerns very often trump international ones. That is, learning the language of one's neighbour is more appealing and effective than English. Many examples of this have been documented here, such as Zambia (official language: English) adding Portuguese to the school curriculum, Mpumalanga in South Africa offering bursaries to learn Portuguese, expansion of Portuguese in parts of Spain bordering on Portugal, Portugal needs more Spanish teachers to keep up with increasing demand, and many more. It's natural that learning the language of the country next door is a good thing, and an appealing prospect for many wanting to get ahead.

France is in a similar situation. Germany is right next door, with the largest economy in the EU, or some 30% larger than that in France. The UK, on the other hand, is a bit smaller. Switzerland also has the world's best wages, and Luxembourg the highest GDP per capita. Both of these countries also use French but not knowing German puts one at a disadvantage there.

Also keep in mind that German is spoken by 2% of the population within the country too, located in the east.

In short, English hasn't really sealed the deal with France. English is certainly nice to have, but it's not really a career booster for most, nor is it necessary to travel to other countries, even those outside Europe.


Anonymous said...

Sellamat Dave !

Indeed, the reason is simple: not only the poor teaching methods, but nearly all French people (including students) behave as if there were two languages on Earth: French and Foreign. In France, unless you do anything on your own against this, you're sure to live in a 100% French environment: movies, interviews, books... This applies to other languages too (the situation of German being worse).
If you want some informations about boundaries, then get in touch with me and I can email you by PhD. work that concerned territorial disputes between States.


Anonymous said...

Chetori, Dave!

Interesting post. It makes me wonder what will happen if 50 years from now, say, Chinese is the dominant language internationally. My guess is that levels of Chinese proficiency in major English-speaking countries will continue to be much lower than many other parts of the world, much like the situation now with English proficiency in France... Of course a lot could happen before then - technology might reduce the need to learn other languages, or more people might have realised that having a politically neutral, easy-to-learn international language like Ido would be a really good idea.


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