Articles / Rubric: Global

Why the French Still Havent Learned English
September 2013 | Global

At the end of May beginning of June, France was shaken up by a law proposed by Minister for Higher Education and Research Genevieve Fioraso to increase the number of hours of English taught in universities. The French weren’t asked to completely switch to English in their universities, nor, heaven forbid, to speak English, but rather to increase the number of hours of instruction in the language. Original in this regard, the French considered the law as almost an invasion of their private lives, depriving them of the thing dearest to them: their beloved language. Debates were heated and in the end, deputies gave the green light: English in the universities is here to stay.

While French has been and will continue to be a language of international diplomacy, English long ago became the language of international business communication. Without English, aviation, the IT sector, and many companies and enterprises vital to the global economy would have come to a standstill.

As it turns out, the French start studying English in elementary school for up to five hours per week. When they enter higher education in the humanities, they continue studying the language. A logical question arises: Why can’t the French learn English, a language that is so important in our day and age, after more than 10 years of study? Not knowing English automatically closes the door to international companies – they simply aren’t able to communicate with foreigners. Even employees at international recruiting agencies in Paris aren’t able to put together two words in English, which is surprising. Having started studying English in childhood, why can’t the French parley in it?

To get an explanation, a World Economic Journal correspondent turned to Dominique Villeneuve, a teacher of French as a foreign language and an employee of the French public education system. “English is part of the compulsory program and is taught in elementary school. It’s all a matter of the methodology of teaching English, which is outdated and based on writing and not on conversation. There have long been discussions about changing the educational approach. Several years ago, there was a proposal to divide the class into two language groups so that all students would get a chance to speak. But the problem is that there aren’t enough teachers: Those already teaching aren’t willing to take on a heavier load and the Academy isn’t sending more teachers. Currently, English lessons are 50 minutes long and teachers don’t have enough time to talk with everyone. Only the best students can learn English.” In addition, the average number of students per class in general secondary schools is approximately 35 and the English teachers change every year.


French education is producing “mute” Anglophones, who at most can read a letter or article and write a few lines. “There are some specializations that don’t teach English at all, which I don’t think makes any sense,” says Villeneuve. “The Minster of Higher Education, who was the one to raise this debate, said that smart people who are professionals in their fields can’t speak English, in contrast to their colleagues from other European countries, who speak it fluently. According to the Minister, our students should improve their English. When specialists travel abroad for work, they need to know English, and if they get into an international company, English is also a requirement.”

Claire Miachon agrees with Dominique Villeneuve: “I am for teaching English. I recently returned to teaching and noticed that the students have a very poor command of English – and that was in the finance sector, where not knowing English is a big problem. Previously, when I was in Asia, I noticed that the older students spoke English very well; we need to be matching them.”

Fioraso’s law also includes teaching in English in universities for the sake of foreign students. Currently, according to the French press, there are more than 700 educational institutes in the country with instruction in English, but they are private and cost money.

One could call France a student’s country, with its free public education. Before this law was adopted, foreigners were required to speak excellent French, while other countries have long been teaching in English. France is fourth in the world in number of foreign students. Coming to study here each year are 500-600,000 Chinese, 200,000 Indians, 120,000 Koreans, and 100,000 Germans. African and Arab student don’t need English, as they speak French, and this gives them an advantage over other foreigners.

The Other Side of the Coin
The other side of the coin is the sharp decline in French language instruction and, as a result, of literacy. The French differ from other Europeans in their special affection, or even passion, for their language. While many countries have made peace with English existing in parallel, the French believe that the language of Foggy Albion impoverishes their own.

Nearly ten years ago, the Toubon Law was adopted, which fought against the prevalence of Anglicisms and prohibited the use of English words in advertisements and signs. A few years after this law had been adopted, I had the chance to ask the French Ambassador to Russia, Claude-Marie Blanchemaison, about the effectiveness of the law, in a meeting with journalism students at Moscow State University. The ambassador commented that this instance of French lawmaking was “a joke.”

Television used to offer a model of the French language, but today that’s no longer the case. “Today’s TV hosts make a lot of grammatical and syntactical errors and confuse pronunciation,” says Villeneuve. “Politicians are very sloppy with the language. For example, Nicolas Sarkozy is known for his poor command of French.”

Being a teacher of French, Dominique Villeneuve has noticed the changes in the French language over the past 20 years. French has quickly gone downhill. “From my own experience, I can say that the level of teaching French has fallen sharply. It used to be that one mistake in the universities meant one point off. But now, even applicants who want to become linguists write essays with an enormous number of mistakes. Teachers can’t focus on the ideas of the essay because they’re busy correcting errors. Twenty years ago they didn’t admit such students into college. It has gotten to the point that first-year students hire tutors to help improve their literacy. And this is why the French are against the introduction of intensive English classes – the level of their French still leaves much to be desired.”

Former high school teachers Louis Armand Josette Buzare and Philippe Luxembourger agree: “French students need to first learn their own language, which they often have not done. I want to emphasize that the proficiency in French among graduates with a bachelor’s degree is very low. The level of French among foreign students is also very low: More than 30% have to repeat the class. They don’t understand lectures in French. Then what? French lessons? This is a catastrophe and a closed door for higher education.” If we follow the logic of most French, who are against the adoption of this law, not having studied one’s own language, one should not tackle someone else’s.

Text: Ann-Marie Vidal


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