On March 2, Régis Roinsard took the stage at Greenwich Village’s IFC Center to talk about his directorial debut, Populaire, which had just delighted a group of French tourists and New York Francophiles. Roinsard fielded questions in a heavy French accent, frequently mixing up his tenses and appealing to a translator for a lifeline. The adoring audience didn’t mind, and Roinsard’s courageous attempts certainly got the point across. But like another presenter the previous night, Roinsard spoke English through the prism of French phonetics, making him occasionally incomprehensible to English speakers.
Roinsard’s difficulties with English were nothing compared to the faux pas of French politicians. After President Obama’s victory in November, the new French president François Hollande drew mockery from his countrymen on Twitter when he signed a note to Obama with “friendly,” a translation of the French word amicalement that isn't used as a form of politeness in English.
Even more embarrassing was former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s famous flub at the 2005 European Union constitutional convention: “Oui, the yes needs the no to win against the no.” Previous French president Nicolas Sarkozy famously failed to graduate from SciencesPo, the elite French politics school, because he had insufficient command of English.
That some of France’s biggest representatives to the world have so much trouble with English is often taken, both in France and out, as a symbol of what has become a sore spot for politicians worried about France’s global competitiveness. “The linguistic incompetence of the French is a recurring joke at European summits and in international businesses,” Noosphere founder Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry wrote on the French website Atlantico after Hollande’s “friendly” note.
Rankings have consistently shown France trailing its European neighbors in mastery of foreign language, and not just the highly-educated paradises in the northern part of the continent like Denmark and Sweden. The 2008 results of TOEFL, the test used to evaluate non-native English speakers, placed France 69th out of 109 countries, and 25th out of 43 European nations. France achieved only middling results in an online test by Education First. Most damning of all was the first “European Survey on Language Competences,” which placed France second to last, only ahead of the United Kingdom.
France’s disappointing results come despite concerted efforts to boost language study in schools. In 2009, Sarkozy presented an “emergency plan” to improve the situation, calling for more native English-speaking teachers in France, initiating more contact between French students and English speakers, and moving from written to oral exams to encourage more speaking. Vincent Peillon, the current minister of education, has called French’s students results in foreign language “particularly alarming,” and has proposed a grand project for the “refoundation of the school system.”
As Peillon’s propsal heads into debate in the national assembly next week, French journalist Grégoire Fleurot set out to get to the bottom of France’s language problem, publishing a three-part series on Slate.fr, the French cousin of the American online magazine, titled, “Les Français sont nuls en anglais.” Fleurot examines the structural factors that contribute to weakness in foreign languages, and, like others, he thinks there are dozens of small anxieties in French education and society that discourage students from achieving what the common European language framework calls an “independent” level. One of those things is the emphasis, recently unearthed in the brouhaha over Pamela Druckerman’s French-parenting guide Bringing Up Bébé, placed on kids being seen and not heard.
“Even at home, we tend to teach children to be quiet, discreet, and not make too much noise,” Fleurot told me. “Perfect work is called sans faute in French, which is a negative way to go about it. And the expression, ‘turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before speaking’ reflects the idea that you shouldn’t speak unless you are really sure about what you are going to say. There are many small things like these that tend to show that our culture is less outgoing than, say, American culture, where kids are encouraged to speak out.”
Much like the famous difficulty of learning French pronunciation for English-speaking students, the French find the phonetics of English overwhelming and even humiliating to practice, especially in a country where everyone strives to speak sans faute. “Pronouncing English seems very hard to French students and very ‘funny,’” said Jean-Philippe Schmitt, a French professor at New York University and the founder of JP Linguistics. “For example, the th- sound seems in French like a speech impediment or lisp. French people really have to be willing to step out of their comfort zone to pronounce it.”
If the standard of perfect speaking wasn’t intimidating enough, French schools drive it home by focusing on rules, grammar and memorization rather than speaking—an approach that, critics often point out, is more appropriate for studying a dead language. “The teacher speaks and the students listen,” said Schmitt, who taught English at a lycée (high school) near Nancy before moving to the U.S. “It was frustrating to me as a teacher because I want my students to learn the language by doing—immersing them in the language and the culture attached to it.” Gobry called the methods he remembered from French schools “torture,” and said the unspoken notion is that students take foreign language to show they can get bonnes notes—good grades—in an arcane subject, not to learn to communicate.
Almost all French speakers have to do a serious amount of self-study to become conversant, especially when it comes to phonetics. Estelle Mansion, who tutors private students in New York, said her high marks in English at her lycée in Bordeaux didn’t count for much when she came to the U.S. to work for a hotel in Florida as a teenager. “I thought I was good, but people coming up to the welcome desk couldn’t understand me,” she said. “They would ask to speak to someone else.”
Fleurot’s articles address what some believe to be one of the biggest reasons French students are disadvantaged compared to European neighbors who seem to absorb English as part of growing up: the fact that almost all foreign-language television and many Hollywood films are dubbed, rather than subtitled, in France. The practice is driven both by popular demand and by the French state’s attempts to block invasion by foreign languages, especially English. While what the government calls the “cultural exception” —that French culture won’t be left to the ravages of the market—is certainly understandable, it can have unintended side effects, like insulating the French population from linguistic awareness they need in a world increasingly dominated by English.
Almost to a person, the French who are bilingual credit English-language television with their success. Even though Fleurot’s family moved to London when he was 13, he says he picked up English vocabulary and usage from watching British TV. Gobry watched American TV shows with subtitles instead of doing his homework. Schmitt watched English-language movies, and sought out a native speaker to converse with informally. The European Commission supports that approach, suggesting in its language competence survey that “language-friendly environments,” where people are able to hear and practice a foreign language informally, is one of the keys to improvement for stragglers like France.
French television, Fleurot reports, is beginning to present English shows with subtitles rather than dubbing, and the state insists that TV channels are not forced to dub foreign programs into French. Things may be beginning to turn around, but reform in schools will be crucial. Gobry says France may need drastic measures. “There’s no doubt that if the education ministry distributed version originale DVD series with subtitles instead of paying teachers, the French would be much better at speaking foreign languages, and would waste less time.”