English language proficiency: why is France lagging behind?
In 2016, the sixth edition of the English Proficiency Index placed France at the bottom of the class. The report by Education First aims to assess English language proficiency worldwide. In 29th position, France ranked lowest in the EU, only marginally beating Turkey and Azerbaijan.
Cue the cultural excuse…
English language proficiency and history
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the French language was crowned the major European lingua franca. It was the language of diplomacy, and, by extension, the language of the elite. A prestige language; the king of all languages.
Haunted by the fragility of what once was, France continues to clutch at the remains of the past, and English language proficiency is obstructed at the most inherent level.
Globalisation and the English language threat
The French language is an institution, in a way that no other European language can be. It is the heritage of the French nation, a beacon of national identity, a hub of so-called homogeneity.
The English language is the ultimate threat; an all-powerful entity, intimidating in its ubiquity. And the onset of globalisation means that English is more dominant than ever.
And so, the Académie française (founded in 1635) continues to preserve linguistic purity, fervently warning against foreign invasion. I refer you to the published list of French alternatives for commonly-used anglicisms. Proof of the restless pull that is self-preservation.
Therefore, learning English – let alone mastering it – is the utmost betrayal. A sign of disloyalty, a severing of linguistic ties, the divorcing of language and nation. Or, at least, this is the mantra forced upon France by advocates of prescriptivism.
So, the solution is simple: France must abandon institutional fearmongering and embrace the demands of linguistic evolution.
English language proficiency and linguistic insecurity
As discussed, linguistic prescriptivism in France tends to be explicit and overt. Conformity is the key to social acceptance, whilst divergence provokes only ostracism.
Linguistic attitudes can, in part, condition linguistic competence, and thus play a role in affecting linguistic performance.
And so, the prevalence of tradition – le bon usage – breeds a perceived notion of linguistic insecurity. A sort of guilt, if you like. A could-do-better sense of culpability. And fear of transgression is detrimental to English language proficiency.
In other words, English language proficiency falls victim to an overwhelming sense of obligation to the linguistic norm.
The role of education in English language proficiency
Education is arguably the primary vehicle for English language proficiency. And yet, as Adeline Prevost points out, English is largely overlooked by the French schooling system.
A 2012 report by la Commission européene confirms that only 14% of students in France display a reasonable command of the English language. In other words, 86% of French students fail to speak English to a sufficient standard.
How is this possible? Well, as it stands:
- Teachers often have unsatisfactory levels of English
- The language of French instruction is typically French rather than English
- Students spend very few hours per week in contact with the English language
- French academia places a larger focus on grammar over authentic communication, meaning that classic literature takes precedence over oral progression
- Most students experience embarrassment, frustration, and classroom mocking.
- Mistakes are ridiculed, and trying-for-the-sake-of-trying is a sign of weakness rather than strength
Exploring responsibility: to what extent is politics to blame?
The political scene in France is burdened by the oppressive shame of linguistic incompetency. Perhaps this is exaggeration on my part (if only stylistic), but the point still stands: France’s major political leaders are poor advocates of English language proficiency.
Jacques Chirac condemned the use of English during an ill-fated European Union summit in Brussels, staging a protest walkout. Equally, Nicolas Sarkozy muddled the distinction between ‘weather’ and ‘time’ in a garbled conversation with Hillary Clinton.
And François Hollande doesn’t fare much better himself. In 2012, he famously signed off with the word ‘friendly’ in a congratulatory letter to Barack Obama following the election victory.
But, all is not lost. Perhaps Macron is the turning point; a shining beacon of linguistic hope for France’s straggling reputation. His fluency in English may be unprecedented, but is it welcome?
Consider this quotation from far-right politician Marine Le Pen:
« Le candidat à la présidentielle Macron va à Berlin faire une conférence en anglais… Pauvre France ! »
Ultimately, English is not so much scorned but feared. France’s political scene is patrolled by a stout defence of the global relevance of the French language.
Debunking the stereotype: why is France trailing behind?
In my view, France’s linguistic inadequacy is nothing more than a cultural excuse. A we-shall-not-be-moved sort of complacency, a stubborn refusal to budge, even. An eternal tantrum of the obstinate mind?
But, what if the French are no more to blame than the stereotype itself?
There is nothing more fundamentally detrimental than the persistent self-loathing mantra of inadequacy: les français sont nuls en anglais.
What, then, is the key? Is it positive reinforcement?
Low expectations lead to poorer performance; higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. After all, a little bit of conviction goes a long way.
What are your views on the factors inhibiting English language proficiency in France? We’d love to hear from you. Share your views in the comments box below.
1. UK + USA flags, via Unsplash
2. Flags in street, via Unsplash
3. Académie française, via Flickr
4. Open dictionary, via Unsplash
5. Pencils in classroom, via Flickr
6. Emmanuel Macron, via Wikipedia
7. French flag, via Unsplash