The French are not gifted foreign languages speakers? Here to change your mind set about English speaking

The belief is firmly established that the French are poor English speakers and that the blame would be put on the French Education system.  France.

I will focus on English, which is the subject that interests me particularly, even if I think that the problem is extended to the practice and teaching of foreign languages (as second language) ​​in general.

Admittedly, the level is stagnating and according to an article by “cadre-emploi” in November 2014, the French were in last place in Europe and 29th in the world [1]. A much lower figure according to the EF-EPI [2] study in 2015 when France was ranked 37th out of 70 countries and in 2021, 31st out of 122 countries.

In 2017[3], a study on children in 3rd grade from the Depp (Department of Evaluation, Foresight and Performance), finally announced progress among teenagers. I refer the reader to the article for the details justifying this announcement.

All these statistics reflect very large socio-professional and regional disparities, urban-rural, private-public and by age group.

Admittedly, the picture is not exciting, but there are nevertheless living forces at work and the excellent little book on “learning languages” by Stéphanie Roussel and Daniel Gaonac’h at Mythes et Réalités defuses many stereotypes by developing counterexamples and analyzing in more detail the received ideas in question. I will focus on the 10 headings of the summary. 1 – You must learn a foreign language as soon as possible! 2 – languages, we are good at it or not! 3 – The French “suck at languages” (oops) ​​4 – With digital technology, we learn languages ​​better, and in an innovative way 5 & 6 – Watching films and series in the original version is the best way to learn a language / or subtitled in the same language (CC); 7 – Staying abroad is the best way to learn a foreign language 8 – Teaching subject content in a foreign language allows you to “kill two birds with one stone” 9 – Neurosciences: a pedagogical revolution for language learning.

All these 9 chapters bring up excellent questions and without trying to summarize the 143 pages of the work we want to draw attention to the fact that the idea of being ​​”gifted or not gifted” is a convenient excuse not to tackle the question of learning strategies which can and must vary, depending on the individual.

Putting the low level down to a “quasi-genetic” or structurally cultural propensity is a pirouette; accusing teachers of inefficiency and systematically claiming “natives” as a miracle solution is an insult to language pedagogy which is not a miracle transfusion from a native to a non-native. At least that’s my belief.

In learning a language such as English, the reason why of learning is fundamental. This is because the precise purpose of the future speaker will condition the calibration of the efforts to be provided and the degree of requirement. The important thing, in my opinion, is to have (or even create) opportunities to speak English for motivating reasons. Given the massive use that is made of English around the world, it is very important to make people understand that this language offers an impressive number of possibilities to its user and that with an investment in time, finance and reasonable willpower daily, the benefit can be considerable.

There is no need to work in a multinational, English is everywhere. I called it the “New normal” and it is to this normality that it is important to adapt.

In extreme cases, I have had farming clients in the countryside who suddenly found themselves lost because they could not communicate directly with the non-French-speaking spouses of their children, or even because they simply could not converse with their grandchildren living abroad.

An excellent video by Marianna Pascal [4], coach in Indonesia, experienced in teaching English to Indonesians, posed the problem of oral fluency by linking it directly with the precision of intention and the laser effect of targeted communication. Say simple things accurately. There lies the key!

And be wary of overly lofty ambitions which unfortunately only lead to discouragement and frustration.

When my late mother was teaching English with the “state-of-the-art” so-called audio-visual methods of the 1970s, she had to work with felt boards, figurines with scratch and huge magnetic tapes with pre-recorded dialogues. Today, on the net, 100% access free, there are millions of contents, automatic translation applications, dictation tools, countless coaches and online language schools, digital proposals for all levels to learn. We are far from these infinitely modest means of 50 years ago.

I think that with the streaming platforms of programs and films, the choice of original version audio and closed caption subtitles which are not interpretive and are almost verbatim, there is a tremendous playful training potential, especially for young people.

This Babelian manna can be paradoxically repulsive if you are not guided, and the risk is to exhaust yourself by following false leads or by falling prey to all sorts of offers as wondrous as they are misleading that promise to speak English in one week.

The good news is that people deemed not “gifted” for languages ​​have yet learned and are learning all kinds of specialized languages ​​in all kinds of professional fields of finance, marketing, retail, etc. Of course, these are “meta” languages ​​which articulate concepts and are not a syntax, but the mechanisms for memorizing vocabulary, articulation between concepts, detailed declensions are perfectly mastered after a few weeks to a few months.

Young people speak “special” linguo ​​that mark their belonging to a community. Regionalists can handle traditional languages ​​such as Breton or Occitan, but English is sometimes seen as an “enemy” language because it is linked to an ideology…and a political and economic weapon.

For pronunciation, people who claim to be unable to distinguish “foreign” sounds nevertheless listen to songs with pleasure all day long and know how to practice karaoke when they are no longer afraid of being ridiculous. The freedom from school standards, the fear of error, the trauma of being labeled as “dummy in English” are totally blocking factors.

There are plenty of techniques flowering, for example, like shadowing [5] which consists of choosing a speaker in a film and speaking at the same time as him, like a parrot, until his voice is literally covered by your own voice.

The list of new practices is long. But the main thing is not in the quantity of tools but lies in maintaining the energy and the confidence in the possibility of succeeding in speaking. For this you literally must blast old beliefs, this is probably the most difficult part but once the blockage is overcome, the gratification is only greater.

So no! the French are not bad at languages. Getting stuck with this cliché is a pity and an insult to your potential! And for those who still feel hopeless…contact me and we’ll talk about it.




[4] Learning a language ? Speak it like you’re playing a video game/ Marianna Pascal / TEDxPenangRoad