In a recent article published in the Daily Telegraph, well known journalist and novel writer Stephen Clark analyses the complex relationship between the French (and more precisely the Parisians) and the English language. According to Clarke, the common belief that the French are not able to speak English correctly or even understand it is false. On the contrary, the growing use of English words in the French language like ‘management’, ‘team building’ and ‘email’ proves that the French are in fact indirectly increasing their proficiency in “l’anglais”.
How can we explain this absence of knowledge and proficiency? With their shared history, geographic proximity and the warm relationships maintained by France and the UK for centuries, it would make sense to think that cultural exchanges would have allowed the English language to enter France. This combined with the ever growing influence and use of English in international business can make us question how English has not pervaded French culture as much in other places.This opinion is going against the very perception many French have of themselves. While the French are often branded as arrogant or overconfident, they are much more modest when it comes to assessing their language skills. According to a survey conducted by the European poll institute Eurostat, only 10% of the French feel that they can speak a foreign language effectively. In 2009, France ranked 69 out of 109 countries on the TOEFL English test, another sign of the lack of English language skills among the French population.
Reasons for this absence of knowledge and proficiency in English could date back to when French was a dominant language of diplomacy from the 17th century through to the Second World War. French administrations also passed laws during the 1990’s to ensure that French was used in commercial and workplace communications as well as many social interactions. Any English words were translated into French, for example, and foreign TV shows and movies had to be dubbed in French rather than shown in English with subtitles like many other European cultures do. As a result, the French have historically had little contact with the English language in France and therefore few opportunities to learn the language outside of formal language classes.
Many people in France are starting to realise the many benefits that English language skills can offer. Earlier this year the French Education minister announced that they will start teaching English to young children in schools and further develop access to Business English courses for professionals. These are strategic and vital initiatives for French international companies who are competing on the international stage. Without a skilled workforce that can speak and write English properly, international companies are increasingly recognisnig that they risk losing many profitable business opportunities overseas.
All is not lost for the French. In his article Clarke reveals that France was ranked 17th out of 44 countries, ahead of its neighbours Italy and Spain. He also applauses the creativity of the French, especially their ability to play with English words which shows an increasing ability to use the language.
Through increasing the use of English in everyday French society and education, the French have a much better chance of increasing their English proficiency score as a nation. It may take some time however for these efforts to truly materialise and produce any tangible results so in the meantime French organisations can provide formal Business English courses to their employees to ensure that they are able to communicate and do business in English whenever the need arises. Whether or not the French love or hate the English language, they will need to learn to embrace English in some form to truly succeed in the global arena.