Patrick West

Why do the French struggle to speak English?

(Credit: Getty images)

Why are the French so bad at learning foreign languages? Yes, you read that right. This isn’t a lament as to how the British are so terrible at learning foreign languages, a theme so beloved by stand-up comedians, who insinuate that it reflects our outdated superiority complex and ingrained xenophobia. I meant the French. For they, too, are terrible at learning foreign languages.

Many people in France don’t even know how to say the most basic greeting in English, according to a report in the Times. In a study published by Preply, a language teaching platform, there are 14,800 searches on Google Translate every month for ‘bonjour’ in English, with a further 8,100 for jours de la semaine (days of the week), and 6,600 for chemise (shirt), chiffre (figure), madame and merci. ‘Thursday’ is also tricky for the French, warranting 12,000 searches, as does ‘March’, the subject of 4,400 searches.

‘The French obviously need to make progress and they don’t trust their level of English,’ reflected Le Figaro

The finding is reported to have caused much hand-wringing across La Manche among commentators in regard to the nation’s grasp of the world’s foremost global language. ‘The French obviously need to make progress and they don’t trust their level of English,’ reflected Le Figaro. Another study published in November by Education First, the language business, found that France was among the European nations with the worst levels of English.

Although a cousin of mine who teaches English in France says that English-speaking proficiency has improved there in recent years, France has always struggled in this field. This may be down to pride, arrogance or resentment on the part of the French, who may begrudge our mongrel language for having displaced their own pure and elegant tongue as the lingua franca. The Chinese, also infamous monoglots, likewise have cultural reasons for their reluctance to take up foreign languages.

Yet there lies a more prosaic reason for the French being second-rate English-speakers.

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