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23rd Jan 2020

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French 'bottom of the class' for English fluency

  • The report said language teaching in France did not focus closely enough on communication. (Photo: LtDrogo)

The French rank the lowest in the EU for proficiency in speaking English, according to an annual survey.

France came 29th overall in the list of 72 countries where English is not the principal spoken language, compiled by teaching firm Education First (EF).

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But in the mini-league of 19 EU states included in the survey, France came bottom. Much poorer EU countries such as Romania (20) and Bulgaria (24) outdid the French.

At the other end of the scale, the Dutch knocked the Swedes off their perch as the world's best non-native speakers of English.

But the report's authors said the notion of a north-south divide in language proficiency was a myth.

Instead, they highlighted the strides taken by countries in the north, central and east, but criticised the major Latin nations.

“Rather than a geographic rift in English proficiency levels, our data indicate a more subtle linguistic lag in countries with Latinate languages,” they wrote.

“The three largest European economies with Romance languages as their primary national languages France, Italy, and Spain show English proficiency levels at or below the European average.”

Not leading by example

EF said Italy (28) and Spain (25) had made “modest improvements”, but they were particularly critical of the teaching and attitudes towards learning in France.

“Teaching methods in France do not emphasise the development of communication skills, and people have little exposure to English in everyday life,” said the report.

“In addition, the idea of 'Americanisation' has influenced the public debate on foreign language education policies in the country, complicating practical conversations about teaching by bringing in the emotionally charged issue of national identity.”

Language has long been a touchy subject for French politicians, keen to preserve their language and traditions.

In 2013, Jean-Marc Ayrault, then the prime minister, publicly rebuked his staff for speaking too much English despite his education minister trying to overhaul language teaching in the classroom and admitting that the French were particularly bad at English.

Forget the grammar

Sweden sank to third place after years occupying the top spot. Denmark was ranked second, with Norway (4) and Finland (5) making up the top five.

“English proficiency is largely ensured by the public education systems in these countries, which have included English as a compulsory subject throughout primary and secondary school for four decades or more,” said EF's report.

“The foreign language teaching policies in these countries focus on communication rather than on the mastery of grammar.”

The report, which has been running since 2011, uses data from people completing its online test.

This year, more than 950,000 people filled out the online form.

EF concedes that this is a self-selecting sample of people who are interested in language learning, and not an ideal way to judge the proficiency of an entire nation, but should be viewed alongside other metrics.

Singapore, in sixth place, was the only non-European country to make the top 10.

Luxembourg (7), Austria (8), Germany (9) and Poland (10) made up up the other positions.

Education inequalities remain high in EU

Less people leave school prematurely, but socio-economic status, immigrant background and gender are still factors of underachievement, a commission report says.

University rankings reveal two-speed Europe

British, German and Dutch institutions do very well in the latest university rankings, with Oxford named the world's best. But the French and much of the rest of the EU are lagging behind.

English at risk as official EU language

Under current rules, English must be dropped when UK leaves a senior MEP said. Ireland or Malta could add it back in if EU law is changed.

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