Why the French are so bad at foreign languages

June 10, 2011 by B Gayon

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A lot of countries start teaching foreign languages from a very early age. In Latin America, children start learning English at the age of 4. With the proximity of the US and the hope (for some at least) to build a career there, it makes sense to start early. The results are quite impressive, as children are able to absorb more language-related information when they are very young. Indeed, they do not yet have this crippling fear of looking stupid in front of their friends while speaking a foreign tongue in class, and the number of English native speakers in Latin America makes the teaching process itself much more interesting: children grasp accents much better than adults, and that way the accent they get used to working with is of the purest form.

Then you might think: well, there are native English speakers everywhere, right? Right! So most countries must have a lot of native English teachers handy, right? Well, no. Take France for example: beautiful country, great food, and thanks to the Eurotunnel, lots of native English speakers around. Unfortunately, the school system is not a very attractive profession. Years and years of study necessary to teach from outdated and boring schoolbooks to pupils who only start studying foreign languages at the age of 11. Quite late to start, isn’t it? Remember when you were 11? How important it was to be friends with the right people, to say the right things at the right time, and most importantly to express a practiced disdain for everything academic? Needless to say, the prospect of learning a new language is not the most exciting to pupils of this age.

Fortunately, things get better once you start going to uni, right? Ah, wrong again! In France, if you want to be good at languages, it’s very simple, you need to actually study languages. If you study anything else, forget it, you are bound to have the languages in your course considered either optional, or not counting for much in your final grade. And let’s face it, students work for the grades.

But if you specialise in languages at uni, then the fun (yes, I did say fun) starts. If you study English, you’ll learn English phonetics. Oh yes, did I forget to mention that before uni you don’t actually study phonetics? So basically if you see a new word and you don’t know how to pronounce it, forget the dictionary, you need to ask your teacher. With what we’ve already established about kids’ willingness to appear eager to learn in class, this can definitely account for the amazing accent French people tend to have when they speak English.

G. H. Hardy said “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not.”

A bit dramatic? One thing is for sure: some countries should really get their act together to prevent that from happening.

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