French to Anglo-Saxons: English? Who Needs It?

November 15, 2013

I loved this report from the New York Times from earlier in the week Education First, a commercial education provider, has been compiling an index of proficiency in English across various countries.

And apparently the French have been slacking:

The study put the country’s average English language skills in the “low proficiency” bracket, between China and the United Arab Emirates — and last among European nations. It also found that France was one of only two European countries where proficiency had decreased over the past six years.

According to Ms. Bell, the level of English proficiency among French adults suffers both from inadequate teaching at high school level and the reality that — despite fears of French culture’s being overwhelmed by American pop culture, very little English is actually used in everyday life.

France’s secondary school system, which has only recently started testing English oral skills as part of the Baccalaureate, is a major reason for poor language skills, she said.

There’s a nice idea here.

“English is the de facto language of communication today between people who don’t share a native language,” Ms. Bell. said “Measuring English proficiency is in many ways a proxy measurement of international integration.”

Conversely, the EF study suggests that weak proficiency in English may correlate with weak integration into the global economy.

“The Middle East and North Africa are the weakest regions in English,” the study said, with Iraq ranked 60th, at the bottom of the list.

So what needs to be done? You need to stop dubbing foreign programmes

Unlike its smaller northern European neighbors, France dubs most American films and television shows into French. The top English speakers in continental Europe — Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands — all tend to use subtitling.

“It’s a vicious-virtuous cycle,” said Ms. Bell: Audiences not used to subtitling tend to shy away from it, which in turn diminishes their capacity to understand English.

I rather admire this refusal to get with the programme.  Perhaps the French response would be to compile an index of French competence that correlates with the degree integration into the world of culture….

The actual report is here.








  1. Isn’t Education First a for-profit, which sells English language courses and programs? Not to shy away from the facts – English IS important; language teaching IS a problem in France; dubbing IS ridiculous – but what are we to make of such a source?

  2. That’s exactly my reaction, they are probably right but at the same time their insistence that you sign up for one of their courses immediately irritates!

  3. As an aside, I feel a classic economic case study with dubbing. Dubbing, and generally voice acting, is where a lot of acting school graduates get their paycheck in France. It is a state-organized niche for those who are good enough to work but won’t make it to the top spots. Getting rid of it might be difficult, because of the repercussions it could have on the whole economic sector. But this takes us away from the subject of this blog…

    One more thing: Russia I don’t see mentioned in the article. From my limited experience I wouldn’t say English is spoken better in Russia than in France. And films are dubbed there.

    • The basic ranking is here http://www.ef.co.uk/epi/archive/v2/. Russia is at 29 where France is at 26.

      I thing that subtitling is generally seen as less attractive to a mass audience than dubbing. Who dubs and who subtitles is basically down to the size of the market. Small markets can support less local production on top of that they get subtitles. Larger markets (France or Italy) have more local production and dub foreign programmes. For very large markets (US) even subtitling is seen as creating an unacceptable loss in value and it becomes economical to remake an attractive foreign programme with American scripts and actors.

      In the UK watching subtitled programming is seen as a sign of cultural distinction so part of the appeal of The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen etc to a certain segment of the population was precisely that they had subtitles.

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