The French are not good at speaking English. And that’s a handicap in this increasingly globalised world says French Education minister Luc Chatel. He's launched a task force to reinvent the way English is taught in schools. Proposed measures would include teaching children from the age of three, using computers and encouraging trips to English-speaking countries. In the meantime French people who’ve been let down at school are finding solutions of their own.
While French education minister Luc Chatel says the French are bad at speaking English, people are queuing up for conversation exchange sessions, known as Franglish.
“I can read and write very well, but I can’t speak. People don’t understand me when I speak English and I don’t understand them,” says Irène, a doctor in her mid-50s.
Seven years learning English at school and she didn’t open her mouth once. Pronunciation is a nightmare for her, she has no idea where to put the stress on words.
While teaching methods have moved on a bit since then, they still leave a lot to be desired. Most teachers are not native speakers and conduct classes largely in French.
“We learn a lot of grammar so the French are quite good at that,” says Steven Anonziata, co-founder of Franglish “but we don’t speak much in class… French people have a bad accent”.
At the Franglish sessions, held three times a week in bars in Paris, it’s all talk.
Francophones are paired up with Anglophones and chat away for 15-minute sessions before changing partners.
“It follows the speed-dating model,” explains Anonziata, “seven minutes in English, seven minutes in French, they’re teaching each other”.
While dating is not the aim, there’s no denying the sessions are sociable and fun, something most participants told me was lacking when they learned English at school.
“It has to be more inventive, more entertaining,” says Ali, an engineer in his twenties. “Learning English at high school was no fun”.
But once at engineering school, the teaching was adapted to pupils’ real needs and that made all the difference.
“We did debates, presentations, talked about subjects that interested us,” says Ali.
But with an average of 30 pupils per class in secondary schools, it’s not easy to get debating sessions going.
What’s more this year’s budget cuts in education mean the 1,000 language assistant posts are being scrapped.
Education minister Luc Chatel prefers to introduce more computer-aided learning, and learning at a distance over the internet. He also favours teaching English to children from the age of three rather than seven at present.
“Why not, says Anonziata, “but you still need trained staff, and native speakers”.
In the meantime Franglish is a victim of its own success. There’s already a waiting list for places… on the Francophone side!