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Do the French underestimate their level of English?

(asked by E from the US)

I always ask (in French) if the person speaks English. I’ve noticed French people tend to give some sort of demure response about not speaking English well… or very little. Then they proceed to speak very good English. It doesn’t seem like false modesty, but perhaps an underestimation of their own abilities. Is this a cultural thing?

Head to Italy and it’s the opposite. I’ll ask if the person speaks English and they’ll give a confident affirmation. Typically, they’ll proceed to demonstrate that they have no idea what I’m saying, nor the ability to formulate a response. It’s not that I expect them to speak English in Italy. I do expect them to speak English if they say they do.
OK, let’s start with the Italians: I have no idea. But you know them Italians, always showing off about everything…
Now, the French.
I guess this response you get comes from several factors, mostly two:
First, you’re being too lenient with them. Most of the French can’t speak English properly. Yes, they’ll have a decent grammar, some decent vocabulary, but their pronunciation will simply be horrible. I cringe every single time I hear a random French person having a conversation in English. But let’s not blame them too much, as it’s all the French National Education’s fault. To make a long story short, French Education –unconsciously- adamantly believe that proper education can come from only one thing: books. It can work with many fields, but it doesn’t with the field of languages. And French kids will learn English (or another language) from age 10-11 til 18 at least, and still most of them will be totally unable to communicate in the most simple ways… but they’ll be able to teach English grammar to most Americans.
Then, it’s not as much “underestimation” as the fact that the French have a very special relationship with language. Most French people will apprehend language as an almost sacred thing, or at least something that you need skills to master, almost as if it was an art, and indeed, France is one in the countries in the world where literature is taken the most seriously. Just compare an American bookstore from a French one. In an American bookstore, Literature will be one or two sections, somewhere in the back of the store, almost hidden by the countless self-help bullshit books. Go to a French bookstore, and Literature will constitute more than half of the store; actually a well-respected bookstore will sell almost exclusively Literature. So the idea of “speaking well” (and I don’t mean foreign languages, I mean French) is a quite common and well accepted idea in France. It’s actually one of the many elements that factor into one’s social status. “Style” when one writes (and sometimes even speaks) is everything.
And indeed, this applies to foreign languages too.
Rare are the French who think they speak well a foreign language as long as they don’t speak it perfectly. Most French people think that way, because this is how they see languages and because they don’t know that most other countries (and especially English speaking countries) don’t have the same relationship with language. Most French think everyone in the world treats language the same way.
So, when a French person tells you that their English sucks, it does indeed suck in their frame of reference as the only way for it to not suck is if it was perfect, and they do genuinely think that you will think it sucks in your frame of references too.
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  19 Responses to “Do the French underestimate their level of English?”

  1. Apparently it takes me two paragraphs to ask a question that could have been asked in one sentence. I thank you for taking the time to answer!

    P.S. The point you make about literature is something I love about the French culture.

  2. The educated French are almost totally fluent in English, but their accent is atrocious.

  3. -Belle de Ville: this is a common misconception I wish could be put to rest some day. I know as many (if not more) educated French that are unable to communicate in English. No later than today, I did some interpretor work for the director of a quite important Paris institution. And he's just one of many.

    E: You're welcome (and about your PS: yeah, me too )

  4. There's also the idea that all French people just aren't good at foreign languages in some intrinsic way. It makes no sense, but I've heard it a million times in France.

    You're clearly hanging out in the wrong bookstores in the US! It's not fair to compare the drivel at Barnes & Noble in a suburban mall to the bookstores in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Go to a bookstore near a major American university and you'll get the same selection of and respect for literature.

    Sociological studies have shown that overall French people read literature at the same (low) rates as Americans. In both countries about 50% of people read a novel in the course of a year and about 10% read a book of poetry.

  5. Kendra, FYI, I lived in a major university town in the US, hate shopping mall, and avoid them as much as possible, and bookstores in the Latin Quarter in Paris are no different from all the other ones all over France.

    And I'm not talking about how many people actually read literature, I'm talking about the place literature has as a sociological element in the culture.

  6. reading this reminded me of prime minister raffarin's attempt to speak in the language of shakespeare:

    i remember him being horribly mocked by les guignols and karl zéro's le vrai journal for this display, but thinking that his english was quite passable. very interesting to finally understand the dynamics at play behind this five years later!

  7. Ah Raffarin!!!
    Raffarin is… well… Raffarin…

    What's funny about his English is that he tries to have some sort of affected tone when he speaks English that makes him sound even more stupid.

  8. This is a very good article, i SO agree with you. I was born and raised in Paris and now live in the States…I learn English for 9 years at school in France. When i came here. No one could understand me or try to. I had 1 year of ESL (English as a second language) 1 hour a day of American pronunciation with a personal teacher. HAHAHA, You have to understand, we learn the "British" Pronunciation and we have a French accent on top of that! One thing also i noticed is that Americans are not used to other Languages and accents. If it is too hard to understand, they won't try :)
    So my English is pretty good. I have a tiny accent but most people notice by the way i form my sentences :)
    Following your blog and would love for you to say hi and follow back :)

  9. Your blog has inspired me to start one "Ask An American"

  10. Merci beaucoup on whether the French actually speak English. I've found that if I ask in French, as you suggested, that they generally answer either "non" or "un peu." As a guest in their country, I try and respect their preferences and do my best in French.

    However we've found several who actually enjoy trying out their English, especially if they trust that we will not be critical. In my case, they already know I don't speak French well, so they are more apt to give their English a try.

    I enjoy your blog very much. There's a lot of good information here.
    A bientot,

  11. There is also - shock horror - a scientific reason behind this belief in “idea that all French people just aren’t good at foreign languages in some intrinsic way”. Check the work of Dr. Alfred Tomatis.

    “You can only speak a foreign language well if you can hear it properly. That is, if you can distinguish the sounds, rhythms and music of the language.”
    Dr. Alfred A. Tomatis

    “The human ear is designed to pick up a wide range of sound frequencies and perceive an infinite number of rhythms, but in practice, most of us can only recognise the sounds and rhythms of our mother tongue. In every part of the world, in every nation, people hear in different ways and this affects our ability to learn each other’s languages.
    The French only use a range of sound frequencies between 1,000 and 2,000 Hertz, the English cover 4 octaves between 2,000 Hz and 12,000 Hz and the Slavs, known for their gift with languages, hear and express themselves over eleven octaves.
    So, speaking another language depends on our “auditory perception” or our ability to tune in to the sounds of that language.”

  12. Yes but no.
    What’s almost implied in your comment is that some nationalities are more naturally (almost genetically) able to learn languages while others are not (if not I misunderstood).
    This is not what’s at stake here.
    What it means, and anybody who has successfully learned a foreign language can tell you, is that according to your own native language your ear can grasp and “understand” certain sounds (call them frequencies if you like) better than others.
    But people from any native language can learn any other language properly, regardless of that fact.
    The thing is that learning a foreign language is not only about learning vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and whatnot, it’s also about learning how to recognize and then learn (yes, learning how to learn) those unusual sounds/frequencies.

    The French (and many other nations) are not “naturally” bad at it, it’s just that their education system doesn’t teach it.

  13. “What’s almost implied in your comment is that some nationalities are more naturally (almost genetically) able to learn languages while others are not (if not I misunderstood).”

    You’re misunderstood but i didn’t help in the way i wrote my comment.

    It’s not really intrinsic in physiological terms of course nor genetic by any means, but it means that because of the poor sound range of our native language (not our fault! particularity which makes French very good for musicality, singing, but that’s another matter…) + the fact that no early bilingual education system / “language hearing” or whatever of the sort has been implemented to counter that particularity so that we could learn to learn (indeed, well said) to master other languages properly is at the source of our general bad grasp of foreign languages.

    So there is indeed a part of the reason that is intrinsinc to our Francophone status, intrinsic to our Francophone upbringing (for some) even if definitely not genetic nor physiologic, so that’s partly out of our hands was my point.

    Now it has never been tackled properly, that’s definitely our education system’s fault (ours) but then we have to realise that it would have to provide more than say, the Russian school system would have to because of the fact that Russian-speakers would have it easier thanks to their better familiarity with a wide range of sounds, so there is way more to be asked of the French school system too. Not an excuse, just a fact.

    I know i’ll make my potential children grow up bilingual from the start if i can and listen to a lot of Mozart anyway or they’ll start the match trailing 0-5 haha

  14. I’ve been looking up this blog articles and, from a French’s point of view, it’s very funny (although as a Parisian of Breton descent, I sometimes cringe at the articles)…

    Anyway, to the point: I think Eulalie’s reference is complete bullshit: Slavic languages using 11 octaves? I remember hearing some (admittedly gifted) pop singers boasting about their 6-octave vocal range, so I checked Wikipedia, which states that “In terms of frequency, human voices are roughly in the range of 80 Hz to 1100 Hz (that is, E2 to C6) for normal male and female voices together”

    That being said, I do think that some specificities of the French language don’t help (although the education system and such stupid things as the Toubon Law -coupled with a natural sense of superiority and disdain to everything english or american that prevailed in France for decades- are probably the main reasons). The flatness of French doesn’t help to naturally grasp languages with pitch accents (such as English, but also Spanish, Italian or -worse- Chinese), and its sound framework is not a great help when dealing with strange English diphtongues…

    However, Spanish and people from Spanish people countries seem to be even worse, at least it’s what I’ve been told by several Indian this summer while travelling there (after they all complimented me on how good my English was for a Frenchman), and I’ve noticed some Spanish travellers (not exactly in their primes, though) who were unable to even state amounts of money in English! And Japanese are no great shakes at English either (I have a couple of funny stories about it from a trip there)…

    • Spanish speakers are terrible at languages, much worse than French speakers. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a native Spanish speaker ever correctly speak another language, ever (not even Hispanics in the US)
      (I felt that I didn’t have enough enemies among Spanish speakers. That should be taken care of now)

      Japanese people have a double problem concerning foreign languages:
      - Their language being almost always consonant/vowel/consonant/vowel they just can’t “naturally” pronounce some languages, especially those with lots of consonants stuck together (like English among others).
      - Their educational system is even worse than the French one as far as languages are concerned.

      That being said, I have met Japanese people who learned foreign languages the “right way” and they spoke very well.

  15. Damn, my previous post is riddled with typos (ok, I shouldn’t expect any compliment on my English from this blog now ).

  16. This is a very well written answer, Mr. Frenchman.

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