Why France Is Pushing Its Students to Master English

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The faces look a little nervous and the words are spoken a bit timidly — all rather normal for a group of French students learning to speak English. But the hesitant responses aren't coming in a classroom where foreign-language instruction is another obligatory grind in a long day of courses. Instead, these 18-to-25-year-olds are paying up to $6,000 annually to master a language they all took for six years in high school before earning their baccalaureate degrees and entering the job market.

"A lot of things in France have changed under globalization in order to keep us competitive, but teaching people English here has remained old-fashioned and inefficient," says Julien Petitpas, one of the 10 young adults who gather for 12 hours a week to improve their English at the Berlitz language school near the Paris Opera. "In school it's all structure, grammar and getting it right on paper and in your head before you ever speak — and even then, you don't do much of that. It just doesn't work."

He's not the only person who thinks so. Earlier this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled an "emergency plan" for teaching foreign languages in the nation's schools with the lofty objective that "all our high school students must become bilingual, and some should be trilingual." Why the panic? Because as Sarkozy noted, a nation that spends 5.8% of its annual GDP on education — the fifth-highest percentage in the world — simply must do better than its current rank of 69th among 109 countries on the standardized Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). To that end, Sarkozy has proposed exposing students to more native-speaking English instructors, increasing contacts between French and foreign high schools and shifting the focus in schools from written foreign-language instruction to the more practical oral.

"A modern foreign language is meant to be spoken," Sarkozy said in his latest assault on the kinds of tradition-bound practices that he believes are holding the country back economically. "Pointing something that obvious out isn't futile in a country where Latin is an oral exam on the baccalaureate, while the leading modern language is evaluated in written form."

Compelling teachers in France's notoriously rigid education system to change their ways and encourage students to speak more in foreign-language classes will be one challenge to overcome. Another is confronting the contradiction that comes with promoting foreign-language study among students and continuing France's long-standing policies aimed at protecting and promoting the use of the French language at home. The Academie Française began its mission of purging the French language of impurities — often words taken from other languages — way back in 1635. The key objective of the country's 25-year-old exception culturelle is ensuring that French-language music, film and other cultural products are not dominated by English-language imports. And a law passed in 1994 requires that French translations accompany any foreign phrases in state documents, business contracts and even advertising.

These efforts to trumpet the virtues of the French language may inadvertently decrease the allure of foreign tongues to many in France — especially among students who are made to feel they mustn't attempt to utter a word of what's often called la langue de Shakespeare until they've mastered it on paper. "I think a lot of French people are hesitant to speak another language at what could be considered the expense of French," says Karin Hull, who has taught English at Berlitz for four years. "The legacy of cultural protectionism is one factor, and the way foreign languages are taught in school is another. Students pass language exams only to discover they can't really speak [the language]."

Shifting the focus of foreign-language study from written to oral instruction is only one way of making classes more practical. Berlitz also offers First Jobs, an increasingly popular course in which students are taught business and financial English vocabulary and are given help improving their résumés and job-interviewing skills — in English. "These are students who've wanted to improve their English as part of many things they'll need in their careers," says Alain Nothern, the polyglot director of Berlitz's Opera center. "The focus is English, but it's a wider tool kit for the business world."

Becoming an Anglophone isn't cheap — but that's not stopping students from signing up. Laetitia Marcellesi says she had to get a job to pay for the course, while her classmate, Justine Boussin, took out a loan to finance a study-abroad trip to London. Only time will tell if future French students will start getting this type of practical training for free at school or whether they'll have to keep paying for it once they graduate.