Friday, August 28, 2009

Bad Language

Le Monde reports French educationalists are soul-searching over French students' poor showing in an international TOEFL league table. France ranked 69th out of 109 countries in prowess at speaking, reading and understanding English. And, even worse, these were the 'better' ones, those who were trying to get into university in an English-speaking country. It must surely irk former Education Xavier Darcos, whose quixotic long-term plan was to produce bilingual students (in the main speaking English as a second language) by the end of their schooling. Le Monde wonders if the problem might not lie with the educational system at all:

Y aurait-il dans l'ADN gaulois un gène qui empêcherait de parler, voire de comprendre l'anglais ? A l'heure où la génétique aide à comprendre les dégénérescences et autres blocages, on aimerait qu'elle nous explique pourquoi les Français restent irrémédiablement imperméables à la langue de Shakespeare. A moins que le vrai problème ne soit notre système éducatif et que les étudiants qui remontent la moyenne ne fassent partie des 170 000 jeunes favorisés qui partent chaque année en séjour linguistique à l'étranger ?

Is there a gene in the Gaulish DNA that could prevent one from speaking, even understanding English? Now that genetics helps explain degeneration and other mental blocks, maybe it can tell us if the French are irremediably impermeable to the language of Shakespeare. At least it might tell us that the real problem is not our educational system and that the students that raise the average are not among those privileged 170,000 young people who leave to study English abroad each year?

It's a typically French pre-occupation to search for the rot in the educational system rather than elsewhere, and by way of a rather strained syllogism, if the fault lies not there, it must lie in the constitution of the average Frenchman or woman. The answer is rather simpler and has little to do with schooling or education. There's nothing particularly unusual in French teenagers being unable to speak English well upon leaving school - English speakers rarely master a foreign language through school alone. But of course, France being France, coming so far down the table behind smaller, less prestigious countries rankles. And if the Netherlands or Sweden or Norway can command so many good English-speakers, why can't France?

The problem though has little to do with education, or even teaching. Scandinavian and other smaller countries usually speak languages unique to themselves or only one or two others. So the need to speak a lingua franca (and these days that is, for better or worse, English) is more pressing. People from small countries are also usually more outward-looking than those from larger ones, and only Germany in this test scored highly as a big country. Finally, children in countries where English is understood and spoken widely, such as Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Finland and Portugal, learn relatively little from teachers, few of whom are native speakers in any case. They learn at home, through direct, daily exposure to English; in those countries American films and TV programmes are subtitled rather than dubbed. In France, the vast majority of imported product goes out in version française.

A language is only as good as how useful it is to you, and if one relies on artificial situations concocted in a classroom isolated from the language as it is genuinely spoken, the necessity to learn is weakened and inhibition built up. It's ridiculous to say that French people are genetically or culturally indisposed to learning English; I know many that speak good English, and it usually follows on from an interest in Anglophone culture, be it film, music, literature, fashion or sport. And, needless to say, in none of these is this interest at the expense of an interest in their own native culture. If France wants to get serious about its citizens learning English (and the way the world is going, it's probably in its best interests to) it should break with its isolationist linguistic protectionism. Ban imported film and television being dubbed into French and make people watch them in the original language with subtitles. It's a harsh measure but after only a few years the difference would be noticeable, and France would even be spared the feared deluge of 'Anglo-Saxon' culture. But that's unlikely to happen and, in 30 years' time France will still be plodding along with middling English and wondering why the linguistic gods cursed them with a genetic inability to learn.

Les étudiants français toujours aussi nuls en anglais - Société - Le


doshimaitri said...

Vocabulary is the most essential element of communication. The more words you know, the more you can say and understand.If your ultimate goal is language fluency, as it is for many students learning a language, then it is important to know that you will become more fluent more quickly if you increase the amount of contact you have with the language. You can start by simply practicing the language with a classmate outside of class. You can befriend native speakers in your community or attend a local foreign language school or conversation hour, if one exists. Rent a movie in the target language, or listen to authentic audio or video online.

Anonymous said...

It may well be an issue of motivation but have there been any studies on the type of instruction students get in the English class, which may be less efficient than in other countries.
Research suggests that you don't learn a language from watching TV alone (if you don't have a certain level of proficiency already). It may help your passive vocab knowledge but not necessarily your active knowledge.