English in the school system
All children study at least two foreign languages in France, the first starting at 9 years old with 54 hours/year of language courses in the first two years. Some schools begin foreign language familiarization sessions as early as 6 years old, depending on qualified teacher availability.
Not all students choose English as their first foreign language and the education ministry requires linguistic diversity within regions at the primary level. However, 98% of French students end up studying English by the end of secondary school. Some secondary schools offer specialized programs with significantly more hours of instruction in foreign languages. Instructional emphasis has historically been placed on grammar and literature rather than conversation skills.
In higher education, entry to top tier schools usually requires a level of English fluency which cannot be obtained through the standard public school system alone. Students competing for the limited number of spaces at these schools rely on private preparatory programs, overseas study abroad, and tutoring. For those who do not speak English, it is possible to gain admission through an exceptionally high level of mastery of all other subject areas, although this is increasingly difficult due to the weight assigned to English in admission exam scores.
Standard universities do not include English study unless it’s relevant to the degree program. France sends more students than any other country on Erasmus exchange programs, with a third of them choosing to study in English speaking countries.
English at Work
In a professional environment, most French employees do not require English. About 30% of the French workforce is employed by the public sector, a higher proportion than in most European countries. Another 20% is self employed or working for small businesses serving local customers. Only 28% of France’s GDP is taken up by international trade in goods and services. Those French adults most likely to need English every day are employed in the large foreign tourism industry, export industries such as pharmaceuticals, wine & liquor, and cosmetics, or by one of the 40 Fortune 500 corporations headquartered in France. Employees of consulting and auditing firms are also often required to have excellent English.
Culture and Attitudes towards English
The most common attitude towards English learning in France is ambivalence. Most French people recognize the usefulness of speaking English for business and travel. However, English is not a subject that is highly valued in school and good grades in math and science are a much surer path to academic success than mastery of the English language. The French are also shy about using what English they have and would prefer to converse in their own language, convinced that their English is weak and their accent incomprehensible.
The French are proud of the role that their language and culture have played historically on the world stage. The idea of a worldwide sphere of French influence is treasured. The French government supports cultural programs and French language schools throughout the world.
France does not fully embrace free market capitalism, as exhibited by its strong unions, universal heath care, frequent strikes, and extensive social safety nets. English is associated with the form of winner take all capitalism that is practiced in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the United Kingdom. The English language is seen as guilty by association. France has also been historically competitive with the UK, and although today the two nations are strong allies, there remains some residue of that past animosity.
This ambivalence towards English and desire to protect the integrity and power of their own language is clearly visible through national policies and practices. As a leading member of the European Union, France promotes fluency in other foreign languages, particularly German and Spanish. 40% of songs played on the radio and movies shown on TV must be in French, and translation of foreign words in advertising is required. The French language market size justifies the expense of dubbing movies and television, although in Paris it is common to find movies in all languages with subtitles.
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