Why Is It So Difficult for French People to Learn English?

Learn English It is well known that the French are last in place in Europe when it comes to speaking English. Why do some nationalities seem to have more difficulty learning the “international language” of today than others?

One need only travel across Europe to see the frequency and fluency with which English is spoken in many different countries. While the Nordic countries seem to be the leaders in speaking English as a second language, the Mediterranean countries like Spain, France and Italy are much less so. Why is this? Is there really a difference in intellectual or cognitive ability?

Science would say no, but the French will tell you otherwise. Common statements from adult English students include “Je suis nul en anglais” (I am terrible in English), or “Les Françaises ne sont pas bien en anglais” (French people are not good at English). In fact, I have NEVER met a French student of English who did NOT say one of these phrases during our first class, showing just how strong this belief is, in every profession and age group. As a teacher, it is quite difficult to convince them that this is not a simple truth, but the result of many factors.

Admittedly, this is my own theory, and one that I have honed over the past seveal years of teaching English as a second language to adults, business people, and university students. But it seems to me that the “French exception” is no more than a cultural excuse that is perpetuated from generation to generation. How does it happen?

I believe it happens through a mix of culture and education.

Here are a few factors:

History. The relationship between France and the UK is as old as time, literally. Even with so many English words derived from French, and modern French words adopted from English, there is an underlying resistance to speak the language of the “enemy.” While the two countries are allies today, there is still a strong undercurrent of sibling rivalry.

Capitalism and globalization. While the forming of the EU has opened up a lot of doors for all Europeans, each country is keen to protect and maintain their unique cultural identity, including language. The influx of globalization, and American culture in particular, is seen as an attack on French culture, and even the French language itself. This could be one reason why older generations aren’t putting much pressure on younger people to learn English, for fear that it is the beginning of the end of French culture.

Education. While there are hundreds of issues that could be discussed in the French education system, most adult students have told me that their experience learning English at school was an awful one. They tell stories of embarrassment, frustration, and even incompetence among French-native English teachers. Based on memorization and grammar, English courses are ineffective in teaching fluency and confidence in speaking.

Pop culture. While American television series and films are shown across Europe in “VO” (their original version, English), this is not the case in France. All the most popular programs and films that are aired are dubbed into French, often with less-than-impressive results. Thus, hearing spoken English and sharing a pleasant experience doing so is not something the French share with the rest of their European counterparts. This is probably linked to fear of losing their cultural identity as well.

Perpetuating a lie. I can’t tell you how many people I have met here in France who are sincerely convinced that their brain is just not suited to learning English, in the same way that some people are bad at math or spelling. But when you consider that French is one of the most difficult languages to learn, this theory is immediately discredited. When parents and teachers say that they themselves are just not capable of learning English, and teach the same idea to their children or students, the lie is perpetuated for another generation.

So what’s a Frenchie to do if they want to be fluent in English?

In this blog for people who want to speak English, we offer many tips, lessons and ideas to help you learn English day by day, on your own or otherwise. But to truly change the system, it takes time, and leaders. Teach your children that they CAN learn English just as well as anyone!     And tell yourself that too!


Are you a French person who feels “nul” in English?

Were you told this as a child or student?

Did your parents encourage you, or discourage you, as regards learning English?

We love to hear your stories and experiences in the comments section below!

Photo source



April is an e-marketing specialist, English instructor and freelance writer living in Grenoble, France.
  1. Essam Mostafa Reply

    Dear Mr/.Mrs.April,
    I hope this reaches you in good health & high spirits.
    This Essam Mostafa, an Egyptian expert in education ,English lecturing as well as Teacher Training in the Gulf as well as Egypt since 1986.
    Coming through your above article, I declare that I agree with you to somewhat a great extent.Nevertheless,I believe that other crucial factors / reasons may apparently have their impact in this regard.To be a bit more explicit and authentic, I’d rather refer to the habitual conduct of learning a mother tongue language right from early infancy ( a neuro – psychological ) phenomenon that most if not all humans share,which makes it uneasy for adult learners of a foreign language to grasp this foreign language and become competent users.
    Should you get interested to enrich the debate, you may refer to me on:essam_mostafa2005@yahoo.com
    Essam Mostafa.
    Eng.Lang.Expert & Teacher Trainer.

  2. Philip Newman Reply

    Hi April,
    I agree with the points you raise in your blog. There is one more thing to add, though – the ‘CAP S’. This ‘certificate d’aptitude professionelle’ is needed to teach in French schools, which few TEFL teachers have mainly because the examination is not only tough, and taken in ‘competition’ with other French students, but wholly in French. The result is that the techniques and practices of TEFL teachers, which are always in flux through new ideas being taken on board, are not incorporated into the French education system. This remains static and heavily based on the ‘translation’ method with minimal speaking or any other form of active communication. But, the French know best – don’t they just?
    One more point concerns teaching in French universities. Some TEFL teachers do do this, but the universities (to save money) don’t want to be primary employers and thus be responsible for payment of the ‘social charges’ – which are quite high in France. Thus most TEFL teachers in the universities do so as secondary employment – leaving the responsibility of their social charges up another outside company.
    So – not much hope for them really – until they work for French companies and then get decent TEFL teaching. But changes here to are underfoot whilst contributions to company training funds continues, the money allocated to languages is being cut. Yes, a big complex re-structuration here now occurring to the detriment of TEFL teachers and adult students keen to learn English.

  3. S Reply

    It’s a shame this article is so full of hyperbole since the idea behind it is so interesting.

    “I have NEVER met a French student of English who did NOT say one of these phrases during our first class”
    Right. In the several years you have taught English and the no doubt 100+ students you’ve taught, not even one has failed to come up with one of these sentences. Right. Okay.

    “The relationship between France and the UK is as old as time, literally.”
    Haha, literally. You used the word literally. That literally doesn’t make sense.

    • admin Reply

      That’s April’s writing style. I like it! 🙂

  4. Jossie Reply

    Hello, I’m a French TEFL teacher and I agree with April : no matter what their level is, French people will always tell you they are “nuls en Anglais”. And when you do teach them some English they are lost if they can’t put a French translation over the English vocab taught; and if this translation doesn’t fit word for word , they are lost. Some others have a knowledge of English that even a native will never reach in spelling, grammar and vocabulary and yet they cannot get 2 words out orally. In France we love writing, we love theory, not practicality. Hence our poor level in speaking. I don’t know about other Mediterranean countries, but this is the experience I have from teaching in France. In my classes, I need to rebuild the confidence of my adults and teenage students, damaged by long term trauma inflicted in our secondary schools.

  5. Eric Dynamic Reply

    From Fernand Braudel’s series “The History of Capitalism and Civilization”, 3 volumes, he explains that at one point French was the Lingua Franca for commerce, and I assume that because it was ultimately displaced as such probably incurred a certain amount of anger and wounded French pride, and this outlook has been handed down across generations. Many French still think that French should be the International Language – as it once was. And they are not necessarily wrong, if the outlook comes from wondering why English should be that language. What makes a language //the// “International Language” has more to do with the economic power of the people who speak the language, than it does the functional merits of the language itself.

  6. admin Reply

    Thank you for this information. I’m sending your comment to the computer tech person.

  7. Aissam oubial Reply

    It is not correct to say that a particular language is more difficult to learn than the other. This a general,and a stable rule in linguistics. Besides that a different culture can not be a good reason why people can or not learn a foreign language easily or vise versa. For more information in this level please contact me on my email address : mindyourmind30@outlok.com and Thank you in advance.

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