Why Americans and French Are So Bad at Learning Foreign Languages, and What We Should Do About It

Why Americans and French Are So Bad at Learning Foreign Languages, and What We Should Do About It
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For Americans traveling abroad, few things are more apparent than how much we collectively suck at foreign languages.

In the nearly two years I’ve lived as an American in Paris, it’s been my observation that, when my compatriots claim to speak a little French, they mean, “I know how to say ‘Bonjour!”

On the contrary, when a French person claims to speak un petit peu d’anglais, they mean, “I can hold a conversation in English for five minutes, at least.”

That said, the notoriously self-effacing French are not wrong to point out that their English ability pales in comparison to many of their European counterparts.

With 54 percent of its population proficient in English, the world's largest ranking of countries by English skill ranks France at No. 29, behind Germany (9) and Spain (25), as well as many less-developed countries like Poland (10) or Bulgaria (24).

That’s not so bad when you consider that just 30 percent of Americans are estimated to speak a foreign language. Although, given that English is by far the world’s most dominant language, Americans do have somewhat of an excuse (albeit, a weak one).

Specifically, out of the world’s approximately 7.5 billion inhabitants, 1.5 billion speak English—that's 20 percent of the Earth's population. By contrast, just a little over 220 million speak French globally. In Europe alone, 41 percent of Europeans speak English, while only 19 percent speak French.

That’s not to say that Americans shouldn’t be worried by our linguistic laziness, but it’s hard to argue France has cause for greater concern, especially in the face of rising unemployment—now the highest in the Eurozone.

One of the reasons for this persistent unemployment, according to POLITICO, is the inability of the French education system to train young people for the jobs the economy requires. And what does our global economy increasingly require? English.

“The French are bad at learning English because we’re bad at teaching it,” a French friend recently told me, adding, “All that matters are the test results, not whether you can actually speak.”

To those familiar with the French bureaucracy, this may sound like an all too stereotypical problem: all process, no substance. But when it comes to foreign language-learning, Americans are in the same boat.

Unlike many Americans, I started learning a second language (Spanish) soon after acquiring basic verbal skills. This was in large part thanks to my Dad—a multilingual American rarity, speaking both in Arabic and Spanish, fluently. It was also in large part because I spent my youth in Texas.

Needless to say, while my Spanish has long since faded, I now speak both French and Italian fluently (some days are better than others, tbh).

Curiously, despite now living and working at a French company in Paris, I was at best a B+ French student in higher-level university courses. Once I’d reached a certain level of fluency, I didn’t have the patience for more grammar exercises or rote memorization.

Instead, I rationalized, the only way to speak more fluently was, simply, to speak (and listen) more. For that reason, I joined and chaired my university’s French Conversation Club, sought out French exchange students on campus, and even became an exchange student myself, at La Sorbonne. Did it really matter that I couldn’t explain the grammatical theory behind the subjunctive tense?

Unfortunately, for the majority of language teachers, it did and still does. Fortunately for me, I didn’t care. But for many foreign-language students across the U.S. and France alike, this obsession with linguistic perfection hinders their confidence and, as a result, their ability.

Last summer, I met a young French woman in Marseilles who implored me to respond to her in English while she continued to speak in French.

“Why don’t you try responding in English?” I asked her. “Clearly, you understand everything I’m saying.”

“Because I’m scared of making a mistake,” she said, in French.

This is the problem. When it comes to learning and mastering a foreign language, we should champion mistakes as a prerequisite to speaking. Who cares what you got on the test if you’re too afraid to open your mouth. After all, no matter what language you’re speaking, the point is to speak. And when you do, who cares if you mess up conjugating a verb or pronouncing something funny? Hell, native speakers will probably think it’s cute AF.

The more important question foreign-language teachers from Paris to Palo Alto should be asking is, “Did you effectively communicate?” If so, A+.

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