PARIS – French children generally spend years learning foreign languages in school, but the results are often dismal. So President Nicolas Sarkozy called Tuesday for an emergency plan to make schools produce more bilingual students.
In a speech outlining wider education reforms, Sarkozy underscored that "a foreign language is meant to be spoken," and suggested that language instruction should be shifted away from written grammar and memorization to emphasize oral skills.
Students in French public schools begin a second language in middle school and often receive up to six years of foreign language instruction. Still, many high school graduates struggle to express even the simplest of thoughts in English, Spanish, German or the other foreign languages on offer.
Sarkozy noted that French students rank 69th out of 109 countries on the TOEFL, the English-language test for foreign students, an exam primarily for those who wish to study in the U.S.
That's perhaps not surprising, considering that the final high school exams for modern languages are written, while that for Latin — which even the Catholic Church gave up speaking in the 1960s — is oral.
Besides the curriculum that is heavy on grammar, another stumbling-block for France's would-be foreign language learners is sometimes the teachers themselves, many of whom are not native speakers of the languages they teach and often have strong French accents.
Sarkozy, whose own English is notoriously weak, pledged to change the way foreign language learning is evaluated, bring more native speakers into schools and encourage foreign exchanges.
The push to improve foreign language instruction comes as French — once the language of diplomacy and the lingua franca in much of the world — continues to lose ground to English. The rise of the Internet, too, with its crush of English-language sites, also has underscored the need for improved English skills among French youth.
Christian Tremblay, who heads the European Observatory of Plurilinguism, a group dedicated to promoting foreign language learning throughout Europe, acknowledged the French system is "very average" but said he was sceptical that Sarkozy's proposals would radically change the situation.
"The 'great language syndrome' is still very much alive and well in France," said Tremblay in a telephone interview. "At home, in families and in society at large, there's just not the idea that languages are something essential. That's really what we have to change."