Should British pupils give up studying French?

France football fans

Savez-vous que vous parlez très mal français?

If your answer to the above question (do you know you speak very poor French?) - was a resounding "you what?" then you are not alone.

But while British people have always had a reputation for our inability to speak foreign languages, French has historically been the one that most of us can at least say a few words in, thanks to having had to learn it at school.

For many adults, distant memories of begrudgingly attending French classes at the local comprehensive have left us equipped to do complicated and stressful things, such as buying a loaf of bread while on holiday in France.

Although possibly only with the help of some judicious pointing, while desperately hoping that the shopkeeper doesn't ask us a question in return.

Yet with the latest GCSE results showing that the number of pupils studying French has dropped 45% in eight years, the average Briton's grasp of the language may be falling even further.

But why are fewer students choosing to take French? And no offence to the likes of Charles De Gaulle, Asterix and the Michelin Man, but does it really matter?

For language learning expert Paul Noble, who teaches French and Spanish on CDs by Collins, the reasons for the decline are straightforward.

Firstly, he points to the decision of the then Labour government in 2004 to make it no longer compulsory for schools in England to teach a foreign language to 14 to 16 year olds.

"That decision certainly didn't help," says Mr Noble who is also fluent in Italian, German, and Mandarin, and runs his own language school.

"But the core reason is because pupils know French is difficult to pass, and difficult to get something out of it.

"On the first point, with French or any language, you either know how to say it or you don't - you can perhaps be a bit more vague with subjects like religious studies.

"On the later point, what I mean is that students realise that even if they do get a GCSE in French, they still won't be able to speak the language.

"Even students who come out of doing French A-levels can be surprised at what they can't say - the teaching should be far more conversationally based."

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) also blames the decline on the end of a compulsory language at GCSE. Its head of education John Bangs says: "The policy drift on modern foreign languages is unforgivable." It means more young people are ill-equipped for life in a global society, he adds.

The sudden decline in French-speaking could mark the end of a long-held attachment the British have felt to the language.

For nearly 400 years when the country was ruled by Norman kings, it was the language of the ruling class, says Jonnie Robinson, co-curator of a forthcoming exhibition, Evolving English, at the British Library in London. So the nobility spoke French, like everyone at the royal palaces and in the judiciary.

"After the Norman Conquest [in 1066], Norman French became the language of power, although English remained the language of the people. And official documents were written either in Latin, the language of the church, or in French."

Image caption Take a deep breath, smile and point

There is evidence that its grip on power had loosened a little by 1362, when the opening of Parliament was conducted in English for the first time since 1066, says Mr Robinson. And the Library has a document dating to 1419, written in English by King Henry V, who was fighting a prolonged war with the French and was probably making a statement about English nationality.

In the centuries that followed, French travelled around the world as a colonial language, he says, and played a key part in the founding of the United Nations, the Olympic movement and the European Common Market, hence its status, alongside English, as the language of diplomacy.

For a monolingual country like England (there are generations of bilingual families in Wales, for example), says Mr Robinson, people were impressed to see Tony Blair speaking French in Paris when prime minister, and more recently hear Nick Clegg speaking French, Spanish or Dutch.

But despite the prowess of the deputy prime minister, a spokesman for the Department for Education said the coalition government currently has no plans to make languages compulsory again for 14 to 16 year olds in England.

So is this putting UK companies at a competitive disadvantage? English may be described as the world's business language, but 200 million people speak French around the world, and it is an official language in 32 countries.

Russell Lawson, public affairs manager at the Federation of Small Businesses, says giving school children a solid grasp of French has always helped them go on and learn other languages.

He adds: "English may be the world's predominant business language, but if you can speak just some of another language, it can be a great help. It's a cultural acknowledgement that you are at least trying to engage with the customer on their terms, and that can reap business rewards."

Image caption Madonna's daughter Lourdes attended a French school in London and is bilingual

For the right-wing think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, the decline in the number of students learning French all boils down to the school league tables - languages are hard, so pupils are encouraged to take "easier" subjects.

This is a point echoed by Michel Monsauret, attache for education at the French Embassy in London, who says that subjects perceived to be easier, such as religious studies, are on the increase.

"What I would say, is that languages are taught more extensively at private schools in the UK, and their pupils go on to dominate places at Oxbridge and the other best universities."

There is a lot at stake for the UK economy, he adds. "If you go to the City [of London] you will find that many top ranking bankers are French - UK firms always resort to foreigners when dealing with the outside world."

But if getting more British pupils to study French and other foreign languages is important, where do you start? Paul Noble thinks it is very simple.

"You have got to make French classes more enjoyable," he says. "French needn't be hard to learn if taught correctly, it can even be fun.

"Start by teaching children how to converse in French in any given situation, help them better express themselves in French, and it becomes a lot more enjoyable."

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