China is trouncing France in English-language proficiency

How do you say, “We’re #34!”
How do you say, “We’re #34!”
Image: Reuters/Sean Yong
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The French appear to be getting worse at English while the Chinese are rapidly improving their aptitude at the language that dominates international trade and business, according to an index released today by international education firm Education First.

According to the ranking of 60 countries based on 750,000 English proficiency exams, China and France ranked 34th and 35th, respectively, out of 60 countries. That marks a pretty big change from the education provider’s ranking last year, when China was 13 spots behind France (pdf, p. 5). Both countries are now classified as having low proficiency in English, along with Iran, Russia, Italy, Egypt, and Taiwan and others.

So what’s going on? Over the past decade, China has made learning English a priority. Students begin learning the language as early as primary school, and English is a component in the national exam, the gaokao, that all high school students have to take to get into university.

In contrast, France has been jealously guarding its linguistic integrity, requiring companies, schools and public institutions to use only French. The culture ministry recently banned the word “hashtag,” requiring French citizens to use the term mot-diese, instead.

It’s worth noting that the current state of play may be shifting: Chinese officials have proposed lessening how much the English-language exam accounts for students’ gaokao results, and French lawmakers recently passed a bill, albeit with much opposition, that will allow French universities to teach more courses in English.