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  • Catherine Laz,

ONLY 14% OF FRENCH STUDENTS SPEAK FLUENT ENGLISH: time to rethink global campaigns in French-speakin

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

“Comment on dit ‘langues étrangères’ en anglais ?” asked a giggling young French college student after being asked by a journalist in order to gauge her knowledge of English. This interview comes after a survey found that only 14% of French student can speak it. This rate is in sharp contrast with other European countries such as Sweden, number one, followed by Holland and Hungary.

The results of this survey make for grim reading. If young people can’t speak English in their great majority in France, what about the rest of an ageing population? This makes taglines left in English in global campaigns even more absurd. Who do they speak to? Only a tiny well-educated, urbane minority. That’s not how advertising ought to work. When slogans stay in English in TV commercials and in magazines, what chance do they have to appeal to the target whatever it is?

This is why transcreation is crucial for the French market. Still skeptical? Here are some hard truths to consider:

Apart from the fact that there is a physiological difference in the way we speak, English is badly taught in school by unqualified teachers most of the time; British pop culture is not as influential as it use to be and French rap is by far the most popular music; Foreign TV series are not broadcast in their original language, and contrary to Scandinavian youth, the French watch theirs dubbed.

The French is a very culturally diverse nation. People are proud of their origins within France itself and may speak their regional language far better than English like Breton, Corsican, Alsatian, and Occitan. Not forgetting a large immigrant population especially from North Africa who will speak Arabic at home and dozens of other languages spoken as first language. English is largely confined to the business world, not ideal if brands want to appeal to a broad audience.

As for the more mature sections of the population, we can observe a cultural backlash against globalism in general. The Gilets Jaunes movement and the rise of populist and far-right parties have demonstrated the anger and resentment people are feeling against what is seen as a urbane elite with President Macron as its figurehead. Furthermore, Trump and Brexit have proved detrimental to the image these countries project. Their pronounced insularity and the end of freedom of movement to the UK don’t endear French youth to make the effort to study the language.

So if you thought Nike Just Do It set a precedent for global campaigns, think again. If most of the population can’t understand you they’ll feel little emotion for your brand. It seems obvious that as far as the French market is concerned, transcreating your taglines is essential. It may go against your idea of creativity but that’s not your call. I get really irritated by those taglines and slogans left in English on TV and in print with their French translations on the side, in accordance to the law.

Let’s go back to French in ads. We rap in French, we watch TV in French, we read in French, we won the World Cup (twice in 2 years!). Global clients must start to re-examine their creative strategy and take these sociological facts seriously. There are 274 millions of French speakers worldwide. There are special laws that protect French and “La difference culturelle”.

Transcreating global campaigns taglines and content into French is a priority whether they think it’s a step back or not. Désolé, c’est la vie !

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