It's the beginning of another school year in France. I'm trudging around the supermarket looking for a small-format purple book cover, absolutely imperative to my son's success in the second year of his French primary school, when I see a huge smile looming in front of me. Behind it is a woman whom I vaguely recognise. She lives in my apartment block and has probably grunted a "bonjour" in the past, but never accompanied by a full-frontal grin with eye contact. I can guess what's coming next.
"Ah, your children are so lucky to be bilingual!" she exclaims.
Yes, I think, and so are Rashida and Habib, but no one beams at their parents and compliments them on their good fortune at being born in Algeria or the Ivory Coast. Barely an intake of breath later, she gets to the point. "Do you give English lessons?" I sigh. Here we go again!
The French have a love-hate relationship with the English language. On one hand, they are determined to defend their language, and there was even a controversial bill proposed by right-wing politician Jacques Toubon in 1994, forbidding the use of English in certain areas, notably advertising, which led to one fast-food joint changing its name to Le Chien Chaud. On the other, they can't resist throwing in the odd English word, and now have a French spelling for email - mel - and the verb forwarder.
As an English speaker, however, you will struggle to understand why they want to put baskets (trainers) on their feet and what they do at the pressing (dry cleaners). Their rule for anglicising seems to be to add "-ing" to everything, giving us parking, camping and jogging (as in trousers), footing (as in jogging) and brushing (a blow-dry!) This duality comes over in their teaching of English, or lack of it. In a recent European poll of 14-year-olds, France came last in proficiency in spoken English, with the Dutch and Swedes taking the top places. When I tell this to my French friends, they are not surprised. "Yes, but in those countries," they say, "they watch television in the original version."
Despite the never-ending influx of American and British series, the French insist on dubbing the whole lot of it into French.
But it's not only television that is to blame. Often, children do not start learning English until they are teenagers, with parents preferring to start them on German, which is favoured in French schools. When choosing a foreign language in secondary schools, parents used to strategically choose German to get their children into the "good" classes. English was then taken up later as a second choice.
Nowadays, parents are opting for English instead, because they have struggled with it themselves and realise its importance in the international business world. However, the teaching isn't necessarily up to scratch and although there is a desire to use native-speaking teachers, non-French qualifications are not recognised and few British or American citizens are willing to slog through the French examinations. Which are all in French, of course.
Native speakers end up teaching English to adults in companies, picking up the pieces where the national education system failed. They correct bad accents and wobbly grammar to give employees the rudiments of taking phone messages and writing "mels". And they are not short of work.
French companies are obliged to spend a percentage of the total of all employee salaries on training. A lot of this budget is spent on computer and language training. In Paris there are many small schools which offer such language training. A Teaching English as a Foreign Language certificate is usually the minimum requirement for teachers, in addition to work papers. Teachers travel out to companies, often in suburban industrial zones, and sometimes only for a couple of hours. Although the public transport system is good, a car makes life a lot easier.
So, I turn to the smiling mother and explain that I don't have time to teach her daughter as I work and have my own children to look after. But maybe she could get back to me after she's finished her education and joined the workforce, and I can help patch up her broken English then!
Elspeth Graty has taught English as a foreign language for 12 years in France. TEFL job offers in Paris can be found at the British Council, TESOL France www.tesol-france.org or in free newspapers such as FUSAC (www.fusac.fr)