04 Dec 2013

SNCF to Provide English Lessons for French Train Commuters

All aboard the language train

French commuters jumping aboard rail operator SNCF’s Reims to Paris line are enjoying something novel alongside their coffee and croissants: English language lessons.

The state-owned railway firm’s project, called – appropriately enough – English on Track, sees groups of up to six commuters take employer-funded English lessons during their 47-minute journey into central Paris.

The initiative is not some gimmick designed to spice up the morning trip to work but altogether more serious in purpose: to help the French get up to speed with the recognised global language of business.

France is not known for its English language skills.

An English proficiency study published last month by Education First ranked France 35th out of 60 in English language skills, placed between China and the United Arab Emirates, and warned that English proficiency levels in the country are declining.

“France currently has the weakest English skills in Europe,” the report concluded.

One of the English on Track students, Jerome Paillot, a 29-year-old buyer for an Italian company where speaking English is essential, told the Financial Times: “I have to be on the train anyway so this is a really productive use of my time. At school, I was one of 25 kids. On the train, I am in a class of four.”

This innovative way of using the time normally wasted travelling to work is the brainchild of English teacher Calum MacDougall, whose trips back and forth across France for work gave him the idea.

“I saw the time people spent on trains and quickly realised that for most, it was time wasted,” he told the FT.

In total, the English on Track courses cost €690 and are delivered in 45-minute chunks.

News agency AFP reported that the sessions involve the use of a tablet computer connected to a speaker system for listening comprehension exercises, with the teacher also using the train window as a makeshift blackboard.

Students are taught in a part of the train where no passengers pass through, meaning quiet and relaxing sessions.

David Potier, SNCF’s commercial director for the Champagne-Ardenne region, said the programme could be extended if successful.

“Many of our customers need to speak English at work so it’s a useful service,” he told the FT.

“English is clearly a priority for our clients but we could start teaching other languages or even subjects,” he added. “Anything is possible.”

One wonders whether the idea would take off in the UK. It is unlikely that commuters on the 8:27am Heathrow-Paddington – recently named the most crowded route in the country – would welcome language lessons in packed standing-room-only carriages. But the idea might have some merit on the Eurostar. Perhaps people travelling from London to Paris would benefit from language lessons?


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