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Dans Le Train, French Spend Their Commute Learning English

Mar 29, 2014
Originally published on April 5, 2014 9:18 am

On some French trains, the conductor's whistle signals more than just a departure. For commuters traveling on an express train from Reims to Paris — a 90-mile, 45-minute ride — it means the beginning of English class.

"Before the course, we were sleeping in the train in the morning," says passenger-student Gilles Hallais. "So I prefer practicing English."

Hallais, 44, is a journalist at French public radio. He says while he doesn't need English for his work, he does need it for his life. "I think it could be a handicap if I don't speak fluent English."

Rail officials hope these classes, called English on Track, will become more popular, especially after a recent study ranked France at the bottom in Europe in English proficiency, which is one offshoot of the country's efforts to protect French culture and language.

In France, unlike in some other European countries, the law mandates that foreign shows on television must be dubbed into French, not just subtitled. So young people don't have the chance to beef up their English while watching American shows.

Learning On The Rails

David Potier, head of commercial relations with France's state rail company, the SNCF, says when a high-speed rail link opened between Reims and Paris a few years ago, the number of regular passengers quadrupled to 1,000 a day. He says it makes sense to offer such professional customers special services at competitive prices.

Jerome Paillot, a 37-year-old native of Reims, recently began working at the French headquarters of an Italian coffee company. He believes improving his English is important for his career.

"I do the purchase order and I communicate every day with my export service," he said. "The English language is used every time."

The setting has its perks. Huddling around English books and a bag of croissants in plush seats at the back of a rail car, four commuter students say the intimate size of their group allows them to practice freely, without feeling intimidated.

Canadian teacher Afton Piercy said students find it easier to talk in the train rather than in a formal classroom.

"Sometimes in English classes, there's lots of writing but not as much discussion and listening — and that's very important," she said. Piercy's French is not great, she said, but she's working on it.

The French rail network is the largest in Europe, carrying more than 100 million passengers a year on 800 high-speed routes. And though the train is traveling at up to 180 miles per hour, it doesn't disrupt the English lesson. There's no noise, no bumps. It's a very smooth ride.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time commuting on a train is often easily wasted, but now enterprising businesses in France are trying to cash in on what is, after all, a captive audience. They're offering English lessons to the growing number of French passengers who use high-speed rail to commute long distances to work. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The conductor's whistle signals the beginning of class as the express train from Reims to Paris pulls out of the station. These four passenger students have found a way to make the most of their daily commute from the Eastern Champagne region to jobs in the French capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

GILLES HALLAIS: Before the course, we were sleeping in train in the morning. So it's - I prefer practice English.

BEARDSLEY: Forty-four-year-old Gilles Hallais is a journalist at French public radio. He says while he doesn't need English for his work, he does need it for his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HALLAIS: I think it could be a handicap if I don't speak fluent English. And so it was necessary for l'image de soi.

BEARDSLEY: Your self image.

HALLAIS: ...Yes - to speak more fluent English. I think it's important.

DAVID POTIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: David Potier is head of commercial relations with the French state rail company the SNCF. Potier says, when a high-speed rail link opened between Reims and Paris a few years ago, the number of regular passengers quadrupled to a thousand a day. He says it makes sense to offer such professional customers special services at competitive prices. For 37-year-old Reims native Jerome Paillot, who recently began working at the French headquarters of an Italian coffee company, speaking better English will help his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

JEROME PAILLOT: I do the purchase order, and I communicate every day with my export service, and the English language is used every, every, every time.

BEARDSLEY: Huddling around English books and a bag of croissants in plush seats at the back of a railcar, the four commuter students say the intimate size of their group allows them to practice freely without feeling intimidated.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

HALLAIS: Sports, clothing retailer. OK.

AFTON PIERCY: Oh retailer.

HALLAIS: Retailer. OK.

PIERCY: So do you know what a retailer is?

BEARDSLEY: Young Canadian teacher Afton Piercy says students find it easier to talk in the train rather than in a formal classroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PIERCY: Sometimes in English classes, there's lots of writing, but not as much discussion and listening.

BEARDSLEY: How's your French?

PIERCY: C'est pas mal. Ca va. Mais - it's not perfect. So I'm trying to work on my French, also, so I can relate to my students.

BEARDSLEY: The French rail network is the largest in Europe carrying more than a hundred million passengers a year on 800 high-speed routes.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

BEARDSLEY: So as the English class is going along, there's a screen in the car that shows that we're going 300 kilometers an hour, which is 180 miles an hour, which is a pretty good clip. And there's no noise. There's no bumps. It's a very smooth ride.

The English class wraps up as the train pulls into its Paris station 90 miles and 45 minutes after leaving Reims. Rail officials hope these classes will become more popular, especially after a recent study ranked France in last place in Europe in English proficiency. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

SIMON: You're listening to les nouvelles du NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.