French students can't 'cope' with English

PARIS - There is no easy translation or even a firm concept of the word "coping" in French, so when it turned up last week in a question on the national exam to earn a high school degree, it set off a fracas among the 350,000 or so students who took the test.

So far, about 12,000 of them have signed a petition posted on a social media site,, arguing that the question was "too difficult". The word appeared in the English reading comprehension section of this year's baccalaureate general examination, which requires an intermediate level of proficiency in two foreign languages.

The students said they were baffled by a passage from the best-selling novel Atonement by Ian McEwan, in which the word "cope" appeared.

Then came two questions about a character named Turner: "What concerns him about the situation?" and "How is Turner coping with the situation?"

Also puzzling for some was the word "concern". Students described the questions as "incomprehensible" and "impossible to answer", and asked to meet senior figures in the Education Ministry.

"Was the question grammatically correct?" asked a student named Theo. Another wrote: "Were there some words missing? If not, I didn't understand it at all."

Many other students, however, including even some who were flummoxed by the same questions, dismissed the complaints, saying the petition made French students look foolish.

French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem quickly rejected the students' pleas, saying: "In truth, I was quite surprised by the petition. Because 'to cope with' is part of the things one learns - and I am not fluent."

But the students have their defenders.

"This word 'to cope' is unusually hard to translate into French," wrote Ms Carol Just, a teacher of English in France, on the website, "... and the English notion is difficult to understand even for experienced adult learners because there is no real equivalent in the French language and in the French mind".

Mr Nenad Djokic, the country manager in France for EF Education First, an international language company that has schools teaching English in 50 countries, blamed the French educational system which, he said, failed to give people enough of a chance to develop fluency.

"Language training in France is done in classes of 30 students on average for 50 minutes three times a week," he said.

"The teacher has to cover the grammar, the vocabulary and some speaking," he added, "but how can you speak with 30 students one by one? You can't, so the methodology is that the teacher does the speaking."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'French students can't 'cope' with English'. Print Edition | Subscribe