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Training-trains: English taught to French commuters

People attend an English lesson in a high speed TGV train to Paris
Francois Nascimbeni | AFP | Getty Images

In an attempt to catch up with their European neighbors when it comes to speaking the international language of business, France's rail operator is offering commuters some re-training.

Since September, six SNCF train routes from the Champagne-Ardenne region to Paris (a popular commuter belt) have offered a pilot program called "English on track," where a group of passengers are given a 45-minute lesson as their train whizzes along to the French capital at 300 kilometres (185 miles) an hour.

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The idea was the brain child of Calum MacDougall, the director of the SpeakWrite language institute based in the Lagny-sur-Marne commune just to the east of Paris. A 30-lesson package costs 690 euros (about $925) and can be taken two, four or five times a week.

"I had the idea that perhaps teaching English on trains was in fact a way of using time more efficiently," MacDougall told CNBC in a phone interview. "I took the idea to SNCF, who were very keen and very eager to put a service in place, and they have given us extremely good support all the way through it."

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The service is not just a way of making commutes use their journeys more effectively. It's also a way of improving the language skills of the French at a time when some reports argue that English proficiency is declining.

According the English Proficiency Index (EPI) compiled annually by English First, France is ranked at 35 out of 60 nations where English is not the first language. It was listed under the "low proficiency" category, one above the United Arab Emirates but one below China. It was the lowest placed European country that English First analyzed, and it was one of two European countries where proficiency decreased in the last six years.

However, MacDougall argued that the findings such as those of the EPI were not necessarily accurate.

"I'm not sure I agree thatthe English proficiency has gone down in France," he said. "There are a lot of students taking advantage of Erasmus years or doing part or all of their studies internationally, so the level of English is in fact increasing." He added, "But not, I would say, across the board. It's more for people doing further education."

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MacDougall said that he aims to keep lessons at a maximum of six people as it was compatible with the type of teaching that his organization provides, but he said that if they had sufficient demand they would possibly increase the number of lessons taking part each train. At the moment there is just one lesson per train.

French trains work well for the course given the noise levels and the way the carriage is laid out, MacDougall explained. "There is a specific part of the carriage which we're assigned which is in fact quite convenient for the purpose of giving an English lesson," he said. "It's not separated from the rest of the carriage but it's quite quiet and allows us the intimacy that we need for an English lesson."

Many of the French commuters participating in "English on track" have most if not all of their tuition fees paid for by their employers, MacDougall explained, as it offered valuable training whilst also not eating into the work day.

Talking to the AFP, David Potier, SNCF sales director for the Champagne-Ardenne region said, "We have limited places but if there is strong demand, we will look at adding lessons to the return trains in the evening."

And what of such a scheme being introduced in other countries, or, for example, on the Eurostar, which connects France and the U.K?

A Eurostar spokesperson told CNBC via email: "The 'English on track' scheme being run by SNCF is such a lovely initiative. Language skills are invaluable in the business environment and the idea of giving commuters the chance to enhance their learning whilst travelling to and from work is a very interesting one.

"We will follow this pilot with interest, and would be very keen to hear more on the results."

— By CNBC's Kiran Moodley. Follow him on Twitter @kirancmoodley