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.