Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Not all bilingualisms are equal

I received an e-mail a week or so ago about an alarming French government internal report. The subject of the report was juvenile delinquency, its causes and potential prevention, and it was submitted to the minister of the interior, Dominique de Villepin (that’s right, him again!) in October 2004 and recently published on the web. It suggested these problems have their roots in very early childhood. So far so good.

The report went on to say that the problems are often linked to children’s linguistic difficulties, i.e. that they don’t speak French well and are thus not well integrated at school, even in nursery school. Here’s the alarming bit: to make headway against this problem, the mothers of immigrant children aged 1 to 3 should take it upon themselves to speak only French at home, “so that the children get used to expressing themselves only in French”. It also suggests ways of getting round the father-obstacle, who, according to the report, often insists on speaking “patois” at home. How’s that for respect for cultural origins? If this doesn’t work, especially as the child gets a little older, the child should see a speech therapist. This is like saying that if I have trouble getting over the death of a close relative or friend, I should a doctor who can dry up my tear ducts. What follows is a series of escalating recommendations to snuff out the “causes” of “deviance”.

This part of the report is the antithesis, the negation of everything I have come to believe about bilingual education, or about how to motivate immigrant children to learn a new language. Specifically, for children to be motivated, the system must acknowledge the value, the worth of their own language. This is a basic sales rule. The salesman says, “You’re absolutely right. On the other hand....” Wow, France still has a way to go in accommodating bilingualism, I thought. Of course, an American reading this might be tempted to say it is simply a manifestation of France’s reluctance to admit that French is no longer the world’s primary international language.

French people are always saying that they are not good in languages and that languages are not taught well in French schools. So when they meet bilingual people, especially children, their reaction is a mixture of admiration, envy and embarrassment. They say, “How wonderful! They’ll have such an advantage in life.”

At the international school here in Lyon, language is a big part of the curriculum. Language sections include English, Spanish, German, Italian, Polish and Japanese. The one in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris also offers Scandinavian languages. Friendships between kids in these schools run right across cultural and language barriers. French is the common language, but most kids are also proud of their “other” culture, too. But if bilingualism is encouraged and nurtured for these and other “noble” languages, deemed important or useful, for all others, it’s considered a handicap.

All this made me sit up, not only because I make my living in a language profession (translation) but also because I was exposed to similar attitudes when I was growing up in the New York area. There, the “devalued” language was Spanish. Of course, there was no official government policy to stamp out Spanish in American schools – the United States has no official language, whereas France does –; on the contrary, there was “bilingual education”. When I was growing up this term meant something very different to me than it does now. Now it means developing parallel speaking, listening, reading and writing skills in two languages and two cultures. Then it meant help kids along a little in Spanish until they learn English well enough to do without Spanish. That was the prevailing attitude in my family circle about what the goals of the program should be. Here’s a personal account from another American about how foreign cultures can be devalued in childhood. This time the venue is South Texas. The timeframe is the same, i.e. the 1960s and 1970s.

Then I spoke to some friends who are primary school teachers. One of them taught last year in Vénissieux, one of Lyon’s “difficult” neighborhoods. There was only one child in her class whose parents were born in France. The others were all North African, Turkish, Eastern European, etc. The picture I got from her was completely different from the one painted by the government report. Immigrant children attend “initiation” classes to help them get up to speed in French (it’s not their foreign parents who are going to teach them). Parents, she said, are often receptive to the idea of speaking French, if they can, to their kids. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they (the parents) feel lost in the French educational system in general. In class when the kids speak Arabic or another language, the teacher might ask them (politely) to repeat it in French for the whole class. Or if the child is, say, counting in Spanish, she might ask him to count to ten for the whole class so that the others can learn it. The school she taught at even offered Arabic classes after school for kids who speak it at home but haven’t learned how to write it. The big difference between this school and the international schools, she said, besides the lack of a formal bilingual program, is that the French language doesn’t work as a federating force. At recreation, the Arab kids speak Arabic to each other, the Turkish kids speak Turkish, etc.

It was interesting to look at the people the commission members interviewed: technical advisors in various ministries (interior, education, etc.), a district attorney, a child psychiatrist, the president (recteur) of a school district in the Paris suburbs, two officials of a parents association and a representative of a risk-management consulting firm. Hmmm, maybe they should have interviewed actual teachers, or even the cafeteria workers. Could the report’s well-intentioned but overzealous and misguided recommendations about language reflect a police-and-security-oriented interior ministry, even if the report was supposedly “interministériel”, as opposed to what the ministry of education might have produced had it been running the show?

I hope so.



At 10:52 AM, Anonymous marie paule le moan said...

OUi, Steve , c'est un opb qui m'intéresse. J'en ai assez dans les conseils de classe d'entendre des collègues dire "oui, mais on ne parle pas français à la maison". Maintenant, je fais dans la provocation "moi aussi, on ne parlait pas français à la maison!"
Silence gêné et général. Puis parfois qqn ose"ah bon! quelle langue parliez-vous?" et moi: "l'auvergnat!" Re-silence encore plus gêné...
JJ, qui enseigne dans le 16ème arrondisst de Paris, a chaque année des élèves qui ne parlent pas ou très peu français en début d'année et qui le possèdent parfaitement à l'écrit et à l'oral à la fin.
Le problème est un problème d'origine sociale et d'attitude de la famille par rapport à l'école. Si les parents sont bien structurés dans leur langue maternelle et l'écrivent, si ils ont un respect pour l'école, les enfants apprennent très vite.
Le problème de nos immigrants est que bien svt ils sont illettrés dans leur propre langue. De plus, les originaires d'Afrique du Nord sont de piètres arabisants qui parlent un sabir arabo-français. Lors d'un séjour au Yémen, notre guide moquait l'arabe parlé en Algérie. Un soir, il a appelé le chauffeur et m'a dit: je vais vous raconter une blague en algérien et vous allez la comprendre tous les 2: le chauffeur qui ne connaissait pas un mot de français et moi qui ne connaissait pas un mot d'arabe.Expérience concluante!
Je te renvoie au dernier monde de l'Education dans lequel a été publié un article très intéressant dont les auteurs préconisent, entre autres choses, l'enseignement de l'arabe littéraire dans les petites classes pour les enfants de familles arabophones.Nous avons tous eu dans nos classes des enfants d'origine espagnole ou portugaise qui maîtrisaient le français mais ils étaient souvent d'une origine sociale favorisée ou non gdéfavorisée. Nous avons tous eu des enfants , français depuis "toujours" incapables de s'exprimer correctement à l'écrit comme à l'oral.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for your comment. Indeed, if the best way to encourage immigrant children to learn the language of their new country is to place value in their native language, then surely the best way to place value their native language is, as you say, to give them an opportunity to learn, read, study and appreciate it as fully as they can, either through their family or through school.

At 7:46 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Translation of Marie-Paule’s comment:

Yes, Steve, this is a problem that interests me. I’ve had enough of teachers’ meetings where other teachers say, “Yes, but they don’t speak French at home.” Now I provoke them intentionally, “In my house, we didn’t speak French either.”
Embarrassed silence. Sometimes someone ventures “Really, what language did you speak?” Me: “Auvergnat!” Again, even more embarrassed silence.
JJ, who teaches in Paris in the 16th arrondissement, has students every year who speak little or no French at the start of the year and master it perfectly in spoken and written form at the end.
The problem is one of socio-economic status and the family’s attitude towards school. If the parents know the structure of their native language and write it, if they have respect for school, their children learn quickly.
The problem of our immigrants is that often they are illiterate in their native language. Moreover, North African immigrants are poor Arabic speakers who speak a mixture of Arabic and French. When I was on a trip in Yemen, our guide made fun of the Arabic spoken in Algeria. One evening, he called over the driver and said to me, “I’m going to tell you a joke in Algerian, and you are both going to understand.” The driver didn’t speak a word of French and I didn’t speak a word of Arabic. Enlightening experience!
Have a look at the most recent issue of Le Monde de l’Education, which has a very interesting article. In it the authors recommend, among other things, that literary Arabic be taught to young children of Arabic-speaking families. We have all had Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking children in our classes who learn French well, but they are often from privileged (or not underprivileged) socio-economic backgrounds. We have all had “100%” French children who are incapable of expressing themselves properly in either written or oral form.


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