Attitudes Towards Foreign Languages in Education: France vs the US

« Je croyais être un type sympa […], merveilleux,

Pour eux, je suis dangereux »

“I thought I was a nice, wonderful guy,

But to them, I am dangerous” (I Am Dangerous, by I AM) 

A few days ago an opposition MP in the French National Assembly took a government minister to task over a planned policy measure to be adopted in the near future. The MP’s comments were accompanied by thunderous applause from colleagues on her side of the aisle. The comments included references to social cohesion, creeping danger for French society, France’s association with its European neighbours, and French history. A matter of European Union or foreign policy one may ask? No. Terrorism maybe? Not that either; the matter at hand was the teaching of Arabic language in primary and secondary schools.

French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has made a number of decisions over the past year or so concerning the teaching of languages in school. Alongside the teaching of modern and ancient languages as stand-alone subjects, there are specific optional settings within which languages are used as a vehicle of learning, meaning that other subjects are taught to pupils in these foreign languages. This option operates within the confines of the European and Eastern Languages, or SELO (Sections européennes ou de langues orientales) programme (within which I have had the opportunity to teach). As for languages as subjects in and of themselves, schools offer one or two foreign languages to their pupils, sometimes starting with the first year of middle school or, in many more cases, in the third year. Before the current Arabic language issue, the previous headline-making story was when the Education Minister announced a plan to phase out two language classes, which her government considered to be too elitist. Whereas customarily the majority of secondary school pupils are exposed to a second foreign language from year 3 of secondary school, the two language classes had access to the second from the very first year.

In March 2015 the plan was announced to stop the two language classes as a niche setup (only one-sixth of pupils were in such classes) and have all pupils nationwide start a second language from year 2 of secondary school. All in all, the minority two language class schools would lose a year, while the five-sixths majority would gain a year. Everyone would thus be on the same footing as the middle word of the French Liberté Egalité Fraternité national motto. Fraternité was however to show itself to be in short supply, as the two languagers cried foul. As it happens, the second language featured in these classes was, more often than not, German. In many cases the existence of these classes gave German teachers a new lease on professional life, since that language is not as popular with pupils as it once was. German teachers were as such up in arms over what they viewed as an attempt to cut off the progress they had been making in breathing new life into their subject.

On the other side of the argument was the fact that German being the language most commonly taught in 2 language classes was not the only interesting specificity of the programme; the 2 language classes are distributed quite unevenly throughout the country and in most cases the schools where they are in place are schools attended by children of upper class parents. The whole thing was seen as elitist by its detractors. Conventional wisdom thus had it that would be a no-brainer to remove this programme the difference between pupils had access to a second language since, in any case, there was already the SELO system later on in towards the end of middle school, then in high school where pupils could have access to a variety of other languages, both as subjects and as a language of instruction. Given the pushback faced from teachers, the government backed down and the majority of the two language classes survived. In leaving the classes in place, the Minister announced this year that she would see to it that more languages be made available from which to choose the second language of the 2 language groups. Arabic was one of the languages to be included in the list of languages to be offered, as were Chinese and Japanese.

The inclusion of the two Asian languages did not rub the right wing opposition MP the wrong way. One wonders if she is perhaps friends with the far-right Front National MEP Bruno Gollnisch, who studied in Japan and has taught about Japanese history and culture in France. Putting Arabic on the list, however, did. During a sitting of the National Assembly she said: “created in the 1970s to maintain immigrant populations’ links with their home countries, the Languages and Cultures of Origin programme (ELCO) gradually lost direction and drifted away from the goal it had at the outset. Today it is a tool of cultural withdrawal and closed mindedness. It has even in some cases become a means by which Islamic doctrine is spread, according to the High Council for Integration”. Arabic is, in the MP’s view, a distraction or a perversion for pupils of Arab origin rather than a potential asset for all pupils. She relegated Arabic to being just a heritage language to be shaken off.

She continued by saying: “instead of discontinuing this programme […] you have decided to push Arabic as part of the national curriculum, in effect jeopardising the French language, Ancient languages, which are our roots, and European languages like German, which prospered in the two language classes”, in what could be her special way of living up to French philosopher Michel de Montaigne’s assertion that “one’s principal and most laborious study must be the study of oneself” – which interestingly could also have been used as a slogan for the ELCO programme when it was launched – by wanting only all things French or European to feature prominently.  The no-brainer of scaling back 2 language classes in the limited way in which they served pupils, and striving to ensure everyone could start a second language at a relatively early stage was lost on the MP, who went further, asking why the Minister could not muster the courage to tell immigrant families that for their children to succeed they had to concentrate on French (and apparently German) and that French was not just any language, but rather the means by which they had to get in tune with the French way of life.

Minister Vallaud-Belkacem’s rebuttal highlighted that diversifying the course offering in terms of languages beyond the usual ones was important, and that Arabic was not competing with German and deserved the same consideration as the other languages being emphasised because each language presented its own set of advantages accruing to those choosing to learn it. She did concede that the ELCO programme (which I might add was devised by a centre-right government that is the ancestor of the modern day Les Républicains party to which the protesting opposition MP belongs) had run its course, but pointed out that rather than the languages taught under the system (Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Turkish, Italian and Portuguese) being abandoned, they should be absorbed into the national curriculum as subjects alongside any other if they hadn’t already been, no longer taught in a vacuum specifically because they were heritage languages, but because they were languages full stop. This exchange shows how protective the French are of their language, and how ill at ease many in country are with any public policy that appears to cater to specific needs of certain categories of non-French people living in France. Arabic is a tool of islamisation planting the seeds of terror, but the equally as spurious charge that teaching Serbo-Croatian language under the ELCO programme led youths to sympathise with Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic and seek to resurrect their grand project has never been made. Why is that?

Michel de Montaigne said that “each nation has many customs and usages that are not only unknown, but savage and miraculous to some other nation”. Across the pond in the US, the picture is vastly different. The United States of America does not have an official language and, that being the case, a number of public services can be provided in languages other than English. Someone can take their driving test in certain foreign languages, for example, as well as use the websites of the Food & Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control in Spanish, and access FDA educational resources in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Korean and Vietnamese. That said, the stir created by the 2014 Coca Cola Super Bowl advert in which people from around the world sang “America The Beautiful” in many languages shows that not everyone is on board the multilingual train, the fact is that public bodies do provide for non-English speakers to a certain extent.

In the area of education, a cursory glance at the website of the largest school system in the US, the New York City Department of Education – which is run by someone raised in a non-English-speaking household – reveals that education services are made available in Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, French, Urdu, Russian and Spanish. Add English to that and you get a whopping total of 10 languages, relegating the United Nations headquarters to the second most multilingual entity in New York City. If things worked that way in France, languages like Lingala and Haitian Creole could possibly find their way into ELCO.

Curiously, the French are very protective of their language, and some are wary of the teaching of certain other languages in their schools, but the French government actually invests in the learning of French language abroad – and not in francophone countries, but in New York City, where the French Foreign Affairs and Education Ministries inject cash for teacher training and for the opening of new dual language programmes where half of the classes are conducted in French and half in English. Thanks in part to this investment, the French dual language programme is the third largest in the city, trailing only Spanish and Chinese. This in a city whose demographics make it such that “the idea of learning French, to some, may seem kind of quaint, even anachronistic”, according to a New York Times article on the matter. If French should be learned as a subject and used as a language of instruction in the 5 Boroughs, because it is a world language spoken in many countries, should not the same be said of Arabic in France? After all, there are hundreds of millions of Arabic-speakers in the world, and some would argue that it should no longer be seen as just a language of immigrants in the 21st century, but as a reified linguistic entity in a globalised world.

In 2014 American linguist John McWhorter published a much talked about article entitled “Let’s Stop Pretending That French Is An Important Language”. In it he lays out his point for why people should have their children learn Spanish or Chinese instead of French. The article led to plenty of healthy debate about the reasons for which people learn languages and just how one measures the usefulness of any language, which was, no doubt, his intention in writing it. Detractors of the expansion of Arabic teaching in French schools seem like the type to take to a publication of their political hue – say Le Figaro or Valeurs Actuelles – and pen a piece they’d call “Let’s Stop Pretending That Arabic Is An Important Language”. Maybe it’s time for them to stop acting like it isn’t.

In the type of remark that inspires lyrics like “hypocritical society where some have so much power, that with total impunity they can insult history” from the I AM song “I Am Dangerous” referenced at the very start of this article, controversial French public intellectual Eric Zemmour recently blurted out during a debate with Socialist Party leader Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, that “France is not a no man’s land, not a terra nullius. It is a country with a history and a culture and a civilisation”, even going as far as to fume that “France is not just any old country – it’s not Panama, or Guatemala or Chile”. I won’t comment on the absolutely ridiculous nature of the latter part of his rant, but what can be said is that in the first part the word France could be replaced with the name of any other country and it would remain true. As such, if the statement holds for France and its language and extends all the way to French deserving to be learned the world over, then the same should be true for Arabic or any other language.



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