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Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Education in Multilingual Families: The Burning Question—Part One



One word, carrying so much baggage. Hope for the future; worries about its quality and quantity. And for families raising bilingual or multilingual children, the language question adds another dimension of difficulty, especially if you are lucky enough to live in a place where you have lots of options.

Matthew is four and a half. School starts at age three in France (although it isn’t mandatory until age six). He’s happily integrated into the local public preschool. But CP (the equivalent of first grade) looms. The local public elementary school is huge and doesn’t have a fabulous reputation.

So I’m searching for the Holy Grail of schools. A place that is warm and nurturing (which is pretty much the opposite of 95% of the French school system, more on that later), with a strong curriculum and good test results, where my children can be taught English to their level as native speakers. It would be great to add Arabic in there, but I have to be a little bit realistic. Oh, two more key points: no more than a 30-minute commute each way, and we obviously have to be able to afford it, if it’s a private school.

That’s quite a wish list.

Shall we start with the warm and nurturing?

The most recent PISA study (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment) shows some pretty bald facts about the French education system. It’s tough on the children and not very effective at helping them learn. Children are anxious from a very early age at school, and this anxiety translates into poor performance on exams and really informs the way French children feel about learning, school, and taking intellectual risks. Why are children so anxious, you ask? Well, to paraphrase the author Peter Gumbel, author of a recent essay (On achève bien les écoliers) that highlights the weaknesses of the French system, the mentality of school in France follows a 19th century industrial model. In other words, it’s one-size-fits-all. The teacher, a fountain of information, spouts his or her facts. The children are empty vessels waiting to be filled. If for some reason children have a hard time incorporating this wisdom, they are failures, worthless. “Tu es nul” (You’re worthless) is a very common thing for a child to hear at school.

One-size-fits-all in education turns out to look a lot like one-size-fits-all in clothing. The truth is that one size fits a few. For the rest of us, it’s too loose here and too tight there. For a huge variety of reasons, which I won’t go into since this is a blog post and not a book, French culture and society mean that the educational status quo is unlikely to change any time soon. So we have to work with the material at hand. That’s why, while I don’t like it at all, I cope with the fact that the teachers and aides at Matthew’s school sometimes speak rudely to the children. That sometimes they belittle or shame the children. It makes my skin itch, but the reality is that there just aren’t many other choices. I’m trying to find ways to help Matthew cope and put things in perspective. And I’m also searching for the Holy Grail.

More on the education question to come!

© 2011 – 2013, Mary Hackett. All rights reserved.

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Mary Hackett was born and raised on the Texas/Mexico border. She moved to France in 2000 after graduating from the University of Chicago, and aside from a year back in the US has lived there ever since with her Franco-Lebanese husband and their two sons. They are raising their kids trilingually in English, French and Arabic.

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