Book coverChristine Hélot 

Christine Hélot researches bilingualism in France. The two articles that follow are taken from edited and abbreviated translations of articles in Ecarts de Langue, Ecarts de Culture , edited by Christine Hélot, Elisabeth Hoffman, Marie Louise Scheidhauer and Andrea Young, and published by Peter Lang , ISBN 3-631-55267-Xbr, available on line from at £29.80.

There is a problem of "invisibility" for certain types of bilingualism in a school context. When I ask teachers about the languages spoken by their pupils at home, I find that most of them consider it to be part of the pupils' private lives. This explains why everyone was surprised during one of my class visits when I asked a boy in English what language he spoke with his mother (the teacher having told me that she was Irish) and he answered me in fluent English (with a marked Dublin accent). All his fellow-pupils and the teacher suddenly discovered something which up until then they had not known, and which, once it was revealed, provoked much admiration.

There is a large number of bilingual children in our schools, but it would be more accurate to say that many are not only bilingual but multilingual: during the class observations of the Didenheim project which I describe elsewhere, a teacher was stupefied to discover that one of her pupils spoke Mandarin with her mother, had an idea of Malaysian because she had been to Malaysia with her family, understood English which her parents spoke with each other, and recognised Alsatian which her grand-parents spoke.

In France we still have the tendency to think that these incidences of bilingualism or plurilingualism are rare or extraordinary, especially in schools, where the strong monolingual tradition perpetuates the myth of a monolingual France, but well before researchers began to take an interest in bilingualism, the European élite had practised it, whether it was with the French governesses employed by the aristocrats in tsarist Russia and Vienna, or with the English nannies in France and elsewhere. It is also the case today for many children of mixed race, or from families of diplomats, the sort of people who go to international schools.

In the Strasbourg international school the pupils from the international sections work alongside the pupils in the non-international streams. The languages involved are English, German, Spanish and Italian, that is to say four European languages. Entrance into these international sections is governed by a test in the relevant language and the lessons consist of five hours a week, which are additional to the regular programme of the other pupils. The teaching in the international section is therefore an extra on top of the regular programme. It supports the language spoken at home, allows the children to develop literacy in their two languages, prepares for the end-of-school examinations in the countries concerned in parallel with the French baccalaureate and opens the doors to European universities. Those who cannot pass the entry tests, even though they may be fluent in, say, Arabic or Turkish, feel themselves to be inferior. It is as if "bilingualism is good for the rich and bad for the poor," to quote J. Cummins.

Language-teaching in France implies a paradox: on the one hand, there is a strong desire to encourage children to become multilingual, and on the other a failure to recognise that many of them are multilingual already.

It is important to ask why certain languages are excluded from the school curriculum. It is generally a consequence of one dominant language – that of the host nation – being compared with a so-called minority language, such as that of a former colony or one associated with immigration, for instance Arabic or Turkish.

For the bilingual child in this situation the two languages tend to be in competition rather than complementary to one another, because one has more social and economic prestige than the other. The more prestigious language is likely to impose itself and the first language will either diminish or be reserved for the home or even totally disappear.

The bilingual children of the élite are seldom ashamed of their language, since their knowledge of several languages is valued within their families, at school and in society. The relationship which bilingual children from a prosperous background will see between their first and second languages is not of the same kind as that experienced by children in immigrant families. They may be ashamed of their parents' language, which is associated with a context that is seen as inferior. They are also subjected to strong pressure from the educational authorities to learn the language of the school as quickly as possible and to understand that there is no room at school for the language from home.

Why do so few schools offer Arabic in the primary school when it has featured in the list of foreign languages available to seven-year-olds since 1995? The most recent directive from the Ministry of Education offers nothing new: special help in French for children who have only just arrived is obligatory, and nothing at all is said about these children's extraordinary potential for plurilinguality.

Speaking more than one language is a trump card for some pupils and some languages, but a handicap for other pupils and other languages. On the one hand there is strong social pressure for the school to turn our children into future multilingual citizens but, on the other hand, we don't know what to do with the multilingual children already present in our classes. What is more, the negative image of immigrant bilingualism is persistent, as if this bilingualism represented a sort of crime against the symbolic monolingualism of the French nation. The enforced bilingualism of immigrants is seen as a mishap whereas the chosen bilingualism of the élite is a privilege. That is why the bilingualism of the élite finds a place in school, where it is valued, and the bilingualism of the immigrants remains associated with the family sphere, not legitimised by the school and therefore invisible.

This results in another kind of distinction between the two kinds of bilingualism: for the élite the school supports the development of writing skills as well as oral skills in both languages, whereas for the immigrants, written competence is only developed in the dominant language. In most cases the language used at home will be limited to oral skills, and it will be the family's responsibility to find help from outside the school to develop the children's ability to read and write in their first language.

This distinction is important because it underlines the role of the school with respect to the written word. The immigrant children's lack of experience of the written word in the dominated language reinforces the imbalance between their two languages, to the advantage of the dominant language. And this has implications for the minority language; firstly its use will be restricted to the social level, and secondly it may not be transmitted from one generation to another.

Currently the transmission of the languages of immigrants from one generation to another is weak, and has greatly diminished with successive generations. Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, all these languages reduce from one generation to the next, and are supplanted by French. The longer immigrants stay, the more they tend towards the use of French at home and monolingual French-speaking has been continually increasing for a hundred years.

'Does your child speak both languages perfectly?' is the question the French always ask the parents of children who speak two languages, but the parents of a child who speaks only French are never asked, 'Does your child speak French perfectly?' It is an impossible task to define who is bilingual and who isn't: the mass of scientific literature published since the 60s, shows that there are as many definitions as researchers, and that the definitions go from a maximalist point of view (speaking two languages like a native speaker) to a minimalist point of view (being capable of saying or understanding a few phrases in a second language) including the whole range of possibilities between these two poles.

The only thing that is consistent is that most bilingual individuals use their two languages in different domains and very often in a complementary way. What is important is what bilinguals do with their two languages, which language they use in what context, speaking to whom, why, when, where, etc.

Many researchers today insist that bilingual competence is very specific and different from monolingual competence. The bilingual individual is not the sum of two (or more) monolingual individuals, but rather a specific, totally competent speaker who has developed a communicative skill equal to that of the monolinguals, but of a different kind. And this communication skill, which is specific to the bilinguals, includes not only the knowledge of two languages, but also the ability to pass from one to the other and the knowledge of the effects produced by the switch. In this sense, it is possible to compare the performance of the bilingual individual to that of any monolingual who goes from one style of speech to another, depending on the situation and who he is speaking to.

We must find new ways of working with bilingual and bicultural children. In whatever environment they grow up, they are the ones who are going to construct bridges between different languages and different cultures. It is they who will facilitate understanding and perform the mediations which we all need so that we can live together in peace.

Review copies of Ecarts de Langue, Ecarts de Culture can be requested from Peter Lang AG , Éditions Scientifiques Internationales, Moosstrasse 1, B.P.350, CH-2542 Pieterlen, Switzerland

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