Christine Hélot and Andrea Young

In France detailed programmes are produced for all the foreign languages that are authorised for instruction in primary schools (German, English, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian). At first glance the palette of languages offered seems broad, but in reality these languages are in competition with each other, because the pupils are only allowed to learn one of them. So, in spite of the ministry's desire to offer pupils a large choice of languages in order to diversify the languages on offer in France, this measure often has the perverse effect of reinforcing the hegemony of English, as is shown by the following table.

Proportion of groups of pupils from Cycle III in state schools in metropolitan France in relation to the language taught in 2004-2005

English      83%

German    11.6%

Spanish      2.1%

Italian         1.1%

Regional living languages   1.02%

Other living languages        0.35%

Portuguese  0.3%

Arabic          0.0%

Of course the school cannot teach all languages to all pupils, and this right from the primary age, but there are teaching approaches which make it possible to take into account the different languages present in a class. Didenheim is a little village in the suburbs of Mulhouse, an industrial town in Alsace near the German and Swiss frontiers.

A few years ago the teaching team at the primary school was very worried about a growing number of racist incidents. They decided to design a school project around the languages and cultures present in the local area. More than a third of the children, they estimated, were from linguistic and cultural minorities and almost 5% of the pupils came from Alsatian-speaking homes. They decided they should involve the parents in the project by inviting them to lead class activities. This is very unusual in French primary schools, but there were many more positive responses than expected. The activities took place on Saturday mornings, and consisted of two or three sessions per class for each language. The table below summarises the linguistic situation in the school:


taught at school        spoken at home       in the project

    German (LVE)              Mandarin                   Mandarin

(LVE means "Langues vivantes étrangères", "living foreign languages")

    English (LVE)               Malay                        Malay

    Moroccan                    Arabic (LCO)

(LCO means "Langues et culture d'origine", "languages and culture of the culture of origin")          

    Vietnamese                 Vietnamese

    Polish (LCO)                English                       English

    Turkish (LCO)             German                      German

    Alsatian                      Alsatian     

    Portuguese (Brazilian) Portuguese (Brazilian)

    Italian                         Italian

    Polish                          Polish

    Turkish                        Turkish

    Arabic                          Arabic

    Berber                         Berber

    Serbocroat                   Serbocroat



    Sign language



The teachers listened to the parents and helped them to adapt the content that they wanted to present. In no way did the teachers want to impose a standard model; they wanted to support the parents' imagination and creativity so that their desire to share certain aspects of their culture should be accessible to the children. The result was a very broad palette of activities which were widely different from each other, and highly motivating for everyone, pupils and teachers. These activities were connected with the different disciplines in the primary school: geography (placing the countries concerned on a map of the world, presenting the daily life in different countries, etc.), history (parents talked about immigration and gave evidence about their lives), reading and a first approach to biliteracy (reading of traditional stories in bilingual books), music (the children learnt Happy birthday to you in all the languages they tackled, as well as short songs for mime) and food (the parents prepared special meals for the three classes involved.)

Work on language and languages was also offered as the sessions went on: the children were invited to work out the meanings of utterances from the context or from pictures, to listen to the sounds that are particular to one language and to learn to differentiate them. They got used to different writing systems, identified some words borrowed from other languages. They learnt to make parallels between the languages and cultural habits they learnt about (such as ways of introducing themselves, greeting other people and thanking them) and to name a few familiar elements in the different languages (animals, colours, fruit, etc.).

All this knowledge and life-skill was presented to the class by the parents. But it was the collaboration between teachers and parents, before, during and after the sessions which benefited the pupils, because the teachers were able to construct an educational project based on the parents' contributions. Without the combined commitment of both, the project would not have been able to achieve its aims.

For the children, the parents' participation was irreplaceable. The analysis of the recordings of the whole set of sessions showed that a great many of the questions the children asked could only be answered by the parents. Here are a few that seemed to us to be particularly revealing and which show the importance of the presence of the parents in the classroom:

Do all Alsatian names mean something?

Are there school councils in Finland?

Is Berber written from right to left, like Arabic?

Is sign language the same all over the world?

But it is not only on the level of knowledge that the parents' participation was fundamental, it was also fundamental for learning about otherness.

All the pupils expressed positive reactions to the parents' interventions in the classes:

I like it when people come to introduce their language instead of the teacher, because they come from the country they are talking about.

You understand better when it is people from outside who come to introduce the languages.

They also showed that they were aware that their teachers' foreign language skills were limited:

I liked people coming into the class because the teacher hardly knows any languages.

It's good that it is other people; the teacher doesn't come from every other country.

It is precisely this concrete encounter with the other, with the parents of children in the class, that makes the project at the school in Didenheim so unusual. This other may be a pupil's father or mother who, before the project, had never stepped through the door of the school, and has now become, for everybody, a person with a story, with a past, someone with connections outside France who has also built a life inside France.

For the children who saw their own parents taking part in the classes, there was a real awareness of the importance of the knowledge which their parents held, a pride in the school's legitimisation of this knowledge which was a sudden revelation to everyone, including the teachers.

"My Mum knows more than the teacher," said a girl who came originally from Vietnam.

The recognition of the parents' knowledge, the teachers' willingness to make room for them at school and the collaborative construction of the teaching sessions made it possible for teachers and parents to get to know one another, to share their respective experience and to understand one another better.

The parents' participation in the project also contributed to the teachers' acquisition of a more global vision of languages and cultures. Thanks to this experiment, they have recognised the value of bilingualism, whatever the languages involved, and have better understood the errors in French made by the bilingual children in their classes. They changed their approach to their pupils. Instead of picking on the children's deficits and those of their non-French-speaking parents, they learnt to value the resources that they gained from them.

There was an opening-up, on the part of the teachers, towards the knowledge of the parents, and an opening-up, on the part of the parents, towards the teachers' work, that is to say a mutual awareness of each other's skills. Thanks to the project, the distance between all the different languages and cultures has been bridged.

The purpose of awakening children to languages and cultures is not to pick out the bilingual children, but to open the eyes of all the children, monolingual or bilingual, to multilingualism, so that they can discuss differences constructively and focus on the similarities beyond them. The continual coming and going of children's questions and parents' replies encouraged a reciprocity, an exchange which bridged the linguistic and cultural gap.

Some questions asked by the pupils have shown that they were capable of moving outside themselves, of imagining themselves in the place of someone else and proving their empathy:

Is it hard to learn French when you are Chinese?

How do you answer the telephone [in sign language]?

They also asked questions about how language and languages work:

It is funny what a lot of accents Vietnamese has. Why are there dots underneath and accents over the top?

What is the Japanese accent?

Why is Alsatian a dialect and not a language?

They were able to ask questions which are often taboo at school:

Why haven't Vietnamese people got the same-coloured skin?

Why did you come to France?

But the question which shook all the adults and showed a real linguistic awareness was the following:

Is French a language?

Of course the project was particularly beneficial for the bilingual children. Teachers and parents commented on the pride of the bilingual children during the sessions devoted to their language and culture. It was the recognition by the school of a part of themselves, of certain aspects of their family lives which was the trigger for a new self-confidence in the classroom. One of the teachers said: "Before, the Turkish children in the class didn't really exist; now they do."

The process of becoming a citizen and learning to live with others in spite of differences requires the pupil to develop new skills such as "respecting other pupils and accepting differences", something required in the framework of citizenship education according the directives of the national ministry of education.

The Council of Europe says that citizenship education should "make sure that differences are celebrated and recognised by the community, whether it be local, national, regional or international." That is what has happened at Didenheim. The classroom space has changed: instead of being monolingual, it is plurilingual. Multilingual posters now decorate the walls of the school. The teachers refer to linguistic diversity in many disciplines, bilingual works have been bought for the library, etc.

Languages and cultures have been seen in terms of collective resources and have been put on an equal footing. The bilingualism of the pupils who speak a language other than that of the school has been valued: this has enabled some children to find their place in the class. The project has made it possible for them to express themselves in their own language, to serve as models to their equals and even to write in, for example, Arabic, on the blackboard, in front of the whole class. The knowledge learnt outside school has benefited from being honestly recognised by their teachers and the other children.

Knowledge is no longer seen as a privilege that belongs only to the school and the teachers; it also belongs to the parents and pupils, and is something to be shared.

It is extraordinary that the process discovered at Didenheim had already been developed, under the name of 'language awareness', by the British linguist, Eric Hawkins, of York University. 'Language awareness,' as he defines it, does not mean learning one particular language, but discovering many different languages and accepting many different cultures. It is a good basis for learning one or more foreign languages later on, and it is just what happened at Didenheim.

Racism, however, pervades society as a whole, and it is not easy for schools to change attitudes which are prevalent outside. Even so, within the school the problem has been alleviated. The distances have been reduced between teachers and parents, between school and home and between different languages. French, which is the official school language, the languages spoken at home and all other foreign languages have been given equal status. As a result the children have learnt to appreciate unfamiliar cultures, and to treat one other with a new respect.

A film has been made of the Didenheim experiment with English subtitles, and can be obtained from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Further information can be found from the following sources:

Hélot, C . and A. Young (2006) : Imagining Multilingual Education in France : A language and cultural awareness project at primary level. In O. Garcia, T. Skutnabb-Kangas and M. E. Torres-Guzman (eds.) : Imagining Multilingual Schools. Languages in Education and Globalization, Clevedon, UK:

Multilingual Matters, collection Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights, directed by T. Skutnabb-Kangas, Université of Roskilde, Dannemark; (pp. 69-90)

Hélot, C. et Young, A . (2002) : Bilingualism and Language Education in French Primary Schools: why and how should migrant languages be valued? in International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism , Vol 5 : 2. C. Baker (ed.). Clevedon, UK : Multilingual Matters. (pp. 92-112).

A. Young and Hélot, C. (2003) : Language Awareness and/or Language Learning in French Primary Schools today: Journal of Language Awareness , Vol 12: 3 and 4, Edited by A. Malmqvist and I. Valfridsson, Association for Language Awareness. Clevedon, UK : Multilingual Matters (pp. 236-246).

Young, A. and Hélot, C. (in press) : Parent Power : Parents as a Linguistic and Cultural Resource at School. In A. Camillieri (ed.) : ENSEMBLE: Whole-School Language Profiles and Policies . Publication of the ECML (European Centre for Modern Languages): Second Medium Term Programme: Languages for Social Cohesion, Language Education in a Multilingual and Multicultural Europe.(pp. 14-28).

Hélot, C. and Young, A. (2005) :The notion of Diversity in Language Education: Policy and Practice at Primary Level in France: Journal of Language, Culture and Curriculum. Vol 18 (3) Edited by Eoghan Mac Aigain Clevedon, UK : Multilingual Matters. (p. 242-257)

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