NNEST of the Month
Christine Hélot is a professor of English at the University of Strasbourg (France) and a teacher educator at the IUFM of Alsace. She has been researching the field of bilingualism and bilingual education since she obtained her PhD from Trinity college, Dublin (Ireland) in 1988. Her thesis was entitled: “Child Bilingualism : a linguistic and sociolinguistic study” and was carried out in the context of Franco-Irish families bringing up their children with two or three languages. In 2005 she obtained her « Habilitation for the direction of research » from the University of Strasbourg . This research looked at the way schools in France can support bilingualism developed in the home context. It was published in 2007 as Du bilinguisme en famille au plurilinguisme à l’école, by L’Harmattan in Paris.
September Interviewer: Ana Solano-Campos
1. Dr. Hélot, how and why did you get interested in languages and language learning?
I started learning English at secondary school in France at the age of 11. I cannot resist sharing with you an unforgettable anecdote: I failed my first English test because I did not understand the difference between this and these and that and those. I went home crying with a mark of 0 out of 20. Fortunately, my mother consoled me and convinced me I would do better on the next test. And strangely enough from then on, I always had excellent marks in English and it quickly became my best subject at school.
I often wonder what attracted me so much to the English language. I think retrospectively that this new language opened a door for me, a wide door onto an unknown world I wanted to discover and English was going to be my passport. Then when I was 18, my penpal from San Diego came to visit me in Paris and she had a great idea: she would ask her parents to help me find a job in California. Within a few weeks I had a plane ticket to Los Angeles and was going to work as an au pair for a year in a beautiful town by the beach.
That year changed my life, as not only did I learn to speak English fluently, but I looked after a little girl with Down Syndrome whom I helped to walk and talk. I think I took such an interest in her development that it gave me a desire to teach and a fascination for the way young children learn. I learned that one should never give up on children, however limited their abilities might seem. I understood the importance of taking into account each child’s special needs, emotional as well as cognitive and that in a secure and loving environment children always achieve far more than they might be expected to. Looking back today I believe the relationship I developed with her over that year taught me lessons for life, lessons going far beyond any competence in the English language.
After a year, I went back to Paris to study and the obvious choice for me was English. I got a BA in two years and then went on to do two MAs, one to teach English as a foreign language and the other to teach French as a foreign language. I thought the two MAs would give me better chances of employment.
Indeed it helped me when I went to Ireland two years later and I found work teaching French in two Dublin universities. I soon got a permanent job in one of these universities and was appointed head of the Language Centre. And clearly that is when my interest in sociolinguistics was born: I was meant to develop language laboratory courses for the Irish language, for French and for German. I took a course in Irish, discovered the different geographical varieties of the language and organized interviews with native speakers. It was then when I understood languages are not just abstract entities studied by linguists, but that speakers have special relationships to their languages and all kinds of attitudes to “foreign” languages they know or do not know.
I ran the Language Centre and taught applied linguistics courses in various language departments for 17 years while also doing a PhD thesis on bilingualism in the family context. I knew many Franco/Irish families and they were all having babies and wondering how to manage their two or three languages. They were all somewhat worried that bilingualism might cause some delay in their children’s language acquisition so I decided to carry out a study that would investigate their many questions. I also did a case study of family trilingualism to analyze how families cope with three different languages.
In 1990, I went back to France and chose to live in Alsace, a border area with Germany and a bilingual region (French/Alsatian; Alsatian is a German variety). I got a post in the Teacher Education department of the University of Strasbourg as an English Professor and I was meant to develop the teaching of English at primary level.
2. In “Language Awareness and/or Language Learning in French Primary Schools Today” you and Andrea Young address French language policies and their impact on linguistic/sociocultural pluralism. In what ways has educational reform in France influenced the way children in French schools view languages and language learning in primary schools?
Foreign language teaching at primary level in France was implemented nationally from the beginning of the 1990’s starting first at age 9 then, 8 and since 2002, foreign languages have been fully integrated in the National Curriculum and teaching starts at age 7. The Ministry of education statistics show that 90% of children study English at primary, but the interesting point about language policies in France is that in fact 8 languages can be taught at the primary level: English, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic. The Ministry of Education has also published pedagogical guidelines for all these languages, but unfortunately English remains the dominant choice of parents. While I perfectly understand their preference for English, this reduces the possibility for other languages to be taught. And this focus on English at the primary level continues at secondary school and at university thus de facto constraining the diversification policy. The situation in France as regards this dominance in English is no different from other European countries where too many learners also think English is enough to get by in the world. However, European policies do insist that two languages other than the mother tongue should be taught during obligatory schooling, and this is a policy which has long been in existence in France. Spanish is the favorite second language of French high school students, but again many other languages are present in the curriculum but not necessarily offered in many schools.
As to how children view language learning at primary, based on what I have seen in many classrooms, I can say that they enjoy language learning very much, whether it is English or German (as in Alsace). The teaching approach is based on games and songs and on the whole involves the children more actively than other school subjects. Unfortunately, the approach becomes more traditional at secondary school and many learners quickly lose their early motivation. Indeed, I think it is a real pedagogical question: how to get young students to have fun learning a foreign language, but also to understand that it demands a certain effort to acquire vocabulary, for example, and to discover a whole new way of structuring sentences or of doing things with language. Of course some teachers manage it very well and there is a large choice of pedagogical materials available today, not to mention Internet resources, etc.
I should add that in France, primary teachers were at first reluctant to teach foreign languages, because mainstream teachers did not feel confident enough about their linguistic competence nor had they the necessary training. While a foreign language is now fully part of teacher education programs, many primary teachers still feel insecure teaching a language they feel they have not mastered sufficiently. The Ministry of Education decided from the start that it should not be specialist teachers of English going into primary schools, but that regular teachers should take on this new responsibility.
3. In your research you discuss/tackle “language hierarchies”, “ignored bilingualism,” “Language Awareness (LA)” and “the hegemony of French”. Can you elaborate on these concepts?
When I write about language hierarchies in the French education system, I want to point at the dominant place of the French language in the curriculum – which is normal of course – but there are also very strong values associated to our national language and it is not uncommon for people and teachers to have all sorts of attitudes that express either some belief that our language is superior to other languages or a kind of fear it might be in danger in the face of the spread of English. I believe it is the combination of these two attitudes that prevents the teaching profession at large to truly believe in the value of learning foreign languages. This is why I talk about the hegemony of the French language: it is not only the language of schooling, it holds such symbolic power in the minds of most French people, it is what cemented the Nation, it is what makes us citizens of the Republic and it is the job of teachers to promote these values in school.
This means that in our curriculum a large number of hours are allocated to the formal study of the French language, while foreign languages only have a 2 to 3 hour slot per week. Foreign languages do have more space than regional languages (such as Breton, Corsican, Catalan, Creole, Basque, etc.), which remain elective subjects, but which –however- can be taught in bilingual programs. And then at the very bottom of the upside down pyramid (as I represent this hierarchy) one finds the languages of immigration/immigrants (Arabic, Turkish, Polish etc.): these languages remain on the margins of the curriculum, taught mostly after school hours and by native teachers who are paid by their own government.
Yet many students in our classrooms today speak these languages at home. And because they learn French at school and speak a different language in their community, I strongly argue for these children to be called bilingual, or emergent bilinguals (term used by Garcia & Kleifgen, 2010). But for a lot of teachers still, these children are considered as having problems with the school language and their knowledge in their first language is not recognized. This is what I call the ignored bilingualism of children with a migration background.
I should stress here that I’m not blaming teachers who have been educated to insist on the importance of the French language, and who are not necessarily aware of the role of language ideologies on attitudes. There are still not enough teacher education courses in France dealing with the increasing diversity of languages and cultures in our classrooms or with anti-racist education.
4. In what ways is LA different from “language learning”?
Language awareness (LA) is a term which was first used by Hawkins (1987) in the UK to refer to a new approach in language education that would integrate the learning of the school language, of foreign languages and of the languages spoken by students in their community. It is an interesting pedagogical approach because its aims were to build bridges between these different languages and introduce children to the way language functions as well as to an understanding of linguistic diversity.
Language awareness projects as they have developed in different countries in Europe and Canada propose a first introduction to many languages which students might not have heard before, to different writing systems and encourage them to compare their own language(s) to those of others. One of the great advantages of this model is that teachers do not have to be fluent speakers of many languages to carry out LA activities; they just need to know some facts about various languages and where to find the relevant information or to ask expert speakers of that given language to help them. Language awareness activities are particularly well suited to young learners, I believe, because it gives them a taste of diversity, a taste for languages rather than enclosing them in a sole language like English from the start of schooling.
In the research I carried out with my colleague Andrea Young in a primary school in Alsace (Hélot 2007, Hélot and Young 2006), when we asked the children who had followed a three year program of LA activities what language (in the singular) they wanted to study at secondary school, they quoted a great variety of languages including sign language. They all gave two of three languages rather than just one, and English and German hardly appeared. They gave very clearly motivated reasons for their choice, either wanting to study a language because it was the language of their mother, or their grand-parents, or because it was a useful language like sign language, or because their curiosity had been aroused by a particular culture and they wanted to know more.
5. How does LA combat linguistic racism?
I believe LA activities can combat linguistic racism because their first objective is to give equal value to all languages. This means that any language can be the source of LA activities, dominant languages or minority languages, languages in danger and local varieties, including of course the school language; but the school language is not given more status than other languages. And giving equal values to all languages of course means giving equal recognition to the speakers of these languages.
Furthermore, LA activities offer a perfect opportunity to work with the family languages of bilingual students. Without stigmatizing speakers of other languages and remaining aware of the dangers of tokenism, the appearance of inclusion of minority groups by incorporating a person who would represent that group, LA activities can use the languages present in the classroom alongside other languages to learn different writing systems, different word order, as well as different cultural practices. It gives bilingual speakers a chance of being experts in their classroom, of having their languages valued by their peers and their teachers and of seeing their bilingual competence recognized. LA activities make students aware of the wealth of languages in the world and of the necessity to protect this diversity. Isn’t it strange that our curriculum includes the study of diversity in the natural world, of the world population and not of the languages people speak?
Language awareness as an approach works more on attitudes towards languages rather than on aptitude, and it can be considered as a first education to multilingualism based on the linguistic resources present in a classroom. The evaluation of the European project EVLANG (Genelot 2001) has shown that students must be exposed to these kinds of activities for a substantial amount of time (more than 40 hours in total) for positive attitudes to develop. It also showed that multilingual students were the most receptive students and low achievers benefitted most from this kind of approach.
However, it remains to be proved that LA activities have a positive impact on the learning of the school language or of foreign languages – a question often asked – but there is no doubt that it awakens young children’s sensitivity to language and help bilingual students to value their home language and feel their identity is no longer stigmatized at school. And finally LA activities are closely related to the aims of intercultural education (learning about others and about values such as tolerance and solidarity), since languages are the expression of different cultures
6. Why is the diversification proposed by the French education system not enough to fight the hegemony of English? And to that matter the hegemony of other languages such as Spanish and French?
Basically, the diversification offered in language education in France is impressive, but it is difficult to implement at the school level because a wider choice of languages in a school implies more teachers and perhaps smaller classes, which cost more money. Although there is a very strong social pressure on the French government to improve the teaching of foreign languages, and endless debates in the media on how ineffective this teaching is, basically foreign languages are not very high on the agenda of the Ministry of Education. French and Mathematics are much more important subjects if a student wants to pass the highly competitive exams which will allow her to go to a grande école. (Grandes écoles are third level institutions which are much more prestigious than universities; they train the future elite of the nation). For example, entry into such schools only requires one foreign language, when one would think that in our globalised world more than one foreign language is necessary.
7. You worked extensively with The Didenheim School Project in the province of Alsace. What lessons were learned from this project? What are the next steps?
The Didenheim project (see Hélot and Young, 2006) started in 2000 in a small school in the South of Alsace where two teachers wanted to tackle problems of racism between the pupils. They decided that rather than stressing differences, they should transform the linguistic and cultural diversity of the children into a learning resource for all the students in the school. Not knowing the languages spoken in many of their pupils’homes, they decided to invite parents to come into the school and to present their language and culture to the children in the first three grades. Over three years the children encountered 18 different languages and their cultures, including French sign language.
Although the teachers had never heard of language awareness approaches before, they in fact reinvented this model of language education and a marked change in attitudes developed as a result. The teachers understood better the bilingualism of their students and the importance of their home languages for their identity. The students became very curious about all the languages that were presented to them and last but not least the relationship between the parents and the teachers improved markedly. As myself and my colleague Andrea young analyzed in various publications, a phenomenon of empowerment developed at different levels but was most visible with parents and students of migrant background. The children became proud of their home languages and their bilingual competence and the parents realized their could bring some knowledge into a school and participate in building tolerance and respect in an educational environment.
The main lessons learnt from the Didenheim project is that it is possible to involve parents in the pedagogical activities of a primary school, including parents of migration background who do not necessarily speak French fluently. This is important because it is another point which should be explained about the French education system. The relationship between parents and teachers tends to be one of mistrust: teachers often blame parents for bad parenthood, and parents blame teachers for too many strikes, or not enough homework, etc.
The young student teachers I work with are for the most part afraid of parents and do not know how to deal with them. On the other hand, parents who have not had much schooling, or who do not speak French very well tend to shy away from teachers and schools. The Didenheim project was really innovative on that level. It lasted three years at the start and really permitted a strong and trustful relationship between many parents and the three teachers involved. The video film I made with my colleague Andrea Young clearly shows to student teachers how it is possible to build such a relationship by giving parents a real place in the classroom and a chance to share their knowledge with the students and the teachers.
The project is continuing today, but only in the first grade because from second grade on, German as a foreign language has to be taught and teachers find it hard to deal with a very ambitious curriculum over four days (there is no school in France on Wednesday nor Saturday). However the project has had a huge impact in many places in the world where the documentary film “Raconte-moi ta langue/Tell me how you talk” made by Mariette Feltin in 2008 is often shown at conferences where researchers, educators and teachers discuss multilingual classrooms and how to deal with the growing variety of languages spoken by students.
Rather than a model, I always explain that the Didenheim project is an example of pedagogical possibilities, of teachers negotiating their own language policies at the classroom level rather than waiting for top-down policies to address these issues, and of a form of engagement in defending one’s own educational values. As Ofelia Garcia (2009) writes, because of increasing global cross-border dynamics, bilingual education is the only way to educate the children of the 21st century, but very few children are lucky enough to attend bilingual programs. Thus, I believe the least we can do is to recognize and value the plurilingual repertoires of many of our students and make sure they don’t become monolingual again at school!
I would like to add that LA activities on their own are definitely not enough for bilingual students to maintain and develop their first language, biliteracy activities should also be part of the curriculum. Yet, LA is a first door that can be opened, or a first breach in school systems like in France which were built on the ideology of one language/one nation.
8. Are educators ready for approaches that acknowledge and encourage multilingualism? What would take to prepare them for such approaches? What are the implications of LA approach to teacher education?
I believe it is difficult for most educators to embrace and understand the extent of the mobility and migration processes at work in our contemporary societies. Since public schools were created at the end of the 19th century the main objective of education has been to make students literate in the national language of the state and up to a certain point to learn one and at best two foreign languages. Taking into account the various languages of multilingual students is not an easy task particularly when teachers do not know the languages involved, not even how they are called. Very little pedagogical materials are available to support students’ L1s, so it is a matter first and foremost of believing in the value of teaching and learning through different languages, and then of finding ways to accommodate one’s students’ needs.
I believe it is the real challenge of education in the 21st century. As far as teacher education is concerned, the issue of diversity should not only concern LA activities but should be dealt with across all the subjects in the curriculum, and by allowing bilingual students to use their first language for making sense of what is expected of them. It is not so difficult to educate teachers to include LA activities in their teaching; it is more difficult to get them to change their representations towards minority languages, for example, and to convince them of the weight of ideologies in preventing the opening of spaces for multilingual education. What I try and do in my classes (Hélot, 2011) is to show teachers that it is possible to work with languages one does not know and that the teaching of literacy must be rethought from a multilingual point of view. I work a lot with children’s literature and show them how to use books in translation, dual language, bilingual and multilingual books. Today, these materials are produced in many different languages and can address the needs of bilingual students. They also give excellent examples of writing activities which can be carried out in French as well as in the students’ languages. In other words teachers need not fear the languages of their students, but rather open to their students’ competence and help them to invest their identity in their learning through using all their languages. (See Cummins, 2006 for more elaborate discussion on this point).
9. What can teachers and communities do to incorporate LA programs in their schools? Where can they start?
I believe it is very easy to incorporate LA in a school, and I have seen many original projects throughout primary schools in the world (for examples across Europe see Kenner & Hickey, 2008). Once teachers decide to open to their classroom to other languages they have many possibilities: They can use their students’ knowledge of languages, they can invite parents or speakers of different languages / different language varieties in their classroom. Children should be given the opportunity to listen to the new languages, to see them written and to learn a few words so they experiment themselves with the new sounds and rhythm. They can read bilingual books if they exist or be asked to write stories in the school language incorporating some of the new words they have learned, and teachers can design metalinguistic activities where various languages are compared and analyzed.
At present in our teacher education department, we invite speakers from different countries to speak on language education and their language is declared language of the month. We then display labels in as many places as possible on the campus to make our students aware of the varieties of linguistic systems. The library also offers a special selection of books in or about that language. The labels work as a sort of linguistic landscape, which engages the students in discussions about languages and their diversity. Language awareness activities can also take place outside of the school: for example students can be asked to carry out a photographic survey on the languages used in their environment on shop fronts, advertising, graffiti, etc. (See Dagenais et al, 2009 for a more detailed description of such a project in Canada)
A final point
To conclude, I would like to say that I feel the same thrill today as when I was eighteen at hearing English spoken in all its extraordinary varieties. I prefer reading novels in English than in French and I loved listening to the Queen’s accent when she addressed the Irish people inDublin recently. But I was also impressed that she made an effort to say a few words in Irish. Looking back on my academic career, I am very aware that English has served me well. I have published far more in English than in French and I can attend conferences all over the world. I can also make friends all over the world. There is no doubt that being competent in English is a form of cultural capital, but over the years the English language has become part of my identity and not just my professional identity. For it is also a language I sometimes share with my three children who are all plurilingual.
Yet, English is definitely not enough, and there is nothing I like more than seeing my students in awe at different writing systems such a Georgian, Armenian, Korean, Laotian, Thai, Arabic, Hebrew, Mandarin, Amharic, Inuktituk, etc. I have a rich collection ofLe Petit Prince books in many different languages which I use to show them the wealth of the world’s languages and to convince them that this diversity needs to be protected at all costs. As I said at the beginning of this interview, languages exist only through their speakers, thus students’ plurilingual competences should be supported and valued at school and all children should be able to learn through their first language(s) alongside the school language.
Thanks Dr. Hélot for sharing with us!
Cummins, J. (2006). Identity Texts: the imaginative construction of self through multiliteracies pedagogy. In Ofelia Garcia & al (Eds.) Imagining Multilingual Schools. Languages in Education and Glocalisation (pp. 51-68). Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Dagenais, D. [need names of other authors].(2009) Linguistic Landscare and Language Awareness. In E.Shohamy, & D.Gorter (Eds.) Linguistic Landscape. Expanding the scenery (pp. 253-269). London, UK: Blackwell.
Feltin, M. (2008) Raconte-moi ta langue/Tell me how you talk. 52‘ documentary film about the Didenheim project (Alsace, France) produced by La Curieuse, Paris. www.racontemoitalangue.net
Garcia, O. (2009). Bilingual Education in the 21st Century. A Global Perspective. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.
Genelot, S. (2001) Evaluation quantitative du cursus EVLANG. Rapport de recherché du programme EVLANG :http://jaling.ecml.at
Hawkins, E. (1987). Awareness of Language. An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hélot, C., & Young, A. (2006) Imagining Multilingual Education in France: a language and cultural awareness project at primary level. In Garcia, O. Skutnabb-Kangas, T. and Torres Guzman, M. E.(Eds.) Imagining Multilingual Schools, (pp. 69-90).Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Hélot, C. (2007) Du bilinguisme en famille au plurilinguisme à l’école. Paris: L’ Harmattan.
Hélot, C. (2007). Awareness Raising and Multilingualism in Primary Education. In J. Cenoz, & N. Hornberger(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, Second Edition, Volume 6: Knowledge about Language. (p : 371-384). Berlin: Springer.
Hélot, C. (2011) Children’s literature in the Multilingual Classroom. Developing multilingual literacy acquisition.In C. Hélot & M. O’Laoire (Eds.) Language policy for the Multilingual Classroom. Pedagogy of the possible. (pp. 42-64). Brighton, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Kenner, C., & Hickey, T. (Eds.) (2008) Multilingual EuropeDiversity and Learning. Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books.