Logo de l'OEP

Edito

Back to school column

Last Updated: 16 Sep 2016

1         Linguistic diversification

In France, diversification is the current linguistic fad of this new school year.

The teaching of English had been reinforced for 25 years everywhere in Europe including France. One has to go back to the period when Jack Lang was Minister of Education, from 2000 to 2002, for the teaching of foreign languages to become a priority. In his book, An Exclusive School for All, published in 2003 he wrote : « As the stakes of the20th century demand that everyone should know several languages, the emphasis is on Education, an objective just as important which must ensure a wider diversification of the languages taught in schools.

« To learn a foreign language is to discover a culture, to open up oneself to the others. To assert this natural link between language and culture is to be determined about

the diversification of languages.

« No unbiased reason can justify the choice of the « all English » policy…

«Thus to let the implementation of a single foreign language in primary schools can lead to suppose that this language is enough to deal with all the situations in which a foreign language is necessary and useful. This is a mistake due to a poor knowledge of real life. The knowledge of English is essential but not sufficient «     (pages 260-261).

10 years later, more than 90% of primary schools provide the teaching of English only. More than 90% of the first foreign languages taught in junior high schools is English.

Some will remember a minister who proclaimed that France had to become bilingual. Others will remember another minister experimenting the teaching of English in the nursery schools of the 7th arrondissement of Paris.

Consequently the « all English policy » is not a pure coincidence but the result of a policy.

After having come within a hair’s breadth of a catastrophe, we are today returning to a more reasonable policy, but for how long… ?

In March 2015 , the lady minister of Education announced the end of ‘bilanguage’ forms/grades ( they are forms/grades in which 2 foreign languages are taught in parallel with a weekly extra number of hours), thus depriving the pupils of the access to the paths of excellence.

Finally, in September 2016, we have heard that 1200 schools will provide an additional foreign language, i.e. 20% more than in 2015. Thus 22.5% of the schools will teach 2 foreign languages, among which English of course.

And what about « collèges » ( the 4 years of middle school) and the « bilanguage » classes/grades ?

The minister of Education has announced that 750 « collèges »will offer a second foreign language, 700 of them offering German, but she does not specify whether these languages will be taught as soon as the 6th form/grade (the first year of middle school) as a continuity with primary school teaching. On top of that, this presentation is rather puzzling for in her press conference of January 22nd 2016, the minister announced a reduction of 30% of the « bilanguage » classes.

This is not very clear. Has the ministry improved her way of communicating or has there been a real improvement? Wait and see.

But it does not really matter. In a few months, after the presidential elections, the new minister of Education will make it a point of honour to do the opposite of her or his predecessor. So goes the political world .One must always be on the watch and never drop one’s guard.

2         Europe stagnates

What’s going on in Europe while France shilly-shallies? Europe moves forwards and backwards. We have already mentioned this. The English language improves in quantity but not in quality whereas other languages, German and French in particular have dropped.

This downswing is partially compensated by the increased number of Spanish learners. Of course, these are only rough evaluations..

Let’s try to explain the phenomenon.

The member states can be classified in 3 fundamental patterns , by roughly 3 thirds thus avoiding mentioning the names of countries.

One third has followed the example of the United Kingdom which has eliminated the compulsory learning of a foreign language after middle school while setting the first teachings at primary school level at a younger age. Therefore some countries set the age for the first learnings at primary school, with or without diversification, and make a second foreign language compulsory only in middle school and optional in senior or secondary) high school (lycée). This pattern is quite favourable to the “all English” policy and often leaves few opportunities for second foreign languages.

The second third chose an opposite strategy. It set the age of first learnings earlier in primary school but chose to postpone the learning of the second foreign languagein high school (lycée), thus ensuring an almost absolute exclusivity to English for the first eight years of schooling.

However the compulsory learning of a second foreign language at the level of the General Certificate of education A levels (baccalauréat) allows a diversification which can be carried on in Higher Education.

The last third coherently implements the model derived from the Barcelona Summit of 2002which consists in the teaching of at least2 foreign languages from the youngest age to the level of Higher Education.

There are two noteworthy exceptions to these patterns.

With only one compulsory foreign language until middle school, the United Kingdom goes on its own.

But Spain, with a single compulsory foreign language from primary school to higher Education is also a particular case which can easily be explained.

Finally all the countries have put in widespread use the early learning of foreign languages, learning which English has benefited from and in a majority of cases this polarization on English was done at the expense of the learning of a second foreign language in secondary schools. The general effort remained practically the same. The final result is completely negative as we have pbserved no improvements in the level .(cf etude Cambridge ESOL), except in the very high levels of Higher Education (Master’s degree etc).

If diversification is an objective regularly mentioned by the European authorities - Council, Commission or Parliament – diversification is necessary from primary school onwards as well as the teaching of two foreign languages throughout secondary school.

We have been going round in circles for fifteen years. Some countries are optimistic about it. In other countries, governments sign declarations without commitment and once back home they do something completely different.

During the OEP Conference, held in Brussels in May 2016, we agreed about the necessity of an initiative to re-launch the coordination of the educative linguistic policies of the member states, the only ones qualified to deal with this, with a view to raise the level and to succeed in a diversification of the languages taught.

3         Pluriligualism and communitarianism

There have been hints that the possibility to teach Arab, Spanish or Italian as soon as primary school could encourage communitarianism. We won’t offend our readers by arguing on this point but as the presidential election is approaching in France, one must expect this kind of outrageous remark from some of the candidates.

4         Back to the essential points

The difficulties of learning to read are a common problem of our Western societies. It is a problem pointed out by the OCDE and the European Commission and to which the governments give more or less appropriate answers or no answer at all.

In France estimations are that 20% of the students leave primary school and start middle school without the tools enabling them to follow a regular education and the situation has gotten worse in the last ten years. Those 20% will then form the herds of those called dropouts. 20% of an age group means 15.000 kids heading for disaster. The problem is seldom mentioned and one can count on one hand the politicians who really worry about it. Yet it is a national tragedy as well as an individual and collective tragedy. To try to solve the problem at the level of middle school is much too late and everyone perfectly knows that it is at the primary school level, even earlier, that it is possible to take action. Risky situations can be detected as soon as early childhood.

The policy of Education cannot of course be limited to this issue which nevertheless represents a major challenge.

So, in all places and circumstances, particularly in the next presidential election in France, we invite you to carefully consider the declarations by the candidates and the contents of their educational programmes.

Education is at the forefront to assure the future.

Read the EOP Newsletter