Raising Bilingual and Bicultural Kids in the French School System

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FrenchSchoolSystemRaising bilingual kids is not easy. As bilingual children approach school age, it can become even more daunting. In France, most children enter school at the age of 3. As a parent of two bilingual and bicultural children, sending a child off to school may be a time of terror or excitement. It’s definitely a time of a lot of unknown.

There are two parts to the scariness of sending your child off to school in your adopted county: first, the system; second, the language. The French school system is centralized, for the most part. Teachers are civil servants employed by the national government, and although they can have a wish list of where they want to teach, they are placed in positions by the central, not local authority. That is, teachers are not hired following an interview process  with school officials. Rather, they are « placed. »  Another big difference in the system is the training. French teacher training is largely academic and hands-off (as opposed to the hands-on pedagogical training in the US). This means that a lot of young teachers do a lot of learning on the job.

However, the main difference in the system, in my humble opinion, is the attitude. Education in the U.S. is very touchy-feely – for better or for worse – and puts a lot of focus on making kids feel good about themselves and making individual differences okay. The French system, although not completely opposite, is very different. For example, some teachers will publically criticize students who have not performed well which is quite shocking to most Americans I’ve spoken to.

Language has its own set of scariness. Bilingual parents may worry about how to keep the minority language up when the schooling is in French. This does require a lot of extra work and effort on the part of the parents, but it is possible to maintain minority language skills. You may notice that your child’s French will sky rocket when s/he starts school. But don’t worry, this is normal and will most likely balance out. But the child may need a boost from you.

Studies show that it’s important to master the majority language – especially when learning to read and write – in order to be able to master the minority language. Both languages should be validated which is why it’s important to use non-school time, such as Wednesday afternoons and weekends, to focus on extra English activities like movies, reading or playgroups. For example, my children and I do “English Wednesday” most weeks which not only shows our kids that they are not the only ones speaking English but also give the English-speaking parents a break from the French world around us. No matter how long you have lived abroad, it can be exhausting functioning in a language which is not your mother tongue.

When raising bilingual children, it is important to choose a language system that works for you. The main systems are OPOL (One Parent One Language) in which each parent speaks his/her own language and MLaH (Minority Language at Home) in which the minority language is used at home. Each system has many variations. My family adheres strictly to OPOL. At home and in public, I speak English to my kids. I never speak to them directly in French, although they hear me speak French. This can be daunting in social settings such as the park or school when everyone can hear that we are different. People often assume we do not speak French, which can be quite painful for the children since kids lack tact when it comes to dealing with difference.  As time has gone by, however, I’ve gotten over my fears and now speak English to everyone, including my kids’ friends and some of their parents.

You can also ask your child’s teacher if you can participate in class by teaching a song, leading a special Thanksgiving or Halloween activity with the kids, or doing a regular language class (if you’re lucky enough to have the time and a school that is willing and able to accept the offer!). Most importantly, do not panic. There are some excellent books and blogs out there for more information on raising bilingual children.

And the French school systems are actively reinforcing their bilingual programs. For example, a couple of weeks ago, the Lille rectorat , the French equivalent to a school board, announced the addition of bilingual classes  which means public, bilingual education from the CE2, CM1 and CM2, approximately 4th grade. Until recently, Lille (which is France’s 4th or 5th largest city depending on who you speak to) offered bilingual classes at lycée level only as well as in the section européene where certain subjects are taught in English by teachers who do not necessarily have the language skills needed to teach in a foreign language.

While there are already a number of bilingual lycées throughout France, notably in large cities like Paris, Lyon and Lille, the extension of bilingual schooling in Lille is a sign of the French education system’s willingness to improve language programs and  provide comprehensive language classes for younger children. In an article published in La Voix du Nord on June 23, 2011, the school superintendent cited the city’s desire to better integrate its international inhabitants and take advantage of it’s close proximity to England.

This is great news for bilingual parents! In the meantime, use the summer to hone your bilingual parenting skills. Some of the best resources I’ve found are other people’s experiences. Personal Blogs usually link to other blogs. Use the network of people raising their  children bilingually to get ideas and inspiration. Multilingual Living, a website with links to a number of blogs on bilingual child rearing, as well as wonderful dedicated to bilingual and multilingual life, is a huge resource. They provide a link to a large selection of books on raising bilingual children. My Ameican Community in France also provide a few tips and stories on dealing with the french school system while raising bulingual kids.

If you too have a story or an opinion to share on the french-american school system, we’ll be glad to welcome your contribution !

Some of my favorite books on bilingualism are :

So spend the rest of the summer reading and speaking with your
children and looking forward to a new bilingual adventure !

9 comments

  1. Dharma

    Hi,

    I’m an Indonesian American living in California with my American husband and our 8 year old son. We are planning to move to France…possibly Lyon area summer of next year. We are wondering what is the best approach in terms of school for our son. None of us speak French. I wonder if international school is the best approach. I have heard that it would prolong the immersion process. My question is, are there any public bilingual schools in Lyon or are they all private? What do we need to apply and when to start the application process? Any help you can provide is greatly appreciated.

    Thanks,

    Dharma

    Reply
    • Rebecca

      Hello Dharma, I don’t know anything about Lyon or its schools but I did a quick internet search. You’re first step should definitely be to get in touch with the local school board – L’académie de Lyon. From a quick look at their site, it seems there is bilingual public education. There must also be international schools. If you go the public school route, keep in mind that they have to do the public curriculum so it might be harder to adapt to your kids’ needs. We are very happy with the bilingual public school here in Lille. Good luck!

      Reply
  2. Kristin Stooksberry

    Hello,
    I’m a mom of 2 boys and currently working full time outside the home and a home based business. My business will be expanding to France early next year. Do you have any advice on how to get into contact with other moms that may need some additional income?? I appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts here under all of the topics listed. Thank you for your help.

    Reply
    • Clark

      Hi Kristin! You could post job ads in the classified sections of the following websites: expatica or angloinfo.

      Reply
  3. Krista

    Hi,

    I am an American raising four kids in the South of France with my French husband. We have used the OPOL approach since they were born with mitigated results (they speak back to me in French almost entirely).

    I have two who are collège level and have run into issues with the English classes they take at school. They really aren’t anywhere near the appropriate level, and my oldest has seen a drop in her English grade just for lack of interest and decreased participation due to a teacher who increasingly refused to call on her.

    I am starting to wonder if it would be possible to teach them at home through the Centre National pour l’Enseignement à Distance and skip the four hours of wasted time at school. I do know the French system isn’t keen on homeschooling, but having them in class with the other kids serves little purpose for anyone involved. Do you have any knowledge of this topic at all? I am tired of sending my kids to English class with teachers who mock their American accents and are not equipped to teacher to their level while maintaining the proper level for the others.

    Reply
  4. Aurore

    Hello I find this very interesting post, I am French and I totally agree on the difference of attitude of the professors in France, I had the experience and I have to cry two or three times in class when I had a bad grade and when the professor shouted me above, but it my licence of remained strong and then everything the professors are not as what you describe. I find this very instructive post for the bilingual. I love it ! ( I am sorry I do not speak English very well )

    Reply
  5. Anex

    Nice entry 🙂

    My daughter just currently started school. As I’m in the Alsace it is pretty much French and German only. I decided to put her in a French/German bilingual school because I felt she would be more “accepted”. Indeed I have noticed there are other children in her class in the same situation (A Chinese boy and a Japanese girl).

    We use the OPOL in my house and so far it seems to work well. I just worry when it comes to actually learning to read and write English :/

    Reply

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