19 November 2014

The Language Advantage

WHEN IT COMES to education, Europeans just know how to "do" languages.  I know all the reasons why: lots of countries close together, history, the EU, the need to learn other languages if you come from a small country like the Netherlands or Denmark, the need to be able to speak English, etc.  But there is another critical component that often gets overlooked: they simply commit to the idea that it is important to know languages other than your own.

My twins are in 2nde this year -- the equivalent of the sophomore year of high school in the United States.  They attend a French lycée, but it is an international lycée so there are some advantages built in to the curriculum when it comes to learning foreign languages.  For example, every student at their high school (and the junior-high for that matter) are required to be part of an international "section" -- a section where they will spend at least 8 hours per week taking classes in the section's language.  The school currently has 7 sections to choose from: American (English), German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.  So right off the bat, every kid in the school speaks at least two languages: French and the language of their section.

But starting in 4eme (think 7th grade), the students are required -- yes required -- to take what is called LV2 (Langue Vivante -- 'living language') which means they have to study a third language for at least 5 years.  5 years!  Then, as if that is not enough, students who want to add yet another language are given space in their timetable to do so.  Some students choose an LV3 (a third living language) and some opt for studying a 'dead' language (langue morte) like Latin or Greek.  By the time students finish high school they will achieve a certified language proficiency of B1, B2, or C1 according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (click for details). Think about the advantage this gives students: fluent or basically fluent in three (sometimes more) languages by the age of 18. Certainly can't hurt in the age of globalization.

There are a lot of reasons why the U.S. probably won't go to a language-education system like this in the near future, but I won't go into those reasons now.  Instead, here is a quick look at what my kids study, including the language component:

  • Classes in French (History, French Literature, All sciences, Math, Sport, Social Science and Economics (total of 21 hours per week)
  • Classes in English (section language): History and Literature (7 hours per week)
  • LV2 -- Julia is taking Spanish, Patrick is taking Russian: (4 hours per week)
  • Latin/Greek -- an option they are both taking: (4 hours per week)
That's 15 hours per week where the goal is to speak a language other than French.  Imagine if American students were given even half as many hours per week where the goal was to speak a language other than English.

Meanwhile, I've lived in this country for 7 years and still speak French like a child.


Betty C. said...

I hate to rain on your parade, as it is true that a lot of European countries DEFINITELY know how to do languages. France doesn't seem to be one of them though, despite the many hours spent on the endeavor...


Michel said...

They may have a low level of proficiency but I am with you Jonathan, that the French put way more effort into making kids learn foreign languages. No matter where you go, most everyone knows at least a few words of English if not totally proficient. You go most anywhere in the US and most adults don't know one word of a foreign language, living or dead.

cjscriven said...

Betty. You may be right that France ranks low for Europe, but they are still way ahead of the Americans. Way ahead!!

Phoebe Thomas said...

And meanwhile I've been here for 17 years and my kids still correct me...genders are one of the worst things. I found your blog doing a random search for French blogs as I'm researching something for my own blog wwww.loumessugo.com/en/blog Funny to come across the blog of someone I've met/know vaguely. I'm Oscar's mum (@FibiTee on Twitter if you were confused!) Happy to have you take a look at my musings on life in the south of France and beyond if you'r interested.

Betty C. said...

Oh yes, I totally I agree that France is ahead of the US, and likely ahead of Great Britain too. But I still maintain they could do a lot better compared to the rest of Europe. And being a college English teacher here, I wish they would!

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