Bilingualism Becomes a Government Affair in Salt Lake City

Public schools in Utah are focusing on dual language immersion to create a generation of cosmopolitan citizens and attract international investors. With a total of 3,900 children involved in the Francophone part of the program, Utah is the second American state – just behind Louisiana – with the highest number of pupils learning French.
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Room 216 is an ordinary classroom, with a whiteboard, 30 desks and a few cupboards. The walls are strewn with drawings of pirates, a list of adverbs, a paper timeline and an American flag. A small poster above the door spells out the word “EXIT” in English, but if the students in this seventh-grade class want to go to the bathroom, they ask Madame Cha-Philippe in perfect French. From the first grade onwards, the 24 pupils aged between 12 and 13 are taught half of their classes in French. They are some of the 3,900 pupils taking part in the French/English dual language immersion program in Utah – the first public, free, linguistic education program of this importance in the United States.

The northwestern state is renowned for its spaghetti-western landscapes, its winter sports resorts and its Mormon community – the largest in the country – but not for its Francophone heritage or French expat population. Unlike New York, the bilingual schools in Utah were not an initiative from the pupils’ parents, but the fruit of local efforts. The Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program is the result of a voluntarist educational policy led by Jon Huntsman Jr., a multi-lingual governor, and Howard A. Stephenson, a senator who believes in the benefits of bilingualism.

“This notion that the United States is the center of the universe is quickly proven false and harmful”, says the Republican senator of Utah. “It’s a real leg up in economic development to have a population that can be fluent in speaking a multiplicity of foreign languages. We need to start looking outward.”

The Feel of an International Metropolis

The 2002 Winter Olympics attracted more than one million visitors to Salt Lake City, giving the Utah state capital the feel of an international metropolis. In a symbol of openness, a direct flightpath between Salt Lake City and Paris – still active today – was inaugurated by Air France for the occasion. Positioned as the second American state in terms of economic growth, Utah has been named the “Best State for Business” five times since 2010 by Forbes magazine.

“Utah students are no longer competing for jobs just against students from Texas and California, but against students from Europe, Asia, and Africa”, says Gregg Roberts, the World Language Specialist at the Utah State Board of Education. “Americans cannot remain monolingual: it’s an economic, cultural, and social handicap. Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.”

Starting in 2007, the Utah State Senate voted a series of laws allocating funds for the creation of an immersion program in three foreign languages seen as “critical” for the economic development of the United States. The first languages chosen were Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and French. Twenty-four dual language classes – including five in French – began in August 2009. The pupils’ parents rushed to enroll their children, and many found themselves on the waiting list. “The Mormon influence creates a very fertile ground for teaching foreign languages”, says Gregg Roberts, who designed the dual language program.

An Ideal State for Foreign Languages

Based in Utah since 1847, the Mormon Church has a long tradition of teaching foreign languages and sends many of its missionaries abroad. In the city of Provo, south of Salt Lake City, the Mormon institution Brigham Young University teaches 89 languages, and offers one of the country’s best linguistic educations. “Our immersion program has absolutely nothing to do with the Mormon Church”, warns Gregg Roberts. The Mormon professors’ expertise goes far beyond religion. The linguists and translators in the U.S. Army are trained in Provo, most of the state’s residents own a passport and one third of adults are bilingual. “People understand the importance of languages; it’s one advantage we have over some other states.”

Some 34,000 pupils spread over 160 schools are now involved in the immersion program. Between 20 and 25 new programs are launched every year – mainly in Spanish and Chinese – but with 165 classes across 20 schools, French is the third most popular language in Utah. The number of pupils learning French will overtake the number in Louisiana “in two to four years”, says Gregg Roberts confidently. “This proves that, even without having a French heritage or a native population, any state can open a large number of French immersion classes.”

Three Hours of French Per Day

At Churchill Junior High School, located in a tree-filled suburb southeast of Salt Lake City, only two of Madame Cha-Philippe’s 25 pupils are French. Célestin, Thomas and their classmates were part of the first immersion program, launched in 2009. Today’s lesson is on North Africa and Lebanon. Taking it in turns, the pupils read aloud an account of a journalist’s experiences in Maghreb. The teacher then quizzes the class on the vocabulary in the text. “What does a lunar landscape look like?” she asks. The pupils reply in French without hesitating. “There are lots of craters”, says Thomas. “So many craters that it looks like the moon”, adds Zoe. “It looks like a landscape from Star Wars”, says Dylan. Hearing the film’s English title, the teacher quickly corrects him: “La Guerre des Etoiles!

The pupils in the immersion program do not take French language classes per se, but rather classes in mathematics, history, sciences and art, all taught in French. From first grade to sixth grade, half of all classes are taught in French, totaling an average of three hours per day. From seventh grade onwards, pupils have six hours of classes taught in French per week: two social sciences classes. After ninth grade, the pupils can choose to take advanced classes in one of the state’s six public universities. “Utah really planned out this bilingual education program from start to finish”, says Karl Cogard, the Education Attaché at the French embassy in Washington. “They’re not satisfied with simply opening schools; they’ve also thought about continuous training for teachers and ways to provide future classes with teaching staff.”

“Parents Are Delighted to See us Arrive From France”

An exchange partnership has been signed with six French regional education authorities (Amiens, Bordeaux, Créteil, Grenoble, Nancy-Metz and Poitiers) in order to provide Utah with Francophone teachers. Forty teachers from France – and six others from Belgium, Ivory Coast, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Senegal – will be teaching in dual-language classes in Utah this year. Originally from Béarn in France, Madame Cha-Philippe arrived in Salt Lake City in 2012. Won over by the enthusiasm and commitment of the American pupils’ parents, who were quick to donate supplies to the school, she left her job as an elementary school teacher in the Ardèche region and is now starting her second year at Churchill Junior High School. “There are imposed educational objectives, but I have a lot of freedom. The school is an extremely efficient organization.”

On the other side of Interstate 215 at Morningside Elementary School, Monsieur Collins-Peynaud is finishing a lesson on the Cold War with his sixth-grade class. French textbooks are used in the lessons. “We constantly go back and forth between the two cultures, teaching our pupils to see the world around them with a dual perspective”, says the teacher, originally from Tours, France, who has been living in the United States for two years. Speaking in fluent, confident French, Page and Andrew, 12, talk about the 1948-1949 Berlin Blockade while their teacher watches proudly on. “We worked hard to get where we are today. I really had to try to speak slowly at the start, and helped my classes by teaching them vocabulary and synonyms. Some of my pupils are now capable of writing several pages in French!”

The pupils from the first five immersion classes will graduate from high school in May 2021. At the State Board of Education, Gregg Roberts and his team of teachers are now developing the future of the DLI program. “One of the logical next steps would be to send our students to study in France”, says Anne Lair, the French Dual Immersion Program State Coordinator at the University of Utah. “Our goal is to make every single school in Utah an immersion school”, says Gregg Roberts. “Within twenty or thirty years, Dual Language Immersion will be the norm: Utah is training thousands of kids who are going to be ambassadors for French for the rest of their lives!”

Article published in the September 2016 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.