“Parents Are Driving Bilingualism in the United States”

Fabrice Jaumont has a vision. By the year 2050, the Education Attaché at the French Embassy in New York hopes to have introduced a dual-language program into every school in America.
Fabrice Jaumont. © Jonas Cuénin

Utah already has one in five schools organized in this way, and French is one of the languages of choice. In fact, with more than 160 bilingual options in 28 states, French has become the second most popular language in the U.S.A. But there are still not enough dual-language programs to cater for the 250,000-300,000 Francophone children in the country. In his work, The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages, published on September 5, 2017, Fabrice Jaumont encourages students’ parents to petition their local authorities, approach schools, and create dual-language programs in their neighborhoods. It seems the “bilingual revolution” will be fought by families.

: Dual-language programs are multiplying across the United States. What is the reason for this boom?

Fabrice Jaumont: An increasing number of studies are being carried out on the impact of bilingualism on the brain. This research shows that having two languages offers an advantage in terms of cognitive development, social interaction, learning artistic skills, and succeeding in tests. In math, reading, and writing, the results gathered from bilingual high-school students are between 140 and 150 points higher than those taken from their monolingual classmates. A bilingual employee can adapt more easily, and earns a salary between 5% and 20% higher than a monolingual employee. Parents are increasingly receptive to these studies and the intellectual and professional benefits they imply for their children.

Is a bilingual education open to everyone?

The families asking for dual-language classes are often educated and relatively well off. I don’t see families with more modest incomes taking the initiative to create a dual-language program. Rent, food shopping, and clothing for their children are more important than linguistic or cultural worries. Most of the 120,000 Francophones living in New York are in the Bronx, not in Manhattan. They often work two or three jobs, they don’t always have official papers, and they speak French at home or at church. It is hard for these parents to approach local schools and convince the principal to launch a dual-language program. It is therefore the responsibility of local authorities to listen to the needs of these families and offer solutions.

What role does state government have to play in the creation of dual-language classes?

Some states take a more interventionist approach than others. Take Utah and Delaware, for example. The former is landlocked, and the latter has seen its multinational businesses leave because they can’t recruit a plurilingual workforce. Both have realized their economic future relies on developing bilingualism. The existence of dual-language classes in Louisiana, Maine and Vermont is the result of economic policy combined with a desire to revitalize linguistic and cultural heritage. These states are looking to use their language immersion programs to develop the local economy and create jobs in sectors such as tourism. In contrast, the dual-language programs in New York, California, Texas and Florida are mainly the work of students’ parents.

The U.S. education system works differently to the one in France, where parents are rarely involved in the workings of the school.

There is an obvious culture shock when moving from one school system to another. Students’ parents hold a lot of influence in the United States. A principal needs the support of families to keep the school ticking over, and finding a group of parents ready to organize a program, raise money, find teachers and purchase books represents a major opportunity. This help also goes both ways; if parents provide the energy and the necessary resources, the school will do everything in its power to open a dual-language class.

What is needed to perpetuate these programs and train future bilingual teachers?

Finding these teachers is one of the challenges faced by the bilingual revolution. Hunter College in New York has added a French branch to its Master’s Degree in bilingual education, while Louisiana uses the Escadrille program to send its future immersion teachers to work in France as language assistants at the University of Rennes. Other states have signed partnerships with French academic regions, and are bringing teaching staff to the U.S.A. from France. Utah is one of the main states to use this method.

What else is holding back the development of bilingualism in the United States?

Schools currently lack the space to welcome dual-language programs. Families are fighting for places in the south of Manhattan. But there is an increasing number of classes in neighborhoods with more space, such as Harlem, Brooklyn, Pasadena, and Houston. The Texan city even inaugurated the state’s first public English/French immersion school in a brand-new building last December. However, the policies being introduced by Washington D.C. pose the greatest threat today. Daily cuts to federal budgets for education, language learning, and research are endangering public education. But if they work together, parents, teachers and local officials have the power to transform things. Bilingualism can be a positive force for change for children, schools, neighborhoods, and even entire countries.

The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages by Fabrice Jaumont, preface by Ofelia García, TBR Books, 2017.

Interview published in the September 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.