Weber, Jean-Jacques: Multilingualism, Education and Change

One size doesn't fit all

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 18.12.2008

In Multilingualism, Education and Change Jean-Jacques Weber, Professor of English and Education at the University of Luxembourg, sets out to examine our government’s policy on language learning. He shows why it fails to solve problems and how it excludes immigrant or transnational pupils. The author proposes a radical solution: rather than have all six-year-olds go through a German-language literacy programme, there should be a second French-language option. Parents would then be given a choice as to which language their child is educated in.

Weber counters traditional objections that raise the spectre of ghettoization by claiming that French is not an immigrant minority language, but one of our three official languages and also the EU working language for Luxem­bourg. Moreover, the French option would attract a heterogeneous group of French, Italian, Portuguese and other romanophone pupils, who would experience it as a “literacy bridge” between school and their home resources. Majority group children from mixed families in which one of the parents is or speaks French would, no doubt, also be interested. 

Meanwhile, children from Central and Eastern Europe would most probably pick the German-language option, which would thus not remain an exclusive enclave of ethnic Luxem­bourgers. Both types of classes should be offered in the same school buildings so that peer learning and teaching could happen in (daily? weekly?) mixed language groups and give a boost to all participants. At secondary-school level 50 percent of non-language subjects should then be taught in French and 50 percent in German.

The two-track literacy offer would make the system more equal and certainly cheaper – just think of the current repetition rate and the large number of students who drop out of school without any qualification. It also takes into account what the national job market, where French and English dominate, actually expects from future employees.

Currently, transnational pupils are offered “cours intégrés” in either Italian or Portuguese at the primary school level – a poisoned chalice for many a child who will feel completely unprepared for the science and history classes exclusively taught in German during the first years of secondary school!

Based on interviews with luso-descendant teenagers, Jean-Jaques Weber’s study reveals a linguistic diversity and richness that teachers fail to acknowledge: the youngsters switch between Portuguese, French and even sometimes Luxembourgish, creating idioms of their own since several vernacular variants of the three languages come into play. These multilingual competences, he claims, ought to be valorized rather than “invisibilized” in the classroom.

He sets the discussion within a wider political framework, where mother tongue equals national identity, where for political reasons what used to be called “onst Däitsch” became a language in its own right. And yet, one day decision-makers will have to accept that things are constantly changing. Yes, more and more adolescents might write SMS messages in Luxem­bourgish, but the chances are that they will then have to speak French when they want to grab a sandwich for lunch or buy a cinema ticket in the evening. How can we be so proud of our individual multilingualism – Luxem­bourgish, German, French – and seemingly despise the same phenomenon when it appears in a different form – French, Portuguese, Luxem­bourgish – at a societal level?

Jean-Jacques Weber’s study combines a wide knowledge of contemporary thought on language education and a detailed examination of concrete situations in order to challenge the assumptions of those that stick to our national motto: “Mir wëlle bleiwe, wat mir sin”. He warns his readers that such a blind, conservative attitude is bound to be self-defeating since identity, whether individual or national, is never “stable and fixed”. 

State schools used to allow gifted children from deprived backgrounds to advance in society thanks to their abilities, their determination and hard work. Tragically, it seems that for numerous reasons we are increasingly failing at that mission today: when the first Pisa results revealed a high correlation between socio-economic back­ground and test scores, everyone was shocked to hear that our educational system was doing very poorly in terms of social mobility. Yet initial embarrassment has not been followed by any sweeping measures to remedy a most flagrant injustice. How long can policy-makers keep on looking away?

Jean-Jacques Weber, Multilingualism, Education and Change, Peter Lang Verlag, 2009 (ISBN 978-3-631-57285-6) 

Janine Goedert
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