Multilingual children, a chance for school


More than half of the children in the world speak a different language at school from the one(s) spoken at home . In France too, a large number of children today live in a bilingual or multilingual situation .

Some parents born in France and of immigrant origin speak their family’s languages ​​to their children in order to transmit and preserve their linguistic and cultural heritage. Others have their children take private language lessons very early on or immerse them in a language bath through the use of an au pair in order to broaden their language repertoire .

This second situation is socially valued and perceived as an asset, without the teachers knowing how to exploit it. At the same time, there are situations in which multilingualism is perceived as a handicap. French schools thus welcomed 77,435 newly arrived allophone pupils in 2021-2022 and their language repertoire is plural. They often speak (very) little French, the language of schooling. Their multilingualism tends to be overshadowed by teachers who often perceive it as an obstacle to success when it could constitute a linguistic point of support .

To what extent is it possible to help teachers take into account the language repertoire of all students in order to make it an asset for learning? Can a pedagogical practice based on plurilingualism have a positive impact on the emotions of students and teachers, contribute to the well-being of families and promote inclusion?

The study presented here is based on action research carried out in a kindergarten located in a priority education network in the Ile-de-France and more particularly on the organization of the language week from March 27 to 31, 2023.

Language week: an original calendar

Twelve teachers from the small to the large section and their director volunteered to bring the week of languages ​​to life in their school by involving the whole school community, as well as the families of the pupils.

Upstream, an attempt was made to identify the languages ​​spoken at home by the families of the pupils, materials (music, songs, stories, nursery rhymes, etc.) were chosen and communication with the families was organized in order to inform them of the event.

Each half-day, families were welcomed in a different language (greetings, music/songs, decor). Thus 8 languages ​​were used: Arabic, Tamil, Turkish, Lingala, Guadeloupe Creole, Portuguese, Ukrainian, Spanish. They were then the subject of language awareness activities in class.

On the third day, the teachers and several agents put on a multilingual show for all the students: some sang and danced, others told a story, each in a different language. On the third and fourth days, volunteer families were invited to participate in these multilingual and intercultural exchanges in the way of their choice.

The impact of the event was studied qualitatively with the various audiences involved. On the families, it was measured via mini-interviews and comments recorded in a notebook made available to them. An anonymous questionnaire was sent to teachers and interviews were conducted with volunteer members of the school community. Finally, the impact on students was analyzed through class observations, spontaneous feedback from children, interviews with teachers.

In the educational community, a dialogue around languages ​​and cultures

The attempt to identify the languages ​​spoken in the families downstream of the language week revealed that the teachers have a very approximate and more intuitive than verified knowledge of the language repertoire of their pupils. Indeed, the teachers focus only on French, the language of schooling and the objective of teaching-learning.

The event allowed the teachers to get to know the families better and to overcome the sometimes stereotyped ideas in place. Thanks to this opportunity, they were able to ask the families which languages ​​were spoken at home and heard by the children, in a setting that seemed justified and non-intrusive to them.

All the teachers were very satisfied at the end of the week: “I appreciated the openness to families, the less ‘strict and formal’ exchanges with the emphasis on all languages, not just Western languages”, said one of them, “I enjoyed discovering unknown languages”, added another.

Cohesion and sharing with families were highlighted: “before some parents did not dare to speak because they did not master the French language. This week allowed them to understand that we were neither judgmental nor critical”.

Initially withdrawn, facilitators and staff quickly took part in the language week and felt valued, recognized and more included in the establishment. A teacher emphasizes: “the good humor and friendliness facilitated the integration of all the staff. This strengthens team cohesion”.

Impacts on families: from well-being to role reversal

Parents immediately joined the event. They lent themselves to the game of greetings in different languages ​​and, when they spoke them, corrected the teachers when their pronunciation was wrong.

The feedback given orally and in the notebook at their disposal underlines several salient elements: first of all their gratitude for the initiative (thanks are present in the vast majority of the opinions expressed) and its very positive reception. The presence of many laudatory adjectives ( super, superb, brilliant, excellent, top, magnificent …) and with positive valence ( happy, pleasant, enriching, interesting, beneficial, friendly ) as well as nouns ( pleasure, cheerfulness, smile, joy, congratulations, sharing, wealth, openness, integration) and verbs with positive valence __ ( discover, share, be interested, adore, appreciate, love, value) testify to the well-being, even the well-being of the parents who feel recognized and ask that the action be repeated (to be repeated without moderation, to renew, to continue ). Several parents filled out the notebook in a language of their choice other than French.

Many parents described as “shy”, “discreet” and “withdrawn” by the teachers “opened up” and volunteered to come and testify to their culture through the tasting of traditional dishes, the presentation of their country of origin with photos and handicrafts. Some had words repeated, music played, stories told or songs sung in their first or heritage language.

The involvement of the parents exceeded the expectations of the teachers who underlined the reversal of roles. Indeed, during this week parents and children became the experts, the teachers the learners, this valuing the languages ​​and the cultures of each one.

Discovering students’ under-recognized skills

During this week some children revealed themselves to their teachers. Some enjoyed showing off their knowledge of the house and/or heritage languages ​​and, assuming the role of experts, taught words to their classmates and their mistress in a warm atmosphere.

During the show organized by the team, some children newly arrived in France and not yet speaking French showed their knowledge of other languages, which the teachers were unaware of. This is particularly the case of a sibling of Tamil children who have hitherto been silent in class. Following a nursery rhyme interpreted in English by a teacher, the little girl volunteered to sing it alone at the microphone, thus revealing that English was part of her language repertoire. This now serves as a point of support for her teacher to advance her learning.

The establishment of the language week in this kindergarten is a first step in taking into account the language repertoire of students in class. It is now necessary to continue the accompaniment of the team so that the bi/multilingualism of the pupils is recognized on a daily basis, highlighted, and serves as a point of support for teaching-learning. This experience suggests that integrating the plurilingual and multicultural dimension of the school public would tend to contribute to the well-being of families, to promote their inclusion and would have a positive impact on the classroom climate.

Author Bio: Marie-Claire Lemarchand-Chauvin has a PhD in English teaching (associate researcher at Sorbonne-Nouvelle University, PRISMES laboratory, SeSyLIA) at Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)