What “shock of knowledge” for foreign languages?


After a political series at the Ministry of National Education, where Gabriel Attal (5 months), Amélie Oudéa-Castera (26 days) and finally Nicole Belloubet (since February 8) joined the 11 ministers out of 29 who remained in office for less than 14 months since 1958, the pillar texts of the “clash of knowledge” were published on Sunday March 17.

The significant formula was launched in December 2023 regarding the reforms envisaged for the school. If it caused a reaction in the educational world , it refers in applied linguistics to other empty formulas in politics .

What light can language sciences shed on this expression? Taking the example of foreign languages ​​at school, let us look at how language teaching sees this “clash of knowledge”.

“Clash of knowledge”: a political slogan that challenges scientific knowledge

“Slimming down the mammoth”, “for a school of confidence”, “shock of knowledge” are some of the shocking formulas used in the context of education policies. It is not just an attempt by each minister to enter history through the back door; these formulas refer to a certain vision of the school.

For example, “stripping the mammoth” feeds the idea that the school cannot be reformed because of the “resistance to change” of teachers. For educational sciences researcher Anne-Marie Duclos, this managerial formula is a way of making those in the field feel guilty by denying the legitimacy of their concerns in the face of transformations taken in a top-down manner. This would therefore legitimize the fact of passing a reform against the advice of its main actors and rarely listening to them .

The expression “shock of knowledge” refers to several imaginaries: the need to fundamentally transform national education, the decay of knowledge at school, the need for authority to teach. Gabriel Attal, now Prime Minister, thus promises to tackle “taboos”, in particular that of repeating a year, nourishing the idea of ​​obvious solutions that the actors involved (teachers and researchers) would refuse.

The idea of ​​novelty, or even of “it was better before”, actually refers to dated educational principles whose limits are well documented by scientific research: level group , wearing a uniform , repeating a year .

These subjects presented as being “under the carpet” are therefore in reality well studied and most are educational dead ends. This is all the more true when these reforms are made with constant resources: reduction of hours of music and plastic arts to add theatrical practice, reduction of one hour in sixth grade for the establishment of level groups, non-increase in time for moral and civic education .

What vision of the clash of knowledge for foreign languages ​​and cultures?

The “shock” desired so that students are better engaged in learning is thus part of a “battle of knowledge” to be led by the teaching staff. This metaphor associates the school with a war context, where students’ results are associated not only with their own future, but also with strong societal issues such as reindustrialization, ecological transition, the digital revolution and the defense of nature. democracy in the face of conspiracies and obscurantism.

One of the findings which concerns languages ​​in this text is that of the failure of students to meet the targeted requirements in English, half of whom “do not reach the expected minimum level A2 at the end of year 3   . These levels refer to the European conception of assessments in foreign languages ​​(with reference to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​– CEFR ), which considers “knowledge” in languages ​​as skills implemented by the student who acts with the language.

To “address this problem of student level in English”, the text plans to overhaul the modern foreign language programs, by presenting more clearly the grammatical points and the essential vocabulary to be mastered each year. While this may seem logical – a program is designed to enable students to progress – reducing language knowledge to linguistic knowledge is a step backwards if we position ourselves historically by referring to researchers like Pierre Martinez .

Learning a language is not just about knowing words and rules, the challenge is above all being able to speak, write, communicate, and recognizing each person’s experience with their languages.

Furthermore, it is through the example of English skills that the reform of programs which concern all languages ​​is envisaged. Breaking with the difficulties in foreign languages ​​would be all the more effective by taking into account the European relationship of the school with all its languages ​​and all its borders but also in the relationship to the world and to contemporary migrations as conceived by Beacco and Cherkaoui Messin , two researchers specializing in European language policies.

The text further denounces “the approach insufficiently marked by culture” that teaching would have taken. To remedy this, he plans to provide in the programs “cultural benchmarks essential to a good knowledge of the geographical area and the history of the societies which speak these languages”. It thus distinctly separates languages ​​and cultures, now reducing cultures to historical and geographical “landmarks”. This conception of culture presents the risk of leading to generalizations and reinforcing stereotypes when the Council of Europe aims for a more demanding program for citizens of tomorrow open to languages ​​and others, with plurilingual and intercultural skills.

A dated approach to language learning?

To improve the teaching and learning of languages, the ministry proposes the use of AI in order to “strengthen exposure to modern languages ​​and enable additional learning”.

Captain Kelly gives us an example of these solutions. It is a government-backed English-language voice assistant that now has a generative AI-based training system attached to it. Other applications, such as Howly Owly , Pili Pop , promise to adjust to the needs of learners, while promoting playful interaction and immersion in cultural situations presented as authentic. These applications present the same shortcomings as other current approaches  : repetition, dissociated vocabulary and an approach insufficiently linked to culture and societal issues.

It should be noted that these resources are not yet well analyzed and that research does not offer sufficient perspective to assess their medium and long term impact , particularly among young children whose relationship to screens is controversial . For the teacher, the added value of AI would be located first of all in the novelty offered by educational differentiation as well as in the evaluation of students’ output.

This differentiation is only possible on condition of legislating on the number of hours devoted to languages ​​at school, on the recognition of all languages ​​(including regional languages, sign languages, etc.), the decompartmentalization languages ​​and their integration into the teaching of other disciplines, including the training of teachers in languages ​​and artificial intelligence, among other aspects.

If the advances in generative AI continue to impress, for researchers like Laurence Devillers, it becomes imperative to include them thoughtfully and wisely in a general system .

As Nora Sanchez Gonzalez , associate professor at Paris School of Business, points out : “You cannot learn a foreign language behind a screen, by accumulating grammatical knowledge. It is necessary to be confronted with several interlocutors and to be part of an interaction. If it were that easy, everyone would be multilingual.” The principle of “clash of knowledge” in foreign languages ​​seems to refer both to the future through AI but also to a dated vision in the history of language learning methods. The place of foreign languages ​​in school seems to be an achievement which is nevertheless called into question politically .

More than a “clash of knowledge”, the formula refers in applied linguistics to what Alice Krieg-Planque analyzes as a way of “imposing an ideology or a vision of the world” . Languages ​​are a challenge for living together and relying on policies informed by scientific work and the experience of teachers seems more than necessary to carry out an ambitious educational policy.

Author Bios: Gregory Miras is a University Professor of Language Teaching, Anissa Hamza-Jamann is a Lecturer in language Sciences and Eglantine Guély Costa is a Lecturer in teaching of FLE and plurilingualism all at the University of Lorraine