Maintaining Your Child’s Mother Tongue And Culture
Angie Power moved to France from the UK over twenty years ago to settle in a small provincial town. Her experience as a secondary school teacher in both the English and French state school systems, in bringing up her own children abroad, and in tracing their lives at local schools and watching them develop their bilingualism has provided her with some valuable lessons to pass on to other parents.
Moving to France with children of school age is certainly an opportunity for them to experience a new environment and a different culture. The transition, though, is not always a smooth one due to the fact from the start, there is a new language to master. Toddlers may be able to slip simply into a class of their own age group, but older children may have problems communicating. Whilst language lessons before leaving the UK can only be to the benefit of children, their lack of vocabulary will mean that they may not be able to follow, say, science lessons.
CONTACT THE HEADTEACHER
Contacting the headteacher near to where you intend to live as soon as possible is a good idea because the local education authority (l’académie) may provide special needs assistance. There are academies that have a support system for children who have just settled in France which is called Centre académique pour la scolarisation des nouveaux arrivants et des enfants du voyage or CASNAU. Once your child has enrolled at a new school, the headteacher or class teacher may contact this centre for advice and guidance. Teachers are encouraged to speak French at all times and to avoid speaking in the child’s mother tongue. Tests of evaluation in all subjects may be given to your child, and time allocated to help with the new language. Generally, a new pupil who does not speak French is integrated into the class as much as possible and even at secondary school they will most probably do subjects like Art, Music and Sport (which require a minimum of French) from the very start.
A child who arrived not speaking any French at the beginning of the year at my son’s primary school was well integrated into his new class by June thanks to this scheme. It took much longer, however, for another girl who enrolled at my son’s secondary school since, of course, the level of French required in subjects like French and history is much more demanding, and teachers rarely adjust marks for ‘special cases’.
French children who are not keeping up with the rest of the class sometimes do the year again, it is called le redoublement: this is only done with parents’ agreement but about ten per cent of French primary school children redoublent. It is felt that the children are more confident and at ease. This may well be the case, too, for a child who can hardly put a sentence together, living in a new country. I will come back to this later in the book.
ENGLISH PARENTS AND FRENCH HOMEWORK
English parents are often anxious about whether they are going to be able to help their children with their homework because they themselves do not master their new language.
SPEAK ENGLISH AT HOME
There is no doubt that living in a foreign country, gives children the opportunity of speaking a foreign language fluently. However, a child’s maternal language must not be neglected: once abroad, continue speaking English at home. (The exception being when there are foreign friends around since it would seem impolite.) Not only is it natural to speak English if the whole family is English, but otherwise your children will talk broken, distorted English – Franglais – which is a shame if you are trying to keep their English as correct as possible. I know families where parents speak English to their children and their children reply in French. In circumstances like this, the children are not encouraged to broaden their vocabulary, nor do their parents have the opportunity to correct their children’s pronunciation.
FIND SOME ENGLISH PLAYMATES
It is a good idea to invite other English-speaking children over to encourage your children to play in English. Thanks to other children who had only recently left the UK, my children learnt a lot of vocabulary and expressions that were more fitting to their age group. For this same reason, I encourage them to watch English videos and play computer games in English. It is often in small towns and villages abroad, that English parents need to be the most active to maintain their children’s mother tongue.
ENCOURAGE THEM TO READ AND WRITE IN ENGLISH
Then there is the problem of reading and writing in English. A number of teachers have commented to me how surprised they are that English children living abroad often cannot write in English and, when they do, they make basic spelling and grammar mistakes. Sometimes parents do not have the time to help their children. Other parents may feel that they are not capable of teaching their children to read and write. Even when English is a part of the school timetable, it is English as a foreign language and not appropriate to a child whose mother tongue is English.
I started to teach my children to read in English at home when they were five and a half, which was about a year before they started to read in French at école primaire. I bought a series of books that are used to teach young children to read at primary schools in the UK. Since my children were able to read a book from cover to cover in English before they could in French, they have always read books in English. This probably explains, too, why they prefer reading books like Harry Potter in English rather than in French.
FIND SOME ENGLISH TIME WITH YOUR TEENAGE CHILDREN
When they were of secondary school age, I set aside about an hour a week to spend on written English with my sons. From time to time this was easier when there was another English family in the locality with children of the same ages and I asked them along for an hour on Wednesday afternoons because school is closed then. I always tried to find something that was interesting and fun for them.
MAINTAINING ENGLISH AT HOME AND DOING WELL AT SCHOOL
When your children are English, it is natural for parents to want them to speak and write English well. It is true, that since our children live in France, we want them to do well at school too. I think both can be achieved.
A HIGH STANDARD OF ENGLISH
There may be a time in the future when you will be pleased that you did not neglect your children’s level of English, but rather worked to improve their spoken and written standard over the years. Not only will you be helping your children to achieve a good mark en anglais at school, but if you move back to the UK and your children need to integrate back into a mainstream school – or if by choice they want to study there – their level of English will not hold them back.
Even for those not able to benefit from an international school, it is possible – in theory at least – for an English child living abroad to sit GCSE English Language and English Literature in the UK. This requires a great deal of commitment and determination on both the part of the child and the parents. Not all state schools in the UK are prepared to take on an independent pupil because assignments over the two year course need to be set and assessed: finding a willing school takes some research. For the children who already have a French school workload, these assignments mean that extra work has to be completed and sent off to the school in England. Then permission needs to be obtained to release your children from their French school while they sit GCSE exams in the UK.
ADMISSION TO UNIVERSITY
For young people educated outside the UK who wish to apply to a British university but who lack the confidence that their level of (especially written) English is up to it, there are solutions other than having GCSE English. For example, Cambridge Certificate of Proficiency or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language). Again, families living in France, need to plan ahead in order to find a language centre in the nearest large town which organises these sessions.
The regulations for admission to all degree courses in British universities need to be examined before an application is made through UCAS, the admissions service. Nowadays, all the background research can be done on the Internet either going directly to the website of individual universities or going to the UCAS website (www.ucas.ac.uk). Generally, the French baccalauréat – which is the high school diploma taken at lycées throughout private and state schools in France – is accepted at British universities.
In conclusion, when children move abroad to live, their anxieties often revolve around immediate concerns like the friends that they have left behind and the nagging doubt that they will ever make any new ones. For their parents, the worry of how their children are going to adapt is possibly eased when they move to cities where there are international schools and where other foreign parents are able to share their experiences and knowledge. However, for many more isolated English families abroad, life is a fine – long-term – balancing act; supporting and encouraging their children in an unfamiliar learning environment, as well as maintaining their culture and language of origin outside school.