A film entitled ‘La cour de Babel’ recently came out in France. The title is a play on words, a transposing of ‘la tour de Babel’, the ‘tower of Babel’ to mean instead the ‘playground of Babel’ (which has rather less of a ring to it in English). The title is apt, as the film focuses on a group of immigrant schoolchildren all speaking various different languages and all attempting to learn French in order to integrate into their adopted country and be able to follow lessons in their second language. The young protagonists of this documentary film have all joined what in French is called a ‘classe d’accueil’, or ‘welcome class’ in a school in Paris’ tenth arrondissement. The majority of them will remain in this ‘classe d’accueil’ for a full academic year, as they begin to learn, or consolidate their existing knowledge of, French as a foreign language. They are taught French in French, the lingua franca of the group, but the teacher ensures she speaks slowly, using easily-understandable vocabulary and grammatical structures to ensure her pupils do not feel overwhelmed by the formidable task of quickly acquiring a foreign language. The pupils remain in the ‘classe d’accueil’ before they are judged to have a grasp of French advanced enough to cope with mainstream schooling.
Tough Young Teachers, a recent BBC Three documentary, also briefly highlights the difficulties of adapting to schooling in a foreign language. In the first episode of the series, the novice teacher discovered a girl from Francophone Africa in his Year 7 class spoke no English; speaking no French himself (despite a Carthusian education), the teacher was forced to temporarily recruit an older pupil to use an online translator to communicate with the Year 7 pupil. There was no mention of the pupil being given extra English lessons, or being provided with a professional translator to work at her side as a learning support assistant would with pupils with learning difficulties.
While Britain is as multicultural as France, with some inner-city schools recording 90% of their pupils as having English as their second language, a system based on the French ‘classe d’accueil’ method would no doubt benefit many.
Of course, it could be argued that complete immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language; it would have been interesting for the documentary to have revisited the Francophone pupil at the end of the school year to note her doubtless greatly improved command of the English language. Yet the pupils in the classe d’accueil filmed in the French documentary are also all experiencing immersion, taught as they are in French. Recruiting a professional translator or interpreter to accompany every pupil without a sufficient grasp of their language of education would surely break the majority of school budgets.
The ‘classe d’accueil’ also has the advantage of easing the pupils into their new school environment. They have a chance to make friends with fellow foreigners (while, again, using French as the lingua franca), learn about the culture of their adoptive country and often gain a much-needed confidence boost that they are soon to be linguistically able to cope with the demands of the French education system. This method is surely preferable to that of leaving immigrant pupils feeling isolated and bewildered, surrounded by native speakers of the language who can follow what their peers are saying and what the teacher is talking about. The ‘classe d’accueil’ method also removes any unnecessary burdens on the teacher: it is tough enough to teach a class without having to worry about accommodating pupils who do not even understand the language of instruction.