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New York, where French school is free – and fought over

Bilingual children converse in French and English at La Petite École on Manhattan's Upper West Side
Bilingual children converse in French and English at La Petite École on Manhattan's Upper West Side Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24

If you want your children to speak French, you’d do well to send them to school in New York.

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Parents now have 10 public schools to choose from – up from zero in 2006 – if they want their children to graduate from school speaking French as fluently as they speak English, without paying.

The trend reflects a wider demand for bilingual education, which is transforming the way children are educated across the city. More than one in ten New York children are now taught in two languages at public school, as parents continue to lobby for dual language programmes to guarantee their children a bilingual future.

Unsurprisingly, Spanish, which is spoken by one in four New Yorkers, is the most popular second language. But children can also learn about photosynthesis and algebra in Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Korean, Bengali and even Haitian Creole.

The benefits are undeniable. Aside from the opportunity to travel more freely and make further-flung friends, people who speak more than one language fluently are more likely to be considered for a job, and more likely to earn a higher wage than their monolingual counterparts.

Learning to speak two languages also develops the brain’s ability to solve internal conflict, to multitask, and recently has been shown to delay the onset of Alzheimers.

American laissez-faire

For many New York parents, the cause is worth some serious “helicopter parenting”. Unlike in Europe, American parents have substantial sway over their children’s education. Most of the city’s dual-language programmes have come about through pressure from parents.

At New York’s first ever bilingual education fair in October, parents who had succeeded in convincing their own children’s school principles to adopt a bilingual curriculum, offered advice to others hoping to do the same.

“You can build the school you want in this country,” Maria Kot, a Russian immigrant whose daughter attends Public School 200 in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, told an audience of parents. “It’s better to find a school that has room to grow; which is not well known; one in a quietly gentrifying neighbourhood; one that is looking for students,” she advised.

Virgil de Voldère runs La Petite École, a "French immersion  preschool" on the Upper West Side. "Bilingualism is a family commitment," he says. Photo © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.
Virgil de Voldère runs La Petite École, a "French immersion preschool" on the Upper West Side. "Bilingualism is a family commitment," he says. Photo © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

Virgil de Voldère, a French art dealer who lives on the Upper West Side and successfully lobbied in 2008 for his children’s local high school (PS 84) to adopt a dual-language programme, describes the process – which can be a lengthy struggle by all accounts – as “the most extraordinary thing” he’s done in his life.

“It shows how much power we have in the US as parents,” he said. “It would never happen in France. It’s an incredible gift.”

It’s not only parents who are capitalising on America’s free-hand attitude towards schooling. One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the bilingual movement, and the open environment that allows it, is the French government.

The French Embassy’s cultural division is currently on a mission to raise $2.8 million to help fuel the expansion of French-English programmes. And the French ministries of foreign affairs and education, the French Senate and the National Assembly have also fed into the project, with grants and seed money running into what is thought to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Francophile surge

De Voldère, who has been committed to raising his sons à la française from an early age, sought out a French-speaking environment for them even before they were old enough to go to school. He didn’t find one. But he found plenty of other parents looking for the same thing. In 2005, he opened La Petite École, which he describes as a “French immersion preschool,” for children aged two to five. (His sons, now older, attend two different French-taught schools in Manhattan).

For de Voldère, bilingual schooling is not just about language. “We try to maintain a French environment, taking pleasure in sitting down to eat together for example,” he told FRANCE 24 when we went to visit the school. “The older kids get, the more they are exposed to American culture, which is quite strong.”

Many of the parents whose children attend La Petite École – paying up to $22,000 a year for a guaranteed head start in French – have no link to the country, and speak to their children in their own various mother tongues: English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hebrew… But they have one thing in common. “They are Francophiles. There is a real affection for the country and the language” de Voldère says.

Anaïs, four, and Maximilian, three, discuss starfish, Halloween and the perils of eating yoghurt, in a mixture of French and English. Photo © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.
Anaïs, four, and Maximilian, three, discuss starfish, Halloween and the perils of eating yoghurt, in a mixture of French and English. Photo © Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24.

That affection runs deep and wide in New York. Less than one percent of the city speaks French at home, but the language remains disproportionately popular, even revered. It’s also perceived to be regaining its competitive edge (alongside Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic), long after losing its title as lingua franca to English. A study released in March projected that French could actually become the world’s most spoken language by 2050, largely down to population growth among French-speaking Africans.

“I think that many parents that are looking at the future for their children in the global economy realise that many countries around the world do speak French and that a lot of business is conducted in French,” Robin Sundick, principal at PS 84, told FRANCE 24.

Jessie Barker, who helps parents enrol their children at Public School 133 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where both Spanish and French are offered as second languages, told FRANCE 24 that demand was so strong she had been approached by parents with children just a few months old. “There are the French-speaking parents who want to ensure their children speak French like they do, and then there are the American parents... Some of them are just crazy about everything French,” she said.

Like most public schools that offer dual-language programmes, PS 133 enrols equal numbers of children (25:25) who do and don’t speak the second language at home, in order to provide a balance in the classroom. One Quebecois mother told Barker that she was concerned that her three-year-old daughter, who speaks French at home but English elsewhere, would fail the test to be categorised as a native speaker (of which there are fewer applicants), reducing her chances of gaining a place. “She gets nervous speaking French to strangers,” she said.

Soccer fan Sean O’Bradaigh, 12, shouts out to his bilingual teammates in both English and French. Born in the US, he says he hopes to live in Europe at some point in his life, maybe in a French-speaking country. Photo © Jessica le Masurier, FRANCE 24.
Soccer fan Sean O’Bradaigh, 12, shouts out to his bilingual teammates in both English and French. Born in the US, he says he hopes to live in Europe at some point in his life, maybe in a French-speaking country. Photo © Jessica le Masurier, FRANCE 24.

Franglais to fluency

That shyness is common among young bilingual children. At La Petite École, two of de Voldère’s pupils are eager to advertise their bilingual skills. “We speak loads of French,” Max, three, and Anaïs, four, tell us... in English. When asked how old both of them are, in French, the answer comes in giggles and shakes of the head. “Plus que trois?” (More than three?) Max suggests, seeking confirmation from one of the teachers. “He means three and a half,” she says. Only when we turn away, does the pair resume their conversation, in a comfortable mix of French and English.

By secondary school age, that shyness has long gone, along with any unintended “franglais”.

Twelve-year-old Sean O’Bradaigh, whose mother is Belgian and father is Irish, attends the Lycée Français de New York – a private institute which costs $29,100 a year in tuition fees. The school opened in 1935, long before bilingual education was provided by the Department of Education for free.

O’Bradaigh says he “used to feel more comfortable in French, because it’s my mother tongue, but now it’s English because I speak it a lot more”.

O’Bradaigh was taking part in a week-long French-spoken football (aka soccer) school, the PSG Academy, on Randall Island near Manhattan. Cheers of both “goooaal!” and “buuuuut!” rang out as O’Bradaigh switched between French and English unflinchingly.

Almost all of the 70 participants speak both languages fluently. Asked about which language they think in, most of the kids found the question impossible to answer.
 

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