The Alsace Regional Council wants to tackle language barrier

STRASBOURG – The German language is getting more grip on the Alsace region. At the end of this school year the level of 11 year olds will be evaluated. A good signal according to the regional authorities. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

By Bobbie van der List

An estimated 23.000 children are learning German from the age of 3 to 18 year, and there are relatively more bilingual schools being opened than monolingual. Pascale Schmidiger (vice-president of the Alsace Regional Council) is happy, but not satisfied yet.

Vice-president of the Alsace Regional Council was at the Office for Alsatian Culture and Language for a meeting. PHOTO Bobbie van der List

More bilingual classes due to awareness parents

The mindset of the current parents of 3 to 11 year olds has changed. They realize that they need the German language. When she speaks at conferences about bilingual education, she tries to convince parents of the need for learning German.

She notices that people do understand the importance. Interesting in this respect is Schmidiger’s comment about people in their 30s and 40s not being able to speak German anymore.

,,It’s very interesting to speak with German firms. They were always use to have employers from Alsace who spoke German. But now they are completely lost, they have to speak English with Alsatian people. I call them the lost generation.”

That’s part of the reason why more bilingual classes were initiated by parents in the region. The so-called lost generation are the parents of today’s elementary and primary school children, who more often enjoy a bilingual program.

Speaking French in German class

In theory bilingual classes have grown in recent months. In practice the bilingual ambition of Schmidiger still leaves question marks.

Froelicher is president of Eltern Alsace, an organization founded in 1995 by parents who wanted bilingual education for their children. The organization represents 2000 members, whereas that number was 400 in 2008.

,,More often, when a German speaking teacher is ill, or on holiday, the replacement is French speaking. It’s a weakness in the system. German speaking teachers aren’t perfect bilingual. Sometimes they speak French in German class.”

Teachers complain

That’s the biggest problem at the moment – the German level of teachers. Teacher trade unions, like the SNUipp, complain about the lack of support of the government to improve their German. There are programs available, but there’s just a serious lack of German speaking professors to teach the teachers in German.

Schmidiger admits that there aren’t enough German speaking teachers in the Alsace area. ,,Most of the new teachers don’t speak Alsatian (regional dialect close to German), that’s one of the reasons why their German level is so bad.”

She can’t hide a cynical laugh when she hears the complaints of teachers. For her it’s the same old story. ,,They complain, because they are politically against bilingual education. It’s politics. The unions forget about the children. What about the children?”

Paris and teachers still live in the Republic

Paris is responsible for the mess, the vice-president claims. Paris, together with l’Académie de Strasbourg (responsible for education in the Alsace), ‘both still live in the Republic’.

,,We are Champion du Monde of the quantity what we put in the brains of our children. Maybe it’s too heavy. How can we be more light? In that way our children could learn a foreign language. The content is difficult and too classical – it’s a real problem today.”

Although Paris and the regional authorities came to an agreement about the form – public schools were given the opportunity to open bilingual classes – the region doesn’t have the freedom to decide on the content of education.

English is not my language nor theirs

Most of the students of the private business school in Strasbourg speak English. Some even Spanish. Only two are trying to learn German, says the German teacher. Why speak German, when we can communicate in English, most of them say.

Schmidiger: ,,It’s a real opportunity for the children. How to know your neighbor, if you don’t speak the same language? There are many words that you can’t translate. And why should we use English, when it’s not our language, nor theirs?”

Now the region Alsace and Baden Wurttemberg are working together for exchange programs. French children stay at German families. ,,It’s a real development of bilingualism.”

Have to catch up in this transition phase

The economic perspective of the youngsters will improve when they’re bilingual, she believes. ,,We are losing jobs in Germany, because we can’t speak the language.”

,,The chamber of commerce in Strasbourg is always angry about the language situation. The Alsace entrepreneurs hardly sell on the German market, because too few people speak German.”

That economical factor is another reason for Schmidiger to go on with her bilingual dream. ,,We are in a transition phase and have to level up now.’

For the point of view of the Alsace trade union for primary school teachers SNUipp click HERE.

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