We have just stepped into a New Year and into a new era. Hopes for a more unified and socially just world animate our dreams and goals alongside international efforts to vanquish the pandemic. What can advance reciprocal understanding, respect, and connection between diverse cultures and ethnicities more than getting to know each other’s languages and cultures? 2021 can be the year to expand our capacity to communicate by learning another language or by returning to one we have studied but neglected.
The benefits of studying languages are enormous, and I am grateful to Dr. Fabrice Jaumont for taking the time to speak with me about them. Dr. Jaumont is a scholar-practitioner, award-winning author, non-profit leader, and education advisor based in New York. He currently serves as Education Attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States, a Research Fellow at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, and an adjunct professor at New York University and Baruch College, CUNY. He is President of the Center for the Advancement of Languages, Education, and Communities, a nonprofit publishing organization with a focus on multilingualism, cross-cultural understanding, and the empowerment of linguistic communities.
The New York Times has referred to you as “the Godfather of language immersion programs.” How did you become an advocate for bilingual education?
It’s funny to be called the Godfather of something… It started as a joke, but then it was published in an article in 2014. It’s a hard title to carry and I don’t know if I really want to be called the Godfather of anything. It all began for me when I was a school director in Boston in a bilingual school. When I moved to New York, there were not that many options for bilingual education other than private schools, particularly when it came to the French language, like the Lycée Français. I saw that many parents were not able to put their kids in a bilingual school; it was too expensive or too far from where they lived. So, we started to look at public schools as an option.
I was hired by the embassy of France, so my role was already connected to promoting the French language and supporting teachers. But no one was really paying attention to the parents. I got involved with a group of parents in search of new possibilities: some wanted to create after-school programs to support their children’s language, others were looking at dual language programs. In New York, there were already quite a few dual language programs in Spanish and in Chinese, but nothing in French. That’s when we began to organize the parents and try to convince the school leaders that there was demand and support for a French dual language program. We got a lot of press when we were able to create one program in a school, and then we created others, which attracted more attention. We also got other linguistic groups interested. I met with a group of Russian parents and then Japanese, Italian, Greek parents, and they asked me: how can we do the same thing for our community, and what’s the recipe?
As immigrants we may sometimes take for granted that we speak at least two languages: one we learned naturally and the other by necessity. But for many native English speakers in the U.S., learning a language is something that they do in middle school, high school, maybe college, and then not much effort, if any, gets invested in maintaining and continuing to develop that language. Part of this issue derives from the fact that English is spoken almost everywhere in the world, and precisely because of that, I have heard people ask: “why should I bother to learn another language?” How do you combat this mode of thinking?
Well, there is a quote by Gregg Roberts that I bring up everywhere I give a talk: “Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century.” This is what I say when I hear people say that English is enough. It turns out that English is not enough anymore. Around the world, people are becoming bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual, and they all speak English. If they want to compete globally, young people trying to get a job will find out soon enough that they’re at a disadvantage when they speak only one language. I try to explain to parents that there are many advantages in being bilingual, which a lot of research has shown. Being bilingual brings you superpowers! It’s not just that your child will be better at learning languages but he or she will be a better learner in general.
The fact that you are learning another language or in another language also pushes you to solve more problems on a regular basis. Solving problems triggers several benefits in your brain. The cognitive developments associated with becoming bilingual are so many, that it’s really something that should be offered to all our children at the youngest age. Children in bilingual programs outperform students in monolingual programs in the same school on standardized tests, not just in English language arts. Being bilingual makes them better in math, because of that problem-solving training.
Then, there are many other advantages. I think the most important is, for a child, that the moment they’re learning another language and another culture, they’re developing more understanding, more tolerance, more respect for that other language, and ultimately, more empathy. This creates multilingual global citizens of the world with mutual understanding, which generates more peace in our schools, in our communities, in our society.
We know that for a child it is easier to learn a new language, but how would you convince an adult to put in the effort to do that?
One of the researchers I interviewed in my podcast, neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok, shows that a bilingual brain is a stronger, healthier brain, which prevents or slows down the onslaught of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Another neuroscientist, Ana Inés Ansaldo, says that there’s a clear benefit to the process of practicing two languages or more regularly: it makes you age slower and keeps your brain stimulated. Many new projects and programs she’s developing are for older folks to keep them active with languages. That also has a beneficial impact on increasing their well-being and happiness.
When you speak other languages, you have the opportunity for meaningful exchange and for meeting more people, which is essential to human beings. We see it with the pandemic. If we’re locked down and if we’re not talking to people and meeting people, we become depressed. So being involved with languages, ultimately, connects you to all kinds of people and that is good for your mental health.
I hope that, after learning about all of these benefits, some of our readers are going to take up a new language or reactivate the one or the ones they’ve learned and neglected; this sounds like a great—and healthy—resolution for this year.
It should be part of a health campaign: promoting languages as a way to solve health problems such as depression and others, and slow down aging.
Yes, for instance, when you do your annual check-up, your doctor could recommend learning a new language; it’s right up there with exercise and a healthy diet!
I think so!
Your acclaimed book “The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education Is in Two Languages” tells the story of this movement to bring dual language education to public schools as experienced by founding parents and educators. Please tell us about it.
My book is now available in eleven languages. It’s good to see that what started out as a group of parents in Brooklyn more than 15 years ago has become a larger-than-expected movement that involves families from all walks of life, and so many ethnic, linguistic, racial backgrounds. Bilingual education is a very passionate field. You have those that are in favor, and you have many opposing it.
Why is there opposition?
In the U.S., for instance, there can be a lot of reaction against the languages spoken by immigrants. There’s the “English-only” movement. I think Donald Trump was part of the board at some point, if I’m remembering this well. There are a lot of groups like that in many countries, where bilingualism or multilingualism—in Europe they call it plurilingualism—is not valued or is not a priority. And ultimately, we see many languages, particularly languages spoken by immigrants being squandered and forgotten. Many immigrants choose not to transmit their language to their children for a number of reasons.
Number one, I think, is to protect their children because they don’t want their children to suffer the discrimination they suffered when they spoke with accents or in broken English. But that has a consequence: there is a bond that is lost, not just with the language, but with the culture of their native country. So, there’s a disruption here: you see a lot of children unable to have a meaningful conversation with their grandparents who are back home. There are even stories of children who can’t speak to their parents because, let’s say, the child speaks only English and the parents speak only Spanish. There are many videos online showing cases of families where there’s this break between generations.
The core idea behind The Bilingual Revolution and the movement of parents is this: many of us who came from other countries wanted to preserve our linguistic heritage. We wanted our children to be our children. That’s a very raw feeling. We want our children to be able to communicate with our parents and understand things that are part of our identity. We want them to share the same identity. Someone wrote a book about children not speaking their parents’ language anymore and titled it something along the lines of “the strangers who live with me.” It may not be the exact title, but it represents this idea that if you lose the language, you lose the connection with your children and that is very hard to recuperate later in life. And some children will later blame their parents and tell them: “Well, you didn’t do anything for me to keep my language,” which can cause a lot of regret.
When you talk about bilingual education, there is always a lot of emotion in the room, and many personal stories. In the book, we have stories from nine different linguistic groups, including German, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Italian, Chinese, French, and Arabic, on how they went about creating dual language programs in their schools. Some succeeded, others failed and then tried again. The book is also used as a as a roadmap in guiding parents who have the same idea.
So, for parents looking for resources, your book would help.
Yes, it’s a book by parents for parents and it’s really easy to read. That’s how I envisioned it because I was repeating myself quite a lot. I was meeting so many people asking the same questions. How do you do this? How do you get organized? Where do you begin? What kind of data do you need to put together? Where do you find a school? What do you say to a school principal? What do you do once you need to find teachers? Where do you go to find funding? So, I said, ok, I will put that on paper and find a way to publish it and translate it to make it available to all groups. And now because it’s translated, it’s being read in countries outside of the U.S. Several countries are looking at ways to establish bilingual or trilingual programs in their school systems. For me, it’s the way of the future. There should be bilingual programs in every school. Monolingualism can be cured. Monolingualism is something that should be of the past.
There is another phenomenon that happens when you are an immigrant trying to preserve your native language. In my case, I find that when I speak Romanian, in some instances when I’m tired or in a rush or I’ve spoken English all day, an English word or expression finds its way into the conversation surreptitiously, because at that moment, it feels more immediate and accurate than a Romanian one. And I fight against that because I want to keep my native language intact. What are your thoughts on this? How do we keep the native language unaltered if we live, write, and talk at least eight hours of the day in English?
A neuroscientist I talk about in my book, François Grosjean, says that a perfect bilingual does not exist. You use a language more now, and maybe you’ll use it less later in a different context, so your mastery of that language fluctuates. And maybe you’ll have more vocabulary because you work in certain fields, but it’s never equal between languages, and there’s also the language in between. My daughters speak French, English, and Franglish. This is what you were saying with Romanian and English: the two languages are constantly merging. A dear friend of mine and professor at The Graduate Center, Ofelia García, says that we should not stop children from using that in-between language, the “third” language. She calls it the translanguaging. She says it should be encouraged, even in classrooms.
There cannot be a clear separation between languages. In some bilingual programs they would even draw a white line on the floor, saying that on the right is that language and on the left the other one, as if you could do that, mentally. That does not exist in real life. In our brain, the languages are always in a state of infusion. So, it’s okay to mix and to speak the in-between language.
And you don’t really lose the languages, do you?
If you’re practicing both languages regularly, you’re not going to lose them. But something which has always been very shocking to me is that your mother tongue could actually disappear if you stop using it, say, for several years. The other aspect about children practicing languages and that in-between language is the pleasure of doing it. We don’t talk enough about the pleasure of speaking languages or playing with languages. We should let children enjoy that, play and have fun with it, because if you are too strict and you say, “no, don’t do this, don’t speak that way,” the risk is that the child will stop speaking that language because it’s a source of stress.
For me, part of the fun of languages is their musicality. I think every language has its own music and if you discover that and have a playful approach to it, you can have fun with learning languages.
Yes, definitely. And you create new music; the music of the in-between languages that you speak.
I wondered if you ever encountered resistance to establishing these dual-language programs in a cosmopolitan city like New York, and then just the other day I read that one of these programs was dropped at the last minute by the Department of Education (read article here). Please tell us about having to face opposition to these programs.
Some who are in leadership positions believe that these programs are not a priority. Maybe that’s for personal reasons, maybe they lost their native language, or maybe they were not immersed in any other language. They’ll find every excuse sometimes to not create these programs. In some cases, it’s hard to change the educational system; it’s an ongoing battle.
There are also a lot of budget issues: many will tell you that there is no funding, therefore, we are not going to do it. Another frequent argument is: “we will never find the teachers; therefore, we are not going to create it.” That’s something I heard the first year we created a French dual language program in Brooklyn. And guess what? We found a teacher, and then another and another, and now we have more than 100 teachers teaching in French dual language programs in New York City.
Regarding the recent development you mentioned: I fully support this parent-led effort which has involved hundreds of diverse families and dozens of nationalities. Our children are part of a world that is shrinking and in which languages serve as pathways to understanding others around the globe, as well as understanding who we are. We need to embrace and advance homegrown bilingualism, but that can only happen if we offer these languages in public schools.
What is it like to be at the forefront of such a “revolution?”
It’s a collective effort. I have many colleagues in several states who have been able to transform the entire educational system of that state. In Utah, Georgia, North Carolina, Delaware, bilingual education—they call it dual language immersion—has become a real new path. In New York, there is a very important focus on equity, access, and social justice, but I think the politics don’t always include a long-term vision for dual language education for all, which is what I am preaching. If done right, dual language education is a democratic, equitable way to educate our children.
Find out more about Fabrice Jaumont and his work, and discover resources for dual-language education and more at The Center for Advancement, Education, and Communities.
Top photo: Fabrice Jaumont with students and his book “The Bilingual Revolution” at New York University, photo by Meichen Jin