Many parents are calling for immersive language learning in schools to be made widespread in Belgium.
Contrary to popular belief, young children don't make the best language students: they have a talent for mimicry, so their pronunciation will be top notch, but their cognitive and reasoning skills are not sufficiently developed for them to understand the mechanics of language – the cogs and screws of grammar and syntax.
To many experts, the best way of teaching kids another language is through ‘immersion'. Advocates of this method say it works because it tries to simulate the circumstances in which children acquire their first language, by shifting the impetus towards language as a tool for everyday work and play. The idea is that if children are encouraged to ‘play' in the second language, they are more likely to absorb it without having to study it.
Belgian parents are particularly in tune to the importance of language learning. In a multilingual country, fluency in more than one language is a powerful tool. In bilingual Brussels, more and more kids are attending the schools of the other language community.
Tibem, an alliance of Walloon and Flemish parents, is currently causing a stir by demanding that the state take its language instruction policies a radical step further. They want second language education to go beyond the confines of the textbook and become an integral part of the learning experience.
“We're angry that, in a country with two (large) language communities, we have no bilingual education,” says Tibem's Laurence Mettewie, who is also a researcher into language acquisition. “We don't want all schools to adopt the immersion system, but we would like people to have the choice.”
Pointing to the success of an experimental programme run by the French-speaking community, Tibem wants bilingual immersion schools opened across the country. In addition to conventional language classes, children at immersion schools receive some or all of their schooling in their second language, and may even be encouraged to socialise in it. So a French-speaking child might learn, say, science and maths in Dutch.
”Immersion from kindergarten is generally quite successful with regard to the linguistic proficiency of children,” says Anne-Marie Schaerlaekens, a professor of language development at Leuven University.
It isn't a new concept. It has been successfully tried out in several countries, most notably bilingual Canada. Walloon schools that have switched to the system have seen a spectacular boost in popularity, and many now have long waiting lists. Flanders has no French-Dutch immersion schools as yet, although it does run a small experimental programme in Turkish and Spanish and there are plans afoot for Arabic.
But there are parents who worry that the technique will harm their child's command of his or her mother tongue, or that studying in another language will hinder progress in other subjects. Mettewie counters this. “Fears of linguistic dilution are not justified,” she says. “Results show that the child's mother tongue is reinforced through bilingual education.”
Research suggests that the brains of children in a bilingual system are ‘wired' in a more flexible way, enhancing language aptitude and making it easier for them to acquire additional languages later. This increased mental agility would appear, over time, also to improve cognitive skills; children at immersion schools often outscore their mainstream peers in maths and other subjects.
Nevertheless, some specialists in Belgium, Canada and elsewhere have identified a tendency among pupils at immersion schools to veer towards language specialisation, using their mother tongue to socialise and play and performing more formal mental activities in their second language.
Mettewie says that this risk can be minimised through partial, as opposed to total, immersion, where pupils study and socialise in the two languages. She believes that the benefits of immersion education outstrip its drawbacks.
She points the finger instead at the politics surrounding language. “We have all the basic ingredients to make this wonderful pie,” she says, “But we lack the will.”
“Scientifically, a lot of children would profit from it,” Schaerlaekens echoes. “But it's largely a political issue.”
Education is a political minefield in Belgium and the fault line runs down the language divide. While some Walloons remain proudly monolingual, for some in Flanders the idea of immersion schools awakens memories of the days when they were educated in French and obliged to speak it in public life.
Since the 1960s, responsibility for education has devolved to the community level and today there is no federal education ministry. Instruction in schools must be monolingual.
But there is growing debate on both sides of the fence on the impact of this gradual political and cultural drifting apart of the two communities.
“Many parents know that learning the other community's language is important for their children to get on in life,” Mettewie says. “It's also important for national solidarity.”
In 1998, the Walloon parliament relaxed its education laws through a decree allowing the setting up of experimental immersion schools, but it has shied away from calls to implement it on a wider level.
“Despite the advantages and encouraging results of this approach, there are obstacles to it becoming more widespread in the French-speaking community,” says Nourdine Taybi, a spokesman for the Francophone education ministry.
These include a lack of qualified staff, with the risk of inequitable access, and fear of the long-term effects on learning. Immersion schools have also reached the floor of the Flemish parliament, with Education Minister Marleen Vanderpoorten recommending that the issue be looked into.
Immersion schools might appear ideal for Belgium, but the outlook is not all rosy. “People think it's a bit crazy that we don't have a bilingual school system,” notes Schaerlaekens. “On the other hand, it's simplistic to believe that it would solve everything.”
Schaerlaekens says that most children at immersion schools come from highly educated families that are often bilingual. She says the system remains untested at a general level and could alienate children with learning difficulties. She fears that, if not handled carefully, it could lead to elitism and accentuate class divisions.
This article appeared in the 9 January 2003 issue of The Bulletin and the 18/19 January 2009 edition of La Libre Belgique.