Providing bilingual education since 1689

Commemorative stamp, German Federal Post, 1989: 300 years French School Berlin

I’ve been teaching about bilingualism for more than a decade and when I speak about bilingual education and dual-immersion programs I draw on examples from Canada and the USA. These are the examples that fill the literature and the textbooks. I’d bet that a survey of university classes dealing with bilingual education would find that English-French dual-immersion programs in Canada and English-Spanish dual-immersion programs in the USA emerge as the paradigmatic cases of bilingual education that we present to our students.

An article in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism reminds us how myopic this view is:

A PhD literature review in the field of two-way immersion (TWI) education revealed that German TWI programs are hardly ever mentioned in English-language publications. (Meier, 2010, p. 419)

As the author goes on to show this is not because such programs are rare but because even scholars in the field of bilingualism are a bit blinder on the non-English eye. I have to admit that I myself had never before even heard of the Französisches Gymnasium/Collège Français, which has been providing bilingual education in French and German in Berlin since 1689. That’s right, for over 320 years! Originally founded to serve Berlin’s Huguenot refugee population, the school has, with a short break in the final year of World War II, been operating uninterruptedly ever since.

When I wrote about the English translation of a speech by German Chancellor Merkel last week, I had occasion to reflect on the control the English-language hegemony exerts over our ways of seeing in journalism. It’s a bit harder to face the fact that the same kind of hegemony operates even in a scholarly field explicitly dedicated to bi- and multilingualism.

Meier’s article shows that the Französisches Gymnasium/Collège Français is just one of many dual-immersion programs in Germany in a wide range of languages. That we know so little about those programs is not only a result of English-language hegemony but also of the ideologies of those groups in German society who control the information that gets seen and read internationally. The dominant groups in German society share a monolingual mindset and homogeneous views of the nation which help to obscure the fact that, for instance, in 2007 24% of all children born in Germany had at least one non-German parent (official statistics quoted by Meier, 2010, p. 427) and that at least some of these will head for one of the country’s many bilingual education programs.

Yoshio Sugimoto (2010, p. 14f.) explains the process beautifully with reference to international views of Japan:

Numerically small but ideologically dominant, core subcultural groups are the most noticeable to foreigners and are capable of presenting themselves to the outside world as representatives of Japanese culture.

Such a core subcultural group in Germany consists of ethnic Germans who cling to the myth of a homogeneous and monolingual nation. As Meier shows with reference to bilingual education, the reality is much more complex and diverse. It is fascinating, too! However, the inconvenient truth is that as bilingualism scholars we are actually colluding with the ideologically dominant if we fail to put diversity at the heart of our work – and that should routinely include reading the non-English-language literature, too! Meier, G. (2010). Two-way immersion education in Germany: bridging the linguistic gap International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 13 (4), 419-437 DOI: 10.1080/13670050903418793
Sugimoto, Yoshio (2010). An Introduction to Japanese Society Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Spot on, Ingrid. I’ve read so many insightful, cutting-edge studies on issues such as bilingualism, migration and social justice in Japanese, but they never get picked up in English-language literature. I’ve also come across so many English-language literature in which authors claim that this is the first time so and so has ever been studied, whereas the truth is often that the researchers haven’t checked non-English literature that might have already addressed the same issue. I think Language-on-the-Move can play an important role in raising awareness of this imbalance by continuing to introduce non-English literature in an accessible manner.

  • Rune C. Olwen

    Und das – durch Kaputtsparen der schleswig-holsteinischen Staatsregierung z.zt. gefährdete – Schulsystem der dänischen Minderheit scheint auch nicht bekannt zu sein weiter südlich:
    wir haben auch eine zweisprachige Zeitung, den Flensborg Avis:
    Moinmoin (das heißt “Doppelt schönen Tag”) aus Flensburg

    Rune auf Deutsch und die Dänen nennen mich Runa

  • Rune C. Olwen

    Should I better repeat that in English?
    The Danish and Frisian Minorities in Germany have a school system of their own, bilingual of course, but endangered by costcutting now. In Germany school finances are in the realm of the federal states.
    Unfortunately I do not find an English translation of one of the websites, it is Danish or German:
    Only the minority political organisation has some English:
    Lots of material in our bilingual newspaper, the Flensborg Avis:
    Many of the reporters write good English, so you can ask any question.

    the Germans call me Rune, as it is in my papers,
    the Danes prefer Runa, which is usual in Scandinavia.

  • Khan

    This is fantastic!. Look there are so many perceptual problems. I think our frames are hugely coloured ones. World for us means a few countries!
    Thanks you so much for helping me see how multilingualism thriving in so-called mono-lingual countries. I think the world has never been a monolingual entity. It is only politically made to appear that way.

    Your post reminds me of a couplet in Urdu written by Mir Taqi Mir:
    Sar Saree Tum Jahan Say Guzray
    Varna Har ja Jahan-e-diga tha

    My translation of the couplet: (Oh You have seen the world superficially
    Else you would have dicovered every place a unique one)

    Thanks once again for the post.


  • Victor

    Thanks for the article! It’s really sad to see that if something is not published in English, it’s like it does not exist for the scientific community at all. In 2009 I worked at the organizing committee of an international conference held in Spain on the phonetics and phonology of those languages spoken in the Iberian peninsula (Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, etc.), and I was always disappointed at the fact that the official language of the conference was neither of those, but… English!

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