First established in Luxembourg in 1953, the European Schools system provides multilingual and multicultural education to the children of the relatively elite civil servants working for the European Community (EC). European Schools form a network of 14 schools in seven countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, Spain, and Luxembourg) with a total enrollment of 22,500 (Schola Europaea, 2007-2009). As a system, the European Schools offer 15 different language sections (Czech, Danish, German, Greek, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Hungarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish), representing the native languages of the students. At any given European School, there may be anywhere between three and 12 language sections. More languages are likely to be added as other countries join the EC.
Young children entering the program are taught in their native language (L1) but also receive compulsory second language (L2) instruction (chosen from among English, French, and German, which are known as the “working languages”) during primary school. English is by far the most popular L2, chosen by 59% of the students in the European Schools, followed by French (23%) and German (18%) (Schola Europaea, 2011). As children progress through the grades, they receive part of their education in their native language and part of it in the “working language.” Starting in the second year of secondary school, all students must study a second foreign language (L3), which could be any language available in the school. Students may choose to study a third foreign language (L4) from the fourth year of secondary school. This could also be any language available in the school. Thus, by the time students graduate from secondary school, they are functionally bilingual, if not multilingual in several European languages.
One of the specific goals of the European Schools is to promote multi- lingual/multicultural interaction through weekly “European Hour,” which brings together children from all language sections for cultural, artistic, and games activities (Schola Europaea, 2007-2009). Although every child has second language instruction in one of the “working languages,” not everyone shares the same combination of languages. During the European Hour, students are purposefully assigned to linguistically heterogeneous groups so that they can learn to communicate and work collaboratively with speakers of other languages. The outcome of such deliberate mixing of different nationalities is the development of a supranational European identity and promotion of European multiculturalism (Swan, 1996). Teachers typically use their first language, one of the “working languages,” or a combination of languages at their disposal during the European Hour (Muller & Baetens Beardsmore, 2004).
How do students and teachers communicate in such a linguistically diverse environment? In a study of students’ and teachers’ communication strategies during a European Hour class at the Brussels III European School, Muller & Baetens Beardsmore (2004) show that only two out of the 20 children they observed did not speak any of the three working languages well enough to communicate without difficulties. But at no time was there a complete breakdown of communication, as students frequently used their various language combinations to act as interpreters for one another. Naturally, code-switching played a significant role in the students’ and teachers’ communication strategies. This is exemplified in the following excerpt from Muller & Baetens Beardsmore (2004) (note that T = Teacher, M = Male, It = Italian, and Fr = French):
Two male Italian-speaking students (MIt1 and MIt2) are trying to get clarification from the teacher, Chantal.
MIt2: Che vuol dire? (to MIt1) [It.]
MIt1: Si puo encolare questa parte (points at a cut-out) i poi colare con un filo. [It.]
MIt2: Il dit qu’ilpeut collerpuis il le retaille et il fait. .. . (to T—turns his head to MIt1) [Fr.]
MIt1: Lascia libera questa parte e poi mete un filo. (to MIt2) [It.]
MIt2: Ah, il a dit qu’il... eh .. . qu’il colle et puis il laisse une partie libre. (to T) [Fr.]
T: Mais un tout petit peu, oui. [Fr.]
Translation of Excerpt 1 MItl: Chantal.
MIt2: What do you want to say?
MItl: Whether I can glue this part and then stick a thread to it.
MIt2: He says that he can stick it and then he cuts it out again and he .... MIt1: Leave this part free and then put a thread.
MIt2: Oh, he said that he ... er ... he glues and then he leaves one part free. T: But only a little bit, yes.
Like Canadian French immersion, the European Schools can be considered a strong form of bilingual education because they produce graduates who are not only bilingual but also academically successful—student achievement is not compromised as a result of the program’s heavy emphasis on multilingualism and multiculturalism (Baetens Beardsmore, 1993; Housen, 2002). Students in the European Schools perform well on educational assessments. In 2011, overall pass rate for the European Baccalaureate, taken at the end of the seventh year of secondary school, was 98% (Schola Europaea, 2011). Furthermore, in a school environment where children are explicitly taught to respect one another’s languages, students learn a second, third, or even a fourth language to high levels while being firmly rooted in their first language. These benefits make the European Schools a distinctively enriching educational experience.
But what about children in less privileged linguistic circumstances? What can schools do when children’s native languages are socially stigmatized? How can students be helped to maintain their mother tongues while they learn additional languages and academic content? These questions are addressed by successful programs in indigenous language immersion, to which I turn next.