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Old and New Cleavages in Language Policy

Bizri argues that ‘the choice of French and/or English as second and third languages in Lebanon is no longer associated with confession or class, but with aspirations to social success’.62 Surveys confirm that students view the study of English as an essential instrument of socio-economic mobility and policymakers often agree: they perceive English as the language of business and science. While being associated with high culture, to an extent, the French language remains also an expression of affiliation to French culture, particularly among Christians.63 Thus, being French-educated or English-educated remains a secondary marker of communal identity for certain Christians who value Arabic-French bilingualism.

However, more than reflecting communal fractures, language policy in consociational Lebanon cements socio-economic cleavages. Bizri confirms that ‘the famous Lebanese trilingualism with French, Arabic and English in reality [is] not accessible to all members of the nation’.64 Indeed, access to multilingual education is a function of socio-economic status and the quality of language teaching in Lebanon’s ‘elitist educational system’ depends on individual ability to ‘afford ... expensive private schools with strong English programmes’.65

In most schools, the quality of English and French teaching is poor: in 1993 only 25 % of students passed their English Baccalaureate exam.66 Foreign language teaching is largely based on text, memory and repetition, employs academic and artificial language and favours writing over speaking, particularly when classes are crowded and children have different proficiency levels.67 Moreover, students in public schools have access to fewer foreign language learning opportunities than students in private schools. Children are rarely exposed to French or English after school, and lack opportunities to practise these foreign languages, particularly in ‘low socio-economic status schools’.68 In fact, pupils of middle-class backgrounds often speak French or English at home.69 Thus, despite the curriculum being nominally the same, students in ‘low socio-economic status schools’ achieve lower levels of French and English and are unable to employ the foreign languages in science class.70 In the long term, this entrenches socio-economic cleavages and hampers social mobility.

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