When the time comes to send children to school, parents, expatriates and binationals ask themselves questions. Can one contribute to learning French at home as a French-speaking parent? Should one enrol one’s children in a bilingual school? What about the place of biculturality when talking about bilingualism?
To answer these essential questions for expatriate or binational families, we went to meet Isabelle Bonneau, founder of Tessa International School, the bilingual and international school in New Jersey.
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Speaking French at home is not enough
“We see that among the children applying to Tessa International School, those who speak French only at home achieve a very good level of oral skills at best, but more often than not, their French is imperfect and they have an accent. Some even refuse to speak the language, even if they understand it. On the other hand, their written level is generally low,” explains Isabelle Bonneau. With all the good will of Francophone parents, speaking French at home is generally not enough to transmit a sustained level of Molière’s language to one’s child or children. At best, a child will be able to understand and speak, he or she will be able to express himself or herself but without dexterity in handling the complexity of the language. Note to the written word.
Enrolling a child in a bilingual school is a personal choice which depends on the plans of each family. Expatriate families who are passing through the United States for a few years know that sooner or later they will return to live in France. It is out of the question for these families to take their children out of an educational system where French and the French National Education programme play an important role. For the families who have settled permanently in the land of Uncle Sam, the situation is different. And there are many questions. Will the child go to higher education in France – where school fees are lower -, is learning French essential in the family history, is the child exposed to more than two languages, is French the only vector of connection with the grandparents? Doesn’t not enrolling your child in a bilingual school mean depriving him or her of part of our own culture and other ways of thinking, as French parents? “Do parents want their child to be French-speaking? “without a bilingual school, parents may find it very difficult”, Isabelle Bonneau asks.
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Beyond language learning, it is also about the transmission of a culture and a way of thinking. You don’t educate a student in the American system the way you educate a student in the French system. “French education, which is an education of quality, makes it possible, thanks to cursive writing, to develop fine motor skills, to give a sense of detail. In France, we learn poems and recitations by heart, which allows us to refine our sense of detail, precision and rigour. Moreover, French is a sophisticated language, with complex grammar and conjugation. It is a constructive challenge. Here in the United States, the education system opens up emotionally to children,” explains the founder of Tessa International School. The marriage of the two programmes ultimately builds on the excellence and strengths of each education system. Teaching in French, beyond learning the French language and culture, brings precision and rigour, American education brings openness and shapes students who are able to debate, who dare to express their ideas and defend them.
“The language of the environment always takes precedence” according to Isabelle Bonneau. A child of French parents in the United States, even if he or she is able to express himself or herself fluently in both languages, automatically prefers English, the language of the country in which he or she is growing up.
“For children arriving at school, joining a bilingual school is the assurance of a smoother transition. However, we find that the younger they arrive, the faster they learn and the easier it is for them to become bilingual. It’s important to start early, because the earlier a child is exposed to bilingualism, the more flexibility their brain has to speak both languages perfectly,” says Bonneau. And the easier it will be for them to learn a third language.
Being educated in French means learning about French culture, at the heart of family roots. It means becoming bicultural. It means learning history, geography, civic education, beyond simply learning the language. It is acquiring a definitive way of thinking. Without forgetting the history of one’s roots.
“They remain closer to their roots and benefit in adulthood from more opportunities for international studies and careers. I experience these benefits on a daily basis. My son attended the Lycée Français until he passed the baccalaureate. He is now studying at ESSEC in Paris, with opportunities to spend the next few academic years in Singapore and Berkeley, all at a much lower cost than at an American university. I also know that if we move to France, he will stay close to us, at least culturally,” says Bonneau.
The international opening
Bilingual schools are adapting to the American system. “We teach everything, from reading to writing, which starts here in kindergarten, whereas in France, it starts in first grade,” relates Isabelle Bonneau. And to add ” we can add, to the bilingual dimension, the international dimension, which we live from day to day at Tessa International School. In a school like ours, with many bilingual families or English-speaking families, English is also very present and the children are more authentically and widely exposed to both cultures. ». At Tessa International School, 54% of the students have one of two French-speaking parents, 21% are children from French expatriate families and 25% of the students are American. Moving from one language to another, from one culture to another, enriching themselves from the other are all strengths acquired by students enrolled in an international bilingual school. With families of 32 different nationalities, Tessa International School prepares tomorrow’s citizens for a world of otherness and respect.
The International Baccalaureate is also central to international education. It aims to develop in young people the intellectual curiosity, knowledge and sensitivity necessary to contribute to building a better and more peaceful world, in a spirit of mutual understanding and intercultural exchange. Beyond the learning phase as a student, this programme brings values such as active lifelong learning, compassionate learning and the understanding that others, being different, can also be true. A real programme that shapes respectful and caring future adults.
If the International Baccalaureate is central to Tessa International School, so is the emotional programme at Yale. Marc Brackett, a brilliant researcher in psychology at Yale University, has developed instruments that help regulate both individual and group emotions. One such tool is the Ruler, which helps to educate children from an early age to understand and act with their emotions. Thus, at Tessa International School, emotional education is an integral part of the programme with the idea of making children better citizens, more aware of themselves, respectful, and also more effective.
Sometimes the only obstacle to bilingual education is the cost of school fees. “You have to be realistic, it’s a question of budget,” says Bonneau, “but people often imagine that they are not eligible for a scholarship when they might be. You shouldn’t hesitate to apply for a scholarship because in most schools, scholarships from the school, and not from the French state, are available at lower income levels than families assume,” concludes the founder of Tessa International School.