The French Heritage Language Program: beyond French, making Bilingualism an Asset for new Americans.

A month ago, 10 students in grade 10 and 11 enrolled in the French Heritage Language Programs at Bronx International, Prospect Heights, Union Square and Manhattan International High Schools traveled to Easton, Pennsylvania, an hour and a half away from NYC, to Lafayette College, a prestigious private liberal arts college. For most of them, it was the first trip out of New York City, the first college visit and definitively the first one to a private liberal arts college.

They are among the 4000 students identified as French speaking students in NYC public schools. We know that this number is an underestimation as it is blind to the students’ multilingualism; it only captures those who declare French as the language spoken at home, ignoring the majority of those who chose to list English or Wolof, Fulani, Haitian Creole or Ewe (one of their native languages) on a questionnaire that only allows one answer.

They have recently arrived in NYC from Francophone Africa or Haiti and attend high schools in the International Network of Public Schools, a consortium of schools which only welcome students who have been in the US for 4 years or less. As stated on their website, “at International High Schools, a badge of prestige replaces the “stigma” of immigrant status for students, families, and faculty. It is understood that near native fluency in English and proficiency in a second language are valuable resources”.

If the international high schools offer an environment where these students are valued and respected, they don’t always offer language instruction, the focus being on English language acquisition. After encountering some of these students and hearing them speak French near one of the schools, Jane Ross, (FHLP program founder) saw the need to offer programs to help them maintain their French and use it as an asset to better integrate the American society. She approached the cultural services of the French Embassy and through a partnership with the FACE Foundation, the French Heritage Language Program was born 15 years ago.

The core of the FHLP (French Heritage Language Program)‘s mission is to provide free French classes to underserved schools and French-speaking communities but also advocate for the teaching of heritage languages in the United States. Yes, for most of our students, French is not the native language, yes, it has been imposed by colonization but it is not a “foreign” language either; it is a heritage language, which means it is familiar in a variety of ways. Some may be able to speak, read, and write the language; others may only speak or understand when spoken to. Some may not even understand the language but are part of a family or community where the language is spoken. Our curriculum leverages each student’s linguistic assets and explore African and Haitian arts and literature through projects, and because our classrooms are very heterogeneous, our collaborative project-based approach is particularly relevant.

The FHLP is a member of the Coalition of Community-Based Heritage Language Schools which regroups more than 130 schools teaching heritage languages across the US. Our program has served more than 4,500 young boys and girls over the past 15 years in NYC but also in Miami, Boston and Maine. The students meet after school under the guidance of a teacher, to maintain or improve their French by working on cultural projects to keep them connected to their cultural heritage. But our mission goes beyond maintaining the French language: as Maya Smith perfectly put it in an article published in the Critical Multilingualism Studies Journal in 2017, “the FHLP not only provides free French language training, it also creates a space where these students can construct their identities as multilingual speakers and learn the value of their various cultural background”.

For some of these students, the program also carves a path to college through AP French classes and AP preparation workshops during the school breaks: as a result, 75% of our students who take the AP French exam get a score of 3 or more, which can result in college credits. So when Lafayette College reached out to us to explore possible pathways for our students and exchanges between their students and ours, it was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the role French could play into building academic success and college access: by leveraging their multilingualism, they could have access to more opportunities.

During the two-day visit, the FHLP students heard from an admissions officer a comprehensive overview of the complex college admission process in the US; two students from Kenya and Nigeria also shared with humor and a lot of insight their experiences as newcomers to the US and to Lafayette College. They were paired with students with whom they spent both days on campus. They attended two classes as well as a leadership workshop. They also met with students from Madagascar, who attend the college thanks to the Lafayette Initiative Malagasy Education (LIME), a peer to peer mentoring program between Lafayette and an Antananarivo public high school which provides a full scholarship to one student every year. This is one of the many initiatives the college has led to increase diversity within its community. Another one worth mentioning is the partnership with the Posse Foundation: it identifies, recruits and trains individuals with extraordinary leadership potential, from underrepresented and underserved communities. Posse Scholars receive full-tuition leadership scholarships from Posse’s partner colleges and universities. (click here to read Deborah Bial (the founder) explain how the foundation tackles diversity through access to Higher Education).

Beyond the opportunity to get out of New York city for two days, our students got a real taste of life on  campus: they roomed with Lafayette students and created long lasting connections with their roommates; one of our student from Bronx International met a fellow Cameroonian student who seemed very happy with her Lafayette experience; the tour was led in French by a student from Jamaica who studied abroad in France and seemed to know almost everyone on campus; two international students shared their experiences arriving from Kenya and Nigeria; the students from Madagascar who barely spoke English a few years before their admissions to Lafayette talked about their journey. All these stories resonated with our students and had them actually think of Lafayette College as an option, and they all commented on how they felt welcomed and at ease.

On our way back to NYC, listening to the students talk about the trip, I realized this experience had a real impact and helped them understand a few important things: their multiculturalism, multilingualism and resilience are valued; they have something unique to bring to a college classroom, colleges are looking for people like them and all the opportunities they foresaw at Lafayette College are not necessarily out of reach, with hard work, determination, preparation and some support.

In 2017, Google conducted a study featured in a December 2017 Washington Post article; it identified the top characteristics of success for their employees: they were all soft skills and six of them were byproducts of a bilingual education: communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view), having empathy, being a good critical thinker and problem solver and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

The FHLP students are not just bilingual; they are multilingual and they do possess most of these soft skills: their journey to the US, the resilience and other life skills they have to build made them natural born leaders. Many of them are perfect candidates for colleges like Lafayette, yet, they are disproportionally underrepresented: they are English learners and they are black, two groups of students particularly impacted by the inequalities in high school graduations and access to higher education in the US.

In a perfect world, a program like ours wouldn’t exist and all these students would be in a dual language program, in mainstream classrooms where their language will be an asset for the entire community. The amazing benefits of a bilingual education speak for themselves and a growing body of research confirms its lasting impact: cognitive benefits, better academic results, fewer school dropouts, increased creativity and critical thinking, open-mindedness and cultural awareness.

In New York City, the Bilingual Revolution began years ago and is still under way: a grassroots movement led by parents and community leaders have already brought high quality bilingual education to more than 2000 students in 11 schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Just last week, a group of parents obtained the creation of the first PK French dual language program in the Lower East side of Manhattan after a two-year-advocacy campaign and a petition signed by more than 150 parents from various ethno-linguistic backgrounds.

There is still a lot of work to be done: 70% of the dual language programs are for elementary or middle school students. Last month, Lafayette Academy, a middle school with a French dual language program just got community board support to start the first public dual language high school . As of now, the Boerum Hill School of International Studies, an IB school in Brooklyn is the only public high school in the city which substantial French instruction from French classes, bilingual science classes and a variety of French enrichment activities.

Moreover, none of the 11 French dual language programs are in the Bronx, despite the more than 22,000 French speakers (age 5 and over) identified by the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey and the 296 students who listed French as a home language (in purple on the map).

Fabrice Jaumont, author of the “The Bilingual Revolution: the Future of Education is in two languages” offers an explanation in a France Amerique article: “the families asking for dual-language classes are often educated and relatively well off. …. Families with more modest incomes do not have the time or resources to take the initiative to create a dual-language program. It is hard for these parents to approach local schools and convince the principal to launch a dual-language program”. And he calls on local authorities’ responsibility to help these families get programs off the ground.

Others worry that the growing demand for dual language programs is pushing out the students they were designed to serve. In an article published in the Atlantic in 2017 and titled “The intrusion of White families into bilingual schools”, Connor Williams examines this issue; he also recognizes that dual immersion programs address in a very effective way a wide range of difficult questions education is facing in the US : meeting the needs of a growing portion of students whose home language is not English, meeting the needs of all families in districts with shifting demographics and preparing students for a global world.

And I agree with Vanessa Bertelli, Executive Director of DC Language Immersion Project (an organization advocating for multilingual education in the DC area) who published an answer to Connor Williams a year later  in the same publication: “ we are slicing a cake that is too small.….these first-generation immigrant parents believe that their children will be at a disadvantage in a dual-language program and therefore enroll them elsewhere. No one bothers telling people how good it is in a language they can understand, which leaves better informed, English-speaking parents claiming the bigger slices”.

What we need is a bigger cake i.e. more dual language programs, not only where parents have the luxury to get informed, to organize and to lobby for it but also in communities where most parents work two jobs and don’t have the time or resources to do so.

It is our responsibility as a society to give these students and their families the support they need, to build bridges to overcome the systemic inequalities they face on their road to success. It is the only path to a more equitable and diverse society because, as Bill and Melinda Gates noted in their 2020 annual letter, “success in America is a complex equation with too many variables to count—race, gender, your ZIP code, your parents’ income levels—and education is an incredibly important part of that equation.”

Agnès Ndiaye Tounkara

French Heritage Language Program Officer

To learn more about the French Heritage Language Program, click here.