The State of Utah is expanding the practice of bilingual school classes

Science 1 August, 2022

Dozens of French language teachers leave for this American state every year to take part in its ambitious policy of bilingual classes. Financial recognition, other relationships with students… These teachers often postpone their return to France.

Utah is America in the Western version. Vast expanses of desert, large national parks, pickup trucks racing along ten-lane highways, against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. There is an unexpected curiosity in this decor of wide open spaces: thousands of young Americans speak French here every day.

«It was a shock to me», – recalls Claire Tokaven, a Frenchwoman who has lived in Salt Lake City, the state capital, for five years. «I just arrived, chatted with a neighbor, and she says to me: “My son speaks French!” A 7-year-old child comes, starts a conversation with me, with a good accent!»

The mystery was quickly solved. Since 2008, «bilingual immersion» classes have been developed in public schools and colleges in Utah. The method is radical: starting with KP, students spend half of the day in a foreign language (Spanish, Chinese, French, Portuguese) – in most cases with a native teacher, and the other half – in English, with a second teacher.

«The result is outstanding», – said Judge Sophie Claire, a schoolteacher who came to Utah in 2021. Students acquire comprehension skills and fluency of speech from an early age. The training focuses on participation, the use of French between children, repetition, games, manipulation of objects, awards and songs.

That morning, at West Jordan Public School in a residential suburb of Salt Lake City, third grade (CE2) students begin a science lesson. «And why did these little water droplets evaporate?» – Elise Brunet, their favorite, a thirty—year-old woman who left Grenoble for Utah in 2021, asks. Not a word in English, all 8-year-olds play this game. «My students always think that I don’t understand a word of English, – breathes Elise Brunet. – The other day there was one who was annoyed, he came to watch me cry, he cried in French!»

In the USA, the model of «immersion in two languages» began to develop in the 1980s in California with Spanish to meet the demand of the immigrant population, and in Louisiana with French. Since the 2010s, the movement has been gaining momentum, in particular, thanks to Utah, which has increased the number of open classes and formalized teaching methods adopted elsewhere, becoming a benchmark. In this state, almost 65,000 young people from a wide variety of social strata receive immersion education in two languages, including 9,000 in French. «The results of such a program are amazing!» – teachers share.