Multilingual Education in the City of Brussels or How to Implement European Language Policy in Primary Schools.

Author(s): Piet Van de Craen
Institution/Organisation: Vrije Universiteit Brussel (BE)

1. Description of the case

1.1 Scope of the initiative

At the end of the 1990s a decree administered by the then Wallonian Minister of Education, Laurette Onkelinx, made it possible for schools belonging to the French-speaking school network, to start with content and language integrated learning (CLIL) provided they entered a specific demand describing the language pedagogical project they envisaged. As a result a small number of schools started out with what they called immersion programmes. In fact, it is called enseignement de type immersif. Later the number considerably increased. By now they are more than 200 schools involved.

Around the same time the school board of the Dutch-speaking primary schools in Brussels got interested as well. Contacts were laid between the board and the university and it was decided that from the school year 2001-2002 a CLIL-like initiative would start in three schools, namely first in the communes of Schaarbeek and Etterbeek, and soon  Sint-Pieters-Woluwe joined. Now also a primary school in Laken has adhered. It was decided to start with one form per year and build it up from there.

The type of initiative was regional, small scale and involving three kinds of partners (i) the schools and the school board, (ii) the school counselling service and (iii) the university, i.c. the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who would do the follow up of the activity. An ad hoc administration board was founded presided by the university, i.c. the author of these lines. The name given to the initiative was STIMOB which stands for stimulating multilingual education in Brussels, in Dutch stimulerend meertalig onderwijs in Brussel.


1.2 Languages involved

From the very beginning it was clear that the languages involved could not be but Dutch and French. Dutch because the schools all belong to the Dutch-speaking school network and French because, first, it is the lingua franca in Brussels spoken by the majority, second, a substantial number of pupils speak French at home and, third, the most decisive argument of them all, the Belgian language laws of 1962-1963 do not allow any other first foreign language but French.

Despite this rather clear and unavoidable choice of language within the founding group many discussions about the desirability of other languages were held. One member insisted heavily on Spanish while others were more in favour of English. Needless to say French won this battle. One might wonder why such a natural choice is not adopted as a matter of fact. This has to do with the complicated attitudes of Dutch speakers versus French due to historical and political reasons. Explanations for this can be found elsewhere (McRae 1988, Murphy 1988, Van de Craen 2003, Allain et al 2007). Interestingly enough after five years of STIMOB and realising the potential of the approach the school decided enthusiastically to add a number of hours of English to the Dutch-French curriculum.

1.3 Learning outcomes

The learning outcomes of STIMOB have been extensively studied. The researchers decided to focus on six tenets as they call it. At the same time it is an example of how studies of multilingualism can contribute to the body scientific knowledge of multilingual teaching. As such this approach can strengthen language policies and policy-driven initiatives in particular areas.

The six tenets under study are: (1) what is the knowledge of the target language (compared to monolinguals), (2) what is the knowledge of the mother tongue (compared to monolinguals), (3) what is the quality of pupil’s subject matter knowledge, (4) how far have their attitudes and motivation toward language learning been affected, (5) how is their cognitive development affected and (6) how is their brain affected (see for extensive coverage of this Van de Craen et al 2007a, 2007b, 2007c, 2008)

1.4 Practical realisation

In this part attention will be paid to the organisation of the initiative, the sociolinguistic context, the number of hours devoted to the project and the subject matter understudy.

The organisation

It was decided to start in each school with one form at the time. After six years the whole school would be part of the initiative. This careful approach had the advantage that, slowly but steadily, teachers could come to grips with a new reality, namely that in their schools, unlike before, French would be an integral part of daily activities. Teachers were found in the French-speaking school network. The first one was actually a teacher of Dutch in the French school system with an interest in bilingualism and language learning. The idea of teaching in French in a Dutch school greatly appealed to her. Other teachers who joined later were mostly young and very enthusiastic about the initiative. Of course being bilingual is a prerequisite although they only teach in one language.

The sociolinguistic context

It was also decided that within the sociolinguistic context of Brussels it would be meaningless to devote as much as 70% of the curriculum in the other language as is done in a number of Wallonian schools (see Lecocq et al 2004). In Brussels and also in most Dutch-speaking schools the majority is French-speaking. As a result it was considered much more appropriate to devote about 20% of the curriculum to French. This would result in a win-win situation since three kinds of pupils can be distinguished for whom the initiative has a different aim: (i) Dutch speakers are on their way to become multilingual in the best possible way, (ii) French-speakers receive support in their mother tongue whereby their subject matter learning is boosted, (iii) speakers of other languages such as Berber, Moroccan, Spanish and various East European languages receive instruction in the two official languages of the area, which will greatly help in their future professional careers.

Number of hours

Pupils receive two hours a week instruction in French in a CLIL like approach. This means that in the first two forms part of the subject matter is repeated by a native speaker of French. This repetitive approach does gradually change. The third form does not practice it any more. In fact, the repetitive approach is a result of the language law. The law stipulates that, in Brussels, in the first two forms two hours can be devoted to repetition of subject matter without stipulating the language in which this is done. Since we wanted to abide by the law we used this loophole to teach in French. However, after a few years it dawned on the ad hoc group and the researchers that this approach is a powerful approach within the method used since repetition avoids any misunderstanding that might arise through teaching in a foreign language. In fact, it is a guarantee that messages come across effortlessly.

Subject matter

Schools could also choose which subject matter they would use. A choice was given between arithmetic, environment studies or the arts such as drawing and other related activities. As it happened one school opted for arithmetic, another for environment and still another for drawing. From the third form onwards the schools were more inclined to use environmental studies as their favourite CLIL activity.

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