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Sociolinguistic Diversity and Shared Resources: A Critical Look at Linguistic Integration Policies in Belgium, by Philippe Hambye and Silvia Lucchini


3. Current policies’ limits and problems

In terms of ensuring equality of life conditions for children of immigrant origin compared with those of native extraction, the policies described above turn out to be largely insufficient.

Indeed, according to the results of the international PISA survey (23) those weakest in terms of reading levels include among others (a) children of immigrant extraction born and entirely educated in French-speaking Belgium, whose parents were born abroad (13% of children in the sample), the so-called second generation immigrants, (24) and (b) foreign-born children, the first generation immigrants (5% of the sample). (25)

In comparison with the average scores of children from native backgrounds (at 495 and therefore very close to the international average fixed at 500 points), second generation children obtained 406 points and foreign-born children obtained a mean score of 414 points (26) (Lafontaine et al. 2003 : 87). The difference between native and immigrant scores is considerable but is minimal between the two generations of immigrants themselves. And, as is underlined in the report by the OECD (2001 : 155), it is this substantial difference between natives and second generation immigrant children which is worrying, given that the latter have received all their schooling in French. At the same time, and this is just as worrying, the scores of the latter children and those born outside Belgium are almost the same, with the foreign born even doing slightly better. This seems to indicate that the fact of being born and educated entirely in Belgium does not improve the educational lot of children of immigrant origin, whose performances in French seem to be more than problematic. (27)

The Flemish educational system, while clearly more successful on average, is also one of the most unequal (28) In Flanders, students born in Belgium of foreign-born parents (4%) and students born abroad (3%) obtain scores of 418 and 470 respectively, while the mean score achieved by natives in Flanders is 541 points (De Meyer et al. 2002 : 15). (29)Certain factors characterise the sociolinguistic situation of the children of immigrants which could explain their weak performance in reading : the fact of not speaking the language of the school in the home environment seems to reinforce the risk of lowered school performance. In the French-speaking Community in Belgium, “a pupil not habitually speaking French at home runs three times the risk compared to a pupil who habitually speaks French at home, of finding himself / herself among the poorest readers”. (30) This risk is slightly less pronounced (2.5) but nonetheless present in the Flemish community (Lafontaine et al. 2003 : 82).

It should nonetheless be underlined that children from an immigrant background share their lowered reading performances with all children who are disadvantaged in socio-economic terms. (31) In this respect, it is in the French-speaking Community where differences are greatest. (32) Where social background and educational trajectory are similar, the young people of immigrant background do not do worse than the native Belgians of the same age in the French Community: «all other things being equal, the fact of a pupil’s being of foreign origin does not constitute an aggravating factor or additional handicap» (Lafontaine et al. 2003 : 80). In this respect it is important to note that the effects of socio-economic background and different mother tongue combine with the factor «establishment», which plays an important role in explaining the poor performances of the young people of immigrant origin, and, more globally, of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds: (33) «In fact, in the majority of OECD countries the effect of the average economic, social and cultural status of students within schools far outweighs the effects of the individual socio-economic background» (OECD 2001 : 199). And precisely, there is, in the French-speaking Community, high concentration effects on the ethnic and socio-economic levels in certain schools, concentration due as much to the massive presence of immigrant populations, in certain cities, (up to 40% in Brussels city) as to the existence in Belgium of a « quasi-market for education » (Verhoeven 2003) : the most attractive schools in terms of their reputation seek to attract a maximum number of pupils, in order to increase their financial buoyancy, but with a preference for those who are closest to the accepted educational levels ; this logic of concurrence creates segregation between the most disadvantaged pupils, concentrated in the least prestigious schools, and the most favoured ones who are those drawn to the schools with the greatest reputation. The effect of this mechanism is doubled or reinforced by the strategies of parents who, in the context of free choice of schools, seek to offer their children learning conditions that come closest to their preferences and their representation of possibilities. The result is that certain schools of the Belgian capital are composed 100% by pupils of foreign origin and from a disadvantaged background.(34)

It would seem, then, that the main problem of integration policies consists in the inability of the system to foster the heterogeneity of the school population, and to ensure that the social, linguistic and above all educational backgrounds of immigrant children does not determine their progress and the chances of success at school. The picture that emerges then is that of school segregation and the social marginalisation of immigrant communities, a degree of marginalisation that the actions designed to recognise intercultural differences, referred to above, seem unable to reduce. One might well ask oneself about the relevance of measures now applied to favour this recognition. We note that:

- The home language and culture teaching classes are addressed exclusively to children from immigrant backgrounds, even where there would be nothing, as such, to stop children from French-speaking families from taking the same classes. The schools that have decided to join the Partnership Charter are very much in the minority – namely because of organisational constraints (Campolini et al. 2001)– and it is clear that only the national languages (French, Dutch, German), as well as English and Spanish, to a lesser extent (Fabry & Lucchini 2003), are considered apt for Belgian pupils taken as a whole, since these are the only languages with the right to a place on the curricula of all pupils (Blondin & Mattar 2003) –despite the statements underlining the richness of plurilingualism and multiculturalism of present-day Belgium.

- The Charters were signed with the ambassadors of the States of origin, who decided which language or language variety should be taught (thus we find that the language to be taught to children from a Moroccan family background is literary Arabic). There is no place for a country’s regional or minority language. That means that the languages taught are not always the languages the pupils are familiar with, and the place accorded to them in the heart of the school will not necessary contribute to valuing the linguistic and cultural identity of the child.

- Finally, as applied at the present time, linguistic and cultural recognition seems to be based on knowledge of the other and on a status accorded to him or her, but without the other being present in the decisions that are involved.

In summary, the recognition of linguistic and cultural diversity does not occur within a framework allowing immigrant populations to gain equality of status and right to make their voice heard. This intended intercultural recognition could in fact increase the symbolic violence perceived by these populations and could lead to the opposite result to that desired: “In this way, all teaching of cultures constructed on a naming of cultural facts runs the risk of being no more than a show of power, no more than a possessing of the Other. […] In this sense, cultural recognition will not necessarily improve either the points of contact, or the pedagogical relationship, but could on the contrary serve as a screen and a filter. (Pretceille 2003 : 12)

4. Towards an equality of linguistic resources

Although relatively different in their conception, the policies described above seem to be unable overall to give people from an immigrant background the means to become completely autonomous, independent citizens, and to allow them to develop their lives in favourable social and economic conditions. The different logics which coexist in Belgium when it comes to define educational policy in favour of children from immigrant backgrounds, are proving to be inadequate. They do so because of the inadequacy of the plans they put in place, in the absence of a clear political strategy which will make it possible to solve the shortcomings of the current measures. Among these, as we see it, there are four main problems that ought to be avoided.

The first of these consists in putting forward a model of integration that, while making language the heart of collective identity, promotes an assimilation model in which the identity of the person of foreign origin risks not being recognised. In societies which are increasingly heterogeneous, it is essential (let us remember) to base citizenship on a community of rights, obligations and resources (economic, cultural, linguistic and others) and not on a predefined identity conceived in an essentialist fashion.

However an egalitarian ideal promoting the opening to otherness and non-discrimination should not lead to the denial of social and cultural heterogeneity or of the need to take into account the specific conditions of certain groups. While achieving equality of socio-economic conditions for students of immigrant origin is undeniably a fundamental objective, this will not be enough to improve their own specific situation in the Belgian educational system: that of being some of the main victims of a system which permits a marked degree of segregation, with concentrations of pupils facing school failure in classes where it will be ever more difficult to change their trajectory. Moreover, there is a need to take stock of the specific needs of students who are in a way at distance from the norms of the dominant society. The issue raised by this distance with regard to socially legitimate practices is that of knowing to what extent the situation of children from immigrant backgrounds is peculiar to them. What has to be avoided is a “politically correct” train of thought that encourages educators to refuse to see the specific difficulties faced by these students, in the name of “non-discrimination”. (35)In this respect, it is striking to note the gulf between, on the one hand, the scientific studies which place emphasis on the particular sociolinguistic situation of children from immigrant backgrounds, on the value of intercultural pedagogy, etc., and, on the other hand, policies which tend to postulate the homogeneity of the students. The argument that remedial teaching for marginalised populations in itself may ghettoise the children carries little weight when one knows that the current situation is not able to create equality of competence among learners, and that this segregation already exists in Belgium in the shape of the so-called “quasi-market for education” (see above). Without prejudging specific circumstances and without placing all the responsibility on ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences, it would seem to be necessary to implement certain measures that take into account, among other things, the multilingual environment of certain children, especially in elementary education where the differences between learners start to be entrenched (36) (Lire et Écrire 2004). After Crahay (2000), we would thus insist on the urgent need to put corrective schooling in place which dismissed illusions linked to equality of opportunity, and plainly recognised the inequality of needs.

The third problem is that of seeing in any and every form of remediation in favour of immigrant children a denial of the intrinsic value of their own practices or a rejection of the children’s cultural and linguistic diversity in favour of the dominant norms of the host society. Thus some see research on school failure of children of immigrant extraction as identifying deficits in competence where in fact there is only non standard or socially “deviant” behaviour patterns. The praiseworthy intention of not imposing a single, wall-to-wall vision of social success should not, however, let us forget that the mastery of certain norms, including the linguistic norm, is one of the primary objectives of education. There is no doubt that it is fundamentally important not to fall into the trap of hypothesising that such pupils have an intractable handicap, and to value their cultural resources rather than stigmatising and emphasising what they lack. Nonetheless, it would be irresponsible not to seek to remedy, for example, the lack of access these children have to legitimate linguistic resources, within an approach that values differences and incorporates the children’s linguistic and cultural references. Thus, promoting intercultural teaching methods will be ineffective if not accompanied by actions aimed at equalising competences: it would, in other words, try to give pupils a positive image of themselves when they have not the resources needed to effectively build success within the society at large (Rea 1995 : 203-205).

Having said that, we should avoid the fourth stumbling block which sets up a priori a degree of incompatibility between sharing common norms and valuing cultural particularities. Offering Belgian citizens equal opportunity for social success, whether their family background is native or not, involves giving them the material and symbolic resources that they need to be able to respond to the normative requirements of society, while conserving a positive self-image. Indeed, recognition of the richness that immigrant languages and cultures represent for Belgian culture is an important step towards giving immigrant populations the opportunity to freely choose their life project, outside the alienating pressure of a society in which only one form of identity is deemed legitimate. This recognition goes substantially beyond simple affirmation of formal equality based on a principle of non-discrimination (v. Honneth 1995; Taylor 1992). It involves for example, the affirmation of the interest of all pupils, regardless of ethnic background, in participating in the multilingual and multicultural background, without prejudging the needs of the different communities in this respect: true, authentic recognition does however imply not imposing on the Other the vision one has of him or her. For that reason it would be useful for the immigrant communities themselves to express their views and preferences in terms of management of plurilingualism.

For all the interest that there is in favouring the presence of the immigrants’ languages in the school, this type of education will only bear fruit if preceded by or backed up by a programme of reinforcement of at least one language. Indeed, studies of young children from Italian immigrant families suggest that these children suffer above all from the absence of a language of reference for their literacy acquisition (Lucchini & Flamini 2005; Lucchini 2005). Given the linguistic complexity of the communities in question, we believe that this language can only be the socially dominant language of the host society. Recognition of the social realities which make mastery of the dominant language the open sesame essential for effective participation in the wider society, should necessarily be accompanied by the recognition of a variety of usages and the equality of their intrinsic value.

n conclusion, it seems to us that what is needed, namely in the French Community, is a policy of voluntary learning of the dominant languages and at the same time an authentic recognition of the complementary value of all language learning. Yet, some of the measures already adopted tend in this direction, and the recent reform projects implemented by the Francophone Ministry of Education have, it seems, been alerted by the alarming findings of fundamental and applied research carried out in schools. However, achieving the objectives will mean in many cases the application of more ambitious measures than those applied until now. The modifications effected in teacher training, for instance, often turn out to be vague, and many measures only affect a minimum number of schools and educational centres. As we see it, real change will need more radical reform. However, these will only be acceptable on two conditions: on the one hand, education will need to be seen as the main means of striving against inequality, and on the other hand, measures designed to combat inequality will have to be underpinned by a common wish to live together. In other words, these changes depend even today, on bold affirmation of the equal value of cultures and communities, on opposition to xenophobia and discrimination in its various forms, going way beyond a flimsy principle of non-discrimination.

5. References

Anciaux, R., Baucy D., Blomart J. et Delvigne Y. (1992). Rapport d’évaluation de l’expérience pilote d’éducation interculturelle dans trois établissements secondaires de l’agglomération bruxelloise (1988-1992). Bruxelles: Commission des Communautés européennes, Ministère de l’éducation, de la recherche et de la formation de la Communauté française de Belgique.

Beheydt, L. (1994). “The linguistic situation in the new Belgium”. In Current issues in Language and Society 1, p. 147-163.

Blondin, C. & C. Mattar (eds). (2003). S’ouvrir aux langues et aux cultures grâce à l’éveil aux langues. Liège: Service de pédagogie expérimentale de l’Université de Liège – AGERS.

Byram, M. & J. Leman (eds). (1990). Bicultural and trilingual Education. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Campolini, L., Flamini, F., Jucquois, G. & S. Lucchini. (2001). «Le développement de partenariats multilingues. Une expérience aux dimensions européennes en Communauté française de Belgique». In Annales d’études européennes 5, p. 279-308.

Candelier, M. (2003). L’éveil aux langues à l’école primaire. Evlang: bilan d’une innovation européenne. Bruxelles: De Boeck.


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