NEW YORK—Fabrice Jaumont strolled into the reception area of the Payne Whitney House, an Upper East Side mansion that houses the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt rolled to his elbows and an affable smile. His hands were full: he was holding a mug with the seal of the Irish Institute at Boston College and a copy of his newest book, The Bilingual Revolution: the Future of Education is in Two Languages, which was released on September 5.
The education attaché was preparing for a busy month that would include book talks across the country as well as the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to the United Nations. “We’re expecting the whole French government,” he said matter-of-factly.
We climbed up the stairs to the second floor of Albertine, the three-year-old independent bookstore that sells French books in French and in English. Under the zodiac sky of the reading room, we discussed his bilingual revolution and the future of language education programs in the United States.
New York Transatlantic: You’ve been involved in education in various capacities: as a part-time teacher at the International School in Boston, an instructor at the United Nations Secretariat, a teacher trainer and school leader. Where did the interest in education first come from?
Fabrice Jaumont: I became a teacher by chance. First, I taught English in France and then I taught French in Ireland for two years. I came [to the United States] and became a school principal, again by chance. And this was in a bilingual school in Boston. So that made me understand the value of bilingual education, particularly when it’s done with a high-quality curriculum and good teachers. That school was a private school, but I also worked with public schools in Massachusetts and around New England and that’s how I thought ‘Well, maybe we should do more of these in public schools.’ I came [to New York] in 2001. I started to talk to parents and we thought ‘There’s not enough good bilingual programs in public schools. Let’s do that. Let’s create that.’
Parents are at the center of this movement. How did that come about?
There were families in Brooklyn who are not happy with the fact that the only French dual-language programs were in private schools and in Manhattan. They started talking about creating a new model that would sustain their kids’ French and help them acquire English and become masters in two cultures, two languages, two literatures without having to pay $30,000 in tuition. That was the main motivation. Parents will have to convince school principals. They’ll be the ones explaining what the dual language program is. That’s why the book is more of a “how to,” a roadmap. If you pitch the right idea, the right way, at the right time, then the principal can become a strong advocate for this type of program.
I’m wondering about parents who might lack the resources or the initiative to spearhead these programs. What happens then?
That’s what we’re facing in many neighborhoods where parents don’t have the “know how” or the time and sometimes work two, three jobs. And status. If they recently arrived, they might feel intimidated to approach a school principal. So that’s harder for a “bottom-up” approach. But still, a few parents understand that they have the power to plant the seed that will make these programs grow, particularly in underserved neighborhoods.
Do you think that a culture of testing and compliance with state standards gets in the way of implementing these bilingual education programs?
The kids are not learning language per se. They’re learning everything through two languages. The testing doesn’t put a stop on the creation of dual-language programs. On the contrary, it’s a way to measure the impact of that education on children who might have been testing poorly within a monolingual, English-only track.
And then this exposure to another language could help with content.
We saw the results for the French kids in Brooklyn—and, of course, this needs to be assessed with authority because maybe these were well-off children in well-off neighborhoods—all scored beyond the national state average. And I thought, “If it’s producing these kinds of results, why don’t we do this everywhere?”
Can you tell me a little bit about the research that you carried out for the book?
I interviewed school principals, educators, parents and visited schools. I wanted to explain how each [linguistic] community put together their initiative.
The book is titled The Bilingual Revolution. What is the revolutionary aspect of what you are proposing?
It’s to create better schools, to re-engage parents in public education, to create something that is accessible. I think the revolution is to do this, to provide this education in public schools for free and give every family that gift of bilingualism.
What about charter schools?
Charter is just a different format. It’s not about private versus public versus charters versus religious [schools]. It’s really a matter of teaching and providing content in two languages or more. It can be done at a very big scale. If you look at Utah—
Which you mention in your book as being a state that has done a good job of implementing bilingual education programs.
And they’re very smart. People will say “It’s the Mormons. They’re using this to proselytize the world.” I don’t think that’s true. I think they understand that, in order to compete economically, a state has to do something. That’s what pushes the development of dual-language programs. Whether it’s for business or culture, or cognitive development, I’m happy as long as people start creating bilingual schools.
When you have more than one linguistic community, how would you choose the second language of instruction? Because you wouldn’t be able to do all of them at once.
You could. A lot of the schools have two or three, some of them have four or five languages. They’ve built several tracks within the school.
We talk about bilingual education at the preschool, elementary and secondary levels. Could there be such a thing as bilingual education at the college level?
Canada just opened a bilingual university in Toronto. There was a mention of doing it in the US. I’m sure there are programs and courses in different languages. It will happen within our lifetime. But let’s start with high school. With the Boerum Hill School for International, I’m working on creating a dual-language international baccalaureate.
The I.B. program.
Bilingual, in French and in English. I think that would be brilliant. It’s already offered in private schools. It’s a matter of making the transition to public high school.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Photo: Fabrice Jaumont with a copy of his book, “The Bilingual Revolution,” at Albertine (Lucía Seda)