Can decolonising the curriculum in French increase linguistic and cultural appreciation as well as reshape the perception of the French language? (Spoiler alert: yes and no)
In France, my home country, I was taught two Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) in secondary school: English and Spanish. In my seven years of secondary school, there was hardly any mention of any other English-speaking country than the United Kingdom. I was aware that there were many other anglophone countries, but I was disappointed not to understand the footprint of the English language in the world or the culture of these countries. I experienced the same issue in my Spanish classes, in which my classmates and I were taught Castilian Spanish and learned about Spain while being exposed to resources solely from Spanish writers, singers or artists. I realised the French educational system had been putting blinkers on me when I moved to London and met and worked with people from all over the world. Thanks to my colleagues and the cultural and linguistic diversity I discovered in London, I learned about many English and Spanish speaking countries and their cultures.
In September 2021, I was asked to research on decolonising the curriculum as part of my PGCE Secondary course (French with Spanish), and as I read on this issue, I became conscious of the impact of this movement and how, as a teacher, I could get involved and end this cycle. As a white individual originating from Northern France and whose education was affected by a Eurocentric, white-washed modern language curriculum, I felt it was my duty to bring to the stage the many countries and cultures who had been kept in the background for too long.
The quasi omnipresence of the French culture and the strong European focus in the resources used by the MFL department of my first placement school, and the lack of interest of the curriculum leader on decolonising the curriculum, encouraged me to investigate further in order to try and get a glimpse of the pupils’ understanding of the French-speaking world. For most pupils I discussed with, the French language was synonymous with France, and was often associated with the city of Paris or successful teams in the Ligue 1; only a limited proportion of the pupils who participated in the discussions were aware that French was spoken in other countries of the world and that not all French-speakers had a diet which included, but was not limited to, baguettes, croissants, and snails.
I prepared a gallery walk featuring posters with information on the footprint of the French language on the globe, with a strong accent on the cultural and linguistic diversity and how these countries shape the Francophonie. As a means to assess the learning and the impact of the gallery walk on their perception of the French language and culture, the Year 8 pupils I worked with were required to complete the same questionnaire before and after they discovered the gallery walk. The data collected via the questionnaires was analysed in different ways to assess pupil engagement, their learning, their perception of the language, the impact of the Eurocentric curriculum founding their learning, and most importantly, if the decolonised gallery walk and discussions had had a positive impact on the pupils’ perception of the French language and the French-speaking world.
I was asked by pupils encouraging questions about the Francophonie, the French colonies and Eurocentrism, which is limiting and tarnishing their learning, and I saw in the data collected via the questionnaires signs of a mild change in the minds of the pupils involved in the intervention. In the space of a couple of activities, pupils were aware of the existence of other French-speaking countries than France and understood that colonialism was behind the global linguistic. I wished that my introduction of the linguistic and cultural diversity that the non-Western countries (French-speaking African countries, Haiti, and French Overseas Territories) bring to the Francophonie had had a bigger impact on the pupils, but I remain hopeful that by exploring these regions throughout the schema drafted by the curriculum leader, pupils will begin to appreciate these countries’ contribution to the French-speaking world.
A dialogue was open between my pupils and I, which enabled me to continue my efforts to decolonise the curriculum in French classes. During the following lessons, the pupils felt more comfortable asking questions about the language and the cultures of the Francophonie. Unfortunately, promoting the Francophonie via a gallery walk and discussions over the course of an hour was not enough to give their voice back to all these people who have shaped and keep shaping the French language and cultures. For as established by Warner et al. (2020), it takes a ‘decolonial mindset’ to ‘free our minds’, a real effort which, if undertook together by teacher and pupils in the lines of Paulo Freire (1885)’s critical pedagogy, will school year after school year, re-write the narrative.
Freire, P., 2017. Pedagogy of the oppressed. Penguin Classics.
Warner, C. et al., 2020. Decolonising pedagogy and curriculum, the exchange, University of the Arts London.