Alsatian dialect taught in French state schools for the first time

Alsatian, the German dialect spoken widely in the French border region of Alsace, is being taught for the first time in French public schools. France and Germany have fought several bitter battles over the region, which has a unique cultural heritage.

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As part of the so-called Molac Law passed in April 2021, pupils in four public schools are being taught three-quarters of the time in either Alsatian or German, with the rest in French.

The Strasbourg education authority, in eastern France, began the experiment – called the “Tomi Ungerer course”, after the Alsatian author and illustrator – at the beginning of the school year in September.

“Of course, we emphasised the importance and progress of this initiative, while regretting that the immersion wasn’t complete,” Pierre Klein, president of the Alsace Bilingual Federation, told RFI.

Alsatian is already taught in a dozen private schools run by the ABCM-Zweisprachigkeit network. Among them, several take a total immersion approach, with no French at all spoken in class.

“Immersion has several advantages: it gives the second language a symbolic importance over the first language,” says Klein. “The second advantage is that by learning a second language, children reinforce their first language.”

The problem with total immersion, however, is finding people capable of teaching it.

Local education officials are already struggling to recruit teachers for bilingual French-German classes, in which one in five children in the Strasbourg area are taught.

German and Alsatian after World War II

German was taught in Alsace from the Middle Ages until 1945. Alsace was separated from France between 1870 and 1918, and during that time the dialect was widely spoken.

Former teacher Pierre Klein, born after World War II, is part of the first generation of Alsatians who were no longer taught German at school.

“Alsace was annexed to the Nazi regime [in 1940] and this created a trauma for the population and a certain Germanophobia and rejection of the German part in the Alsatian identity,” says Klein.

The 2019 European Collectivity of Alsace law defines the regional language of Alsace as “the German language in its standard form and its dialectal variants”.

While today Alsacian is losing ground, particularly among young people, there are still between 400,000 and 700,000 speakers in the region.

Also, the dialect in northern Alsace is not exactly the same as the one spoken 150 kilometres to the south, in Altkirch, for example.

Bilinguism, linguistic diversity

For Klein, bilingualism is an advantage that doesn’t take anything away from the French language.

“French is part of our intimacy. There’s no question of questioning that,” he says.

European countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria have no problem recognising and practising linguistic diversity, Klein adds.

“France has trouble recognising its own diversity. It’s a very old thing; it’s linked to the way France was actually built.” Alsatian dialect taught in French state schools for the first time

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