The languages of learning

PARLEZ-VOUS FRANCAIS: Camille Howie is getting a bilingual education at Richmond Road School despite having no French roots.
PARLEZ-VOUS FRANCAIS: Camille Howie is getting a bilingual education at Richmond Road School despite having no French roots.

At just 5 years old Camille Howie would run rings around your school French despite having no French roots.

The New Zealand-born youngster is taught in French three days a week at Richmond Road School's bilingual unit L'Archipel. On the other two days her lessons are in English.

The school has bilingual units in French, Maori and Samoan which all teach the standard New Zealand curriculum but in two languages.

"It's not homework - they're not learning French," their mother Georgia Saxon says.

"Being bilingual is a huge gift you can give to your children without them ever realising you're giving it to them."

L'Archipel was established in 1996 by the FRENZ School Incorporated Association and is now one of just 30 schools worldwide recognised by the French government for teaching a national curriculum in French.

Saxon has been speaking French to both her children since they were born.

Neither parent has French roots but Saxon speaks it fluently having spent time living in France and has a masters degree in the language.

Most of the DVDs, books and music the children are exposed to at home are in French.

It's only when Saxon's English-speaking partner comes home that the trio switch back to speaking English.

Most of the children who attend L'Archipel are bilingual when they start school.

Grey Lynn couple Michel and Charlotte Gehin speak only French at home with their children Louis and Sophie.

"It seems quite natural now," Charlotte says.

"My main desire for them was for them to be able to to talk to their grandparents and family in France, it's part of their identity, and I think without the language you can't relate as well."

Michel moved to New Zealand from France more than seven years ago.

He prefers not to mix both languages within the same sentence.

"There's the odd word you can't help because there's no equivalent sometimes, but as parents I don't want to speak Franglais to them," he says.

Nearly a quarter of the New Zealand population is now bilingual or doesn't speak English as a mother tongue according to the 2013 Census.

University of Auckland senior lecturer and bilingualism expert John McCaffery is studying the Richmond Road School unit.

He says a bilingual education means both languages are used for instruction across all subjects in the teaching curriculum.

"It's not about teaching your English-speaking children French and vice versa. They don't sit down and learn that ‘la chaise' means ‘chair' in English."

Academic achievement for bilingual children is typically better than their monolingual peers, he says.

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