Today, bilingualism is often considered an asset, both for communicating in an increasingly interconnected world and to improve cognitive abilities. In European countries, however, having a home language different from the majority language can be tightly linked with immigration and discriminated populations. In France specifically, a unified language has historically been the basis for a unified nation, and schools have been a key environment to enforce language unification. In this paper, Serena Vigezzi (SDU), Sébastien Grobon (COR and CES-Sorbonne), Delphine Remillon (INED) and Lidia Panico (INED) use a large representative survey of residents of continental France between ages 21 and 65 to analyse the school trajectories (through the probability of finishing certain school levels and the type of diploma obtained) of adults living in France since childhood, comparing individuals who spoke more than one language at home when they were 5 years old with those who did not.
Controlling for the main confounders, bilingual individuals show worse educational outcomes throughout their educational careers with a widening disadvantage as they progress along the school trajectory. To delve deeper into these results, the study also differentiated bilingual individuals depending on the country of birth of their parents, as a proxy for the languages spoken. Bilinguals with a North African background showed significantly worse outcomes compared to their monolingual peers, whereas those with a Southern European background did not show a consistent disadvantage. Surprisingly, bilingual speakers of French regional languages, who have no international migration history and represent half of the bilinguals in the sample, showed a disadvantage similar in magnitude to bilinguals with a North African background. These results could reflect a diversified valuation of languages, depending on the history of immigration in France and the longstanding suppression of languages other than French, regional languages and specific foreign languages especially.
The study also examined the educational outcomes of bilingual individuals by the socioeconomic status of their parents. Contrary to expectations, the bilingual penalty was greater for more advantaged children compared to their disadvantaged peers. Prestigious schools could have more exacting demands of linguistic uniformity, which even the richer resources of highly educated parents cannot offset. The advantage of high SES children, however, more than balances out any disadvantage associated with bilingualism and overall the outcomes of high SES bilingual children were still better than the sample average.
For the past 500 years, France’s language policy has been based on the supremacy of French over other languages. While this policy has softened recently, home languages remain undervalued in the school curricula. We find that, in France, bilingual children have worse educational outcomes, whereas other literature has shown that, when given the tools to develop all of their linguistic wealth, bilingual children can have no cognitive or educational disadvantage and may even have some advantages. We, therefore, suggest that, for the cohorts in our study, the French school system was not able to harness the linguistic wealth of its population.