A Song A Day

Work, Rest or Play?



MOIEN (i.e., Morning/Hello). How many other languages can you find on this poster?

We are in a primary school in Luxembourg. From the linguistic vantage, the education system in Luxembourg is very special. In fact, it’s unique in Europe: it’s the only one confronted, on the one hand, with the nationwide statutory practice of French-German bilingualism (or trilingualism, if one takes into account the daily use of Luxembourgish in the classroom alongside the official languages of instruction). On the other, schools in Luxembourg are characterized by a high rate of foreigners. How high? 40 % in general (49.1% and 44.4% for preschool and primary school respectively). That’s high. That’s not necessarily the problem.

The problem: the problem is not the high rate of foreigners in the classroom, but that many of these pupils do not speak any of the three national languages; Luxembourgish, French and German. If such pupils did not attend nursery school (Spillschoul), where the language of instruction is Luxembourgish, or have no opportunity to learn Luxembourgish at home, they are automatically disadvantaged for primary school.  Luxembourgish is, essentially, a German dialect with a sprinkling of French. The German word for school is Schule. In Luxembourgish, it’s Schoul. If you speak German, you’ll pick up Luxembourgish very quickly. If you don’t, it’s trickier. Knowledge of French is not really an advantage. At primary school, Maths is taught in German. A significant proportion of the Year One curriculum is thus dedicated to learning German, either as a subject in its own right or as the vehicle for another subject. Primary school children do not learn to read and write Luxembourgish, but German. French is introduced in the second semester of Year Two. The teaching of/in German is intensified from Year Three. From this point on, there is also a direct correlation between the children’s background and their academic success.

The effects: very few (19.2%) of the pupils considered foreigners or with a migration background make it to lycée classique, which is the branch of the Luxembourgish school system that will lead to university. I won’t go down the very slippery road that involves reflecting upon the distribution of responsibility for academic failure (part teacher’s fault? part learner’s fault? part the fault of the learner’s family background?) or asking why all those hours spent at school still do not suffice to secure the success of the vast majority of pupils. I’ll limit myself to the observation of a fact: limited language skills and lack of familiarity with institutional discourse will result in academic failure. Nothing to do with being bright or not:

…А сада смо дошли до следећег питања. Поставићу ти питања везана за ову слику. Као и на претходној слици и овде имамо неке предмете и људе који нешто раде. Погледај пажљиво слику коју ти показујем и пробај да одговориш на следећа питања: 1. Покажи ми неког ко пише. 2. Покажи ми неког ко чита. 3. Покажи ми нешто написано/неки рукопис. 4. Покажи ми реч на овој страници. 5. Покажи ми слово азбуке/абецеде.”

How does it feel to read something you don’t understand? I’ve just asked you to answer a few questions from the section of Ideas about Reading that figure in the Performance Indicators in Primary School (PIPS) test used in my thesis. Unless you are someone who reads Serbian Cyrillic you wouldn’t be able to answer those questions, even though they are very simple ones: “Show me someone who is writing and reading, show me a word or a letter on the picture that I am using.” Then I could continue with mathematics and ask you a simple question: “Овде има четири аутомобила. Ако узмем два, колико их остане?”

Still don’t know the answer? You are still not able to answer the question: “how many cars are left if there were four and I took two away?” I will have to give you 0 points and you will probably be identified as an underachiever. Better luck next time (Reljic, 2011).

Language opens doors. It affords membership to communities of practice. Doors may be opened in different ways. The summary of the linguistic situation in Luxembourg and a closer analysis of a single child is the subject of a doctoral thesis by Roberto Gomez (2011). I learned a lot by helping Roberto with this thesis. The brevity of the description I provide here (courtesy of Roberto) cannot do justice to the complexity of the situation, but it will give you an idea.

Foreigners, a contentious word. I know. Children with migration background. Children whose parents do not speak Luxembourgish at home. Is a child whose parents come from Portugal, or a child who speaks Luxembourgish even though his/her parents don’t, still a foreigner? The system would be inclined to say Yes. It is possible to apply for and be granted a Luxembourgish passport even if one doesn’t speak Luxembourgish fluently, or even speak it at home. Once in possession of this passport, is this person a foreigner? The system would say No.



We are at the end of a Year One German class. The children have been listening to a popular story, Die Bremer Stadtmusikanten (The Bremer Town Musicians). The class comprises 25 children. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many ‘foreigners’ are in this class. Given the statistic above, we can estimate how many of these primary school children don’t speak German outside the classroom. Will the German taught at school suffice to secure these children’s later academic success?


But the children have been working hard, listening hard, and now, to wind down, they engage in a colouring activity.


Each child present in the video clip has a different nationality. Some speak Luxembourgish better than others. None of them speak German at home or outside of German classes. To reinforce the off-task, less official nature of the colouring activity at hand, the teacher puts a CD on. It’s not in Luxembourgish. It’s not in German. Watch this clip to the end. The kids deserve it:

A song a day; work, rest or play? A new community of practice is created by this activity. By singing along – and look how much they’re enjoying themselves – these children form a subgroup within the classroom. On off mode, they are livelier than before. They’re probably not thinking so much about German anymore, yet they are training language skills in other ways; in a more emotive, less abstract, less grammatically-directed manner. They’re learning although they’re not deliberately trying to. So are they working, resting or playing?

Tricky. Better not over-simplify.

In French, we call this reproduction of the phonetics of a language unfamiliar to the speaker yaourt: yoghurt. These kids will begin to learn French in Year Two. Bet they’ll know the lyrics of this song better by then, if not by heart, and other songs too!


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