Giving children the gift of language and culture

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Every year, students travel all around the world to pass on their own culture thanks to the CIEP organization. At the CIEP, a team takes over the challenge of the language assistants and makes this wonderful exchange possible. Among this team, we talked to one of the oldest members: the very British Jennie Burke.

 For over a century, the Language Assistants exchange programme has allowed more than a thousand French students, mainly from universities and Polytechnic Institutes, to go and teach French abroad every year. A team of hard workers make it possible : they come from France, but also Germany, Spain, India, and in Jennie Burke’s case, the U.K. Thanks to her and her colleagues, the programme is maintained and renewed to keep attracting students and give them what is sometimes their first experience abroad.

 In this extraordinarily busy time, Jennie Burke managed to spare some of her time to talk about her own experience with the programme and tell us more about it. The 33-year old was born and raised in Britain and has been working for the CIEP for five years. As a long-time member of the team she has developed a clear image of the programme. As a British native she thinks outside the “French box”: A precious advantage when one works for an international programme and has to build partnerships with various countries. Moreover, being employed in a French organization for years, Jennie Burke also has the luxury to be perfectly at ease with the French way to work. With the help of her answers to our questions, we painted a picture of the programme.

How does it work?

The French part of the language assistants programme is being handled at the Centre International d’Etudes Pédagogiques,  located in Sèvres, near Paris. The future Language assistants are selected by the CIEP team. They have to be college students and respond to certain age criteria (not youger than 20, not older than 35). The CIEP organization works with the French Ministry of education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their partners abroad (mostly French embassies or foreign authorities) select the foreign assistants that come to France. The Language assistants are assigned to schools (or universities in some cases) for 6 to 12 months, depending on the country. The recruitment campaign has now started in France, on November 7th, with this new parameter: an online training for future assistants.

A bonus in the teacher’s class

In the classroom, a language assistant is usually particularly appreciated, even though he or she is still unqualified to teach, since the programme adresses to college students.

Jennie Burke believes that for language teachers, having an assistant in their class is indubitably “a plus”, as it is for pupils. There are two main point of working alongside with an assistant. First, he or she is a much younger person than the teacher. That can maybe bring them closer to a teenager’s interests. The other most important point is their oral skills.

 “The students have a different report with this person and it might be easy to create a different dynamic that the teacher creates in the classroom.

The assistant’s young age makes the relationship with the pupils “a bit more relaxed, a bit more informal”. In this context of proximity, it is far easier for the pupils to get over their shyness and have a conversation in French. Since every language assistant is a native speaker (as opposed to most language teachers), they are able to bring a new dimension to the lessons. Meaning that the pupils are actually very excited to meet someone from the very country they are studying. For some of them, it can be a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet an actual French person, or any other nationality among the 60 countries working with the programme. Another fantastic aspect of their role in the classroom is their knowledge of their country’s contemporary culture.

Keeping the programme alive

 Being so old, the programme needs a fresh start every once in a while. To everyone working for its team, it is a challenge to keep it alive and adapt it to a fast changing society. The programme has two active Facebook pages and just opened a Twitter account. As the Language Assistants are always young, the programme stays young with and for them. But most importantly, this year, somethong radically came to change the way assistants could work: an online training.

   Until now, assistants had to figure out the way to pass on their knowledge on their own, or with the help of their tutors once they were in their assigned school. But this year, the CIEP introduced a new online learning for Language Assistants (French ones in this case) to help them prepare themselves to teach a class, with maybe twenty or thirty children. The classroom is a very specific work place, that most assistants have never experienced. For some assistants, it is even their very first work experience. Indeed, the main purpose of the programme is to offer a first professional experience abroad to college students.

Language Assistants are not considered as teachers, so they  don’t have the same expectations a language teacher would.”

Even though the online training is not compulsory, at least for now, future assistants are strongly encouraged to follow it. “I think it would help them very much […].” Jennie said. “The idea is to give them the resources, the ideas, the tools that will help them, but of course many of them might go into this role without having followed the online training.

 Working with Foreign Partners

Among her team, she is one of the most experienced ones and has been through many layers of her work, especially by taking the responsibility of different “partner-countries”.

To the question of the reasons that made her work for the CIEP, Jennie Burke answers with a sparkle in her eye.

I was not a Language Assistant myself, but I studied languages and loved international exchange, working with other countries, international cooperation. I was already working in a previous role of accompanying young French people to work or live abroad. That was really a domain I was interested in.

In this job, where the members of the team constantly work with their “partner-countries”, the opportunities of changing and moving are numerous. Jennie Burke did not hesitate to seize them when she sensed it was time for a new challenge.

She worked for the U.K. section for a long time. She says her knowledge of the U.K. was obviously very useful when she was working with her English colleagues. Although, she says she does not believe that being from the U.K is absolutely necessary to work alongside with the CIEP’s English partners. A perfect example to support this statement is the fact that after working with her native country, she decided to switch to the United States, Canada, and now she works with China and Taiwan.  “For me, it felt ready at that time to learn how the programme works with other countries and of course, work with different partners.” Since her partners in China speak either French or English, she has not learned any Chinese, other than the basics. She would really like to perfect her level, though.

An insider’s perspective

At her age, Jennie Burke could still be an assistant herself in some countries that set their age limit up to 35 years old… provided she were enrolled in a university. If she were an English Language Assistant today, she would probably focus a lot on theatre and music. She laughs when she is asked if she would focus on grammar, and says she would leave it to the teacher, “who is qualified for that”. She immediately starts talking about Brexit and all the debates around the subject, thinking that she would like to bring an insider’s perspective of this matter to the children. Provided that they are old enough to understand it and debate about it, of course. Her artistic side shows when she begins to talk about the theatre scene in the U.K. She regrets the fact that, living in France, she does not always know about recent theatre productions in her own country. “[…] But obviously, if I were a Language Assistant who had lived more recently in the U.K., I’d probably bring some more contemporary knowledge about that. Perhaps those [2] issues. The political scene, and a more artistic scene as well.

Alexia Kaffès.

For further information:

The programme’s online training =>

The Language Assistants programme main Facebook page =>

A television report about a former Spanish Language Assistant that became a teacher :

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