French Creole taught in France

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LISA MULLINS: We've got two reports now on language learning in France. The French are very fond of their language, and many of them have resisted learning other languages. But things are changing. In a couple of minutes, we're going to hear about the way English is taught in France. First, though, Antillean Creole. Antillean Creole is the language spoken in the French Caribbean Islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Now, to most French people, those are resort destinations. But that changed earlier this year after a series of protests on the island. About a half million people from Guadeloupe and Martinique live in Paris. They are French citizens but they don't always feel like it. This year, for the first time, two public high schools are offering Antillean Creole language classes. Jacob Fenston reports from Paris.

JACOB FENSTON: During the six weeks of unrest in the French Caribbean, many people in France learned a few words of Antillean Creole. Like 'beke'; someone whose ancestors were slave owners. It might be impossible to teach Antillean Creole without bumping up against France's colonial past. Tony Mango is teaching a beginning class at Leon Blum High School, just south of Paris. He'd been teaching private classes for 13 years but until this year, his calls for Antillean Creole in public schools went unheard. Today, Mango keeps having to stop his lesson to explain terms. Here, he's explaining that a Chaben is someone with light skin and straight hair. "Like a foreigner?" says a student. "No, it's just skin color," says Mango. The student finally seems to get it. "Oh, like an albino," he says. Mango pauses and draws a pyramid on the board. At the wide base are blacks. In the middle a smaller section, mulattoes. And the tiny tip of the pyramid, whites. "In slave times," Mango explains, "there was a whole vocabulary to describe your precise racial make up." Antillean Creole was developed by slaves to communicate among themselves and with their masters. So, the language is steeped in Caribbean history and culture, and that's why Mango thinks it's so important to study, even for students who grew up speaking it at home.

MANGO: When I was young, I had not this possibility. I remember when I was nine or ten, the last time I spoke Creole at school, I had to just bent on my knee and say, "I mustn't speak Creole at school."

FENSTON: That was Guadeloupe in the 70s. Almost everyone spoke Antillean Creole at home, but at school kids were punished for using it. Schools taught the exact same curriculum as in mainland France, so it was all storming the Bastille and Napoleon. Nothing about local heroes. French equality meant treating everyone exactly the same, even when people had different needs. Patrick Karam is President Sarkozy's appointee to work on equality for people from overseas parts of France like Guadeloupe and Martinique. But he says the old French conception of equality doesn't work. It was Karam who finally listened when Mango and others demanded Antillean Creole classes in public schools. Karam says in a classic French education, there's very little about Guadeloupe and Martinique, and their history and geography and great men. So Antillean Creole is a pretext to revisit the history of France. But so far that revisiting is only happening three hours a week at two high schools. At Leon Blum High School, Mango is teaching his advanced Antillean Creole class. These students all grew up speaking Antillean Creole at home, so the class is less about vocab and more about culture. Today, they're learning about traditional story telling. Christina Pierre is a senior. She says she's taking Antillean Creole because she needs to know where she's from. It's essential, she says, for everyone to know their roots.

MANGO: The door is open. We won't let it close.

FENSTON: That would be the door to a more inclusive society. One that people from all cultures can walk through.

MANGO: If it closes, we'll pass through the window, if the window is closed, we'll pass through any places which is possible.

FENSTON: Next year, Mango wants to open that door a little wider, teaching twice as many hours of Antillean Creole and adding an intermediate level. For The World, I'm Jacob Fenston in Paris.