CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 From the 1990s onwards, the State had to face family disruptions and asserted its commitment to support parents in their parental duties in a preventive manner, and placed education and care under the parents’ responsibility. Different kinds of actions have been implemented, using the community association network, local authorities and the family branch of the French social security system (DGCS, 2018, p. 5). This branch considers parenting support systems as concentric circles, five of which being at the centre of their action: child-parent centres (Laep in French), the parents’ listening, support and care networks (Reaap in French), and local contracts for educational support (Clas in French), as well as two support systems dedicated to families of separated couples, family mediation and meeting places. This article is based upon institutional research [2] focusing on the three first support mechanisms, because they do not target one specific family context (inset 1).

Inset 1. The Parental Support Systems under Study

Child-Parent Centres (Laep in French) started from the 1980s onwards, following the French Maison Verte experiment carried out by Françoise Dolto in 1979. They receive young children accompanied by responsible adults. The Family branch created the national service allowance on the 1st of January 1996. Its payment is submitted to the respect of “a child-parent centre framework”, based on: “non-profit, anonymity, non-disclosure and gratuity”; the attendance of an adult responsible for the accompanied young children; the attendance of two support-givers adopting the specific posture of neutrality and non-judgement, thanks to trainings and practice analysis conducted during supervision, and offering support to “facilitate the relation between adults and children”.
Parents’ Listening, Support and Care Networks (Reaap in French) were created in 1999 and aim at shaping a “coherent” network of parenting actors, since professionals’ actions had to “rely on parents” (Roussille and Nosmas, 2004, p. 9). Respecting the Reaap guidelines is mandatory to receive parenting action financial support. They highlight the objective at stake: to receive parents, central actors of the networks, in their diversity, without the professionals engaged in these networks imposing pre-conceived family models or parenting roles.
Local Contracts for Educational Support (Clas in French), implemented in 1996, were initially reserved to priority educational areas (Zep in French) and to sensitive urban areas (Zus in French), before being extended to the whole French territory in 1999. The second Clas guidelines, applicable at the time of this survey, date back to 2001 [*]. Respecting these guidelines is mandatory to receive this financial support from the French family allowance fund (Cnaf in French). Clas aim at “supporting educational success [by adopting] approaches and techniques different from school ones, [in order to] compensate for the unequal access to culture and knowledge” (Moeneclaey, 2016, p. 11), and by supporting parents in the academic success of their children. Because this support system initially focused on “allophone” children, learning French remains a primary objective.
  • [*]
    New guidelines were released in 2019, that is to say a few months after this survey was conducted.

2 Although parenting support systems are theoretically conceived to both deliver a universal message and receive all concerned audiences in their diversity, studies on families with migrant backgrounds remain scarce (Martin et al., 2017). Research on Laep (Bastard et al., 1996) do not focus on families with migrant backgrounds, only “working class neighbourhood Laep” (Laep de quartier in French) analysis implicitly refer to them. These populations’ social integration (especially their linguistic challenges) is at stake, and this, as well as the gap between their “culture” and that of the majority group included in the discourse of the support actors, are thereby mentioned, without being deconstructed. Migration as well as the families and support actors’ languages are also missing from the governance reports and from the organisation of local actors within the Reaap (Roussille and Nosmas, 2004; Jacques-Vazquez et al., 2013). The evaluation conducted by J. Moeneclaey (2016) provided invaluable knowledge on the social and demographic characteristics of families of children attending Clas. Although this support system has been enlarged to the entire national territory, Clas are mainly implemented in urban policy’s high priority neighbourhoods (QPV in French). Large, single-parent families, with low educational, professional and income levels, as well as parents under precarious working conditions are over-represented. Besides, two-third of the families include at least one parent born abroad. “In relation to this element, in six out of ten families supported by Clas, both French and another language are spoken.” (ibid., p. 50). However, this study, like all other studies, does not mention the positions of support actors (their discourse and practices) on languages of families with migrant backgrounds. The qualitative research presented here aims at filling the gap. It will emphasise the lack of consideration for family languages within the parenting support systems, which this brief overview already highlights. Support actors’ practices towards the languages of families with migrant backgrounds may be pragmatic and intended to facilitate integration within the present group: through translations, mockery in case of French mistakes, speaking more carefully, giving silent parents a chance to speak, etc. This side of the analysis, more detailed elsewhere (Unterreiner, 2021), is not at the heart of this article, which focuses on discourses and practices with normative or ideological aims, involving a certain conception of these families’ social integration in France or of their family identity. After completing an overview of the French linguistic integration public policies, outcomes of this research will be presented.

The Context of Intervention: Public Policies Aiming at Linguistic Integration

3 Different typologies of national integration models for migrants and their descendants have been developed, based on requirements for obtaining the French nationality. R. Koopmans and P. Statham (1999) have thus mentioned that, in the French case, “civic assimilation” aimed at integrating people who could easily become French, and not at communities, in reverse to models presenting ethnic communities as social integration channels. The French assimilationist viewpoint first originated in the creation of a centralised French state, with stable borders (Filhon, 2017), as well as in the birth of the French Republic, in which all French citizens had to fit, whatever their regional origins (Noiriel, 2005).

4 In this context, French became the language of integration to the national community. This is how the “French’s high symbolic value was constructed throughout centuries as a national emblem and hope of social advancement for the people” (Filhon, 2017, p. 135). Since the beginning of the 1980s, public policies for migrants have gradually reinforced this phenomenon. With this in mind, a minimum level of French knowledge is required to obtain a residence permit within the Reception and integration contract (CAI in French, created in 2005), and since 2003, the French nationality, in case of naturalisation by decree (Gourdeau, 2015; Tahata, 2016). This link between mastering French language and integration, also present in the school setting (Varro, 1999, 2012), is even stronger in French integration classes (FLI in French), where French norms and values are supposed to be conveyed (Blassel, 2015; Manier, 2010). Yet, behind French language hide strong identity issues (Tahata, 2016), and the practice of languages other than French can then be perceived as hindering integration.

5 Bilingualism has long been perceived as a hindrance to academic learning among support actors, including at school. The hypothesis was that learning several languages would make French language acquisition more difficult (Abdelilah-Bauer, 2006). Several factors have led to new and alternative conceptions of multilingualism in a migrant context. First, teaching languages and cultures of origin (Elco in French), generalised from 1973 onwards in France, aimed at teaching descendants of migrants the language of their foreign country of origin. By targeting children according to their foreign origins, these teachings distinguished between migrant languages and languages worthy to be taught to all students. Facing this situation, modifications have been introduced or are about to be: by breaking down barriers between languages and countries of origin, or else by opening classes to all students (Filhon, 2017). Besides, multilingualism has been promoted at the level of European institutions as a way to first facilitate the creation of a common European identity, but also to allow professional integration on the European labour market (ibid.). This being said, international policies have consolidated a differentiated acknowledgment between languages, by minoring some languages of immigration countries without balancing the strengthened linguistic integration within national policies. Then, from the mid-1970s onwards, regional languages started to be more acknowledged, notably thanks to the “Haby” law, which allowed the teaching of regional languages and cultures throughout school years. Besides, since 2008, the 75-1 article of the French constitution states that, “regional languages belong to the French heritage”. Based on these principles, bilingual education has developed in different regions of France, including in one of the departments studied in this article.

6 Yet, this phenomenon has not challenged the status of French as a national community language. “Thereby, French appears […] in the Constitution in 1992 as the language of the Republic” (Filhon, 2017, p. 21). Finally, research on multilingualism questioned the idea that multilingualism could be the cause of challenging French learning processes (Abdallah-Pretceille, 2017; Goï, 2005; Cummins, 2000). These research works have thus distinguished non-French-speaking (non-francophonie in French) from the practice of several languages or multilingualism. Research in cognitive sciences, in particular, has even observed a beneficial impact of multilingualism on school learning processes (Hirosh and Degani, 2018). However, the old paradigm presenting multilingualism as a risk still impacts some teachers’ advice to participating families, as well as family linguistic choices (Abdelilah-Bauer, 2006).

7 The “social hierarchy between languages” has been observed (Filhon, 2009), that is to say strong inequalities depending on languages, “minority languages” [3] being for that matter less transmitted than others within families (Condon and Régnard, 2016). This hierarchy between languages has also been observed within the school system, creating inequalities between “allophone” people depending on the language of their country of origin (Armagnague-Roucher, 2019). Besides, “the obvious dominant position of French in the existing social order between languages is connected […] to its integration role” (Filhon, 2017, p. 135).

8 In this context of inequalities between languages and promotion of French as a language of integration, coupled with the transmission of alternative discourses on multilingualism, coming in particular from the scientific realm, one can ask the following question: how these models of integration impact the support actors’ positions within parenting support systems concerning the languages of families with migrant backgrounds?

9 In theory, support actors within these support systems should adopt the position of “neutral third party” (Cnaf report, 2015) against parenting norms and practices. However, research on user relations shows that it is not always the case, and this situation questions these actors’ positions towards languages from families with migrant backgrounds. It has been demonstrated that professionals mobilise different family behaviours’ “interpretation registers”, such as “psychologisation” or else “culturalisation” (Manier, 2010). Besides, some of them impose norms upon users, such as migrant “women’s emancipation” (Manier, 2010), for instance. How about languages? What are the support actors’ discourses and practices towards languages, when they base those on specific integration models? Do they value the exclusive practice of French or multilingualism? What are the tools used according to the positions taken?

Intervention Norms and Practices Regarding Family Languages

10 The analysis of the survey’s gathered material (inset 2) shows that the positions of support actors towards languages of families with migrant backgrounds can refer to general models of social integration, and this will be a focus of attention in this article. After studying support actors’ practices of and discourses on languages of families with migrant backgrounds, the tools at their disposal will be presented.

Inset 2. Fieldwork and Survey Methodology

Analysis is based on the results of a qualitative survey conducted in 2018 in three French departments. After a first exploratory fieldwork, two territories have been explored more thoroughly: a department near Paris and a French border department. These two departments have been selected due to their rather old migration flows and to the wide population density gaps within each of them, while they strongly differ in terms of their population’s foreign countries of origin, as well as in the proximity of the French capital city in one case and of the country’s borders in the other case. If this border department was not initially chosen due to its regional language being more maintained than in other French regions (Filhon, 2017), in actual facts, this specific context influenced how the support actors related to languages: when it is about family languages other than French, it can pertain to the local regional language. Besides, this region has the particularity of including a large number of bilingual schools. Multilingualism is therefore a major issue there.
The collaborating family allowance funds (Caf in French) have pre-selected the organisations and actions according to the following criteria: the presence of families with migrant backgrounds, the diversity in implementation territories and audiences, as well as the varied modes of organisation [*]. Semi-directive interviews have been conducted in parallel with an observation of an action led by the parenting support system (diagramme below).
Interviews with support actors included first an interview pertaining to the organisation, the operation system and the audience. Then, after observing the action, individual interviews with support actors and parents with migrant backgrounds, as identified by the organisations themselves, partly focused on time observed and on each other’s life paths. Data pertaining to family relations and languages used within families, to everyone’s life path, and to the perception social actors have of each other (including towards languages) and of observed times, has been gathered. Observation of activities aimed at studying the attendance rates, the kind of uses and interactions (or the lack of interaction) between support actors and participants, as well as between participants.

The survey field

Number of observations108927
Number of organisations87824
Number of interviews32272786

The survey field

Reaap: Parents’ listening, support and care networks.
Clas: Local contracts for educational support.
Laep: Child-parent care centres.
§ Some organisations have been investigated several times, or simply met without the observation phase, therefore totals do not always match.
  • [*]
    The support systems under study effectively predominantly received families from popular backgrounds, and this may have impacted the support actors’ relation to languages.

The Typological Analysis of the Support Actors’ Relation to Languages

11 The survey material analysis shows the necessary distinction between discourses and practices of support actors’ positions towards languages. What they think about linguistic practices of families with migrant backgrounds can differ from what they advise them to implement within the family sphere or else from the implicit or explicit rules pertaining to languages within these support systems.

12 In order to “comprehend” (Schnapper, 2012) this complex social reality, and strictly following M. Weber’s approach, typological analysis has been used. Specifically conclusive cases, without searching for comprehensiveness or quantification, have been used to explain social phenomena. These analytical models of understanding are by definition a simplification of the situation under scrutiny. This article will present types of positions rather than types of support actors, organisations or apparatuses, depending on how discourses and practices centre around languages. Except situations when discourses and practices are coherent (diagramme—types 1 and 2), one can observe continuous links between discourses and practices. Before detailing the position bringing French to the fore, and those promoting multilingualism in their discourses and practices, more hybrid situations will be presented.


Typologies of the Support Actors’ Relation to Languages of Families with Migrant Backgrounds


Typologies of the Support Actors’ Relation to Languages of Families with Migrant Backgrounds

Continuous Discourses and Practices

13 Situations where intervention practices and discourse do not overlap include when languages are spoken within the support systems, while discourses promote the exclusive practice of the French language. This is the case of families whose members do not speak French at all. In a pragmatic manner, using other languages than French is necessary. In the Clas 1 case, the female facilitator, who also speaks Creole, explains that she cannot conceive another language than French being used in the community centre, “this is the least one can do, I tell myself”, except when it is the only way to communicate. Although the investigator mentions that mothers from Mali spoke another language than French between them during the board games afternoon, when parents were invited to play with their children, she answered “you are lucky I didn’t hear it, because I would have told them to speak French!” Here, she wanted to emphasise how mandatory the practice of French is. On the one hand, she requests parents to speak French when she is around, so that she does not feel “excluded”. On the other hand, she promotes the practice of French in the community centre, as a tool of integration for these non-francophone people, so they can improve their French level, by encouraging them to enrol in sociolinguistic workshops (ASL in French). For support actors experimenting similar situations, mobilising other languages than French is perceived as the first tool against the complete exclusion of the non-francophone parent. This should only be temporary, the time for this parent to learn sufficient French skills, French being perceived, as opposed to foreign languages, as the group integration language (during activities in the community centre, for instance). For these support actors, the practice of several languages or of a foreign language within the support system entails the risk of community-based self-segregation, which excludes others, whereas they do not consider it this way when French is being used.

14 Another hybrid case is when families are required to speak French within the organisation or support system, in parallel with a discourse promoting multilingualism, including within the family. This is the case of Clas 4, when Clas parents share breakfast. The Clas manager asks the only attending family mother if her daughter speaks Turkish. She replies she does and that her three children speak Turkish. Her sons did not attend bilingual classes, a situation she claims to regret, and this is why she insisted her daughter attends such classes, and so she did for three years. Teachers then suggested that she stops considering her learning difficulties. The Clas manager asks for the mother’s viewpoint about her daughter coming out of the bilingual class. She replies that she did not suffer from this situation, since she had at least tried. She adds that her daughter still remembers a few words that she uses from time to time, if the context allows. For the volunteers and the Clas manager, bilingualism means opportunity and having a mother tongue other than French should be valued. The manager gives the example of a Turkish father who wanted his son to stop learning English by himself, thinking it was too much for him, since his environment already included French and Turkish. She answers that, on the contrary, it is a wealth, that he should be encouraged and that if he is at ease with languages, it is a very positive thing. A volunteer, who had worked many years in the school environment, then highlights that some years earlier, including within the French national education services, multilingualism was not valued at all, and teachers claimed that the transmission of a non-French mother tongue was detrimental to French learning and academic success. The second volunteer went through a similar experience with the local regional language, its practice being forbidden in school. These statements also refer to the public school’s positioning towards regional languages, as presented earlier in this article. Learning languages in the family is thus promoted when it matches the children’s wishes and “skills”, a term used by one of the volunteers.

15 However, in parallel, the manager explains during an interview that a “community effect” is at play, including within Turkish neighbourhood families, that she does not see mothers who do not speak French as they “do not go out” and thus do not visit the community centre. In this context of community self-segregation of some children struggling with French, as well as conflicts between “Turks” and “Arabs” among children, and in order for them to “be able to communicate with others”, children are required to speak French in the community centre. In this perspective, French is conceived as a tool to fight “communitarianism”, and this refers to the French conception of assimilation to the majority group through monolingualism (see above). It is indeed included in the internal rules of the children’s branch displayed in every room, “speaking French” just like “saying kind words and forgiving”, “helping each other”, “playing together” or else “being happy”. This analysis shows that practices within the support system can differ from practices within families and from discourses about such practices. Besides, although family multilingualism is promoted, the exclusive practice of French is mandatory within the children’s branch of the community centre and this shows varied effects depending on which integration models these interventions use.

16 In addition, the first example mentioned, that of Clas 1, reveals a possible gap between the institutional vision and that of the participant, since the interviewee pointed out during her interview that she was speaking on her own accord and not on behalf of Clas or the community centre. This was also observed in other organisations. In Reaap 3, for example, although the Arabic-speaking employees of the association and bilingual mothers translate the comments made in the support group to mothers struggling with French, as well as a teenage girl’s words to her Kosovar mother, the external support actor in charge of facilitating the discussion is not in favour of such practices. In post-observation interview, when she is questioned about what stroke her on this day, she states:


“If I had a fault, and besides [manager’s first name] did it at some point […] she said at some point ‘but you talk in Arabic, I will translate [investigator nods]. And me, this is something I forbid. […] [F]or an individual interview, ok, but when we are in a place where we learn French [the interviewee laughs], me, I want that we collectively [speak French].”
[post-observation interview, Reaap 3]

18 This support actor endorses the distinction between public and private spheres, dear to the French social model of integration (Schnapper, 2003). Besides, to her, behind the use of Arabic hides a lack ethnic diversity (“it is still too much North African”), which holds the linguistic integration to French society back, referring here to the model of assimilation through French. This gap between practices within the support system and the support actor’s ideas are also present in Clas 5. The facilitator estimates that children must speak French during Clas time, because they participate in the support system “to speak French, to learn French, to live French. This is something important. When reaching here, he will fit in and he will live French.” According to this support actor, Clas is a space where children can achieve their linguistic integration, which will help them solve their school problems, and more widely fit in. Concerning adults, if observations, as confirmed by the facilitator, show that multiple languages are used within the support system, he claims that with him “[t]hey speak French. I talk no other languages. […] [So] we try to do what we can. Sometimes, we talk with a smile, and the hands [the investigator smiles] and by making gestures. And we manage this way too.” He considers adults speaking foreign languages within the organisation to be a problem:


“Me, it bothers me. [U]sually these are employees talking with each other, in African, something like that. But this bothers me, I wasn’t raised this way. We do not speak [the local regional language] in front of others either. I don’t speak [this language], but these are things that have an impact on me. We speak so that others can understand you. Because at some point, you can also think that people are talking about you, something we teach children. So, let’s respect ourselves [investigator nods]. For me, personally, it can be a bother.”
[post-observation interview, Clas 5]

20 Therefore, in the name of official objectives set by the Clas and ASL support systems to learn French, the exclusive collective practice of French can become, for some of the support actors, a tool of assimilation to French society. All the confusion resides in the fact that, in the name of academic success, one comes to prevent children from speaking a foreign language together during informal times. This leads to confusion between the objective of French acquisition and that of integration. This interview highlights the gap between what is asked to adults and to children. If a certain tolerance can be set for non French-speaking parents, this is not the case for children.

21 Besides, practices can differ depending on the space or kind of support system, the Laep support-givers being less injunctive than other support actors. During the first Laep 1 observation, no comment was made to mothers about the languages spoken during Laep time. No support-giver stepped in when a Uruguayan mother spoke in Spanish to her son. Yet, outside Laep time, one of the support-giver welcomed the boy’s maternal grand-mother, who came to drop off the children to the recreation centre in the afternoon, and said to her she had to speak French, she had to learn French. Yet she was only in France for a few weeks vacation. This shows the effects of the Laep welcoming position itself, which should be reflexive, non-intrusive and not judgmental (see above).

22 Practices and discourses towards languages are less homogenous and univocal. A strict overlap between discourses and practices is rare. However, their study brings greater sociological understanding of the support actors’ relation to languages.

When Practices and Discourses Overlap

23 Linguistic intervention can aim at the assimilation of families with migrant backgrounds, by the merging of their norms and practices with the majority group. In this case, French is highly emphasised in discourses and practices (type 1). Support actors who wish to implement this approach adopt more injunctive practices compared to those who promote multilingualism (type 2, see above). At Reaap 3, for instance, although several people sit around a table, waiting for the arrival of other female participants to start a support group, the Kosovar mother who came with her daughter introduces herself to the association manager and to the external support actor. She arrived in France in 2010 and comes from Kosovo. The external social actor then asks her if she attended ASL. The mother replies that she did not, that she started to work as soon as she arrived in France, as if she wanted to apologise for her broken French, and that she is currently unemployed. The external support actor then insists that she attends ASL. She tells her that after eight years in France and such a poor level in French, and because she has to rely on her daughter for linguistic support, she should really improve her French (by attending ASL), and this position matches the social norm of non-inversion of dependency relationship between parents and children (Oriv, 2012). The mother then looks down and seems very uncomfortable.

24 In accordance with this assimilation model through the exclusive practice of French, knowing this language is understood as a necessity, while the practice of other languages is understood as a problem, because it slows down integration to French society. Besides, it is a source of exclusion for people who do not speak French (see above in the Clas 1 or 5 discourses, for instance), or even of “communitarianism” (at Reaap 3 or else Clas 4). In this perspective, the practice of several languages stands for non-francophonie and prevents any social intervention, as in Reaap 5, where parents-children action was organised. The action actor approaches a mother who came with her son, enrolled in the nearby pre-school, and with her own mother, and asks her whether the boy will enter primary school in September. The mother replies that he has one more year to spend in pre-school. The support actor asks if she took the time to fill up her file for the Department house for people with disabilities (MDPH in French). The mother explains, and repeats, at the urging of the support actor, that a social worker is taking care of her administrative paperwork and that her child has been identified. Then the support actor adds “If I may”, the mother listens carefully, “you should talk in French more often to your son”. The mother replies that it is important that he speaks Turkish, that it is part of his heritage, that he should know his origins. The support actor then says “it’s alright”, now, he speaks Turkish. The mother replies that it is never fully acquired, that she was raised the same way, using Turkish at home and French in school. The support actor adds that, knowing his difficulties, he should understand French to be able to communicate with health professionals, with teachers here in the community centre, and that all the French system is in French. Then the mother explains, rather irritated, that the neuropsychiatrist following his son himself considered that since the child started to speak Turkish with his family, he should continue to do so. The support actor replies that she is not requesting him to stop speaking Turkish, but that he should be talked to using both languages, so that he can understand and express himself in both languages. The mother replies that she will continue to speak to her son in Turkish. The discussion stops right here, the mother is clearly upset. A few minutes later, the mother tells her son they are leaving.

25 During the interview with the support actor who followed the action, a discussion takes place with the investigator about the parents who need to send files to MDPH. She mentions the “Turkish mum”, whom she knows has been educated in France, and her son without knowing his name. “It think it is autism from the looks of it, there is probably an autistic spectrum around him”. Her diagnosis is based on the child’s behaviour, which she could observe in the pre-school courtyard, standing next to the community centre. Although she knows the child is schooled in the French system and evolves in a French environment everyday (yet ignores whether the child speaks at all, Turkish or any other language), the context within which the child is being cared for (while knowing, following her exchange with the mother, that the child sees a neuropsychiatrist and that her mother is supported by a social worker, see above) and the medical diagnosis concerning his condition, the exclusive Turkish family practice is in principle a problem to her. She considers it could interfere with the institutional support (at the community centre, at school or with the speech-therapist) the boy could benefit from and could trap him in violent behaviours, autism being linked, according to her, to speech disorders and communication being impossible for him as a non-French speaker.

26 This understanding of foreign languages as a limit to the access to French language and French integration is opposed to that of other support actors, in significant minority, who promote multilingualism in their discourse as well as in their practices (type 2). Type 2 interventions observed in the course of this survey are based on a collective staff project. It was based on different tools (see above) that had been designed using various works on multilingualism. In this case, multilingualism is an option if parents wish or can use it. They aim at promoting the parents’ parenting skills, as well as their foreign origins, to convey a positive bilingual identity. In these discourses, ideas of mutual understanding, respect for diversity and tolerance frequently emerge.

27 In Laep 4, one of the support-giving staff makes a difference between the limits imposed on parents speaking a foreign language together (to prevent self-segregation) and languages that should be practiced between parents and children and that should be promoted. Here is what her colleague has to say concerning multilingualism practiced during reception times:


[We exchange about different available tools in the Laep, which promote multilingualism: a leaflet with terms translated in a large number of languages, “Hello” and “Goodbye” translated on the entrance door, a nursery rhyme in Arabic, etc.] [I]t is important for us, also for families, and in fact we came to realise [that] when we would say ‘Hello’ or ‘Goodbye’ to a child in his own language, something was happening right away [investigator nods], because this was familiar to him […]. There was […] a symposium [titled]multilingualism and early childhood’ and it was super interesting […]. Me, I had these ideas of posting these “Hello” and ‘Goodbye’ signs because in [a] Laep, these two words are important [investigator smiles] to welcome people and accompany them when they leave […]. [A]nd then, we completed this with mothers. Here, a mother facilitated a rhyme workshop in Arabic, which helped us learn this particular rhyme [she shows an Arabic rhyme posted on the wall]. And then, a few more followed […]. And depending on attending families, they come and go [investigator nods]. So, this is a way to welcome others, in fact to welcome the other, to enter into their language a little. It is a way to open up [investigator nods]. And this is important, that’s it.”
[post-observation interview, Laep 4]

29 In this context, social integration happens at the collective level, by the opening of each other to other languages (and cultures). In places promoting multilingualism, one could observe some laissez-faire when different languages were spoken, such as in the case of a two-and-half year old child’s playtime in Laep 4. Upon his arrival, his mother takes a place at the entrance of the room where his son is playing with food toys. Without talking, he shows her the food products, expecting her to tell him what they are. She replies (in a general manner) in Persian. One of the support-giving staff joins them. The boy asks her the same thing in a similar manner. The support-giving staff names the products in French. The game continues using both languages, while the support-giving staff and the mother sit on the floor and chat in French.

30 As part of the action undertaken by Reaap 6 within a group of primary school parents gathered by the local priority education network manager (Rep in French) [4], multilingualism is better appreciated. This support group gathers once a month and focuses that day on “multilingualism”, this explains why they have invited the association specialised in this issue. The association president, a researcher on multilingualism issues, facilitates the discussion. Participants mainly include mothers attending French classes in the framework of the “opening schools to parents for their children’s success” programme (OEPRE in French) [5], as well as mothers with migrant backgrounds, support actors interested in this issue, such as the programme’s French teacher.

31 The discussion emphasises the mothers’ helplessness regarding their ambition to pass on their language of origin, as they face several obstacles: some of them underline their lack of linguistic skills in the said language of origin, a lack of tools, a lack of institutional support, etc. As an answer, the association’s support actor plays a reassuring and guilt-free role. The OEPRE French teacher steps in and says that she arrived in France at the age of six. According to her, her Polish mother “sacrified herself” for her children. In tribute to her mother and her sacrifice, it is crucial to her that her children learn Polish. Yet, they understand it but do not speak it. The support actor tells her it is normal. Later, she will say that children are considered bilingual when they grow up with different languages, even if they respond in French. The teacher will step in saying “so my children are bilingual, then?” and the support actor will confirm this information, which will thereby reassure the mother. Besides, she values what mothers are already doing, while mentioning other transmission tools that they could use.

32 In addition, all along the conversation, the support actor uses recent research works on multilingualism, as well as the terminology used in this area of research. For instance, she explains that she does not use the term “language of origin” (employed by the Rep manager on several occasions), because it roots the language in the past, and prefers to use the term “world languages”. She emphasises the terms of “identity” and “identity building”, claims that one needs to know where he comes from to know where he is going, and stresses the importance of languages in this process. And when a mother interferes on her struggle to foster her language, the support actor talks about a “transmission loss”, meaning that transmission does not pass on from one generation to the next [6]. Besides, she mentions some social hierarchy between languages (see above) and states that it is easier to pass on some languages compared to others, when they are taught in school for example. When a child whose mother tongue is English or German is considered “bilingual”, and valued in school, others are called “allophones”, a term which she claims nobody except national education civil servants understands. This term means that the child speaks a foreign language, but it is understood as “not speaking French”. The Rep manager mentions later in the discussion that bilingualism is perceived differently in more “elitist” schools within the municipality. There, bilingual children are those who speak languages like Spanish, German or English. The support actor goes one step further when she states that, in her region, “bilingual classes” target mainly one language, ignoring other languages’ bilingualism, such as Turkish or Arabic for instance. The intervention aims at supporting these multilingual mothers in their project to pass on minority languages against mainstream norms promoting the exclusive use of French or certain languages rather than others.

33 Exchanges within support groups also emphasise how this conception and practices promoting multilingualism remain a minority. Studying the “tools” used by support actors coming close to types 1 and 2 confirms this hypothesis.

A Discursive and Objectified “Toolbox”

34 When positions regarding languages of families with migrant backgrounds follow a specific model of integration, these positions rely on different kinds of “tools”, that is both normative frameworks shared in discourses and the various objects allowing linguistic norms to be known or implemented within the support system (table below). In this toolbox, differences appear between normative frameworks coming out of the institution, namely the organisation in charge of the support system (Laep, Reaap or Clas), and those emanating from the support actor’s individual path.

35 At the institutional level, regulations support the official viewpoint on the relation to languages held within the organisation and/or support system. One can think here of the famous “Here we speak French” posted in every Child sector classroom within the community centre in charge of Clas 4, whereas the association facilitating Reaap 6’s actions aims at “support[ing] [p]arents in the transmision of family languages and cultures, [to] promo[te] multilingualism in the eyes of families, children, and social and educational professionals”. These organisations’ conception of languages is therefore established in their DNA, so to speak. It can also show in discourses about languages, shared within work teams, since this oral culture allows, here again, to establish a common ground, without it being necessarily always laid down in the organisation’s official guidelines. These elements have been identified during Clas 4 discussion times regarding languages, and more specifically regarding multilingualism within the family setting.

36 Other institutional tools have been used in support systems promoting multilingualism. Research outcomes on intergenerational linguistic transmission and its impact on individuals, as well as scientific theories on multilingualism were mentioned orally (by the organisation’s manager who facilitated Reaap 6’s action) or in the support systems’ official documents. Besides, these support actors followed trainings on multilingualism (pertaining to research outcomes, available tools, etc.), they also participated in rounds of conferences on this issue (in Laep 4 in particular). They were therefore able to support their views on family languages, using different tools: language trees, multilingual rhymes and songs, kamishibai, etc. [7] The promotion of multilingualism also includes more or less formal collaborations (such as the one that took place during Reaap 6, between the association and the Rep) where theoretical information and multilingual tools are exchanged. The multiplication of institutional tools confirms the minority status of this position: it shows that it requires a genuine institutional commitment, as well as a deconstruction of the mainstream discourse on the languages of families with migrant backgrounds.


Available Frameworks and Objects

Promotion of…… the exclusive practice of French… multilingualism
Institutional frameworks and objectsRules
Team’s discourse, values upheld
Theories and research on multilingualism
Language tree, multilingual rhymes and stories
More or less formal partnerships with other organisations
Personal frameworks and objectsSupport to the idea that it is impolite and excluding to speak in one’s other language in publicForeigner’s own experience
Support to the idea that speaking French supports integration to FranceNon-transmission regret or rejection of one’s bilingualism

Available Frameworks and Objects

37 Besides, support actors who accept, or even promote, multilingualism have their own perception of their personal life path. These support actors can be ideal-typed as people who at some point in their lives have been in contact with several languages and who perceive it in a positive manner. The Rep’s manager in charge of Reaap 6 action emphasises, on several occasions during conversation with the survey investigator, her regrets not to have received a bilingual education, this being an important driving force in her support to the promotion of multilingualism. For example, when she introduces herself during the round table at the beginning of the action, she presents herself as the Rep coordinator. She specifies that, for her, the theme of multilingualism is an important issue to deal with, being herself of Turkish migrants descent, who passed neither Turkish nor Kurdish on to her, much to her regret. She claims that back in the days, integration was achieved through the French language, languages from countries of origin being perceived, particularly in school, as detrimental to school achievements. Later on, as a young adult, she took steps to learn these languages. During post-action informal exchanges between her, the association’s support actor and the survey investigator, she explained that she speaks Turkish like the women involved in OEPRE speak French, and that this is reassuring to them. Her Turkish makes Turkish-speaking mothers laugh. This sets them on equal footing, so to speak. This example is a good illustration of support actors who conceive multilingualism as an integration model to a multicultural society, who do not hierarchise attending groups. The life path can be at the core of larger collective dynamics, aiming at leading the institutional project toward family multilingualism.

38 On the contrary, support actors using their personal life path to explain why they promote the exclusive use of French emphasise that this relation to languages has been passed on from an early age. This is the case of the Clas 4 facilitator mentioned earlier in this article, who states that he was taught that it was impolite to speak the local regional language in public, that speaking another language than French constituted a source of exclusion. In this case, observations have shown that the personal life path of the person under study is used to correct the lack of institutional framework regarding intervention processes concerning languages used within the support systems and within the family environment.

39 Thus, contrary to what we may assume, the kind of support systems or the support actor’s status (volunteer or employee) are not the only elements impacting support actors. The various discursive and objectified tools presented in this study are more likely to root their positions towards languages of families with migrant backgrounds.


40 This research paper has shown that parenting support systems, despite the rather vague terminology behind the organisations’ projects or support system presentations, include a wide range of interpretations concerning the position to adopt towards languages. Typological analysis highlights two models of integration. On one hand of the axis, an assimilationist conception of linguistic integration to French society through the exclusive use of French can be observed, which is inherited from the French republican model of integration and reinforced by current linguistic assimilation policies. The other hand of the axis emphasises a certain liberal and multicultural model, which conceives social integration through the opening of attending groups to other people’s languages.

41 Different elements have shown that the promotion of the exclusive use of French prevails within the support systems under scrutiny. On the one hand, the practice of French is dominant: when a language other than French is spoken, it is limited to short translation times, or between the members of one family, but it seldom includes exchanges between support actors and parents, or between parents. The promotion of multilingualism and multilingual practices (type 2) rarely overlap. On the other hand, discourses are more favourable towards the exclusive use of French compared to multilingualism (within the family and even less so outside the family setting). The prevailing nature of this social norm can explain why support actors promoting multilingualism have developed such a wide range of tools and why they refer to current research on the issue to adapt and justify their practices.

42 During the course of this research, cases of injunctions to the exclusive practice of French have been observed [8]. This may be due to the fact that the relation to language is then not thought and discussed collectively, which would harmonise objectives and intervention practices. In this case, the support actor refers mostly to his/her own life path, and combines French learning with the objective of social integration. However, other means of action could be used depending on the objective being either French learning (theatre workshops, linguistic partnerships, etc.) or the creation of a collective dynamic of attending families (or children) (asking for the more silent mothers’ opinion, translation for those struggling with French, etc.). These two objectives are seldom discussed collectively, and thus tend to combine with each other, support actors spontaneously “doing with what they have” so to speak. Whereas, in the observed support systems promoting multilingualism, even if the initial project relies on the support actors’ personal path, it is subsequently detailed and constructed collectively.

43 In addition, several issues deserve further investigation regarding family languages. The research presented here has focused on linguistic practices within parenting support systems and parents and support actors’ discourses on languages. However, the method of enquiry used here does not allow the study of families’ effective everyday linguistic practices. Besides, the impact of the positions presented here on families, as well as their agency, could be further investigated (Unterreiner, 2021). Furthermore, although sociolinguists refer to “minority languages”, others use languages as an ethnicising indicator for some migrant populations (Manier, 2010). It would hence be relevant to study how social inequalities articulate the potentially ethnicised perception of their audience, as well as their (actual or supposed) languages.


  • [1]
    The original version of this article was published in French in the n°134 issue of the RPSF journal,,+%22Rapport+aux+langues+des+intervenants+au+sein+de+dispositifs+de+soutien+ à+la+parentalité.+Les+effets+des+modèles+d’intégration%22 (accessed 8 September 2021).
    The author warmly thanks the research monitoring comity (composed of Jennifer Bidet, Marion Manier, Jeanne Moeneclaey, Monique Cassol, Benoît Céroux, Clémence Helfter, Cécile Ensellem, Virginie Gimbert and Frédérique Chave) for their comments on this research, and more specifically on this publication, as well as Gabrielle Varro, Alexandra Filhon and Romane Blassel for their bibliographical guidance, and Maïténa Armagnague-Roucher for her careful reading of this article’s first draft.
  • [2]
    Because the family allowance funds (Caf in French) decided upon the opening of such institutional surveys, it should be emphasised that all participants had to be informed that the research was designed for better understanding of the issues at stake and was not planned as an audit, a form of control or evaluation, while participants to the survey would remain anonymous.
  • [3]
    According to H. Boyer, “linguistic minority is understood […] as the reduction, at various degrees, of the normal social exercise (and thus in communication areas) of a language. A reduction that can go back to the origins of its emergence, but is more often the result of an endured domination by the linguistic community during a more or less long period (sometimes several centuries) and following more or less violent processes” (Boyer, 2006, p. 261).
  • [4]
    The French priority education networks (Rep) and the Rep+ (reinforced Rep) are part of the Ministry of National Education support system. They involve schools with children experiencing school difficulties.
  • [5]
    The “opening schools to parents for their children’s success” (OEPRE) programme is developed in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Education. It aims at facilitating the integration of pupils’ parents, newcomers, migrants or foreigners outside the European union, volunteers, notably by involving them in their child’s schooling”, (accessed 11 October 2020).
  • [6]
    The support actor may be referring to a number of survey outcomes, which had observed this phenomenon (Filhon, 2009; Condon and Régnard, 2016).
  • [7]
    Language trees are word representations in the form of trees, usually “Hello” in several languages. Kamishibai are Japanese paper theatres allowing to tell stories in several languages, and in which the storyteller uses a text written at the back of an image displayed to the audience.
  • [8]
    Beyond these models of integration, intervention practices and their more or less injunctive dimension are analysed in another publication (Unterreiner, 2021).

Research on the specific features of families with migrant backgrounds in parenting support actions is scant. To fill this gap, a qualitative survey was conducted in 2018 combining observations of actions and interviews among support actors and participating parents. This research reveals the existence of different stances among support actors, in both their practices and discourse, concerning languages used by families. When these stances are based on a specific model of social integration, they are located on a continuum ranging from an emphasis on the exclusive use of French, which comes close to an assimilationist approach to integration and which predominates, to the rarer and more recent emphasis on multilingualism. Between these two ideal-typical models, in which practices and discourses overlap, stand hybrid stances. This relation to the language of origin is multifaceted and depends on how the dominant institutional discourse engages with the support actors’ viewpoints, which are grounded in their own life paths.

  • integration models
  • parenting support
  • families with migrant backgrounds
  • professional stances
  • attitudes to language


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Anne Unterreiner
Research and evaluation fellow, French family allowance fund (Cnaf in French), Directorate for statistics, studies and research (DSER), Research, studies and scientific monitoring department (Drevs).
Uploaded on on 23/08/2022
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