Franco-German relations thrive on language acquisition – and the sooner a person starts learning, the easier it is to pick up a new language. In a Parisian kindergarten, teachers take a playful approach to bilingualism.
Eins, zwei, drei - das Reden ist vorbei. (One, two, three - the time for talking is over). As classical music fills the room, it's made clear to the schoolchildren that it's time to gather in the morning circle.
One girl sneaks in a last goodbye kiss and is handed over to her teachers. "Here's the multicolored Anouschka - she wanted to wear colorful clothes today," says her mother on the way out the door, urging her daughter forward. "Go on, sparrow, they've already begun." One more kiss - and then class begins with a German song.
The Franco-German Kinder-Ecole in Paris was launched in 1974 by a group of German and French parents, the AJEFA (Association of Parents of Franco-German Kindergarten Students). Today, the school is made up of four kindergarten classes with 25 students each, between the ages of two and six.
Shifting languages without hesitation
Since the children are growing up in a French-speaking environment, that language is their default. But, says Elisabeth Feldmeyer, AJEFA's director, her students are able to effortlessly switch between French and German.
"The moment an adult joins their group the children switch into German - without realizing that they've actually switched languages," she says. And since there are several adults in each group who talk with the children exclusively in German, the children are almost constantly speaking the second language.
Educators at the Kinder-Ecole are supported by German-speaking student teachers like Leonie Herzberg. After completing high school, the 18-year-old Stuttgart native found out from Germany's Federal Employment Agency about the possibility to complete a gap year at the Kinder-Ecole in Paris.
"I took an advanced French course at school, I've always vacationed in France and I've always wanted to live in Paris," said Herzberg, who's been able to realize her dream working at the school. For the teachers, some of whom have lived in France for decades, it's important to have a steady flow of young people fresh from Germany in the classroom - they are much closer to the everyday German spoken today than the teachers themselves.
'Spa - ghe - ttiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!'
Despite the emphasis placed on German, it's just as important to prepare the children for the French school system. Twice a week, the four-to-six-year-old group has lessons with a French pre-school teacher, Chloe Darche. The 27-year-old has a very special relationship with the institution: as a child, she attended the school herself.
As they gather in small groups, Darche greets each child individually: "Comment ça va, qu'est-ce que tu me racontes?" ("How are you, what would you like to talk about?") Speaking French, of course, is not a problem for these children. But Darche helps them make the first steps in reading and writing - and teaches them grammar fundamentals like syllabification.
Today, she asks them how many syllables are in the word "spaghetti," and where the letter "i" is found in the word. The children clap their hands as they shout out each syllable: "Spa - ghe - ttiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!"
'Mund - oh oui! Mund, c'est ca!'
Next to the Kinder-Ecole, the parents' association has also set up a Mini-Ecole for former kindergarteners who have advanced to French elementary school. Classes are scheduled for every Wednesday, the day French schools are closed. Here, the children are given the opportunity to maintain and further develop their German language skills.
"Speaking a language is like gymnastics, the more you speak and practice it, the better you'll be," says Ursula Gallus-Menier, another teacher. Today's exercise: Pack your bags.
"We're packing our bags today with body parts," says Menier in German. "Each of you will name a part of the body. Who wants to start? Eli!"
"I'm packing my eyes in my suitcase," says Eli. The next student repeats after him, and then chooses another body part for the suitcase. Afterwards, students are given an exercise where they must match sketches of body parts with the correct word.
Puzzling it out with a mix of French and German, the children find this exercise to be somewhat more difficult.
"Arm, that's this one, right?"
"No, that's not an arm."
"Arm - what is it, then? Ah yes: arm!"
"Exactly, that's the arm."
"And these are…the eyes. Mouth - oh yes! Mouth, that's it!"
'… so I can understand you!'
About two-thirds of the children at the school come from Franco-German families, while the rest are exclusively French. But more and more, children from French families who have lived in Germany also are signing up for classes. Upon returning to France, the parents want their children to continue practicing the German they picked up abroad.
"At this age, a child can learn a second language very quickly," says Feldmeyer. "But if they no longer hear or speak the language afterwards, they can forget it just as easily."
AJEFA runs the only Franco-German kindergarten in Paris, and children can find themselves waiting for a spot for up to two years. Gallus-Menier isn't surprised by the high demand.
"Never again in their lifetime will children learn a language so easily. This is a game for them," she says.
For some, the game can be quite costly. Tuition fees are scaled to a family's income, and full-time enrollment can cost anywhere from 50 to 850 euros ($65 to $1,111) per month. But parents are convinced that it's a good investment in their child's future.
While the focus is on the intensive language lessons, there's also time each day for a little tutorial in good manners - at least at lunchtime, when the students recite together before eating:
"Ich bin ich, und Du bist Du, wenn ich rede, hörst Du zu, wenn Du redest, bin ich still, weil ich Dich verstehen will! Guten Appetit!"
("I am I, and you are you. When I talk, you listen, and when you talk, I'm quiet so I can understand you! Enjoy your meal!")