Since tomorrow is my first day of school, I’ve been researching the Luxembourgish school system in order to get a better idea of where my students are coming from, particularly in terms of educational background. Along the way I’ve discovered some central elements of the Luxembourgish culture and learned enough to know that this will definitely be an interesting semester.
Since the first day of school is tomorrow, September 19th, you may have figured out by now that the Luxembourg schools operate on a different calendar than American schools. Schools here have trimesters, the first of which begins here in September and goes until December. The second begins in January and goes until April, and the third begins in April and goes until July (roughly). With the timing of our American semesters, I’ll be here for most, but not quite all, of the first trimester.
The second major difference between the American and Luxembourgish school systems would be the age of the students and the numbering of the grades. In the States, middle school is grades 6-8, and the students are roughly eleven to fourteen years of age. High school, then, is grades 9-12 and ends when most students are eighteen. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules in terms of student age, but for most people that’s how the system works. In Luxembourg, the older students are in what we would translate to be grades 7-1, counting down the years until university/gra duation as the students get older. “First graders,” or the “Premiere” students, are also nineteen rather than eighteen, which means I’ll be two short years (well, almost three) older than my oldest students. However, they don’t need to know that!
As a teacher of English, one of the important things for me to know is how familiar my students will be with the language, and it turns out that English is one of the few language Luxembourgish students learn as a truly foreign language. Unless enrolled in a private or charter school using unique methods (or an ELL program), American students receive their instruction in English. Luxembourgish students, whose native language is Luxembourgish (yes, that is a language—it’s a combination of old French and low German) receive the majority of their instruction in either French or German. The youngest students receive support in Luxembourgish, but once students reach primary school, instruction is in either French or German. Which language used is dictated by the Ministry, as the Luxembourgish Education system is highly centralized. When you think about the fact that the entire country of Luxembourg is about two thirds the size of Rhode Island, the United States’ smallest state, the centralization of the education system makes quite a bit of sense, but a central agency dictating the language of instruction for an entire country is still a bit, well, foreign. Learning English comes into play somewhere around sixth grade, and students are generally introduced to the language in an immersion program, but it is a foreign language for them, not one that they learn and use from primary school on up. There was a push several years back to allow students to choose between German language instruction or French language instruction in an attempt to make school easier for immigrant children (imagine trying to learn not only the native language of the country you move to, but also two different instructional languages for school), but Luxembourg decided to keep both languages as mandatory in an effort to preserve the trilingual unity across the country. Luxembourg is proud that, unlike Belgium and some other countries, the entire country speaks one language—there is no German section and French section—and this was the main reason for keeping instructional practices the way they are.
Language of instruction aside, Luxembourgish students also progress through school differently than American students do. Luxembourgers are only required to be in school from age four to age fifteen. Optional school on either end exists, of course, but the compulsory school ends at age fifteen. Describing the school system with words alone can get rather confusing, so I took the liberty of making a little drawing in order to clarify the different paths students can take.
As you can see, the crucial point comes at the age of twelve, when students and parents and teachers must decide, together, which path the student will take. Transferring from one path to another is possible, of course, but not necessarily easy. Until 1996, a test was taken in order to determine school path, so a conference involving so many people is definitely a more reasonable option! Academic difficulty between the general post-compulsory secondary school and the vocational/technical secondary schools are the same, the main difference being more of a focus on learning English for the University-bound students and the opportunity for apprenticeship in the later stages of the vocational/technical school students.
I am teaching at a Lycee, which is for students working towards attending University. I’m still trying to figure out how familiar my students are with the English language (this will probably depend on their grade, and I’m not yet sure which grades I’ll be working with) as well as American, British, Australian, and Canadian culture. The cultural knowledge will be necessary both for understanding the texts we read (To Kill a Mockingbird will only make so much sense if you don’t have an understanding of the post-Civil War South and our legal system, for example), but also for their cultural knowledge as they learn the language spoken in these countries. I’ve already learned that jury by trial and the death penalty have long been outlawed in Luxembourg, so I’m sure reading To Kill a Mockingbird will bring about some interesting literary and cultural discussions!