When Gloria Kouevi emigrated to the United States from the African country of Togo, it was just one day after her 9th birthday and she spoke no English.
Now 16 years old and a junior at United Township High School in East Moline, Gloria and 11 others are enrolled in English classes, but they also take a new course called "Heritage French."
United Township has the only Heritage French language class in the 13-state Midwestern region that includes Illinois and Iowa.
Rhonda Mellor, UTHS French teacher, started the East Moline program and found help through the French Embassy in Chicago. The embassy connected Mellor with the French-American Cultural Exchange, or FACE Foundation, New York City.
A Heritage French class includes teens who have French as a native language and they speak only French during the class period.
It is estimated nearly 2 million people speak French in the United States, according to FACE. They primarily are from Canada, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe.
Mellor is a Wisconsin native who has led French language courses for 38 years. The United Township class includes 12 students like Gloria. They spoke French in Togo, but never learned much about grammar, or other rules of the language.
Gloria, with classmates Jules Amegnran, 17, and Rodrigue Atikpo, also 17, enrolled in the Heritage French class the first year it was offered.
Jules, for example, was in an advanced French class last year but his teacher, Mellor, said it is a challenge to educate students like him who are native French speakers when they are grouped with native English speakers.
Two years ago, Mellor asked UT officials to establish the Heritage French class, but student numbers didn’t support the program. Last year, she asked again, and this time, the proposal passed. There are at least 30 French-speaking students who attend UTHS.
Mellor got a $3,500 grant from the FACE Foundation to help start the class and is using some of the funds to buy French books, fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels, for the school library. The hope is that a special section of these materials will invite the students to use the school library.
Mellor is convinced, if the students can be bilingual in French and English, they will have a much easier time getting a good job in the United States.
Staying conversational in French helps the teens learn English, too, said Mathilde Landier, program coordinator for the FACE Foundation, which was founded in 2005. It's been found that bilingual students who keep up with their native language have an easier time learning a new language, like English.
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During class in East Moline, Mellor uses Google Classroom, an educational app that keeps the lessons upbeat and fun. One recent day, she clicked though a grammar lesson and the students logged their answers on individual Chromebooks.
“(Fill in the blank) un bon avocat?” was one question, and the correct answer was “C’est.” On this, eight of the students chose the correct answer, and results were logged on the big screen in the class. Hands raised in victory for those who were successful, and hoots could be heard.
Heritage French language classes keep English and French skills strong in students, Mellor said. “It helps to maintain good literacy in both areas,” she said, and it makes for a better job candidate, down the road in life.
As for the students, they find French to be easier to learn than English.
The teens are actually learning their third language, Mellor said; they speak Ewe, the national language in Togo, while French is Togo’s official language. Both Jules and Rodrigue also learned some English when they lived in Africa.
Gloria said she learned English in the Quad-Cities by making friends, and observing people, and how they spoke and used their language to get around. “Lots of teachers went above and beyond to help, too,” she said.
Learning English at UTHS wasn’t too difficult, Jules said, as he had training in Togo. “I worry people won’t understand me in English, but they do understand in French,” he said.
The teens still have family in their homeland, and they worry about Togo.
“It’s a different world there, completely,” Gloria said. “In Africa, you are outside, and many kids are outdoors, without homes or food. There is nothing to eat. But you come here, and kids are on their cellphones, on Snapchat, or taking pictures, thousands of pictures.”
Mellor plans to seek another grant in 2018, also from FACE. She hopes to reach out to local colleges and universities, to find connections for the students through global or multi-cultural programming.
“It’s important to recognize, speaking French is not a negative; it’s a positive skill to have a second language,” she said. “I tell the kids, be proud of the fact you are multi-lingual.”
She also hopes one of the French students ultimately earns the Illinois State Seal of Biliteracy, which is an academic honor and is placed on a graduate’s high school diploma. To date, several UTHS students have earned the honor but they all are Spanish speakers.
For their part, Gloria, Jules and Rodrigue enjoy their classes at United Township. In Africa, they said, teachers may use corporal punishment.
“Teachers here are more understanding, and really trained and expert,” Jules said.