On a recent family vacation to France, Pierre-André Balson watched his son Sébastien recognize the fact that French children don’t speak English. As a preschool student at Lycée Français de Chicago (LFC) where he experiences bilingual French-English immersion, Sébastien started talking with his new friends in French — to the amazement of his father.
“We were in a small town and he even wanted to help order when we went to the bakery, the butcher and the vegetable shop,” Balson says. “He was so curious and wanted to investigate everything and he just fit right in with the other children. It was very cool.”
As one of the very first graduates of LFC himself, Balson knew he made the right choice to send his son to the PK-12 independent international school in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.
In fact, LFC has been part of Balson’s family since it opened.
“My parents are French and moved here in 1979. I was born in the mid-1980s and we spoke French at home. It was important to my parents that I was bilingual from the get-go,” Balson explains.
Because they wanted to send their son to a bilingual school, Balson’s parents gathered with like-minded others to form the French global international school in 1995. “At the time, there were 144 kids on opening day. Now we are around 800 students,” says Balson, who recently joined the LFC’s board.
Passionate, longstanding educators
From his earliest memories of a school with passionate, skilled teachers to the sense of global community that has grown through the years, Balson says LFC has always been a part of his life.
“The school has a special place in my heart. I especially appreciate the consistency and stability of the teachers. From the day the school opened, eight or 10 of the teachers are still there today, which I think is really unique and impressive. Their passion and involvement match that of the parents who founded the school,” Balson says.
This longevity is something that Balson didn’t see at other international schools in the city. Teacher quality combines with language and cultural immersion to set LFC apart for families seeking a global education for their children, he says.
“What’s really great about the school is I don’t think there’s another school the size of LFC with as much cultural immersion,” Balson says. From pre-elementary, children experience dual-language learning. By fourth grade, students expand to a third language, adding a fourth or fifth language by high school. In addition to French, German, Mandarin and Spanish, as well as Latin, are offered.
Research shows huge cognitive benefits for multilingual learners. Balson also benefitted from the practical aspect of his education: He was able to secure a job immediately after graduating from college during the Great Recession.
“The reason my career launched was because of my cultural understanding and experience,” he says. “I joined a logistics company that had just purchased a business in Europe and needed someone who understood the culture. They recognized the clash between American and European ideals. I was able to approach it differently.”
Balson has gone on to work for British, French and American companies that all needed his language expertise and cultural awareness. He regularly travels to France, China, Portugal, India, England and other destinations — and he says he’s always open to learning more about cultural differences for better business decisions, communication and relationship building.
Today, high school students can choose between the International Baccalaureate, taught in English, and the French Baccalaureate, taught in French — two competitive academic programs that are recognized internationally. A dedicated college counseling team supports students in their applications for higher education and students are consistently accepted to the universities and colleges of their choice.
The value of cultural immersion
In truth, students can learn a foreign language in many ways. What they can’t get at a traditional school, says Balson, is cultural immersion. The interplay between language and culture helps students develop an appreciation for difference, which is critical in a globalized world.
“If you consider the world in general, it’s all getting more competitive. So if you want your child to have that unique knowledge, you have to provide that education and exposure. It’s really wonderful that I can send my son to a school where all of this language and cultural learning is happening in the same timeframe. There’s not that extra two to three steps to try to incorporate all of that learning into his life and schedule which would be almost impossible,” Balson says.
And, if Sébastien were to choose to attend college in the U.S., Europe or Canada, he will have the exposure and flexibility to acclimate to a variety of cultures, Balson says.
“What really excites me the most is I’m giving him the maximum amount of tools and exposure, which is so hard for busy working parents to do,” Balson says. “We don’t have to worry about preparing him in the best possible way for his future. It’s all happening in one place. That convenience factor is important. I’m very grateful.”
Learn more about Lycée Français de Chicago. Visit lyceechicago.org.