Bilingualism is arguably what sets Canada apart from the rest of North America – it has historically been the strength of our nation. However, of late, there is some cause for concern. While the demand for second language skills is growing both locally and globally, the number of bilingual people in Canada is on the decline. There are many causes for this slow down, in particular challenges within the education system, but research shows there are also several promising solutions that could help reverse the trend. For starters: newcomers.
Not only do immigrants tend to support bilingualism as an integral part of the Canadian identity, many also wish to learn French. According to Voices of New Canadians: Factsheet for Educators, part of a study published by the Canadian Parents for French, 60 per cent of Allophone parents feel that learning both of Canada’s official languages would benefit their children. Furthermore, Statistics Canada reports that “in many cases, immigrants who could speak more than one language reported knowledge of English or French, in tandem with a non-official language: 61.2 per cent were able to converse in English or French and one or more non-official language(s).”
It is not surprising, then, that young immigrants are well represented in post-secondary institutions that bet on linguistic diversity such as York University, which in 2012, opened Canada’s first Centre of Excellence for French-language and Bilingual Post-secondary Education based out of Glendon College. Thirty per cent of the college’s students are Francophones hailing from Canada, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and beyond; graduates are expected to develop a demonstrated proficiency in two or more languages. This groundbreaking landmark is evidence of the economic and social value of multilingualism, the challenges of a global world and the high level of academic achievement concomitant with reaching literacy in multiple languages. “Graduates of the liberal arts — the social sciences and humanities — are in high demand for jobs in government, business, non-governmental organizations and more, in Canada and internationally,” reports the school’s website.
It is clear that York is a trendsetter in the bilingualism arena, and it is vital that others catch up.
Second language skills in the workforce
Dr. Yves Lostanlen, manager of Siradel North America, ahigh-tech firm providing geolocalized data and advanced software to manage and deploy city-wide information and communications technology infrastructure (in particular wireless) that services both the private and public sectors, says all of his staff members in Canada are from different nationalities and cultures and speak three or more languages; in fact, almost all speak at least French and English. Inevitably, English is the common language when discussing technical and business issues, however, work is “a social universe,” explains Dr. Lostanlen, who is also an adjunct professor in the communication group at the University of Toronto.
“In order to create social connections,” he says, “understanding cultures, languages and traditions is not only fascinating, it also plays an essential role in increasing productivity. Promoting French as well as other major languages is certainly desirable, even indispensable to make interpersonal communication and business more effective.”
As Canada diversifies its trading partners, entering into free trade agreements with the European Union and other nations, the general population mastering two or more languages is more relevant than ever.
Canadian organizations doing business with government agencies, or subsidiaries of multinational companies all need staff that can speak a second or third language. “Thales is a global business and we are built around recruiting internationally, especially in the transportation sector of [the company],” says Michelle Forbrigger, Vice President of Human Resources & Communications for Thales Canada Inc., a global technology leader in the defence and security, aerospace and transport markets. “The skills we have difficulties finding are signalling designers and system safety engineers. We also need bilingual staff in certain areas such as human resources and communications. We can arrange interviews in French and English, and other languages such as Mandarin.”
What’s true for business organizations is true for our nation. As Canada diversifies its trading partners, entering into free trade agreements with the European Union and other nations, the general population mastering two or more languages is more relevant than ever. As the International Federation of Language Teacher Associations puts it: “There is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in attaining quality education for all and strengthening cooperation, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.”
Such evolution creates excitement, and has led many to wonder: How well do school programs prepare students to master French as a second language? If we are serious about the benefits of bilingualism and the need for students to prepare for today’s global economy, are our language programs adequate and sufficient?
Bilingualism inside post-secondary institutions
In his essay “Bilingualism: A Canadian Challenge”, Dr. Bernard J. Shapiro, a Professor of Education and Principal Emeritus of McGill University, suggests the main issue lies at the post-secondary level. “Canada’s second official language is more widely taught in our elementary and secondary schools than was previously the case, and immersion programs in the second official language have been a very welcome development. Canada’s colleges and universities are, however, a complete failure in this area. Not only have they not adjusted their curricular offerings to take advantage of the increased bilingualism of their entering students, it has also not seemed to occur to them the great national service they could perform by insisting on (or at least encouraging) bilingualism as a standard of a “Canadian” graduation.”
Incidentally, critics of Canada’s official language policy can’t be ignored. Sceptics have been questioning the costs and failure of what some call ‘enforced national bilingualism’, pointing to the fact that “real bilingualism in this country is quite geographically isolated” as Stephen Harper puts it in his opinion piece published in The Toronto Sun on July 15, 2011. And, however unpopular this observation may be, it’s not unusual to hear Canadian individuals and businesses perceive Quebec’s Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) to be oppressive.
Opening to the world
Surely there is no single, best way to address such a complex challenge as the decline in bilingualism. But there is a wealth of public and private initiatives to get inspired by, and build upon, as the nation aims to develop French language skills among Canadian learners.
Learners need to practice in real-life settings, and experience French as a Second Language (FSL) beyond the class and homework – from home stays to school exchange programs.
Experts agree that second-language exposure plays a key role in the retention of bilingualism. French immersion programs are essential, but overall they don’t seem to produce fluently bilingual graduates. Learners need to practice in real-life settings, and experience French as a Second Language (FSL) beyond the class and homework – from home stays to school exchange programs, and from summer camps to trips to France organized by Canadian Parents for French – thus creating abundant opportunities to embrace the French culture as an exciting global community to be part of.
Learning new languages thoroughly requires efforts that can only be sustained by a strong interest, a true commitment that no official policy can artificially create, nor hinder. Personal motivation is paramount to success. Correct writing is admittedly the biggest challenge when learning French. Not only should educators spot learners who are particularly talented in that area and support them, but also collectively, they must encourage and reward learners who work hard at improving their writing skills. Scholarships and awards, such as the national essay contest created by French for the Future, are extremely important tools.
Canadian businesses know the importance of incentives. “No one can deny it; mastering both official languages is important career-wise,” says Elaine Pichette, a human resources business partner with Thales in Montreal. “It is a competitive advantage, but it needs to be nurtured.” So when employees express the wish to improve their language skills, the company supports them.
Raising awareness about bilingual career opportunities is equally important. According to an independent report released by Colleges Ontario in 2014, 85.9 per cent of Collège Boréal’s students find employment after graduating – ranking higher than the provincial average graduate employment rate of 83.4 per cent. “Our graduates are fully bilingual,” says Pierre Riopel, President of Collège Boréal. “Nowadays, it’s an added value that they can sell. It’s a competitive advantage in terms of customer service. The fact that Francophone colleges exist gives legitimacy to multilingualism.”
Discords over Canada’s official language policies (the Official Languages Act in particular) have fuelled the ‘two solitudes’ for too long. Isn’t it time we bury the hatchet, move beyond the past and stop making excuses? It is time to change the subject and embrace a new-century ideal of multilingual literacy.
Corinne Cécilia is the Managing Editor of Maison & Demeure, the sister publication of House & Home. Corinne is passionate about publishing and has worked as a researcher, columnist, writer and editor with Canadian and international magazines and media outlets. An adept of foreign languages and lifelong learning, she was the French editor of Education Canada magazine from 2007 to 2011. Corinne holds a Master’s degree in Anthropology.