Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 24 13:48:42 UTC 2006


Is it harder to become bilingual?

It's been 40 years since Pearson and Trudeau urged Canadians to learn both
French and English. Now, fewer than 20 per cent can converse fluently in
both, GLORIA GALLOWAY writes in the last of a series. Yet the appetite for
immersion remains strong

OTTAWA -- Paula Kirk lives in an English world. Her clients, her shops and
her neighbours in Regina all speak English, the mother tongue of more than
17 million Canadians. But her children -- eight-year-old Eddye and
11-year-old Ella -- are being taught in French. Ms. Kirk and her husband
studied French in high school, but never became fluent. "It's something I
always wished I had been able to do," she said. Realistically, she said,
if someone wanted to be bilingual in the two languages spoken most often
in Regina, they would learn Cree. But people who speak both of Canada's
official languages have opportunities not available to the unilingual
majority of Canadians, she said. And if the opportunity exists, "why not
give your kids everything you can?"

The idea that Canada may one day be a truly bilingual country in which a
majority of people can converse in both English and French is something of
a pipe dream, Ms. Kirk said. "However, that's one reason I give when asked
why my kids are in French -- because we're Canadian. And if we, as
parents, don't make that effort now, I guess we'll have to stop calling
ourselves a bilingual country." Forty years after Lester Pearson
established the goal of a bilingual federal public service, and 38 years
after Pierre Trudeau declared that all Canadians should take advantage of
living "in a country which has learned to speak in two great world
languages," fewer than 20 per cent of us are conversant in both English
and French.

In the most recent census of 2001, 17.7 per cent of Canadians professed to
be bilingual -- up by just 5.5 per cent from 12.2 per cent in 1961. Remove
Quebec from the equation and our official bilingualism rate drops to 10.3
per cent. Meanwhile, the number of children who study French as part of an
English-language curriculum is declining. The most recent report of
Canadian Parents for French, a group that monitors language instruction
across the country, found that the average enrolment in those "core"
French programs dropped nationally by 3.6 per cent over the three years
leading up to 2003-04. There is a tremendous appetite for immersion. Ms.
Kirk is representative of a large number of parents who want their
children to be bilingual. But the number of English students enrolling in
the program has levelled off at about 300,000 across the country as
funding has been curtailed.

For some, the issue is lack of French instruction in their area or a
limited number of openings. In places such as Greater Vancouver, parents
line up overnight to enroll their children in French-language schools. "In
major centres across the country, there is a lack of space, particularly
at the senior kindergarten level for children to be accepted into
immersion programs," said Anne Kothwala, chairman of French for the
Future, which promotes bilingualism and French education. "We have a
federal-provincial agreement in place that states that anyone who wants to
pursue French as a second-language education ought to be able to do so,"
she said. Matthew Hayday, one of the leading national experts in bilingual
education, said the funding that Ottawa gives to the provinces to support
French-immersion programs started at $11.6-million in 1970 and increased
until the latter part of that decade, when it was cut substantially. Since
then, it has fluctuated up and down and back up again.

Today, Ottawa allocates about $255-million to the provinces for
French-language education, but not all of that money goes to immersion.
The largest chunk of it is used to educate minorities in their own
language. So does all this mean that the grand vision of Pearson and
Trudeau has been a grand failure? No, the experts say. Graham Fraser, a
Toronto Star columnist who takes a hard look at Canada's language policy
in his new book, Sorry I Don't Speak French, said the nature of the dream
has been exaggerated. He said there was never an intention to create a
fully bilingual country. Rather, the motivation was to protect the rights
of unilingual Canadians. In a speech in 1968, Mr. Trudeau described
language rights as having two prongs -- the right to learn and the right
to use. Canadians had the right to have their children taught in the
official language of their choice.  And they had the right to converse
with their government in their own tongue.

"That, in a capsule, is what it has all been about ever since," Mr. Fraser
said. "And to a large extent, those rights have been achieved." Minority
language schools now exist coast to coast, a vast change from 40 years
ago. And "it's increasingly easy to communicate with your government in
the language of your choice, wherever you are," said Mr. Fraser, an
improvement he attributes, in part, to the expansion of Internet services.
Michael Behiels, an expert in Canadian history at the University of
Ottawa, said money that was given by Ottawa to the provinces in the 1970s
to help French minorities educate their children in their own language was
transferred to immersion for English students. "Middle-class Canadians
wanted to make sure that their sons and daughters would qualify for
federal-government jobs, if that's what they are interested in, by
becoming bilingual," he said, and there was a rapid expansion of immersion

That means the plan to create a small, elite group of bilingual Canadians
has been a huge success, Dr. Behiels said. "I am getting these
undergraduates, but more importantly graduate students, who are doing
Canadian history and who are very, very bilingual.  They read, write and
speak the language in ways that never ever would have been the case when I
started graduate school back in the '60s." But there has also been an
element of failure in that there is no strong pressure being exerted on
English Canadians who are not in immersion to learn French while they are
young, Mr. Fraser said. That has left the federal government in a
difficult situation. There is an understanding that public servants at the
higher levels should be bilingual, but they are being raised in an
education system that does not demand it. So the government must do the
training itself -- at great expense and at a time when its employees are
past the age that a second language can easily be absorbed.

"There has not been the kind of concerted, collective effort to say how do
we as a collective society ensure that our public servants, and our
national leaders, have the training they need at the age that they can
actually learn it to do what is required," Mr. Fraser said. French is a
tough subject, he said. So are the subjects of torts and contracts in law
school. "But, if I wanted to be a judge, I would go to law school and I
would be expected to pass torts and contracts. And if I wanted to be a
deputy minister, I would decide very early on that [learning French] was
something I should do," Mr. Fraser said. The same goes for political
leaders, he added. "The Liberal leadership is now sorting out pretty
clearly between the people who decided at an early age, when they were
teenagers, that it was important to learn the other languages and those
people who say I would like to run for the Liberal leadership so I will go
up to Quebec City for a few days."

Dyane Adam, Canada's Commissioner of Official Languages, said she sees
some huge successes. Edmonton, for instance, has launched a
French-language renewal program aimed at increasing enrolment in both core
French and immersion -- and it is working. But more needs to be done, said
Ms. Adam, not just because it is imperative that senior public servants
speak French but because fluency in both languages will prepare the next
generation of Canadians to take a leading role in the international
economy. Kerri Langlois of Mississauga, Ont., understands that very well.

An anglophone who cannot speak fluent French despite being raised in
Montreal, Ms. Langlois said she expects the immersion program will not
only provide her two children with better job prospects but will also
expand the way they view the world. "As I have moved forward I really
understand more the advantage of it and for me, personally, because I had
this incredible opportunity where I should have been fluently bilingual,
growing up in Montreal I had every reason to be fluently bilingual," she
said. "For my kids, I knew it was something they would have for their
entire life and it would always be an advantage to them."

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