Archived - Notes for an Address at FUTURES Conference: Innovation in Global Education
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Notes for an Address at FUTURES Conference: Innovation in Global Education
Ottawa, May 3, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning ladies and gentlemen.
I would like to thank you for attending this session and for being open to discussions about the importance of linguistic duality in the context of education.
This conference on innovation in global education is a wonderful initiative of the Toronto District School Board. As teaching tools and methodologies change rapidly, and the flow of information grows at a dizzying pace, more than ever, we must use innovative approaches as we educate our children. It is no exaggeration that the use of innovative practices is fundamental to being an effective educator in today’s world.
Let me be clear about what I mean when I use the term “innovative.” It is certainly true that we need to innovate to prepare our young people for the world of the future. But we also need to innovate so that we can provide them with tools for success today. We need to give students a global perspective on current trends in social, political, economic, ecological as well as linguistic issues. Cultural enrichment needs to be promoted through a knowledge of other languages, other lifestyles and other ways of thinking. We also need to foster openness to international understanding in a spirit of tolerance, respect and discovery. That’s quite a responsibility for educators and parents. But for young people, it’s an adventure that can start on their own doorstep. After all, they live in a country with two official languages.
As educators and parents—and even as adults who must adapt to the new demands defining our world today—we’re up against a major challenge. We’ve heard in recent decades how the world is getting smaller and borders are disappearing, all in the name of globalization. The concept of the “global village” that Marshall McLuhan described 50 years ago is now a way of life. The challenge is to possess the expertise needed to excel in the global village. The pace of life today is frantic, and people need to assimilate the constant flow of information at an equally frantic pace to keep up with the world they live in. How can we give our young people every chance they need to succeed in our constantly changing world? One way is to provide them with the tools they need to decode that constant flow of information. It’s a matter of global competitiveness. It’s what we need to offer our young people and, let’s be honest, it’s what we, as parents and educators, need to learn along with our children.
I’m often asked to explain my duties and functions as Commissioner of Official Languages. Forty-two years after the position was created, there is still some ambiguity about the role. Let me be clear: I’m neither a linguist, nor a police officer.
Needless to say, I do indirectly deal with issues relating to language quality, and the Office of the Commissioner does play a monitoring role, ensuring compliance with the Official Languages Act. But my role, I’m happy to say, is more focused on promoting and defending a vision of the country and a way of living together. As I’ve said many times, I’m part cheerleader, part nag.
As educators and parents, you are on the front lines of education, and you’re the ones who set the tone when it comes to official languages at school or at home. You are witnesses to the reality of linguistic duality “in the field.” It’s a subject that is of tremendous interest to me and one that it is central to my role as Commissioner of Official Languages. Besides being in Toronto to promote the importance of linguistic duality, I want to hear what you have to say about second-language learning in the school system, and I’ll be inviting you to share your thoughts with me in a minute.
I firmly believe that you are key players in the promotion of linguistic duality. This is true for teachers, parents and anyone who holds linguistic duality close to their heart. Besides passing on your knowledge to young people, you pass on your values, and linguistic duality is a fundamental Canadian value. Although it’s true that becoming bilingual is synonymous with improving one’s language skills, bilingualism is first and foremost a fundamental value of Canadian identity that needs to be conveyed. And you’re the ones who give the young generation a desire to learn and teach those values.
These language-based values can be equally applied to Canada’s Aboriginal communities, particularly if we look at recent language legislation in Nunavut, which seeks to combine a rights-oriented approach to official languages with legislation to protect the Inuit language from further erosion.
With that in mind, I would like to take a few minutes to tell you why I think linguistic duality is so important, particularly within the context of the theme of today’s conference.
Research has shown the intellectual advantages of learning another language. Students who learn another language show greater mental flexibility, better aptitude for abstract thought, better non-verbal skills and a greater facility for conceptualizing. Bilingual children are better able to solve problems and are more creative than their unilingual counterparts. And, of course, they have a better understanding of what’s happening nationwide; they are able to decode single-handedly messages in both languages circulating around their country.
Bilingual kids can also contribute to the linguistic and cultural diversity of our country. This will become increasingly important as Canada welcomes more immigrants. Approximately 80% of immigrants speak neither English nor French as a mother tongue; but many are well aware of the value and importance of Canada’s linguistic duality, sometimes more so than native-born Canadians!
When our two main linguistic groups get along with one another and recognize the importance of the second official language, they set an example that shows each wave of immigrants how they can share the best of what they bring with them, while adopting the best of what we have to offer.
Of course, the issue of diversity affects both language communities in Canada and may present a challenge—but also an opportunity—for teachers of immersion programs. Newcomers to Canada often have one or two languages under their belts before setting foot in the country, which means that English and French tend to become their third and fourth languages. Canadian Parents for French has noted, as well, that immigrant parents and students are sometimes discouraged or even disallowed from enrolling in French immersion programs. And the vast majority of allophone parents unfortunately receive little or no information about French immersion options from the school system.
Children who have any kind of learning disorder are also often excluded from immersion programs for fear of compounding the problem. However, learning disorders are not more easily overcome if a child is removed from an immersion program. In fact, it may have nothing to do with language in and of itself. Yet when a child is diagnosed with a learning disorder, the immediate response of the school is to remove him or her from immersion, as if second-language learning were the cause of the difficulties.
We must ensure that those children and their parents understand the importance of immersion and of English and French as languages of emphasis in our schools.
We also need to demonstrate clearly that there exists a mutually beneficial relationship between diversity and linguistic duality, and that these two elements are not working against each other.
I believe that here, in Toronto, you easily grasp the importance of linguistic duality. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, and the Toronto District School Board is the largest school board nationwide, with more than 240,000 elementary and high-school students. The impressive number of languages spoken in Toronto reinforces the importance of being proficient in both of our official languages. In other words, bilingualism is a stepping stone to multilingualism. If you know English and French, you not only have an advantage at home, but around the world.
Across all linguistic communities, individuals are increasingly interested in knowing what’s happening on the other side of the fence. The social media have something to do with that, and they play an important role in how our young people view the world and absorb information, whether in English or in French. The country’s French-speaking communities have much to offer—the ties between the two linguistic communities can be beneficial for learners, whether Anglophone or Francophone. Why not promote exchanges between Anglophone students and students in French-speaking communities? Young people are already communicating back and forth via virtual communities such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, talking about things that often seem incredibly trivial. So why not set up directed discussions in a school setting to bring official language communities closer together?
As a quick example, I was told recently about an immersion primary school class here in Toronto, that, in its study of Aboriginal peoples, wrote a letter to Quebec premier Jean Charest—in French—about the situation in Barrière Lake in Northern Quebec, where the local Algonquin community is embroiled in a dispute with the federal and provincial governments over a co-management and resource revenue sharing agreement.
Here is an example of Anglophone children reaching out to a fellow Canadian—and Francophone—in his mother tongue so that they could make a political point. It is imperative that the next generation of Canadians be able to communicate effectively in the country’s two official languages; the same goes for their ability to act and take their place in the world. Many young people speak more than two, three and even four languages. These days, unilingualism, whether Francophone or even Anglophone, is no longer a viable option for anyone who wants a national or international career.
From the experience I’ve gained through encounters with Canadians across the country, I can say with confidence that many minority groups are very open to learning both official languages. That is one important conclusion that emerged from the discussion forums on the perspectives of Canadians of diverse backgrounds on linguistic duality. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages held the discussion forums in 2007 in Toronto and in 2008 in Vancouver. Forum participants saw linguistic duality as a fundamental part of the Canadian identity, a real asset for Canada’s citizens and an asset for the country as a whole in an increasingly competitive world. In fact, participants said they were aware of this reality before they set foot in Canada. For example, the Chinese community of Vancouver welcomed the opening of offices of the Alliance Française in their neighbourhood. Members of the community believed that their children would be best served knowing both of Canada’s official languages, as they would be more likely to go to work in Montréal or Ottawa than in Hong Kong or Beijing.
As a journalist, I went on one of the Team Canada trips to China. The federal government had pulled together all the Chinese speakers in the region from various embassies. They also hired Canadians in China to work as guides and translators for what seemed liked hundreds of Canadians who were on that trip.
I was truly impressed by those young Canadians, some of whom had been studying in China or working in other parts of Asia. Even though I couldn’t evaluate the quality of their Chinese, I could tell they were able to explain to the bus driver where we wanted to go and what time we needed to be picked up and so on. They were able to carry on quite vigorous conversations with people and explain things to us.
Also, they were all bilingual in both of Canada’s official languages.
Clearly, learning French for the English-speaking Canadians and English for the French-speaking Canadians was not a barrier to their learning Chinese; it was part of what led them to learn other languages. As I said earlier, proficiency in both of our official languages leads to multilingualism and, consequently, to greater opportunities for all young Canadians.
In a report my office released this year on leadership behaviors for managers in thepublic service, language mastery is presented as a key leadership competency in government. If we look at the private sector, young bilingual Canadians are increasingly in demand, because of their reputation for cultural sensitivity on account of their knowledge of both English and French.
As you already know, since a large number of you experience it day-to-day, many Canadian families live in a melting pot of languages. By the time their children—in particular those from exogamous or allophone families—are of school age, they have two, if not three, languages under their belts.
It’s no wonder that I find it disconcerting that many Canadians are still having difficulty learning and maintaining two languages. I also find it unfortunate that some still question the value of learning another language. I’ve been across the country and around the world, and I’ve never encountered anyone who regretted being bilingual. I have, however, found many people who bitterly regretted the fact that they had never mastered a second language.
It’s vital that present educational practices encourage linguistic duality and that they help bilingual people protect and maintain their native language skills as they add English or French to their repertoire.
It is also vital that we stop overlooking a key factor in the learning process: culture. I don’t need to tell you that young people soak up pop culture like sponges, whether it’s music, film or social media, and that English-language pop culture already figures prominently in the French-speaking world. Why don’t we make use of Francophone pop culture among young English-speaking Canadians? Wouldn’t it be an incredible way to innovate in the area of global education by integrating cultural references from the other official language over and above what we do in courses for French-language learning?
The current trend in education is for subjects to be taught as part of a holistic process. We must establish links between what is taught and what is happening in the news, much like immersion. We should find a better balance of mandatory courses and intensive courses, as well as various types of immersion. We need to see French-language training as a process that begins with pre-school and extends past university.
To help teachers and students find universities that offer French-language training or where the French language is prominent, OCOL launched a tool on its website. I hope you find this tool useful. In short, it is an interactive map of Canada that lists the various second-language programs offered across the country.
With this tool, you have access to a lot of information: second-language programs or programs available in both languages, courses taught in the second language, the support available, the opportunities for networking and the exchange programs where students can study in their second language.
In some public schools—in international education programs for example—teachers make reference to their colleagues’ curriculum when teaching their own subjects. This enables students to make their own links between subjects and learn in a more comprehensive manner. Why not do the same thing when learning a second language and use Anglophone and Francophone cross-references to promote bilingualism among our youth? Of course, education is not under federal jurisdiction. However, as Commissioner of Official Languages in a country that promotes linguistic duality, I can’t help dreaming about an education system where young Canadians learn their second language as soon as they start school.
Integrating the reality of Canada’s linguistic duality in our classrooms: isn’t this a creative and original way to approach learners in a global environment, and provide young Canadians with a head start in the world? With globalization, the job market is more competitive than ever before. Those who find themselves ahead of the curve will speak two, three and even four languages. It’s becoming more of a reality.
You, as educators, need to be at the forefront of language training. Society needs innovative ways to keep students interested in learning a language. Earlier, I briefly mentioned cross-cultural references and new media. That requires a fresh look at learning tools and pedagogical resources. This conference is an excellent opportunity to learn about what is being done in education around the world.
You, as educators, have an important role to play in developing Canada as a bilingual, multicultural country. Every day, your example shows how learning languages can enrich your life.
You may think that your efforts go unnoticed and unrecognized. But the reality is very different. I often meet young people who fondly remember the teachers who opened the doors of another world.
I believe that enthusiasm for learning languages can be contagious. I also believe that learning languages is about more than memorizing verbs; it’s about establishing a dialogue with our fellow Canadians.
As teachers, you make language come alive for your students, if they see it as a fun way to dip into a brand new culture and a brand new world.
Many of you experience newcomers to Canada firsthand in your classrooms. As a result, you face the additional challenge of playing a part in welcoming these representatives of different cultures. For these children and their families, the school environment is what links them to the culture of their new host society. Their cultural differences are reflected in our lives, our schools and our communities.
An appreciation of diversity leads people from every continent who speak different languages to live together peacefully. On that point, let’s recall that diversity, an established fact, can be a stabilizing factor only if there are bridges between different cultures, and if a dialogue is established. This is why the work of language-teaching professionals is so important. Your contribution is at the very heart of democracy and stability for society.
We have made a lot of progress in recent years. I would like to highlight the dedicated efforts of our educators and, particularly, our French-as-a-second-language teachers. You have been catalysts for the advances we have seen in second-language training. You are more than teachers, you are mentors in the lives of our youth, and you play an important role in promoting values of linguistic duality. On behalf of Canada, I would like to thank you—educators and parents—for your contribution, every day, in promoting linguistic duality.
Educators and teaching institutions have a central role in the promotion of linguistic duality and in welcoming diversity. We have to prepare our youth so that they can survive and thrive in a global context. They must not only have the technological skills to meet the growing requirements, but also be bilingual—or multilingual—and be familiar with other cultures, understand our changing world and be able to adapt. In the age of globalization, to ensure the vitality of our official languages, educators take on a new mission: integrate Canada’s linguistic duality in the lives of our youth today to prepare them for the increasingly multicultural world of tomorrow.