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Notes for The Quiet Evolution of Language and Culture Relations in Canada
A Tribute to the Work of Professor Wallace Lambert
Montréal, March 17, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
To begin with, let me say what a pleasure it is to be here, and to speak to the extraordinary revolution in language learning that began with Wallace Lambert’s experiment in Saint-Lambert.
We have heard from some of the scholars who have carried on the work that was begun by Dr. Lambert—researchers like Fred Genesee and Sharon Lapkin, who themselves have made remarkable contributions to immersion education and become well-known and admired in the field.
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk about the Saint-Lambert experiment with a woman who taught the first class of immersion students for three years—grades four, five and six. She knew then that the project was succeeding. ”I had a great feeling of working for a successful project” she told me. She remembered the parents’ enthusiasm, the teachers’ pride, and the researchers’ commitment. “Collaboration with McGill was extraordinary.” All of this was happening in a very particular context. “It was a remarkable period in Montréal: Expo ’67 was just across the river from Saint-Lambert, and optimism was in the air. The economy was good and parents had a sense of innovation—those were very positive conditions.”Footnote 1
Forty-five years later, one of her former pupils is a prominent lawyer in Montréal who practises in both languages, and as proof of the impact of the experiment, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, James Moore, is a product of immersion in British Columbia.
Minister Moore’s family is an example of what it takes to keep an immersion system in operation. His mother fought to bring immersion to the British Columbia town where she was teaching. His sister is a French immersion teacher. And just over a year ago, I met his father, who proudly told me that he had participated in the exercise of staying up all night, with different members of the family taking shifts, so that his granddaughter could be enrolled in a French immersion program.
I had conflicting emotions when I heard that story. On the one hand, the level of commitment—that a family would organize itself in shifts around the clock, waiting in line outside the school board office—was inspiring. On the other hand, the fact that this is still necessary, four decades after Wallace Lambert’s wildly successful experiment, is cause for concern.
But let’s go back to the beginning of the Saint-Lambert experiment.
As Fred Genesee has reminded us, the development of an immersion program occurred not because of some elitist theory that was tested on unsuspecting children. It happened because parents wanted it to happen. They knew that the traditional way of learning French had not worked for them, and they wanted something better for their children.
Twelve parents from the South Shore suburb began to meet, and formed the St. Lambert Bilingual School Study Group. They sought out Wallace Lambert and renowned neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute.
“The parents felt their children were being short-changed and should have the opportunity to become ‘bilingual’ within the school system, since it was so difficult to achieve this skill outside of school,” recalled one of the parents, almost a decade later.Footnote 2
As Dr. Genesee put it, “These parents felt that their lack of competence in French contributed to, and indeed was attributable in part to the two solitudes which effectively prevented them from learning French informally from their French‑speaking neighbours. Their inability to communicate in French, they felt, was also attributable to inadequate methods of second-language instruction in the English schools.”Footnote 3
Let’s think back to the mood in Quebec in 1965. The Quiet Revolution was well underway. The FLQ had set off bombs three years earlier. Pierre Bourgault was attracting large crowds to meetings of the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale. The English community was feeling uneasy and confused; the unwritten rules that had been in place for over a century—which meant that, to succeed in life, Anglophones did not have to learn French but Francophones had to learn English—were breaking down. Members of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism had been shouted down at heated meetings in Quebec City and Sherbrooke in 1964, and had produced a preliminary report in 1965 saying that Canada was passing through the greatest crisis in its history.
For a dozen parents in a South Shore suburb to seek out academic experts like Wallace Lambert and Wilder Penfield to figure out a way to make sure that their children would learn to speak French better than they could was an act of citizenship of the highest order. In its own way, it was a statement of their commitment to living in Quebec as a minority. It was their echo of what Frank Scott expressed in reaction to being told at a meeting in Sherbrooke that the English community should pack up and leave, the sooner the better: “J’y suis, j’y reste.”Footnote 4 These parents were not going anywhere—this was their home, and they were determined to make it a better place for their children. Le Québec, nous y sommes, nous y restons.
I do not need to describe how successful the experiment was, nor how widely it has been adopted elsewhere. You have other speakers who are much more qualified than I who can do this. But I think there are some key elements in the Saint-Lambert experiment that should be highlighted. To begin with, it was a project driven by parents, rather than by academics, teachers or administrators.
Parental support has been critical to the success of immersion. In fact, without parental support—indeed, insistence—immersion programs would gradually erode. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, parents showed great inventiveness . . . and perseverance. Indeed, parents have lobbied for immersion, sat up all night for it, recruited teachers for it and demonstrated for it. School boards and governments have resented it and resisted it. It took massive demonstrations by parents in New Brunswick to force the New Brunswick government to back down from its plan to undermine immersion.
Another aspect that must be remembered is that the students in Saint-Lambert were part of a minority, embarking on an experiment to learn the language of the majority. But while French was the language of Quebec, Doug Mitchell remembers that it was not the language of Saint-Lambert. “I don’t remember ever, ever, ever speaking French in Saint-Lambert or hearing French,” he told me. “The Mayor was our neighbour, and I don’t think he spoke any French. Quebec hadn’t changed by then. Quebec only began to change after the Parti Québécois was elected [in 1976], which makes the success [of the immersion experiment] even more dramatic.”
Now, of course, it is much easier for students in French immersion schools in Quebec: hiring teachers whose mother tongue is French is easy; practising French by stopping in a store on the way home from school is natural; subscribing to a French daily newspaper is not a problem.
For immersion is much more than academic courses; it goes beyond school walls. It is a holistic experience, and the degree of immersion of the learner has an impact on its success; in other words, a student’s success depends on his or her experience as a whole, in terms of both academic curriculum and cultural exposure. The parents of the students in Saint-Lambert knew that life in Quebec was lived in French, and they wanted their children to be able to understand that life and participate in it.
I say this because those conditions are not easily accessible in the rest of Canada. In the rest of Canada, it is difficult for students to hear French spoken outside the classroom. It is difficult to find teachers whose mother tongue is French. To many Canadians, French is still an obscure concept, and its value in their daily lives and activities has yet to be demonstrated—out of sight, out of mind. Efforts to justify the relevance of and explain the motivation behind any initiative to introduce second-language French programs to unilingual Anglophone parents who are not touched—in any way, shape or form—by French Canadian realities result in a debate that unfolds again and again.
For a moment, I am now going to speak to you as a parent rather than as Commissioner. All of my older son’s elementary education took place in French schools in Quebec City, and when we moved to Ottawa, he entered Grade 7 in an immersion program. After having spent six years in French schools, he was appalled at the quality of French spoken by his immersion classmates.
I could understand this: most of the French his classmates had heard was being spoken by their English-speaking friends. But I can’t help noticing how many of those former classmates are now, two decades later, living in Montréal or Paris, or rising in the federal public service in bilingual-imperative positions.
My younger son, who is a musician, spent more time in immersion than his older brother, and now often finds himself translating for the French-speaking musicians he is playing with.
It has now been 46 years since Wallace Lambert’s experiment and, unfortunately, there are still myths regarding immersion that must be dispelled. It is clear—as demonstrated by study after study by the people at this conference—that immersion students do not lose their English. My own experience, and my personal observation as a parent and grandparent of immersion students, is that learning a second language makes you more attuned to the nuances in your own language.
New myths have emerged that also need to be challenged. Newcomers to this country should be encouraged to send their children to immersion, rather than discouraged from doing so. Dissuasion often comes from misinformed educators who perpetuate the myth that French immersion is too hard for allophones and will lead to linguistic confusion. Many allophone parents who enquired about French immersion programs were advised by teachers and principals to reconsider and choose the core English program.Footnote 5 The main reason given was to prevent the potential mixing up of languages. But allophone parents who have registered their children in immersion programs—despite educators’ concerns—have said that not only do their children not mix up the languages, they end up being more proficient in their own language, and now speak two or even three languages without confusing them. Most parents who chose immersion for their children are satisfied with their decision and with the programs offered.
I recently met a law student from Toronto who told me that she is now studying in English for the first time. Her parents had come from Bosnia 20 years ago and, even though they spoke little English, placed her in French immersion. She proudly told me that she had gone all through elementary and high school in immersion, had majored in Spanish at Glendon College—York University’s bilingual college—had taken some common law courses in French at the University of Ottawa, and is now at the University of Toronto’s law school. She speaks Serbo-Croat, English, French and Spanish . . . and is learning the language of the law.
Another myth that needs to be dispelled is the belief that immersion programs are exclusively for the elite, the straight-A students or native English speakers. Children who have any kind of learning disorder are often excluded from immersion programs for fear of compounding the problem. Learning disabilities are not more easily overcome if a child is removed from an immersion program. For example, children with executive functioning disorder have difficulty expressing what they know, communicating details in an organized fashion, and telling a story in the right sequence. This has nothing to do with language in and of itself; yet, when a child is diagnosed with this 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. The result has been that children with any kind of problem have been systematically weeded out of the immersion stream and placed in the English stream.
Then the school or the school board or the Ministry of Education—or even the local newspaper—complains that immersion is elitist.
As Dr. Genesee points out in his review of research evidence,Footnote 6 students having trouble in immersion should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis—if a child is unhappy in immersion and experiencing difficulties in learning, then the potential success of that learning path may be uncertain. However, if a child is happy in immersion and making progress according to his or her own abilities, despite difficulty, immersion should not be blamed for learning problems that would have been there regardless of the immersion program. The well-being of the child should come first, and parents all agree—every child is different, learning in his or her own way, and at his or her own pace. Immersion or not, children who are happy and challenged make much better learners than those who are overwhelmed and unhappy.
Ensuring that immersion students have contact with French-language culture remains a significant challenge, however. I have been told that immersion teachers sometimes lack confidence in their own mastery of the language and are reluctant to reach out to French-language minority schools to propose joint activities. As well, some French-language minority schools are worried that any contact with immersion classes will result in everyone speaking English.
There have been some unintended consequences from the success of immersion as well.
In the eyes of some parents, teachers and schools, immersion has undermined the value of core French. It has attracted many of the best teachers and it has created another myth: that unless someone goes to immersion, it is impossible to learn French. This is simply not the case.
Let me conclude by telling you some good news. The best immersion system in the country, outside of Quebec, is in Edmonton. This is not just happenstance.
After seeing a decline in immersion enrolment about 10 years ago, the Edmonton Public School Board conducted an analysis of what was needed to provide quality second-language education. It identified 14 criteria, including support from parents, the principal and the school board; financial investment in the program; and competent, enthusiastic teachers who were given professional development support. The Board then took measures to ensure those criteria were met. The effect on teachers, the quality of the teaching and the retention of students was almost immediate. It is a model for the country.
Today’s English-speaking communities in Quebec find themselves in a position where uncertainty and insecurity are less present in their social fabric. Through the creation of French immersion programs, and through their support of and commitment to them, Quebec’s English-speaking communities have shown not only their willingness but their determination to be an important and integral part of Quebec society, ready to participate in the language of the majority, while retaining pride in their own language, heritage and institutions.
Quebec has the highest proportion of bilingual people in Canada: in the 2006 census, more than one third of Francophones (36%) and two thirds of Anglophones (69%) in the province reported that they speak English and French. Among English-speaking Quebecers aged 18 to 34, this percentage reached nearly 80%. In the past 40 years, no other Canadian community has increased its ability to speak a second official language as much as Quebec’s English-speaking communities.Footnote 7 Without a doubt, this is partially the result of Wallace Lambert’s legacy.
As a consequence, young English-speaking Quebecers have become bilingual and biliterate. They want and are able to stay in Quebec and contribute to the development of Quebec society, while preserving their cultural heritage and identity.
But second-language learning should not be exclusive to English-speaking Canadians wanting to learn French. Just as Anglophones outside of Quebec often lack a French socio-cultural context to support their school immersion programs, Francophones in Quebec wanting to learn English as a second language lack the same level of classroom opportunity. English is taught as a normal part of the formal program, recently from first grade, and some schools offer English intensive programs. It has been argued that Quebec’s geographical situation—bordered by English-speaking provinces and the United States, with exposure to predominantly English culture, television and music—gives French-speaking Canadians a degree of Anglophone contact equivalent to “English immersion.” As more and more Francophones become bilingual without threatening their “full mastery of French,” and more Anglophones become bilingual without denying their identity and cultural heritage, we approach the ideal model of well-integrated linguistic duality in Canada.
Francophones value bilingualism and are well aware of its importance to be able to function successfully in this day and age. According to a recent La Presse-Angus Reid study, 84% of Quebecers believe it is important to master English. As you have probably read in the news in the past few weeks, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has announced that his government will focus on improving French-speaking Quebecers' skills in Canada’s other official language by proposing a semester of intensive English for Grade 6 students in French-language schools. Mr. Charest dismissed the myth before his detractors could even mention it, by stating that "full mastery of French does not preclude knowledge of a second or a third language."Footnote 8
The proposed change is set to be phased in over five years, and would enlist the help of the province's English school system. This announcement from the Quebec government was welcomed by the majority, and I see this as a symbolic gesture of openness to second-language learning. Of course, it cannot be said that there is consensus on this sensitive issue. On one side, there are a few people, like researcher Christian Dufour, who think that this government measure is nothing less than a ”threat to the identity of Quebecers.” On the other side is sociologist and historian Gérard Bouchard, who claims that turning our backs on English would be “criminal.” Of course, this term is a bit radical, but it was meant to be bold. With this statement, Bouchard’s intention is to draw attention to the fact that Quebec is facing two unavoidable responsibilities: to promote the French language AND encourage learning English as a second language. One does not preclude the other. In my view, his message is one of balance. But who is left in the middle? The parents—a large majority of them, according to polls—who think that their children have a much better chance at succeeding in life if they are bilingual.Footnote 9 Of course, success can be determined by many factors. Being able to earn a decent living is certainly one of them. According to a 2005 Université de Montréal study based on 2001 statistics, bilingual Francophones make up to 50% more money than their unilingual neighbours, depending on age and education.Footnote 10
Having a better understanding of and openness to the world around us also plays a major role in what can be defined as success in life. No wonder Quebec parents want their children to be bilingual—it provides better opportunities, better understanding, and better quality of life, without challenging their linguistic identity. Canadians of both linguistic backgrounds are well aware that knowledge of the other official language is a tool, not a threat. Knowledge should never be seen as a threat. Scientia potentia est. Knowledge is power. This Latin maxim definitely applies to the knowledge of languages. Saint-Lambert parents knew that; James Moore’s family knows that; immigrant allophone parents know that; and we are all gathered here today because we all know that. Wallace Lambert’s legacy is certainly one of a thirst for knowledge, interwoven in the fabric of our Canadian linguistic identity.
Obviously, immersion is not perfect. It is not a magic wand. But it has been extraordinarily successful. In a few years, we will be discussing issues and successes with regard to the intensive English program in Quebec French-language schools, and I suspect that it will be praised by immersion’s biggest supporters: parents who are at the front lines when it comes to fighting for what is best for their children’s futures. Four decades after Wallace Lambert’s experiment, immersion is still going strong, and continues to challenge how Canadian families define their linguistic identities.
Without Wallace Lambert’s pioneering work, we would not be where we are today. But we still have lessons to learn from his critical experiment. And we still have a lot of work to do.
- Footnote 1
Conversation with Ginette Munson on March 11, 2011.
- Footnote 2
O. Melikoff, “Parents as change agents in education. The St. Lambert experiment,” in E. E. Lambert and G. R. Tucker, eds., Bilingual Education of Children: The St. Lambert Experiment (Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1972), p. 220.
- Footnote 3
Fred Genesee, Learning Through Two Languages: Studies of Immersion and Bilingual Education (Cambridge, MA: Newbury House Publishers, 1987), p. 9.
- Footnote 4
Quoted in Graham Fraser, Sorry, I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won’t Go Away (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006), p. 56.
- Footnote 5
Canadian Parents for French, The State of French-Second-Language Education in Canada 2010 – Executive Summary (Ottawa, 2010), p. 6.
- Footnote 6
Fred Genesee, “French Immersion and At-Risk Students: A Review of Research Findings,” Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, pp. 655-688.
- Footnote 7
Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2008–2009 (Ottawa, 2009), p. 46.
- Footnote 8
Government of Quebec, Un plan pour le Québec – L’éducation et l’emploi au cœur du développement économique du Québec, press release issued February 23, 2011.
- Footnote 9
Claude Picher, “Une nation de futurs petits salariés,” La Presse, March 1, 2011.
- Footnote 10