Archived - Notes for an address at the Canadian Parents for French Ontario Provincial Conference
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Toronto, October 29, 2011
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
I am very pleased to be here with you today as part of your provincial conference, and I would like to thank Canadian Parents for French for inviting me to speak to you. As parents, educators and partners in teaching French as a second language, you are on the front lines of education, and you set the tone when it comes to official languages at school and at home. You are the ones who get to see linguistic duality in action.
This is a subject I am passionate about—a subject that it is central to my role as Commissioner of Official Languages.
I firmly believe that you are pivotal players in promoting linguistic duality. You are not only parental activists, you are witnesses and researchers. We depend on you – to tell what is really happening in classrooms, in schools and school boards. You are not just passing on your knowledge to the younger generation, you are passing on your values—and linguistic duality is a fundamental Canadian value. You are the ones who are instilling in young Canadians a desire to learn and to teach those values.
The world is moving at an increasingly dizzying pace, and education has to keep up. To better prepare our young people for the future, it is essential to teach them how to adapt quickly to changes and to be versatile.
Let me clarify what I mean by the term “versatile.” We need to give young Canadians a global perspective on current trends in social, political, economic, ecological and linguistic issues. We also need to foster their cultural enrichment through knowledge of other languages and other ways of thinking. We need to encourage openness to international understanding in a spirit of tolerance, respect and discovery.
As educators and parents—and as adults who are trying to adapt to the new rules that define the world today—we are facing a considerable challenge. But for young Canadians, who live in a country with two official languages, the adventure has already begun.
How can we give our young people the opportunities they need to succeed in a world that is continually changing? One way is to give them the tools to help them decipher the constant flow of information. It is a question of global competitiveness. It is what we need to give our young people and, to be honest, it is what we, as parents and educators, need to learn along with our children.
There is always more to learn. And learning a language is a life-long journey. I have great memories of my own journey to becoming a bilingual Canadian.
When I was a child, there were no French-as-a-second-language programs—no core French, no intensive French, no French immersion. So I didn’t have the opportunities that today’s generation has. It was only when I was a student at the University of Toronto that I really became interested in French culture and language. I had the chance to see Gilles Vigneault in concert at the time and, although I couldn’t understand the words, I really enjoyed the performance. He struck a chord with me.
Gilles Vigneault is one of Québec’s greatest poets and singer-songwriters. He is now 83 years old and he is still writing! He was in Montréal a few weeks ago, performing on the same stage as he had 50 years ago. Through his work, he has become an icon for the province and for this country.
My experience learning French was not always easy. When I was still in university, I chose to spend a summer working at an archaeological dig near Montréal in order to improve my French. At first, I hardly understood anything. I felt a bit stupid; I didn’t get the jokes. But by the end of the summer, I was conversing with my co-workers, I was laughing with them, I was having fun and I was really understanding the culture.
That is when my learning experience really began, because it continues to this day. It is important for you to remember that you do not stop learning a language at the end of Grade 12. To maintain your skills, you have to practise and use what you have learned.
I think that here, in Toronto, it is easy to appreciate the importance of linguistic duality. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city, and the Toronto District School Board is the largest school board in the country, with more than 240,000 elementary and high-school students. The sheer number of languages spoken in Toronto brings home the importance of being fluent in both of our official languages. Bilingualism is a stepping stone to multilingualism. If you know English and French, you have an advantage—not only here at home, but also all over the world.
Across all language communities, people are increasingly interested in knowing what’s happening on the other side of the fence. Social media are the driving force behind this trend because they influence how our young people view the world and process information, whether in English or in French. Canada’s French-speaking communities have a lot to offer, and the ties between the two official language communities can be beneficial for both English- and French-speaking learners. Young Canadians are already talking to each other via virtual communities like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, discussing what seems like everything under the sun. As parents, why not encourage them to reach out to official language communities? As teachers, why not organize guided discussions in a school setting?
In Toronto, nearly 4,000 students are registered in French-as-a-second-language programs, and French-language schools are showing healthy enrolment numbers. It is even possible to pursue a post-secondary education, either partially or entirely in French, without leaving the province. Glendon College at York University has been offering programs in both English and French for many years. For those who want to study elsewhere in the province, the University of Ottawa is officially bilingual; you can study there in English, in French or in both languages. Carleton University offers a French program adapted to the needs of immersion students, and the University of Western Ontario offers business and law programs in French as a second language.
These are only a few examples. There are many others in Ontario, in Quebec, and throughout the country.
To help students find these post-secondary institutions, my office recently launched a very useful tool on our website: an interactive map of Canada that shows where second-language programs are offered across the country. This tool provides a myriad of information: second-language programs or programs available in both languages, courses taught in the second language, the kind of support available, networking opportunities and exchange programs where students can study in their second official language.
I would now like to take a few minutes to explain why I believe that linguistic duality is so important in education.
Studies have shown that people who speak two languages literally have a different brain structure. According to Ellen Bialystok,1 a psychologist at York University, being bilingual allows the brain to create additional cognitive networks that make people less susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease later in life. 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.
Bilingual children also contribute to the linguistic and cultural diversity of our country. Being able to speak two languages is often the first step towards learning a third. 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 language groups get along with one another and recognize the importance of the other 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 Canada has to offer.
Toronto’s large Francophone community is a very important resource for you as parents and educators. Even this conference is a great forum to meet and connect with Francophones and francophiles from the region. I also urge you to encourage your children and your students to build friendships and establish ties with young Francophones from other schools. Language skills, once acquired, need to be maintained. A lot of energy is invested in learning a language, but you have to keep speaking it to stay fluent. As the old saying goes, “Use it or lose it!”
Finally, it is important to remember that learning both of our official languages is crucial if you want to participate in the national dialogue, if you want to make a real contribution to Canada’s linguistic duality, and if you want to fully understand our country as a whole.
Knowing both official languages, and knowing other languages as well, will give you a strong competitive edge. Our youth are our future—and they need all of you to guide them.