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The Potential of Immersion in Canada
Ottawa, February 10, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
It’s a pleasure for me to be the closing speaker at this international forum. The discussions we had today have led me to the conclusion that language immersion at the university level has immense potential and can play a key role in creating a knowledge society, whether in Canada, elsewhere in North America or in Europe.
Speaking at least two languages is a valuable professional asset, but it is also a key to international harmony. Language skills are increasingly being sought on the labour market, in the academic world and in politics. Bilingualism also leads to respect, tolerance, non-discrimination and open-mindedness. Mastering another language makes us humanists—as one study here in Canada is demonstratingFootnote 1—and contributes to building a society that is open to the world. This is vital in a world in which technology reigns supreme, yet we sometimes seem to ignore the importance of communicating with one another.
Immersion at the university level gives students from elementary and secondary French immersion programs a special opportunity to continue along the path they have begun. As I have often said in my time as Commissioner: “
Use it or lose it.” As with any skill you acquire in life, you have to practise it if you want to maintain it. It strikes me as very odd that we would stop the language learning process at the very moment when professional training begins. Yet many students, who have been “
learning to learn” in both English and French, are now asking themselves, as they embark on a university program, whether to continue in English, in French or in both languages.
Of Canada’s 34 million inhabitants, just over 5 million speak both official languages. That is not very many, compared to the situation in Europe, for example. People in other countries are sometimes surprised that a country like Canada that calls itself “
bilingual” has such a low rate of bilingualism. Early in my mandate, I met a young person from India who was astonished at this situation. “
Really?” she said. “
I find it unbelievable that there are so few bilingual Canadians. You only have two languages, and they both use the same alphabet!” For those who don’t know, the Indian constitution recognizes 23 languages.Footnote 2
It’s true that enrolling in a bilingual program requires effort and courage. As Marc Gobeil explained to us, students may fear that they will not grasp the subject matter as well, that they will have to make an extra effort when studying and writing assignments, and therefore risk getting a lower mark, which may compromise scholarships or admission to other universities for graduate work. They have to work twice as hard, and that is why bilingual and immersion university programs often attract the most ambitious students.
It is important for universities to support students who choose an immersion program. This morning Mr. Gobeil told us that, at the University of Ottawa, it is possible to receive qualitative instead of letter grades for certain courses taken in French. Since qualitative grades have no impact on a student’s overall average, immersion students continue to be eligible for scholarships that are based on marks. This is a real advantage; it encourages students to enroll in an immersion program while reducing their risk of being penalized for attempting the double challenge of undertaking university-level studies while perfecting their second language.
The immersion programs at the universities mentioned this morning (Ottawa, the Saint-Jean Campus of the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser, Georgetown, Fribourg and universities in Finland) will attract the most ambitious students. For example, according to a master’s paper on the armed forces in five bilingual countries, there is a military regiment in Finland that operates in Swedish only. Since this is an elite regiment, there is a lot of competition to get in among soldiers whose mother tongue is Finnish.
A further challenge is that of running immersion programs in a majority language environment. Very often, French immersion programs take place “
out of context,” that is, in a majority Anglophone university or city in which the teacher is the only person whose mother tongue is French. Thus, the students are learning their second language in a vacuum. As soon as they leave the classroom, they find themselves in an environment where they hear their mother tongue everywhere. This situation may give rise to a discrepancy between the second language as it is learned and the second language as it is actually spoken in communities in which French is predominant. The language the students thought they were learning is not exactly the language they are speaking. Often the curriculum for French as a second language is not the curriculum taught in French-language schools but rather a translation of the curriculum used in English-language schools.
This is why students need extra opportunities for immersion in their second language. It is up to the universities to find them summer jobs or a language practicum, or have them spend a school year in a French-speaking environment. The gap must be bridged. In Europe, the Erasmus program allows students to finish their education elsewhere in Europe and to learn another language and another culture; they thus experience total immersion, and the artificiality of the second language as it is spoken in the classroom ceases to be a problem. This is an issue I plan to tackle in my next annual report, in the fall.
The prestige associated with university immersion programs is an important motivating factor, for the programs are aimed at the best students, those who wish to stand out. This is confirmed by the success of the Erasmus program in Europe. The students who participate in the program are much sought after on the international labour market. At the university level, it has been suggested that students who have taken part in the Erasmus program will play a key role in creating a pan-European identity. For example, political scientist Stefan Wolff, speaking about what he calls the “
Erasmus generation,” says the following: “
Give it 15, 20 or 25 years, and Europe will be run by leaders with a completely different socialization from those of today.Footnote 3”
Immersion is something that goes beyond courses and beyond the confines of the campus. It is an all-inclusive experience, and the degree of immersion affects its success. Whether an immersion student succeeds depends on his or her overall experience, the program of study and contact with the culture. To properly understand the importance of multilingualism and multiculturalism in today’s world, you have to leave home. And that is exactly what the Erasmus program does for Europeans. Why not have a similar program in North American universities?
Around the world, there is a growing awareness of the importance of not merely teaching the second language, but rather teaching in the second language. When you start university training for a particular field, you need to learn the language of that field. Every subject has its own vernacular. University immersion allows students to learn the language of their field in both their mother tongue and their second language.
A couple of years ago, the Office of the Commissioner published a study on second-language learning in Canada’s universities and a useful map of Canada that shows which universities offer second-language programs. The interactive map shows courses taught in the second language, learning supports offered, networking opportunities and exchange programs involving the use of the second official language. The study and map are available on our website.
A number of universities are thinking about how to take full advantage of their language capabilities. At Dalhousie University, it was found that half the professors in the public administration program were able to teach in French. The University of Windsor, the University of Montréal and the Glendon Campus at York University also offer bilingual programs or, in the case of the University of Montréal, trilingual programs. I don’t know whether it’s a result of the Office of the Commissioner’s study or the messages we regularly convey, but there is a growing recognition of the need for bilingual employees, in the public service and in national or international companies like Air Canada, Bell Canada and Rogers. Language skills are particularly important in today’s challenging economy.
Canada’s university immersion programs are not just for Anglophones who want to learn French. There is also interest on the part of Francophones who want to learn or improve their English as well as speakers of third languages who want to learn both English and French.
It is claimed that the geographical location of Quebec, surrounded by English-speaking provinces and the U.S., along with the influence of predominantly English-language culture, television and music, mean that French-speaking Canadians already have a degree of contact with Anglophone culture that is equivalent to immersion. Quebec is the province with the largest proportion of bilingual people in Canada. According to the 2006 Census, more than a third (36%) of Francophones in Quebec state that they speak both English and French. The figure is even higher for Quebec Anglophones: 69% are bilingual, and among those aged 18 to 34, it is close to 80%. Over the past 40 years, no other group in the country has increased its ability to speak the other official language as much as the English-speaking community in Quebec.
As Francophones become bilingual without losing full proficiency in French, and as Anglophones become bilingual without foregoing their identity and cultural heritage, things move closer to an ideal model of Canadian linguistic duality. University immersion programs allow students not only to become professionals in their fields and gain a better understanding of their country but also to become citizens of the world who can enjoy greater mobility.
This conference gave me a number of ideas and made me ponder various questions. How do we mitigate the stress that students undergoing a cultural shock feel? How do we encourage professors of mandatory subjects to collaborate with language professors? How do we encourage students to use the language of immersion outside the classroom?
The crucial importance of a strong identity and culture, which engenders a feeling of pride in everyone participating in immersion programs, is part of the answer to these questions.
Aline Gohard Radenkovic talked about “
the irresistible growth of English.” [translation] In Switzerland and Finland, English is often thought of as neutral ground between the national languages. In Canada, English is not neutral.
The study by Sylvie Lamoureux, of the University of Ottawa, targeted a representative group of students consisting of 85% women and 15% men. There is a phenomenon of female over-representation in language training and immersion programs. This means, in my opinion, that there is a challenge of representativeness.
Several speakers referred to the divide between the requirements of a program and language learning. We have to bridge this divide.
There is also resistance to bilingualism by the unilingual majority, which can become an administrative obstacle. Marjorie Wesche described this as “
the determined mono-lingualism of the majority community.” [translation] It is a challenge for all of us.
Communication across the language communities is necessary if there is to be a good understanding of Canada’s social and political realities. Last September, the Canadian Journal of Political Science published a study entitled “
Canadian Foreign Policy: A Linguistically Divided Field,”Footnote 4 in which the authors show that work in the field of Canadian foreign policy by French-speaking political scientists suffers discrimination in the sense that it is not known. Earlier this year, Professor Charles Blattberg resigned from the jury for the C.B. Macpherson Prize, which recognizes the best work in political theory. He said: “
I feel like it would be an insult to our francophone colleagues to produce another all-English shortlist and another English winner, particularly when there is only one French submission this year,”Footnote 5 adding that, since 1994, no book in French has ever won the prize or even been short-listed. This is the fourth year with no Francophone member on the jury. As a country, we need to ask serious questions when the knowledge producers of one of our language communities are ignored. For researchers working in foreign policy, being excluded from shaping the way their own field is represented is akin to not existing. The result is a one-sided picture of Canadian society and a certain “
cultural imperialism.” University immersion does not simply improve students’ language skills; it shapes their thinking so that their beliefs are inclusive and non-discriminatory.
Another point to bear in mind is that language skills are leadership skills. When leaders are unilingual, they get singled out unfavourably, as we saw recently with the appointments of a Supreme Court of Canada justice, a new auditor general, and the coach of the Montréal Canadiens. Public expectations about our leaders’ language skills are now higher than ever. During international meetings of the G8 countries, those who come from countries where bilingualism is not valued are increasingly isolated.
As citizens, we must adapt to the new demands of the world we live in. In Canada, the national dialogue takes place in both official languages. While geographical borders are now less of a factor in the global dialogue, that is not the case with language. Tomorrow’s leaders will be multilingual.
National and international exchanges between language communities allow societies to forge special bonds in the fields of science, culture and economics. Students who speak more than one language, whether they come from North America or Europe, are helping to strengthen these bonds and spread multilingualism.
- Footnote 1
Marion Scott, “
Canadians are leaders in cultural intelligence,” The Gazette, January 5, 2012.
- Footnote 2
- Footnote 3
Katrin Bennhold, “April 26, 2005.
- Footnote 4
Jérémie Cornut and Stéphane Roussel, “
Canadian Foreign Policy: A Linguistically Divided Field,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, September 2011.
- Footnote 5
Graeme Hamilton, “
More politics than science,” National Post, January 20, 2012.