Notes for an appearance before the Standing Senate Committee on Official Languages concerning best practices for language policies and second-language learning in a context of linguistic duality or plurality
Ottawa, Ontario, May 11, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
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Beginning of dialog
Madam Chair, members of the Committee, good evening.
I am pleased to appear before the Committee today to talk about best practices for language policies and second-language learning in a context of linguistic duality or plurality. This issue has been of concern to me since the beginning of my mandate, and I would like to thank you for consulting me about it.
As you know, I tabled my annual report last week, and I would be pleased to answer any questions on that topic, as well.
We live in a competitive, knowledge-based world in which language skills are a definite economic advantage. Proficiency in English and French—our two official languages—is therefore even more relevant. Canadians are renowned for their language skills. Thus, it goes without saying that investing in the learning of our official languages means investing in Canada’s competitiveness, both domestically and internationally.
Many young Canadians who are currently working abroad started by learning our two official languages. Learning Canada’s two official languages can be a stepping stone not only toward bilingualism, but also toward multilingualism.
In that context, a true continuum of options for learning our official languages, from early childhood education to post-secondary studies, would strengthen Canada’s linguistic duality as a fundamental value and open up a world of opportunities for young Canadians.
There are many programs that promote second-language learning, and they vary from province to province. One thing is certain—the success of our immersion programs is limited only by the resources that governments decide to allocate to them. French immersion has been one of the most successful educational experiments in Canadian history. It has been praised as the most popular language program ever recorded in professional language-teaching literature. Next year we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first immersion program, which was launched in Saint‑Lambert, Quebec, by Professor Wallace Lambert.
There are still hurdles to be overcome, however, in order to improve fluency in our two official languages among young Canadians and newcomers. Here are some examples:
- There are far fewer immersion programs at the university level than there are at the elementary and high school levels. Young people sometimes have to give up their studies in their second language when they go to university.
- Many parents who want to enrol their children in French immersion programs cannot do so for want of space or funding.
- Caps, overnight line-ups and lottery systems continue to undermine enrolment in second-language programs in many regions of the country.
That said, thousands of graduates of second-language programs have gone on to use the skills they have learned to become functionally bilingual. Immersion program graduates also want their children to go through the immersion system. In addition, many newcomers have expressed a strong sense of belonging to Canada simply because their children have learned both official languages. But to integrate fully into their new communities, newcomers must have access to resources that will also allow them to learn or improve their second language. By encouraging immigrants and their children to learn both official languages, and by providing better support to allophone parents interested in these programs, we will be helping them to integrate smoothly into Canadian society.
The federal government must show leadership and engage the provinces in creating a true second-language learning continuum from early childhood education to post-secondary studies—reinforced by summer programs and exchanges—and then into the workplace. Providing learning opportunities throughout this continuum is by far the best way to promote becoming fluent in a new language. In recent studies and annual reports, I have made specific recommendations to promote second-language learning and to increase the number of Canadians who speak our two official languages. I would like to reiterate those recommendations here:
- I recommend taking the necessary measures to double the number of young Canadians who participate each year in short- and long-term language exchanges at the high-school and post-secondary levels.Footnote 1 It would be an exemplary way of marking Canada's 150th birthday.
- I recommend working together with provincial and territorial governments as well as post-secondary institutions to increase the number of programs in which students can take courses in their second official language.Footnote 1
- I also recommend providing financial assistance to universities to develop and implement new initiatives to improve second-language learning opportunities for students.Footnote 2
On that point, Madam Chair, I will conclude my remarks. I thank you for your attention and would be pleased to answer any questions you or your colleagues may have.
- Footnote 1
Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2011–2012, 2012.
- Footnote 2
Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Two Languages, a World of Opportunities: Second-language learning in Canada’s universities, 2009.