Notes for an address at the Canadian Parents for French Ontario Symposium

Parents as Partners in Program Enrichment

Toronto, Ontario, October 24, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Thank you, Mary, for that introduction, and thank you, Betty.

Just a word about Mary: she is a force of nature—deeply well informed, determined and persistent. I think of her as a model for community activism: dedicated, knowledgeable, energetic and effective.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.

It is a special pleasure to speak to Canadian Parents for French, because I feel that I am speaking not simply as Commissioner of Official Languages, but also as a parent and grandparent of immersion students.

It has now been half a century since a group of 12 parents formed the St-Lambert Bilingual Study Group and brought the help of Wallace Lambert and the researchers at McGill. That alliance of innovative parents and academics resulted in the experiment that proved to be so successful. I have had the opportunity to meet both a teacher and a student who participated in the experiment. The teacher, now retired, still glows with the excitement she felt in being involved in the project. The student is a successful litigator practising law in Montréal, moving effortlessly from one language to another.

The students in that experiment—and in the ongoing immersion system in Quebec—have an advantage that immersion students in the rest of the country do not have. They hear the language spoken every day, not just in the classroom, but on the way to and from school, and on the weekends. For most immersion students outside Quebec, French is only the language of the classroom. The language of the rest of their world is usually English and sometimes a third language.

Let me go through some of the myths and misconceptions that we have all heard over the years about immersion.

  1. It is an elite system for the upper middle class that excludes children with learning disabilities and the children of immigrants.

First of all, it is striking how the idea of an educational system that promotes excellence is denounced as elitist when it deals with language, but is encouraged when it deals with sports, mathematics, science or computer technology. Secondly, immersion programs have been limited by funding caps and suspicious school boards, rather than by exclusivity. Thirdly, there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in this: whenever a child shows any sign of a learning disability, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the language of instruction, the principal, the teacher and the school psychologist all put pressure on the parents to take the child out of immersion. It takes a brave and stubborn parent to resist that pressure. Yet studies show that immersion is perfectly appropriate for children with learning disabilities.

  1. Immersion should produce students with native-speaker fluency, but it doesn’t. Instead, it produces a kind of immersion patois.

This idea that immersion should produce students with the fluency of native speakers reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of language learning. To begin with, in a class with 24 students and one teacher, a young person is going to hear a lot more French spoken with an English accent rather than the accent of a native speaker—assuming that the teacher is a mother-tongue Francophone. Even the most confident immersion students are often intimidated when they visit France or Quebec. Many speak a version of French that is heavily influenced by English grammar and syntax.

I have some knowledge of this; my older son did all of his primary education in French in Québec City before we moved to Ottawa, when he entered immersion. He was disdainful, if not downright contemptuous, of the French spoken by his classmates. While I could understand this at the time, I have been struck, in the years that have followed, by how many of those former classmates now live in Paris or Montréal, or are executives in the federal public service, where knowledge of both languages is a requirement. Immersion provided them with a critical building block in their path toward language fluency.

  1. Immersion is unfair to immigrant children.

On the contrary, immersion is invaluable for many immigrant children. I have met young people whose first language was Ukrainian or Swahili and who thrived in immersion, picking up English at the same time. Their ears and their minds were open and adaptable. And learning a third language is much easier than learning a second language.

  1. Immersion is a threat to our minority-language school systems.

This was a widespread belief 15 or 20 years ago, when there were indications that some provinces took the money from Ottawa for minority-language schools and channelled it to immersion. That sense of suspicion and distrust has dissipated, and there is a much greater recognition that the two systems have different roles to play, although they do have some common interests. It makes sense for immersion schools and minority schools to sponsor cultural events, travelling performers, films and book fairs. I have attended a number of performances of the Théâtre français at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, where it was clear that both Franco-Ontarian schools and immersion schools were taking advantage of the opportunity for their students to enjoy French theatre.

  1. Learning French is useful for diplomats and would-be prime ministers, but an unnecessary frill for everyone else.

In fact, learning French actually changes the brain. Studies have shown that learning a second language reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. It also makes young people more aware of other cultures, more adaptable, less rigid in their thinking. International companies and organizations often seek out Canadians because of their reputation for cultural awareness and sensitivity. And, in the federal public service, where thousands of employees have the right to work in the official language of their choice, language fluency is a leadership skill, essential for managing employees who have a right to work in either language.

  1. Our students should be learning Mandarin, not French.

There is often this misconception that learning French involves turning inward rather than outward to the world. On the contrary, bilingualism is a bridge, not a barrier. On the basis of my knowledge of the experiences of the children of my friends and the friends of my children, I can literally name young people who have worked in solar power projects in India and learned Hindi, worked on water projects in Vietnam and learned Vietnamese, studied in China and learned Chinese, taught English in Japan and learned Japanese, worked on development projects in Central America and learned Spanish, spent some time  in Berlin and learned German, and in Istanbul and learned Turkish. They all learned Canada’s other official language first! Learning French or English demystified language learning.

I spoke earlier this morning about Matthew Hayday’s remarkable book, which describes the early years of Canadian Parents for French and how a grassroots, parent-driven organization with no ulterior motive but the benefit of their members’ children was able to change public policy.

That story has not ended. The challenge continues. Canadian Parents for French continues to do remarkable work, year after year, with each generation of students, parents and teachers.

Congratulations to you all and thank you for the excellent work that you do.

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