Notes for an address at the “One Language, One Culture to Teach! Let’s Talk About It” symposium

Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, December 9, 2015
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages

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Beginning of dialog

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a pleasure to be here in Prince Edward Island. I would like to thank the organizing committee—and especially Gail Lecky—for inviting me.

We are here today because we all strongly believe that linguistic duality is a treasured Canadian value and that knowing both official languages is important to young Canadians who are preparing for their future.

The future of French-speaking communities depends largely on the younger generation and on how they see their future within these communities. For these communities to remain vibrant and dynamic, young Canadians need to have access to a wide range of cultural experiences, whether through activities in school, after school or within the community. They also need to be able to thrive in a Francophone cultural space where everyone can express their identity. The same logic should apply to students in French-second-language programs. This is why we have to find better ways to integrate culture and cultural knowledge into teaching French as a second language in Prince Edward Island.

Access to French-second-language education is essential, but students also need to learn the culture that goes with the language and to be exposed to Francophone cultural products. Of course, this can be difficult, especially in regions where Francophones are in the minority, but it is essential because outside of French-speaking communities, most of the day-to-day communications and cultural products that students are exposed to are in English.

Prince Edward Island has a large number of French immersion schools. Parents are very open not only to sending their children there, but also to learning about Francophone culture. They know that bilingualism is important. More than 17,000 people in this province are bilingual, and PEI ranks second in Canada in the percentage of students registered in French immersion programs.Footnote 1 It is obvious that the Island’s two official language communities have developed close ties, and I am always impressed by it when I come here.

Studying in French fosters the development of personal and collective identity. It also increases awareness of linguistic and cultural references. Students then become more open to the world and develop a sense of belonging to a dynamic national and international Francophone community. Although Canada has two official languages, it does not have an official culture. And Quebec culture is not the same as Acadian culture or Fransaskois culture, just as the cultural references in Toronto are not the same as those in Charlottetown. However, there is no question about the importance of culture—or cultures—in learning a language.

School is where students learn about their identity; it is where they mold it and shape it. This is why it is so important to provide them with information and ideas that reflect the societal values that we want to instill in them. There is an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” Here in Atlantic Canada, and particularly here on the Island, it takes more than a village: it takes a whole community.

It is becoming more and more difficult to establish a connection between language and culture, because the two concepts are no longer automatically linked in the minds of people trying to define themselves in relation to others. Cultural identity is often blurred, and most of the primary cultural references are rooted in the majority language. Here on the Island, as in any region where English-speaking culture is predominant, it is not easy to instill in young Francophones the desire to speak their own language and help them to take ownership of their own cultural identity. This creates a number of challenges and very often results in the gradual erosion of the French language and culture. However, the more cultural references we give to students in the minority language, the more likely it is that they will identify with them, and the more likely it is that the community will continue to be dynamic and relevant.

We need to understand the linguistic reality in which the students live. We need to show them how to live their linguistic duality in the present, not in the past. We need to give them cultural products they can relate to. For some, it could be Radio Radio and Les Hay Babies; for others, Cy, Vishtèn or Alex Nevsky. To be able to envision a future in both official languages, they need to be able to experience the strong emotions that come with adolescence and young adulthood in French as well as in English. To do this, they need to be exposed to literature, plays, movies and music in French. In short, we have to do everything we can to trip their bilingualism trigger—in other words, the “aha” moment when they understand the relevance and value of linguistic duality in their daily lives. This trigger is often activated when students experience Francophone culture. And schools are the ideal place to lay the groundwork that trips the trigger.

With this in mind, my office is currently visiting schools to deliver presentations that highlight the importance of living in French outside of the classroom. And students are reacting very positively to our initiative.

French is more than just another subject in school. Of course, there are skills you have to learn, the same as in science or math, but learning a language needs to be experienced, not just studied. Whether participating in student exchanges or attending school concerts given by Francophone artists, students need to be exposed to Francophone cultural products and be able to talk about it with their friends.

The challenge is that competition is fierce in terms of cultural products. Young people are bombarded with music, movies and books in English from all over the world. And we all know that in this brave new world of social media, the younger generations have a very short attention span. Teachers who want to catch their students’ attention have their work cut out for them. This is why we have to give students more cultural references in their second language.

As part of a recent campaign to maintain current quotas for Francophone music on commercial radio stations, the President of the Association acadienne des artistes professionnels du Nouveau-Brunswick, Philippe Beaulieu, said that “if we don’t hear ourselves anymore, if we don’t read about ourselves anymore, if we don’t see ourselves anymore, then we won’t exist anymore.Footnote 2 The same holds true in all cultural fields: literature, film, music and theatre. To continue to be dynamic and relevant, Francophone culture must continue to be present—we need to see it and we need to hear it.

A few weeks ago, I was reading a book review in The Globe and Mail about three Quebec books that had been translated into English. A passage in the review made me think. It said, “Few things reveal our nation’s supposed two solitudes more acutely than our literature.Footnote 3 If you ask most Anglophones who are aware of the English-Canadian literary scene to name their favourite French-Canadian writers, expect a prolonged silence.

In schools and universities, the people who administer learning programs need to consider this question: Who are the Francophone Canadian artists—from Quebec, from Atlantic Canada, from the Prairies—that we should be familiar with? Who are the leading figures of the past and the present?

Traditionally, educational institutions are always one generation behind when it comes to understanding the literature in the other official language. When the Parti pris authors—writers who were fighting for an independent, socialist and secular Quebec in the late 1960s—were popular, we were still teaching Trente arpents and Menaud, maître-draveur, works that were published in the 1930s.

I think it is very important for immersion students or even core French students to be exposed to contemporary works from Francophone singer-songwriters, authors and filmmakers, as well as to the classic, more traditional works of that culture. Of course, it is important for everyone to study La Sagouine, but over 40 years have passed since Antonine Maillet wrote that book. There are other important works out there, and it is unfair to give students nothing but cultural products from two generations ago. By limiting ourselves to La Sagouine, we are losing a golden opportunity, and students will be less likely to be interested in what contemporary Francophone artists are creating and less likely to identify with current Francophone culture.

The theme of the next World Acadian Congress in 2019 is “L’Acadie de la mer rouge” (referring to the old Acadian name for the Northumberland Strait). This event will take place in southeastern New Brunswick and here in Prince Edward Island, which will be awash in Acadian colours for two weeks. The run-up to the 2019 Congress is a great opportunity to showcase Acadian culture to PEI students. And experiencing this event could be the trigger I was mentioning earlier—something that will change their lives.

One way to incorporate culture and cultural knowledge into learning French as a second language would be to foster enhanced cooperation between majority and minority schools. This would help both to promote linguistic duality and to bring English- and French-speaking communities together. It is important to reach out to the other community and create new ties, new relationships and new joint projects. Doing things together helps communities stay dynamic. Many examples of this kind of cooperation already exist in Prince Edward Island, like the Memorandum of Understanding between Canadian Parents for French PEI and the Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin. We need to build on these types of cooperative efforts.

Speaking at least two languages is a valuable professional asset. Employers are always looking for bilingual staff. Here in PEI, there are two large federal institutions: Veterans Affairs Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency. The province also has a new French language services act that requires the provision of bilingual services by bilingual employees. And the tourism industry is always looking for people who can speak at least two languages—Canada’s official languages. The fact that bilingualism opens more doors on a professional level is now a given, and students know it. In addition to being a preferred asset on the job market, language skills are increasingly in demand in academia and politics.

This is why we have to ensure that French-second-language learning is provided at all levels of education. Students need to be able to pursue their post-secondary studies in French—or in both English and French at the same time—everywhere in Canada so that they can become fluent in their second language. Universities and governments need to offer them internships or a year at a French educational institution, or even summer jobs or part-time jobs where they can use their second language.

Bilingualism is a key to better understanding our complex world. It fosters respect, tolerance, fairness and open-mindedness. Learning another language makes us humanitarians and helps build a society that is open to the world. This is vital at a time when technology reigns supreme and we sometimes seem to forget how important it is for people to communicate with and understand each other.

Education is still the linchpin for supporting the development and enhancing the vitality of Canada’s minority-language communities. It is also the cornerstone for promoting linguistic duality, as much for language learning as for exposure to the cultural products that go with it. Our country needs to provide all Canadians with a true continuum of learning opportunities in both official languages. It is a determining factor that will help prepare our young people for the future, so that they can be engaged citizens in their own country and responsible citizens of the world.

Thank you. I hope that your discussions will be productive and rewarding.

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