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Knowledge of both our official languages is important for young Canadians as they prepare for their future.

Globalization and the knowledge economy are placing a premium on new skills, including language skills and openness to other cultures. The ability to speak Canada’s two official languages, and other languages as well, is increasingly valued in terms of employment and career opportunities and also for personal development and enrichment.

Second-official-language learning is also essential to Canadian identity and citizenship, and for fostering better understanding among Canadians. And, in the context of public service renewal, the Government of Canada needs access to a larger pool of bilingual candidates in order to ensure that the public service reflects Canada’s linguistic and regional diversity.

Canada needs to provide a true continuum of second-language learning opportunities for all Canadians from elementary school through to the labour market. This continuum is an important and integral part of preparing our young people for the future to be productive citizens of their own country and citizens of the world.

While extensive knowledge has been accumulated about second-language learning at the elementary and secondary levels in Canada, less is known about second-language learning at the university level—the extent of current second-language learning opportunities, key issues and challenges, and what is effective.

These considerations led the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages (OCOL) to undertake a major study of second-language learning in Canada’s universities. The study included an in-depth survey of institutions; focus groups with students and with professors and administrators; and interviews with senior university officials, language-learning experts, government representatives, and private-sector, education, and other organizations. An advisory committee was also established for the study, with representatives from universities, governments and other interested organizations.

This study found that, while many universities in Canada offer a range of second-language learning programs and courses, there are serious gaps and unmet needs.

In particular, opportunities for intensive second-language study are limited—for example, to enrol in immersion programs, to take subject-matter courses taught in the second language or to take second-language courses tailored to different academic disciplines.

Moreover, collaboration among English- and French-language institutions in Canada to promote second-language learning, including exchange opportunities between institutions, is weak, and university second-language policies and requirements are generally minimal or non-existent.

Students believe second-language learning is important for them for a variety of reasons—for career and employment purposes, certainly, but also for personal development—and are looking for intensive and more varied opportunities to develop their second-language skills.

Key findings about what works and what is effective in second-language learning include the following:

  • Content-based learning can be very effective and provide good results.
  • Opportunities to use and practice the second language outside the classroom and interact with persons from the other language group are critical.
  • Good teachers, smaller classes and learning supports such as tutors and help with grammar and writing are important.
  • Key success factors for structuring effective second-language programs include financial and funding issues; leadership and commitment from the highest levels of university administration; and planning, organization and coordination.

The results of the study point to several broad directions and areas for attention.

First, universities need to improve opportunities for intensive second-language learning.

Second, minority-language institutions— English-language institutions in Quebec and French-language institutions in the other provinces—hold great potential to offer young Canadians such opportunities, and this potential needs to be better exploited.

Third, partnerships and collaboration among institutions, and the use of technology, offer much promise for doing more and for doing so more efficiently.

Fourth, a priority should be to expand exchanges and real-life opportunities for students to use their second language and interact with persons who speak that language.

Fifth, stronger university second-language policies and requirements should be part of an overall strategy to improve second-language learning at the university level in Canada.

And lastly, more information, promotion and marketing activities are needed to better inform students about the advantages of second-language learning and the opportunities available to them.

A number of models or broad approaches were identified in the course of the study. These include study at an institution that teaches in the student’s second language and offers immersion in the second-language milieu; study at a bilingual institution; the use of partnerships with institutions that teach in the other language to enhance second-language learning opportunities; and tailoring second-language courses to academic disciplines, using subject-matter content and vocabulary to teach the second language.

The Commissioner of Official Languages is making a number of recommendations—to institutions, governments, and others—to improve second-language learning opportunities in Canada’s universities.

It is hoped that the results of this study will encourage governments, institutions and all interested parties to work together to improve second-language learning at the university level in Canada and better help young Canadians prepare for the future.

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