ARCHIVED - 6. Key Issues and Challenges

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The preceding sections of this report have identified gaps and shortcomings in current second-language learning opportunities at the university level, the nature of the demand and need for more and improved opportunities, and what is known about the effectiveness of current programs and ways in which they could be improved.

This section discusses some of the key issues and challenges that emerged in the course of the study with respect to improving second-language learning in Canada’s universities.

6.1 Costs and financing

The costs and financing of second-language programs was, not surprisingly, a key issue raised by all participants: university administrators, professors and students, government officials, and language experts alike.

Many participants made the point that language learning requires smaller classes, and therefore entails higher costs. The classic per capita formula for financing university programs is not seen to be appropriate for second-language learning. It was also stressed that language programs can be very labour intensive to develop, requiring additional effort, time and resources.

In the current economic context, most participants felt that all university programs are in a precarious situation, and that new, dedicated investments by all levels of government will be essential if universities are expected to do more.

"There are three possible approaches to improved, more intensive second-language learning opportunities for students at university: study at a bilingual institution, study at an institution of the ‘other’ language, or study at an ‘own-language’ institution, taking courses in the second language.

All three approaches have additional costs: all involve smaller numbers of students, thereby generating these additional costs, and all three need support."

Senior university administrator, key-informant interview

6.2 French-language institutions outside Quebec

Representatives of French-language institutions outside Quebec spoke of both the opportunities and the challenges for their institutions as they seek to attract more Anglophone students, notably immersion graduates.

Some felt strongly that such institutions offer the best potential for second-language learning because they already have the necessary infrastructure in place and because of their socio-cultural and learning environment, which offers students the opportunity for more-or-less complete immersion in the other linguistic milieu.

"Francophone institutions outside Quebec are in position to play a lead role in second-language education and learning in Canada.

They have the mandate and infrastructure, and have the supreme advantage of being able to offer a French-language learning and social and cultural environment, perhaps the key determinant of success in second-language acquisition."

Senior university administrator, key-informant interview

Some persons expressed concern about the possible impacts on the institutions and their linguistic and cultural milieu if there were to be a large influx of English-speaking students.

Concern was also expressed that additional resources for English-language institutions to expand second-language opportunities would undermine the financial resources and stability of these French-language institutions. This concern was also raised by bilingual institutions.

"There are funding concerns that improved second-language learning opportunities should not open up official languages in education financing so that resources for French-language institutions would suffer.

We need to build on what already exists, in both Francophone institutions and bilingual institutions. Putting a lot of dollars into Anglophone institutions to offer a few courses in French would take funding away from bilingual and minority-language institutions and would have minimal impact and effectiveness."

Senior university administrator, key-informant interview

Most observers emphasized that special efforts in marketing, information and promotion are needed for these institutions to attract and retain Anglophone students, and that special learning supports and assistance are required to ensure their success and integration.

6.3 Role and status of language departments; teaching approaches in universities

Professors and administrators involved in second-language programs were critical of how language learning and language departments were seen and valued in the university context.

There was a commonly held perception that language departments were the poor cousins of the university community, and that they were regarded as inferior to true academic domains.

There was a strong sense that language learning was not valued or seen as important by senior university administrators and that, in English-language institutions, French had no or little official recognition or place.

At the same time, the approach taken by university language departments to the teaching and learning of the second language was an issue raised by many participants. There was considerable criticism from students about what they saw as being an approach overly focused on literature, and not on actual language teaching and learning.

Students expressed the desire to see more focus on oral and written communications skills, and on opportunities to use language in everyday and real-life situations, as well as closer links to academic subject-matter content and areas of career interest.

6.4 Partnerships, collaboration and use of technology

Many participants felt that partnerships and collaboration, as well as technology, have great potential for improving second-language learning opportunities in universities.

There was a widespread belief that collaboration between institutions is currently under-exploited. There was a strong feeling, in particular, that more could be done especially with other-language institutions, including minority-language institutions, as well as bilingual institutions.

While a majority of universities that participated in the survey (65%, 55 institutions) reported having some type of relationship or arrangement with institutions that use the other language, most frequently this referred to the possibility of students receiving credit for programs and courses taken at other institutions. Few institutions reported formal or special arrangements with other institutions specifically designed to promote or facilitate second-language learning.

This could include agreements and arrangements that make it easier for students to take second-language courses or courses taught in their second language at or through an institution that teaches in the other language.

Many felt that a priority for inter-institutional collaboration should be to promote greater exchange-type opportunities for students to study, live, work and interact with persons from the other language group and benefit from an immersion-type academic, social and cultural milieu, for example, long- and short-term study, summer programs and work co-ops.

The possibility for using technology was also seen as something that needed to be further developed in conjunction with greater inter-institutional collaboration. This could include computer software, video-conferencing, online courses, and distance learning.

A few examples of collaboration and the use of technology

  • The Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface offers French-language teacher training on site to students at the University of Manitoba.
  • The University of Alberta has video links with Campus Saint-Jean to assist it in providing French second-language courses to its students.
  • The University of Prince Edward Island has an exchange arrangement with the Université de Moncton for students in teacher education.

Better collaboration within institutions was also identified as something that needs to be pursued. Language departments, for example, could work closely with other faculties to develop second-language courses tailored to the vocabulary and content of particular disciplines, and assist in the development and delivery of subject-matter courses taught in the second language.

6.5 Continuity and coherence in second-language learning opportunities

Students, professors, university administrators, government officials and language-learning experts all saw important linkages across the different levels of the educational system, and stressed the need for coherence and continuity.

Students’ experience at the elementary and secondary levels and the degree of second-language proficiency acquired at those levels can affect their decision to pursue second-language study at university, their language-learning needs and the kinds of programs that universities can offer them.

Because of the diversity of programs offered at the secondary level, such as immersion, core French, intensive and extended programs, students entering post-secondary institutions have widely varying levels of second-language ability. While some students entering post-secondary studies are, in effect, unilingual, others are almost fluently bilingual. Meeting the needs of both groups is extremely difficult, and can pose significant challenges for universities in designing second-language programs and courses.

At the same time, many participants commented that a lack of varied opportunities for second-language study at the university level, as well as decisions by universities to eliminate second-language requirements, were affecting students’ decisions to continue in second-language programs at the secondary level, and that more students were dropping out early.

Many professors expressed the view that the second-language abilities of students entering university have deteriorated in the past few years, and that more students are arriving at university without any recent second-language experience and with rapidly declining second-language skills.

Language-learning experts and researchers do not necessarily share this view on students’ abilities, although they point to the very limited success of core second-language courses. Experts point out that, while the grammar and writing skills of immersion students may be somewhat weak, they generally have impressive skills and abilities in terms of comprehension and the ability to think and process complex information in their second language. These abilities are very important for post-secondary study.

The key point made by many participants was the need to see the education system as a continuum, and to offer a coherent range of varied and meaningful second-language learning opportunities across all levels.

"What we have to understand is that the education system is really just that, a ‘system;’ it’s all ‘of a piece.’ What happens at one level of the system influences every other level. What we do—or do not do—at the secondary level affects what universities do. And what universities do—or do not do—also affects the other levels.

We have to send the clear message at all levels that we value language learning, that it is important.

And we have to provide a range of opportunities throughout the system, at all levels."

Language expert, key-informant interview

6.6 Marketing, promotion and information

Participants in virtually all focus groups, and many of the persons interviewed as well, emphasized the importance of marketing, promotion and information. Students need to know more about what opportunities are available. They also need to know the value and benefits of second-language skills, notably for career possibilities.

Several key strategies were identified:

  • Universities would attract more students by diversifying the number and kinds of second-language programs they offer.
  • There is a need to reach students earlier at the secondary level, as they are being pressed to make decisions early on about university and career paths.
  • The personal touch—direct contact by universities, information fairs, use of ambassadors or persons who have found second-language skills advantageous in their careers—makes a difference.

6.7 Second-language learning and public administration

Many participants made the point that closer links must be established between second-language learning and university programs relating to public administration.

Currently, few university programs in public administration and related fields reflect the importance of Canada’s two official languages—programs at Glendon Campus of York University and Simon Fraser University being notable exceptions.

For example, few university programs in this area have second-language exit or entrance requirements, or build in exchange opportunities. Few offer second-language courses that reflect public administration content and vocabulary. Few offer any courses in this area in the second language. There are also no linkages between university language tests or requirements and public service linguistic requirements and tests.

In the context of the renewal of the federal public service, more than ever the Government of Canada needs to have access to a wider pool of bilingual candidates.

In addition, all Canadians, regardless of where they live in Canada, should have access to opportunities to work for their federal government, in positions that require second-language competency as well as in positions that do not. Accordingly, those who want to should have access to appropriate second-language learning opportunities through the education system, including at the university level.

Some participants also noted the need of some provincial and territorial governments to recruit bilingual personnel, notably Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba and the territorial governments.

Many persons felt that public administration programs were a logical area where universities need to do more with respect to second-language learning. Many participants reiterated the fact that the younger one is, the easier and the more effective it is to learn another language. This simple fact should guide the federal government in its support for increased learning opportunities in universities. Pursuing learning a second language at the university level through a variety of courses, activities and real-life interactions also develops intercultural competencies that facilitate working in and managing a respectful bilingual and diverse workplace. Many felt that there is a need but that it is also in the best interest of the governments, especially the Government of Canada, to work more closely with universities in this regard.

MA in Public and International Affairs at Glendon Campus

  • Two-year interdisciplinary Master’s program to prepare students for roles in the public realm
  • Bilingual education approach; university staff bilingual, courses taught in both official languages
  • Studies in public policy and administration and in public affairs in both Canadian and international contexts
  • Support to further develop students’ skills in their second official language, including second-language courses and learning assistance
  • A paid internship component with a governmental or non-governmental organization 


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