ARCHIVED - Valuing and Validating Bilingualism in Canada

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Jack Jedwab
Association for Canadian Studies

Language knowledge is considered an important element of human capital and an economic asset to the individual. Across the globe, the value of knowing more than one language is well understood, as revealed in several national public opinion surveys. Research conducted internationally clearly indicates that the development of multiple language proficiency is possible, and indeed that is viewed as desirable by educators, policy-makers, and parents in many countries. Economic gain is generally viewed as the principal motivation for acquiring a second language, a perception widely shared by the Canadian population.

On the whole Canadians tend to support the idea that knowledge of more than one language is important and most would want their children to acquire French as a second language. There is a fairly large consensus that knowledge of English and French is an economic asset to Canada; a view held by some 71% of Canada’s English-speaking youth and 64% of this group residing outside Quebec. Over eight out of ten English Canadian youth believe that knowledge of English and French improves job opportunities. In fact securing more/better job opportunities is the principal reason given for enrollment amongst anglophones in French language immersion programs. Approximately six out of ten young Anglophones outside of Quebec believe that high school graduates should be bilingual.

Yet following some progress in terms of knowledge of French on the part of English Canadians in the 1980's, little forward movement is noticeable in this regard in the subsequent decade. Data from Statistics Canada reveals that outside Quebec the rate of bilingualism remained almost unchanged at 10.3% in 2001 compared with 10.2% in 1996. Though the level of bilingualism rose in every province except Manitoba and Saskatchewan, in almost all cases, the rate of increase was lower than or equal to the gain between 1991 and 1996 (the decline in Manitoba and Saskatchewan was related to the decrease in their francophone populations).

Bilingualism has been losing some ground among young anglophones outside Quebec. Statistics reveal that the bilingualism rate peaks in the age group 15 to 19, when young people complete their high school education. Many teenagers in that age group had been enrolled in French as a second language or immersion programs. However, from 1996 to 2001, bilingualism lost some ground among anglophones aged 15 to 19 outside Quebec. In 2001, 14.7% of Anglophones in this age group outside Quebec were bilingual. While this was twice the proportion for the anglophone population as a whole (7.1%), it was lower than the proportion of 16.3% among Anglophones aged 15 to 19 in 1996. Even in the age group 10 to 14, the bilingualism rate fell from 12.9% in 1996 to 11.5% in 2001. The pattern was the same in every province west of Quebec.

Some attribute this stagnation to diminished enthusiasm for bilingualism in the 1990’s. Yet no study has thus far determined what might have accounted for the negative trend. Research needs to be conducted on this matter to assist in the reversal of the trend. Paradoxically, despite the less than positive outcomes in terms of language acquisition, public support for English-French bilingualism has grown over the period. Hence when it comes to language learning there appears to be a growing gap between attitudes and behavior. However, as we shall observe the gap is likely attributable to the lack of intensity or softness in the support for second language knowledge. Recent polls indicate that while the public favors improved second language acquisition it is more likely to describe this objective as ‘somewhat’ rather than to ‘very’ important. The distinction may be telling as concerns the level of commitment to the promotion of bilingualism. In short many may like the idea of expanded bilingualism in theory but be unprepared in practice to invest the time and resources to make inroads.

Economic Bilingualism: Expectation and Reality?

During the 1980's there was great interest amongst Canadians in second-language immersion as the substantial numbers of students registering for such programs. When asked about their motivation for enrollment, students and parents alike consistently cited economic motives. Savoie notes that while some give cultural and 'patriotic reasons', nearly all said that they had decided to learn the other official language because they believed it would improve their employment prospects.

In most parts of Canada, those possessing knowledge of English and French have higher average income. In the province of Ontario there is a better than a ten percent difference in mean income between those knowing both official languages and those individuals that are unilingually English. In addition more than a quarter of bilingual Ontarians with income are earning over 50,000 dollars per year whereas less than one-quarter of unilingual Ontarians are earning more than that sum. Yet such income gaps do not seem to be as significant in the Prairies and in the Atlantic Provinces. Also some contend that greater such income may be attributable to differences in years of schooling as those knowing both official languages tend to be better educated. Consequently over time many Canadians outside of Quebec may grow less convinced of the economic advantages to be gained through bilingualism.

Furthermore subsequent to the acquisition of French language skills there seems to be little opportunity to put it to use outside those areas with important francophone presence. Some 64% of anglophone youth outside of Quebec believe that their education gave them a good second language opportunity. But the ability of young Anglophones to maintain their knowledge of French as a second language appears to fade over time. In 1996, the bilingualism rate among young people aged 15 to 19 was 16.3%. By 2001,when this group was five years older, or aged between 20 and 24, the rate had dropped to 13.5%. This followed a similar pattern from 1991 to 1996. Outside of the workplace in Quebec, Ottawa and Moncton, the 2001 census reveals that a small percentage of Anglophones used French in the workplace. Nearly three percent of Anglophones in Ontario used French in the workplace either most often (0.5) or regularly (2.4) and in New Brunswick 2.5% of Anglophones used it most often while 6.1% used it regularly. Hence a possible explanation for why recent progress in the acquisition of the official languages is so limited outside of Quebec. The expectation that the language will be used later in career pursuits does not sufficiently bear fruit.

Impediments to second language acquisition

Studies in Canada have focused more upon why we choose to learn a second language than why not. A major European survey on second language acquisition reveals that 26% of respondents would be motivated to learn another language if they could use it at work, 22% if they could get another job and 24% if it enabled them to understand people of other cultures.

The main reasons that discourage people in Europe from learning or improving a foreign language are the lack of motivation (31%), lack of time to study properly (34%) and not considering themselves good at languages (22%). Amongst those people unable to speak an additional language 65% said it would be too difficult and 64% too time consuming. Some 63% of unilingual Europeans believe that the acquisition of second languages would not improve their economic prospects. Moreover 54% said that even they had the chance they would not learn another language.

Amongst the factors identified in encouraging language learning we find: if it would lead to a promotion (14.4), if their employer allowed them time off work to learn lessons (14.7), if they had the opportunity to learn it in a country where the language is spoken (14.9), it their employer paid them (15.0) if they could find a course which suited their schedule (18.6), if they were paid for it (22.3), if lessons were free (28.5).

The Value of Bilingualism

Pedagogical experts believe that the acquisition of a second language augments learning in other areas. Nevertheless, measuring the economic advantages of bilingualism can often be more difficult than evaluating its costs. Empirical demonstration is not always sufficient for measuring the benefits of bilingualism (other potential economic benefits that do not lent themselves easily to quantification). Some observers contend that knowledge of both official languages may reduce school drop out rates and thus encourage better social integration. Knowledge of the language of the "other" makes a bilingual individual more sensitive to the culture and tastes of consumers and also may encourage freer circulation of goods, persons, services and ideas. Finally, by encouraging individual mobility, knowledge of French amongst English Canadians may help foster stronger economies through better communication and more harmonious intergroup relations.

Bilingual Values

In what is increasingly described as the knowledge economy one would expect that language acquisition would be considered an invaluable tool. A significant majority of Canadians believe that bilingualism is a fundamental national value. Yet critics of the promotion of bilingualism amongst Anglophones contend that the government has made a costly investment in strengthening the knowledge of French in many parts of the country where they add, the language is of little use. Over the years the message that focuses upon the purportedly excessive costs of bilingualism to the Canadian taxpayer has had a significant impact. Response by opinion leaders to such arguments has often appeared tentative and cautious. On the regional level the political will to promote knowledge of French outside of Quebec often appear to be sorely lacking. We have yet to adequately consider the cost to Canadian taxpayers of waning bilingual capacity. To counteract the attacks on bilingualism will require a national public awareness campaign about the merits of bilingualism.

The federal government will have to confer greater status upon those individuals and institutions that contribute to the enhancement of knowledge of French outside of Quebec. Private sector efforts to expand bilingualism will have to be rewarded. Evidence-based information on the advantages of bilingualism and individual testimonies expressing such benefits will have to be widely disseminated. Bilingual individuals are best suited to speak about their economic experience and say whether their bilingualism has produced benefits in terms of such things as access and mobility (access to jobs and promotion). The testimony of employers is also essential in speaking about the value of employees that possess strong language skills. Individuals who have gone through immersion say quite frequently in surveys that the learning of French has made it easier for them to learn other languages or skills. Finally, there is an absence of role models and advocacy for bilingualism in Canada and despite the laudable efforts of such groups as Canadian Parents for French their needs to be additional civil society involvement in supporting bilingual capacity.

To improve knowledge of French amongst English-speakers, the challenge will be to strengthen interest and enthusiasm on the part of soft supporters of bilingualism and persuade the uncertain of the benefits of learning a second language. Without creating an environment that adequately values bilingualism significant additional funding may not achieve the objective set out by government for greater such knowledge.


Statistics Canada, Census of Canada, 2001

Ekos Research, 2002

Eurobarometer, 2001
Savoie, Ghislain. The Comparative Advantages Of Bilingualism on the job market: Survey of Studies, Strategic Research and Analysis Directorate, Department of Canadian Heritage

The views expressed in this document are those of the author.