ARCHIVED - The Critical Role of the Educational System in Creating Bilingual Citizens: New Brunswick as a Microcosm of Canada

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Sally Rehorick
Second Language Education Centre
University of New Brunswick

“Wearers of the emblem of the Office of Commissioner of Official Languages are signifying their commitment to fostering harmonious human relations between the English-speaking and French-speaking components of Canada’s social fabric.”
(Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, Annual Report 2002-2003)

In her annual report (2002-2003), the Commissioner of Official Languages singled out New Brunswick for “its enlightened leadership” (p. 120) in the promotion of linguistic duality. The province’s new Official Languages Act, Moncton’s newly declared officially bilingual status and the appointment of a commissioner of official languages are seen to be important not only for New Brunswick, but also for Canadian society as a whole. As Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick now guarantees, through the Act, access to services such as health care, justice, municipal and police services in both official languages. The implications of the new Act are far-reaching and, as Dr. Adam points out in her report, “the community is now looking to the Government of New Brunswick to enforce the Act so that English-French equality is fostered” (p. 120).

As a New Brunswick resident whose professional and personal life is intimately tied up in the province’s officially bilingual status, I cannot help but be pleased at these milestones. Nevertheless, I am under no illusions about the enormity of the challenges in meeting these expectations. The identification of these progressive steps begs us to examine how the human resources within the province can be best prepared to function effectively in this new reality. The initiatives celebrated in the OCOL’s annual report target principally the adult world – the workplace, the justice system, local governments, municipalities and so forth. But goals of linguistic duality and rapprochement -- equality of English and French, integration, tolerance and intercultural understanding -- do not “just happen” as people enter the workplace. Without an effective educational system, these goals are unlikely to be met.

New Brunswick is a microcosm for the whole of Canada in terms of its linguistic composition of francophones and anglophones. We have, in New Brunswick similar characteristics of language distribution: English majority and French majority regions; English minority and French minority regions; and bilingual areas where each language can be considered a majority language. Moreover, New Brunswick has many of the same undercurrents of misunderstandings and, in some cases, intolerance and suspicion seen elsewhere in the country. The father in St. George, in the south of New Brunswick, who refused to allow his child to take French in school because he said the child would never use French could as easily represent a viewpoint of a parent in Western Canada. The unilingual French high school graduate from Shippagan in northern New Brunswick might well find a kindred soul in Chicoutimi. The majority of the population of Grand Falls, who move so seamlessly from English to French and back again that they cannot identify which language is their stronger, could be transplants of St. Boniface or Ottawa or St. Paul, Alberta.

Education and, in particular, second language education is a critical component for achieving the goals of 2013 and a prime mechanism through which “harmonious human relations” can go beyond a superficial nod from one linguistic group to the other. New Brunswick is a flagship for linguistic duality in many important ways. We have a comparative advantage with our linguistic groups co-existing in a productive relationship. But it is time now for some creative thinking to move to the next level.

Let’s examine the goals first

Before determining how to reach the 2013 goals, we need to examine what exactly the goal implies. One might begin by determining a definition of the word ‘bilingual‘ Does this mean “equal competence” in both languages? It is not reasonable to expect the educational system to produce graduates who are perfectly balanced bilinguals. Nevertheless, we should maintain high expectations that graduates be able to do more than order a meal or ask for directions. Somewhere in between lies a feasible threshold level of bilingualism for the different situations in which one might use two languages. A student who has studied his/her second language through the school can’t automatically transfer this knowledge to other domains such as a work environment, or to a conversation about, say, health issues, with a pharmacist. To do this requires further exposure and education. The educational system can provide a solid foundation on which to build but it cannot produce students with competence equal to a monolingual native speaker. This is no different than a high school graduate’s biology courses, which cannot prepare her to enter veterinary college directly without further training in biology - they are a good foundation, but no more. In other words, our goals for doubling the number of bilingual graduates by the year 2013 must be positioned within a framework of what is feasible and reasonable.

New Brunswick’s Dual Education Structure

The educational system in New Brunswick has a parallel structure for each language. One ministry of education, divided into two parts, governs the francophone and the anglophone school systems. There are separate school districts as well as separate teachers’ federations, with clear policies determining who can attend which schools. For francophone schools, generally speaking, one parent must be francophone, although there are exceptions to this in practice. In both systems, there are students who have limited abilities in the language of the classroom: in the francophone schools the “ayants droits” who do have one francophone parent but whose French is not as advanced as others of the same age, and on the anglophone side, children of immigrant families whose English is in the developing stages. Thus both systems share similar challenges and needs in terms of serving their student populations, which are anything but homogeneous.

Since the declaration of the original New Brunswick Official Languages Act in 1968 and the Schools Act of 1981, the francophone educational system has been highly successful at ensuring the healthy maintenance of French. The risk of its becoming an endangered language was very real and it is remarkable that in one generation, the educational system has become such a vital component in protecting French. The establishment of the Université de Moncton further solidified the strength of French with its focus on minority language maintenance and revitalization. It is not surprising that second language education has taken a very understated role in the francophone system. In areas of the province such as Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John, where French is in a clearly minority situation, francophone children generally learn French and English simultaneously. In these areas, the priority, of course, is on maintaining a high quality school system in French. However, just as we in anglophone schools struggle to produce fluently bilingual students, so do francophone schools in areas of New Brunswick where French is the majority language. There seems to be an underlying assumption that, as one insider recently said to me, “francophones are born bilingual”. Such is clearly not the case and more attention needs to be paid to these students’ needs for English second language instruction; otherwise opportunities for them to become bilingual through the school system will be lost. Moreover, both systems share the challenge of providing enough well-trained second language teachers to meet their needs.

The anglophone school system in New Brunswick has seen many successes in French as a second language. The enrolment in French immersion comprises nearly one quarter of all students, a figure topped only by Quebec. Among other provinces, the next highest are Nova Scotia and Ontario at little over 7%. Standards of achievement and teacher qualifications are mandated by policy, and new programs, methods and materials are constantly brought into the system for consideration. Currently there exist solid early and intermediate immersion programs and the province is in the second year of piloting the Intensive Core French program at the Grade 5 level. There is a standardized province-wide student assessment, and program evaluations are frequent. Approximately 40% of high school graduates achieve a functional level of French. The provincial government has set a goal of 70% by the year 2013. French second language education is clearly an important priority in New Brunswick.

However, in spite of these widespread successes, there is a need to remain vigilant and not take such successes for granted. Immersion is under frequent criticism as an “elite“ program and for providing inadequate services to a more heterogeneous population of children, including those with learning disabilities. Myths about learning through two languages abound: “learning a second language in an immersion setting negatively affects development in the first language”; “children will not learn other subjects as well if they learn in their second language”; “children with learning disabilities have enough to worry about without having to learn a second language to complicate things even further”. The fact that research has repeatedly disproved these myths doesn’t always reach parents who are faced with making decisions for their children. At the high school level, there is a great deal of attrition from immersion. The reasons are many: a lack of a wide range of course options particularly in science and math; a perception that preparation for university is best done in English; a general fatigue with studying in French; teaching methods which do not always promote active, communicative learning. During their school years, anglophones have a limited number of native or native-like speakers as role models, particularly of their own age. Their French often reaches a level of competence which is sufficient for communicating with each other and with their teachers in a school setting but which doesn’t transfer easily to other contexts. In fact, apart from some excellent exchange programs in which a few students take part, there is little to no opportunity for genuine and prolonged interaction with francophones for the majority of students in the anglophone system (see also Lapkin, this volume). It cannot come as a surprise, therefore, that graduates of the anglophone schools do not always have an in-depth knowledge or appreciation of the francophone culture within their own province or of French Canada as a whole, a fact which has received much criticism from some.

The reality in New Brunswick is that due to its dual educational structure, there are parallel existences which, while ensuring equality of French and English, do not translate automatically into rapprochement of the two linguistic communities. At best, this can be considered a relatively benign situation, with neither group disadvantaged. At worst, the opposite could be said to be true: there can be a certain unintended alienation of one group from the other. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: the vast linguistic resources of this province’s educational system are undernourished, underutilized, and underestimated.

Capitalizing on our bilingual strengths: Learning from and about one another

Achieving the goals for 2013 requires us to build on our successes and also think imaginatively about how each linguistic group might draw on the other to create an additive situation for both. Perhaps the biggest challenge before us is maintaining the unique qualities of each school system while ensuring that more opportunities for meaningful interaction are explored. It would of course be counterproductive to suggest dismantling New Brunswick’s dual education structure: To do so would be to deny the great progress made for both anglophones and francophones over the last three decades. Nevertheless, there are ways for people from each system to enhance the other. Students, francophones and anglophones alike, need to be seen as resources for each other; likewise the teachers. We know that chronic second language teacher shortages have reached critical levels in recent years and the situation is not projected to stabilize soon. There might be ways to initiate more dialogue between the two teachers’ federations to develop opportunities for workshops, exchanges and cross-pollination among teachers from both sides of the system in the second language education programs.

Efforts to bring francophone and anglophone students together have several effective precedents: Dialogue New Brunswick engages young people in discussions of social, educational and economic importance; French for the Future, a national forum championed by John Ralston Saul, brings students together in different satellite locations across the country for a day of sharing ideas about learning and using French; and Canadian Parents for French maintains a strong support network sponsoring, among other programs, Rendezvous Canada. Such efforts need now to be expanded so that a greater number of students participate. How can more school-based and outreach programs be developed for more sustained interaction among students of both linguistic communities? How can schools use the linguistic resources which exist in virtually every community across the province?

Until now, the thinking has been to keep the two systems totally separate but we should not assume that limited mixing of the two will disadvantage one or the other group, or that educational standards will be compromised, or that the co-presence of the two groups would be an automatic liability. I have identified above that the most critical area is at the high school level. It would be here that some experimentation might take place to create opportunities for students to draw on each other as linguistic and cultural resources over longer periods of time than short exchanges or day-long forums. I am not suggesting bilingual schools but rather some targeted programs which could bring together groups of students for class projects, extracurricular activities and so forth. Where geography makes this impractical, Internet-based projects could be initiated which could bring students from different areas together to develop, for example, websites using curriculum-based or extracurricular content.

Canada, a leader in second language education, might well look to other countries for inspiration. Wales, for example, uses models of high school education that develop two languages successfully and also result in effective content learning. “Translanguaging” is one teaching strategy used in this setting, and is described as “...the hearing or reading of a lesson, a passage in a book or a section of work in one language and the development of the work (i.e. by discussion, writing a passage, completing a work sheet, conducting an experiment) in the other language. That is, the input and output are deliberately in a different language, and this is systematically varied. In ‘translanguaging’, the input (reading or listening) tends to be in one language, and the output (speaking or writing) in the other language. The students need to understand the work to use the information successfully in another language”(Baker, Bilingualism and Bilingual Education, 2002, p. 281). This kind of deliberate and systematic concurrent use of two languages is seen to be especially useful at the high school level “ enable conceptual clarity, depth of understanding and possibly to accelerate cognitive development” (Baker, p. 282). This model could easily be used for the websites mentioned above.

If these ideas seem radical, one has only to look back at the beginnings of French immersion in the 1960s for inspiration. A few parents had the courage to insist that their school system try something fundamentally different. Nearly four decades later, that educational innovation has success stories around the world. To really promote “commitment to fostering harmonious human relations between the English-speaking and French-speaking components of Canada’s social fabric”, we must strive for an educational system that capitalizes on those components as resources representing two sides of the same coin, a source of richness for all. Much as Einstein has said, “The level of thinking that got you where you now are will not get you where you dream of being“, we should not assume that the current system, good as it is, should remain exactly the same.

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