If rising demands for bilingual workers are to be met, Canada must improve access to French-second-language (FSL) schooling and stop regional practices that limit enrolment and retention, says a national parents’ group.
“The problem is that too many practices stand in the way of equitable access to effective FSL education demanded by parents and students, which shows a complete disregard for the principles of responsible education,” said Anna Maddison, president of Canadian Parents for French (CPF).
CPF recently released a research report, “The State of French-Second-Language Education in Canada 2008,” that identifies the challenges and makes a series of recommendations.
Although accessibility issues vary across jurisdictions, key obstacles include lack of transportation, enrolment caps, inadequate specialist services for children with special needs, and lack of policies that encourage allophone children and new Canadians to enrol in FSL education.
If transportation is provided for children to attend regular school, it needs to be available for FSL programs as well, said CPF national executive president James Shea. And schools should open more classes when demand rises rather than turn children away under first-come-first-served or lottery systems.
The report noted enrolment capping as a problem in certain parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, and especially British Columbia where the popularity of FSL learning has been growing for many years.
A shortage of qualified FSL teachers is another problem — even in some areas in Quebec, a province where nearly 90 per cent of the population are Francophones, said Lawrence Depoe, CPF’s executive director in Quebec.
A broader issue is that in Canada the provinces have responsibility for education; thus standards and programs vary across the country.
CPF calls for pan-Canadian standards for teacher education and qualification, pan-Canadian language proficiency testing, and life-long FSL training opportunities at little or no cost.
Demand for Bilingual Workers Rising
The five-year Action Plan for Official Languages, launched by the government in 2003, held cross-country consultations earlier this year to help develop a new strategy called “Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013.”
Among its recommendations, CPF’s report addressed the results of the consultations which highlighted strong support for bilingualism among Canadians and a need to expand Canada’s bilingual workforce to address the shortage expected as baby boomers retire.
The group is urging the federal government to “conduct large-scale bilingual labour market studies to gather definitive information about current and future supply and demand.”
CPF recently commissioned Ipsos Reid to conduct a small-scale job market study of bilingual workers outside Quebec and outside the federal public service.
The study found that 81 per cent of the 476 supervisors surveyed consider bilingual employees a valuable asset, and more than half said bilingual employees make their company more competitive. Yet nearly half (46 per cent) said bilingual employees are hard to find.
The study also dispelled beliefs that bilingual jobs are limited to entry-level positions. It found that bilingual employees are almost equally represented in entry- and mid-level positions, at 39 and 40 per cent. A full 21 per cent are in senior positions.
A commonly held belief is that French immersion resembles a gifted program and is therefore unsuitable for students with academic challenges.
In a commentary in the CPF report, McGill University Prof. Fred Genesee noted that children with learning challenges are often discouraged from enrolling in immersion or are encouraged to switch to the English program if they meet difficulties in immersion.
However, he said the solution is to ensure schools have qualified teachers and support services to meet these children’s needs rather than deprive them of the opportunity to learn both French and English, which he described as “important life- and job-related skills.”
“Research indicates that Anglophone students with below-average levels of intellectual ability are not at greater risk for academic difficulty in immersion than similar students in English-only programs,” he wrote.
‘Enthusiasm and support’
The report also noted that approximately two-thirds of Canada’s population growth is coming from immigration and that French is an additional language for many new Canadians.
A 2007 study cited in the report indicated that “not only do allophone students meet with success in studying French, it has been shown that a more intensive exposure to French can also enhance their English skill development.”
Nancy Taylor, CPF’s executive director in British Columbia and Yukon, agreed. She said CPF hosts an annual public speaking competition and finds that “year after year that the winners are students who learned French as a third language.”
Ms. Taylor, whose son, now in grade 10, was in French immersion, said there are many ways parents can help their children learn French.
“The number one thing they can do, even if they don’t speak French, is to continue to show enthusiasm and support.”
Provide them with French and bilingual resources, she said, and “don’t ever stop reading in English” as well as in their own language if it is not English.
Connie Lucian, a parent in The Pas, Manitoba who has two children in French immersion, said her greatest challenge in having her children learn French was her own fear of not knowing French.
“Once I realized I could help them in my native language of English, it wasn’t a problem,” she said.
“I think children should be given every opportunity that they can to make the most of their lives, and learning a second language is one of those ways.”