New Brunswick is a linguistic microcosm of Canada. Here, the country’s two official languages enjoy legal equality and we can live our lives in French, English, or both. This linguistic reality has always appealed to me, and suited me in my profession of French teacher.
Yet for the ten years that I have lived in Canada’s only bilingual province, it seems that the legitimacy of official bilingualism is often contested, namely by the English-language media, all owned and operated by Brunswick News. Whenever this company runs low on ideas, it plays the language card in order to sell its newspapers, slyly yet knowingly stirring the social tensions that simmer beneath the surface in the gateway to Atlantic Canada.
Let us take last week for example. Rekindling the controversy over French immersion can harm the education of young Anglophones, and to a lesser degree, the harmonious relations between New Brunswick’s two major linguistic communities. In this article, I shall explain, first of all, why any overhaul of French immersion is unnecessary. Then, I shall attempt to debunk some myths and common misconceptions promoted by our own politicians. Finally, I shall deal with the social danger of too often raising this subject as if it were some pressing issue.
First of all, last week’s front pages of the three major English-language dailies reported the possibility of top-to-bottom changes to current immersion programs. Dominic Cardy, who holds this important ministerial portfolio, knows that talking about French immersion and reconsidering its current status will guarantee him a media spotlight. Modest changes have been promoted before, such as changing the point of entry from grade one to grade three. But this time it will involve a change that is both large-scale and uncertain.
Cardy communicated to the media that he envisioned a rethinking of immersion programs, yet without releasing the smallest detail to that effect. He claimed to want to start a pilot project in a dozen Anglophone schools, a completely vague notion beyond this first step. Where might these schools be? In rural areas, where French immersion is less available or lacking in quality? Any launch of a new program in this context would surely have the expected results, allowing Cardy to boast of the success of his efforts.
If these studies and pilot projects succeed, what other aspects of French immersion would Cardy modify next? Is he planning, for instance, to reduce the number of teaching hours in French? I hope not, as no one can deny the fact that the more one is exposed to a language, the greater the likelihood of becoming fully bilingual.
If Minister Cardy aspires for all young Anglophones to graduate truly bilingual, then he is far off the mark. Rather than focusing all his efforts on immersion students that finish moderately, functionally or fluently bilingual, according to their journey through immersion and their personal motivation, should he not strive to revamp French second language courses in the core program, and boost the number of hours allocated to learning French there? If Cardy and Austin are keen to see that all our young people in New Brunswick are truly bilingual, it is not those students registered in French immersion that they should target.
Let us debunk another myth that came out last week, this one by Kris Austin. Apart from the fact that it is hard to take him seriously knowing that he presents himself as fiercely anti-French, he displays a poor understanding of linguistic research and realities. He claims that there are numerous parts of Europe where multiple languages are taught and the population there is trilingual (“Big French immersion reform planned”, The Daily Gleaner, January 8). Can he be more specific?
This common misconception of a multilingual Europe proves less true than he thinks. Firstly, in most European countries, English is not taught as a “foreign language,” but as a separate subject, and students are exposed to it from their first year in school. Therefore, the first “foreign language” (which is in effect the third language learned) will often be that of the neighbouring country: Italian for a student in Marseilles and German for a young Alsatian. Add to this the fact that European students can easily travel to visit places where other languages are spoken, while our New Brunswick students live in one of the most linguistically homogeneous place in the world: North America. And let us not forget that Europeans, given the varied linguistic landscape of the continent, have developed teaching resources, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, to evaluate and describe an individual’s level of fluency. Yet despite all efforts, most of the time, fluency levels in second and third languages vary from person to person, and are rarely at level C2 (fluency nearly that of a native speaker) in all languages learned. In short, it is utter nonsense to assert that every European can readily speak a whole repertoire of languages.
Now let us demystify one final, deeply-rooted yet false conception – that an immersion program can only be solely responsible for language acquisition in children.
As paradoxical as it may seem, let us for a moment remove the French fact of immersion by asking two key questions. First, the question: What do students do in immersion? The answer: Learn to read and write; in short, to communicate. Broadly speaking, they do the same things they would do were they registered in an English program; they are introduced to literacy with the view of becoming literate young adults. The sole difference is that in immersion they study in French in addition to acquiring the English language. Now, Anglophone parents must ask themselves: Should we rely only on the schools to inculcate our children with English? No. Parents will entertain their children with bedtime reading, expose them to television shows, music, and extramural activities that reinforce the basic elements of language acquisition. Later on, they will buy their children novels, take them to the library, and spare no expense to instill a love of reading and language in their offspring. The result will be young people who master their mother tongue, and who develop themselves through it.
But do Anglophone parents do as much to assure that their children learn French, their second language? Despite the presence of French libraries in the three large cities in the south of the province and the offer of summer camps, the vast majority of Anglophone parents totally entrust second language acquisition to the school system. Parents need to learn that in spite of the wealth of immersion programs and the passion of the teachers working in them, learning a second language demands time, effort and dedication all around. The school system alone cannot guarantee this skill.
Therefore, let us recognize one final reality brought to light in the debate around French immersion; namely, the attention that the English-language media paid to this issue. I believe that the mere fact of discussing and targeting French immersion is a tactic of wedge politics. First of all, it divides and worries Anglophone parents, since they do not know which program to place their children in due to the changing nature of the options. We should not alienate Anglophone parents from our immersion programs, as they fear that the programs may change throughout the course of their children’s schooling, and that the eldest, middle and youngest child will each follow different or altered programs. To avoid this mish-mash of different lanes of immersion, some parents will end up rejecting the French option and choosing the English program, less subject to the whims and convulsions of our ever-changing provincial governments.
This divisive politics will lead to the mutual alienation of our two linguistic communities and only exacerbate the two solitudes. New Brunswick Francophones see the English papers at newsstands, and they read the headlines. They can see who is calling into question the very relevance of the French language, and the risk grows that they will feel contempt towards the Anglophone community and its educational institutions. Seeing the French language tossed around from year to year is not setting the minds of Francophones at ease towards their Anglophone fellow citizens.
In conclusion, as an educator, I believe that French immersion, as it stands today, works quite well. If a program is properly set up, and students are hungry to learn, then these students will become fluently bilingual by the end of their time in public school. As a New Brunswicker, I find that institutions such as the Anglophone media should be asking themselves whether their predictable and recurring game of hot potato may prove harmful to the understanding between our two linguistic communities and compromise the nature of that which distinguishes us: The fact that both English and French can be… in this place!
Peter Manson is a teacher in Fredericton. This commentary, originally published in French by Acadie Nouvelle, was translated into English by Jeff Bate Boerop.