Thursday 20 September 2012

Letter to the Select Committee on the Revision of the Official Languages Act

When I moved here two years ago I was excited to be moving to Canada’s only bilingual province. My son would hear French and English being spoken in his daily life, and would be immersed in French at school. He would grow up with a second language, an option that was not available to me during my elementary school years, where core French classes did not begin until grade five or later.

When I began looking into the opportunities for this French immersion I imagined, I discovered that at the Elementary school across the street French education would not begin until grade three. That was a shock, because research suggests a child’s ability to absorb the sounds and nuances other languages begins immediately and peaks by age seven, which is the time Canada’s only bilingual province begins its French education.

So I turned to the French school. Perhaps my son could learn French there.  However, I was told my four year old son would need to pass a French comprehension test in order to attend the French school. I could send my son to a French preschool, I was told, to help him pass this test. Unfortunately, all the French preschools I called didn’t have room for him. So in Canada’s only bilingual province, my son was not able to start his French education in kindergarten, and in fact would have to wait until grade three.

It is interesting to note that in Alberta, the province I left, early immersion programming begins in Kindergarten. In fact, Yukon Territory, where I was born, now offers early French immersion, as does British Columbia and Saskatchewan among others.

A friend of mine recently moved to Toronto. At first she was worried about finding childcare for her baby. However, down the street she found a woman who speaks three languages who takes care of children during the day. On her door this woman has the work “welcome” in French, English, and Spanish. When she speaks to the children, she uses words from these three languages. The children she is nurturing are exposed to these sounds and tones. There is no official languages act posted in her home; no English, French, and Spanish administrators haggling over which words, and how many she must use; no overhead costs to duplicate the names of the cookies and muffins she bakes into all three languages; and yet she is able to provide a better education in languages than Canada’s only official bilingual province. The model only demands a person who speaks multiple languages willing to share her knowledge with a sense of fun and good humour.

At my son’s school across the street, he can choose various enrichment activities. He can join the choir, make science experiments, read or write, join recycling, guidance, or technology, but he cannot learn French in Canada’s only bilingual province.

As an English-only speaker and writer, why do I care about French education for my son? Well, it is not the reason most New Brunswickers put their children in French immersion, which as I understand it is so they can qualify for a government job. Depressing is it not? The result of the current languages act is to create a system whereby students are motivated to learn French not because French language and culture has a rich history in New Brunswick, or because it can enrich English lives with music and food and dance as I believe, but because it might land a job in government. Wouldn’t you rather have policies that foster cooperation, sharing, joy, and culture between languages, not just a certification for a government job?

What is currently in place here in New Brunswick is systemic segregation, much like Apartheid. English school, French school, English hospital, French hospital. Why not go the distance and have French seating and English seating on city buses? Or French only washrooms, and English only washrooms? What you have created is not that much different.

The system you need to build needs to foster an atmosphere of learning and sharing, of collaboration and cooperation. What L’ecole St. Anne is doing in their cafeteria is amazing, and I am jealous that the French school has access to a chef creating healthy fresh meals, while my son, if he were to eat at the cafeteria, only has access to processed crap that is not the least bit healthy. The French school has an idea worth emulating, so copy it. We need sharing, not segregation. We need cooperation, not separation. It really is as simple as creating a system that lets the good ideas flourish and spread.


Paul E Chapman said...

The only thing I might quibble on is entry point for starting Second language, other than that, spot on!

Anita Lahey said...

Well put. It is disappointing indeed. Good for you for saying so, and saying it so eloquently.