Why Calgary (and Canada) Still Needs French in Schools

This is in response to the brief news flash I saw on CP24 yesterday, reported here.  (In searching for the article, I came across one from 2004, clearly showing the flip-flop of this province on the importance of language learning: here)

In my experience, learning languages has been a source of pleasure as well as an intellectual challenge.  Because of my courses in elementary school, high school, and university, I am able to read, write, speak, listen, in 3 different languages.  Sure, it’s great if I’d like to travel, or happen to meet someone whose native language is not English, but that’s not the only reason I’m glad to have had exposure to other languages.

Any good teacher/professor knows that to teach a language without introducing a culture is a serious mistake.  What good is teaching a student to conjugate a verb properly when they’re unknowingly using an insulting phrase?  Why teach someone a word without its full meaning as it relates to that culture?  Along with nouns, verbs, and all other parts of speech, a language course offers a view from another perspective — often from somewhere far away.  The beauty in this is not just a demonstration of what makes another culture special, but how similar we are.

Teaching a second language breaks down barriers of “they” and “them” and introduces “we.”  And once “we” has been introduced, it can never be taken away.

Two years ago, I worked on a project researching the perceptions of students in Grade 9 French as a Second Language classes in high schools.  As the study related specifically to an FSL computer program, I was mostly watching how they used their computer time.  I’ll admit, I saw many students simply not interested in what they were learning.  But I also saw the majority of another classroom fully engaged in the program, excited and enjoying their time learning French.  The difference?  A fully engaged teacher.

I have known so many people who look back upon their time at school and wistfully comment that they wish they’d tried harder to learn French.  I can’t imagine it was because they knew the verb conjugations would be helpful to them later on in life, but probably because they realized that once we finish school and get out into the working world there are a LOT more than just English speakers.  I sometimes wonder what Europeans (for example) think of us for only learning one other language in school.

Yes, I understand the need to cut costs in education (as if there’s enough there to begin with).  But as my project showed, the department already suffers from a lack in funding, and cutting it out of mandatory status just further pushes it down the funding line-up.  This is the first step to it becoming extinct.  If people don’t push to keep French around to be available to everyone, soon it will be available to NO ONE.  And that will be an embarrassing affront to all English as a Second Language citizens of Canada, if we can’t even educate ourselves in our official languages.

Besides, it’s French.  Apart from a teacher and a classroom, you only really need a few classic books, a few dictionaries (which don’t need updating for decades), and maybe a handful of verb conjugating books.  Hardly a big request when you consider other programs, and that, once purchased,  they doesn’t require continuous updating.

I also understand the complaint that students should have a right to choose most of their courses in high school.  However, I remember having difficulty cramming all the courses I needed into my schedule, let alone the courses I wanted.  Making French optional will result in students having to abandon it in favour of other courses that are required for their future, if they don’t plan on studying it further.  The timetables are set in order to meet the required courses in Grade 9, so if French is a requirement, it won’t be competing with other courses.  And frankly, I noticed that many of the teachers didn’t see the importance of French for students, so with that attitude, how can we expect Grade 9 students?  Besides, we need to remember that French is an asset for most jobs in Canada; meaning that most jobs could benefit from a multilingual employee.  You can’t say that about many other courses in high school.  Having experience in music will not necessarily be beneficial for most jobs outside of the field of music.  Having experience in gym won’t necessarily be beneficial for most jobs outside of physical education or health.  That’s not to say I don’t think we need those courses (we do!).  I’m just saying if the purpose of schools is trying to churn out employable students, in terms of benefit for future jobs, French is an automatic asset.

I think the Calgary board who decided this must be in dire straits.  Cutting out French is not a long-term solution, nor is it easily reversible.  If funding is the issue, get raising some money.  Make your voice heard in all languages.  This is not a Calgary problem; this is a Canadian problem.

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2 thoughts on “Why Calgary (and Canada) Still Needs French in Schools

  1. Martha April 29, 2011 / 3:51 pm

    I agree that study of a language is helpful in breaking down cultural barriers. In my limited study of Ukrainian, I found it did indeed stimulate my interest in Ukraine’s geography, history and culture. And there were a few aha moments when I the way they spoke about things helped me understand their actions and attitudes.

    Although I don’t know the job market in Calgary, I suspect French may not be as important for employment there as is in Ontario. It’s not too surprising to me that the movement to make French optional comes from that region. I’ll bet the French population is a very small minority in Alberta and even those communities’ ties with France and Quebec have probably been severed about mid 1700’s. In more than 300 years of separation, languages evolve into distinct regional dialects.

    French, as the second official language of Canada and also a language entrenched in The Manitoba Act and probably a few other provinces’ legislation besides Quebec, should be mandatory. But, which French?

    In my high school days (late 60’s) the French they were trying to teach us was particularly irrelevant to Canadian employment since it was Parisian French and the oral component was scarcely emphasized. For example, we had a Canadian French speaking teacher on staff who was not employed to teach us French (which could have been a useful version). Instead an English speaking teacher who was not fluent in spoken French taught us the grammar. What we learned was of very limited use in communicating with Canadian French speaking contemporaries.

    In those days, French Immersion was just starting. I had a friend whose daughter went through the French Immersion system from kindergarten to the end of high school. She then proceeded to study at La Sorbonne in Paris for a couple of years. When she returned to Canada, she was high on the list for a job with CN rail. However, she ‘flunked’ the oral French interview conducted by a Montreal native. Her French obviously wasn’t Canadian enough to work here.

    I hope that in the intervening decades Canadian high schools have begun to teach the Canadian dialects and pronunciations. That, to me, would be relevant in Canada. Dialects from France can be studied at a more advanced level if desired for use world-wide, but this part should not be compulsory.

    We don’t teach our students the pronunciation and dialects from Great Britain in high school English class, after all. And the Separatists in Quebec are not trying to rejoin France to my knowledge. So I hope the mandatory French courses are ones that will be the most useful on this side of the Atlantic.

    • clio44 May 1, 2011 / 12:34 am

      “We don’t teach our students the pronunciation and dialects from Great Britain in high school English class, after all.” Yes, exactly. France French (Metropolitan French) is still considered standard French, while Quebec, Newfie, and Acadian are still dialects. Teaching Quebec French is a good idea for speaking purposes, but a bad idea at the beginning of learning. It would be like teaching ESL students how to speak in contractions or omitting words as we do in ordinary life (ex. “kind of” as in “I was kind of late for the seminar” or “I would of went there first if I’d known” instead of “would have”) before teaching them official grammar rules. Dangerous.
      It is also possible that had your friend’s daughter learned Quebec French, she might not have passed the written test, or would not have passed the oral exam in La Sorbonne. If she had known all along she wanted to work in Canada, La Sorbonne might not have been the best choice for her…… it’s all about knowing what you want to use your education for.
      Having been through the French Immersion program myself, I had both Quebec and French natives as teachers, and part of the challenge was being able to understand any dialect that we came across. With so few language teachers available, it doesn’t really matter where they are from as long as they can teach the language. And hopefully, have some enthusiasm.

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