Saturday, November 22, 2008

Trudeau, the B&B Comission, the failure of second-language education, and why this is important

Normally, I am a pretty big Pierre Trudeau cheerleader. Had I been born around the same time as my mother, I'd be one of the many screaming star-struck girls cheering like he was the Beatles. Had P.E.T. been doing his thing in the last federal election, I'd be wrapping myself in nothing but a Canadian flag and posting "I've got a Crush on Trudeau" videos on YouTube. Unfortunately, there was one point on which Trudeay really screwed things up -- and it's an issue rather close to my heart.

In the early sixties, The Man in Ottawa had noticed young Québécois getting all uppity. They figured that they had better do something if they hoped to put a stop to all this talk of secession, so the Pearson government created the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, or the B&B Commission. They spent six years cruising around Canada, collecting data and asking for the opinions of the public.
Great CBC Archives footage here -- source here.

Finally, André Laurendeau and David Dunton came out with some recommendations, including the creation of the Official Languages Act, the creation of bilingual districts "where numbers warrant", the going-bilingual of Ontario and New Brunswick (to join Quebec, which was at that time officially bilingual), and giving parents the choice to send their kids to school in a minority language, again "where numbers warrant".

The Trudeau government, which had showed up in the House the year before, looked at the B&B Commission's recommendations and thought to itself, "Awesome. We are all over this. This is going to be the thing that re-asserts our centralized power, not to mention shuts up those whiny Québécois nationalists, uh, builds national unity." The Official Languages Act was adopted that year, making Canada officially bilingual -- because apparently up until then, Canada had been blissfully ignoring reality. Hooray, Trudeau government! Twelve gold stars.

Unfortunately, the rest of the B&B Commission's recommendations didn't get quite the same treatment.

New Brunswick said "Good stuff," and made itself as officially bilingual as Canada, but Ontario went "Hmm, that looks expensive," and stopped returning Canada's phone calls. They did, however, plunk out a few French schools to keep people happy, as did many other provinces. This protected francophone populations outside of Quebec from assimilation, and everyone lived happily ever after. Oh, wait, no, that's not what happened at all!

Trudeau, with the best of intentions, decided that everyone should learn the "other" language (be it English or French) in school. Everyone in Canada became bilingual and could now make friends with each other. The hate stopped, and everyone sat in big circles with guitars singing bilingual songs of peace. Then Trudeau woke up, ate some breakfast, and turned on CBC. Obviously he didn't watch this clip, but it would have been really appropriate if he had. He would have noticed that second-language education in the primary grades may not have been working so well.

I expect that my experiences of second-language education is fairly typical for those who grew up in areas without official-language minority populations. In this case, it meant being taught French by anglophones who had once spent one to three years in France, or less often Quebec, when they were in their early twenties. After that, they spent the next twenty years speaking to twelve-year-old anglophones and occasionally watching French films, which has led to an entirely understandable breakdown in their proficiency, notably their accents. Their teaching materials are limited and often the cost of these materials is not completely covered by the school, leading to kids like me coming home asking for a cheque for fifteen dollars to pay for my French book while my mother grumbles and wonders where her tax money is going. French is rarely actually spoken in the classroom before grade 10, at least by anyone other than the teacher. Unsurprisingly, even the most studious French student is frequently confused and understands very little actual French. She can say "Je m'appelle Suzy. Comment t'appelles-tu?" off by heart, although she does not know what the words appeler or comment mean, and if someone asks, "C'est quoi, ton nom?" she will not have any idea what they are asking.

The fact that second-language education is made of fail is not the fault of the government, or the school board, or the teacher, or the student. The fact is simply that the conversations drilled into student's heads rarely occur as rehearsed in real life. Anglophones who once spent a few years in France are in short supply as it is, never mind people who are actually intimately familiar with French. And learning a second language is difficult.

Trudeau's dream was that every Canadian from coast to coast would be bilingual. This is like trying to make every Canadian a physicist. It's hopelessly unrealistic. A letter-carrier in Newfoundland, a farmer in B.C., or a chef in the Yukon simply doesn't need to speak French, will likely not have any opportunity to practice it on a daily basis, and, assuming he or she isn't a "languages person" will find it prohibitively difficult to learn. Now, if you live in, say, Montreal, learning a second language is pretty gosh darned easy! If you are a minority language group, it is even gosh darned easier!

"Where numbers warrant" is one of the key phrases when it comes to the B&B Commission, and it also represents a sad paradox. The only way to get people to be bilingual is to give them a chance at immersion. But realistically, this means minority language groups, and minority language groups are really good at getting assimilated, especially if they are francophone (thanks in large part to the nauseating overproduction of anglophone culture south of the boarder). So they only way to realistically make people bilingual is to put them in daily contact with the other language group, and the only way to do that is for the other language group (or the first one) to exist in such a position as they are likely to disappear within a few generations. Awesome.

This is not to say we should abolish compulsory second-language education in public schools, in the same way that we should not abolish math. We just need to reform our expectations, and by extension, our methods.

Trudeau's mistake was thinking that language barriers were the biggest obstacle to national unity. This isn't the case. For one thing, having every person in a country being perfectly bilingual renders one language superfluous. For every bilingual person, that's one or more people who don't need to be bilingual. But language barriers are not barriers to goodwill. The biggest problem with national unity is Otherness. Since the Plains of Abraham, this problem of subjectivity and objectivity has existed between English- and French-speaking populations in Canada. Today, it is becoming more of a problem that affects regions in Canada (i.e. the West, Central Canada, and the Maritimes), and sometimes allophone immigrant populations versus anglophone or francophone Canadians (Bouchard-Taylor Commission, anyone?).

The problem of the Other exists primarily when there is little familiarity of what is being "otherized". Hence, Canadians talk about the "pea soup-eaters" or the "maudits anglais". The Official Languages Act was moving in the right direction; seeing French on your ketchup or breakfast cereal says "Like it or not, the pea-soup eaters are your fellow Canadians," and also "Regardez, les maudits anglais ne fourrent toujours le chien." But it's a big step from reading the cereal box in the morning because your neighbour stole your newspaper again and not talking about how ignorant and selfish the damned (anglos/Quebeckers) are. If you hated second-language education in school, this probably did not help things.

Instead of focusing on producing language proficiency in schools, we need to focus on producing cultural proficiency. Being able to swear in another language is not good enough. Exposure to the other language's literature (probably translated), music, cinema (subtitles!), food, and geography would not only make second-language education a lot more fun, but it would do what mere dialogue memorization could not hope to: it would instill a sense of familiarity, hopefully weakening the traditional "us versus them" sentiments that have too often characterized the "two solitudes" and put everyone more in the "us" category. Of course, "Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought," says Simone de Beauvoir, quite truthfully. But we must be careful who we make the Other. It is interesting that from a "Canadian" perspective, this distinction does not exist. Unilingual Canadians can have a bilingual identity -- just ask Joe Canadian (ten bucks says his French is terrible).

Why is this important? Because Canadian unity is important. It is important to our identity, and it is important to our ability to function. It is as important today as it was at Confederation. Canada, for all the federalism we practice, cannot ultimately be governed by a decentralized government. We share the same values, and we need one another for social, cultural, and economic reasons. I actually have to go write an essay about that right now, so I'm going to let Stéphane Dion finish explaining for me:
If we have achieved all this -- and many other things as well -- it is quite simply because we are together. It would not be possible for ten inward-looking republics north of the United States to offer their citizens the same quality of life and the same future as the great, generous federation that brings us together. Canada is a success because we have worked to draw the best from each culture, each population, each of our provinces and territories. Because we have learned, perhaps better than any other people, that equality and unity are not synonymous with uniformity. Because we know that respect for diversity is what enables human beings to join forces to achieve what is the most true and the most universal.
- Recognizing Quebec: An Expression of Canadian Values, September 10 1997.

Two years after the latest referendum on Quebec's secession. Are there still two solitudes? It depends on who you ask.


the regina mom said...

I don't know where you went to school, Reb, but at least you had the option of taking French. Where I went to school in rural SK, if I wanted French language education after Grade 8 I had to take it by correspondence! I tried it for a year and that was more than enough!!!

So, when I had my kids I wanted to give them the opportunity to learn a second language and happily enrolled them in our public school system's French Immersion program. My daughter, in Grade 12, is functionally bilingual, thanks to excellent teachers and an opportunity for a 3-month immersion in Quebec last year. She plans to continue learning the language and, perhaps, others, when she begins university next fall.

Now, I may be biased, but I really believe that we in SK have an excellent educational system. It's certainly far from perfect, but we have dedicated teachers and bureaucrats who work to do the best they can within the structures that be for our kids. The Quebec-Saskatchewan Exchange Program is but one of the innovations they've developed and one which, imnsho, works well.

Trudeau was a visionary. And a smart one. Just because the governments that followed him were mostly gutless wonders does not mean that his programs or ideas have failed. It means only that they have not been given a fair try.

Brian Barker said...

As far as learning another language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

I suggest not only because it has become a living language, but because it has great propaedeutic values as well. Esperanto helps language learning!

You can check this out at

Reb said...

Regina Mom -- I grew up in various towns and cities in southern Ontario. There was a French Immersion program in one of the towns where I lived, and most of the students who were in the program actively chose to stop after elementary school. The ones who continued Extended French in high school still did not have good "real world" French after grade 12.

Glad to hear about your daughter - lucky her! Unfortunately she is a rare success story. I agree that teachers work had and do the best they can with what they have, but it's an unfortunate reality that it is hard to find teachers who can actually provide good French instruction, especially in the early grades when students are often resistant to things they perceive as unfamiliar and "hard". I'm told it's the same for English teachers in Quebec's regions.

The government does have SOME good programs -- such as the Quebec-Saskatchewan Exchange and Explore, for instance -- but the best programs around won't change the fact that it is unrealistic for all Canadians to speak two languages. As long as the education system makes linguistic proficiency its main goal, it is bound to fail. Imagine a PM implemented a program aimed at making every Canadian a hockey whiz or a music genius. While the program would undoubtedly benefit some, it is unrealistic to expect across-the-board success.

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree, Canadian unity is about as important as the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Soviet Union.

But, that said, you have pretty sophisticated understanding of the Canadian language situation. And you're funny.

It's amazing how few English canadians I know who can be smart or funny when they talk about language. Let alone both...

William Matheson said...

Unsurprisingly, even the most studious French student is frequently confused and understands very little actual French. She can say "Je m'appelle Suzy. Comment t'appelles-tu?" off by heart, although she does not know what the words appeler or comment mean, and if someone asks, "C'est quoi, ton nom?" she will not have any idea what they are asking.

So true! Before I went to Sainte-Anne, I could say those things, but I had no idea I was saying something like, "I am called Suzy. How are you called?" And then the folks at Sainte-Anne said, "Non! Tu t’appelles Will!" =)

When I left after that summer, I was convinced that I was in a position to do a better job teaching elementary school French than my own elementary school teachers had done. I went to elementary school in rural PEI from 1987 to 1993. As you were saying, we learned the canned phrases, but had no idea what any of them meant, and grammar wasn't even on the radar.

If I were Prime Minister, the first thing I would do is octuple the funding and spaces in Explore, and then I would "explore" opening it up to anyone who wants to go. When adults who want to learn French come together in a fun environment with competent instructors, learning happens, as we can both attest to. I can't wait until 2010, when I'll be eligible to apply for another bursary (groan). But in the meantime I have the tools to dissect French on my own, which is a priceless gift.

Anonymous said...