Our Empty Words Are Only Spoken in English

By Jason Menard

For an allegedly bilingual country, we do a horrible job of showing it. And it’s time that we, as a country, literally put our money where our mouths are.

The Canadian government has set the goal of having half of its students graduate bilingual by 2013. It’s a lofty goal, but one that will never happen unless changes are made to the curriculum. French language instruction in this country, from coast to coast, must be mandatory for the duration of our students schooling.

Forget the fact that a significant number of students in Canada drop French as soon as its no longer compulsory – the quality of French that’s being taught is deplorable. Not to condemn our hard-working teachers, but they’re just not equipped to handle the demands that teaching a second language requires.

Simply put, our French teachers can’t speak French.

Oh sure, they have the rudimentary knowledge and they’ve got the basic accreditation required to do a passable job. But they don’t have the skill or expertise to help our children succeed. A building is only as strong as its foundation, and the quality and level of French that’s being taught in the elementary school system is deplorable.

My wife, whose first language is French, and I (functionally bilingual) have had the displeasure of reviewing our bilingual son’s French homework since he switched to English school. We could accept the rudimentary level being taught, as one would assume that everyone’s starting from zero. What we couldn’t accept were the mistakes: glaring errors, wrong words being used, incorrect grammar, and poor agreements. And then we wonder why our kids can’t speak French. There’s a problem when, in the past, our son’s French teacher has refused to speak to my wife and I in that language.

And it gets no better. Coming out of high school, our students may think they can speak French. But when they come face to face with an actual francophone, they’re unable to carry on a conversation. Having come through the Ontario high school system and taking two French OACs, I know first-hand that the majority of my fellow students were capable of conjugating a verb – but putting it into practice in anything more than a basic conversation was beyond their scope and capabilities.

Compounding the problem is that there’s really no perceived need for Anglophone students to take French if they’re not living in Quebec. I’d hazard a guess that, other than the remote getting stuck on the French CBC channel, their exposure to the language of Molière is fairly limited. As such, there’s no impetus for our students to take the learning of a second language seriously.

Unfortunately, all this does is further fracture our country. Many English speakers can’t understand the frustration that Quebecers feel when travelling outside of la belle province. They don’t understand the anger, resentment, and feeling of a lack of respect that comes from living in a country that, on one hand, professes to be bilingual, while on the other hand doesn’t practice what it preaches.

Now living in Ontario, I find it embarrassing that when my Francophone in-laws come to visit, they’re unable to find anyone to converse in their own language. They are forced to converse in English, whereas my experience has been that the opposite is rarely true. That’s Ontario! A neighbouring province to Quebec! Is there any wonder why some Quebecers don’t feel Canadian when their own country makes little to no effort – and places no premium – on being able to communicate with a significant segment of our society.

Due to the fact that they’re living in a region surrounded by over 300 million English speakers, most Quebecers will have a rudimentary understanding of English, and – unless you’re extremely rude – will make an effort to find common grounds for communications. Yet we treat French as an afterthought in the rest of our country.

The more rampant xenophobes will cling to the argument that we don’t make the same accommodations for other ethnicities, but that misses the point that this country was founded and flourished as a bilingual nation – an amalgamation of English and French to create a new Canada. Just as my expectation for living in Japan would be that I would be required to learn Japanese, so too is there an expectation that immigrants to this country be able to converse in English or French. But woe be to the person who chooses French thinking that knowledge of that language will open any doors outside of Quebec.

If we’re truly committed to being a bilingual country – and the reasons and benefits are numerous, while the counter-arguments are non-existent – then we need to invest in our future. French must be mandatory until high school graduation. And the quality must improve. We must either hire native speakers, or require more than a couple of courses for French instruction certification.

Otherwise, we’re just paying lip service to the cause of bilingualism — and our empty words are only intelligible in English.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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