In Quebec, bilingualism is rarely just the ability to communicate in two languages. A practical necessity to some, it’s the Trojan Horse of assimilation to others. But researchers in neuroscience and language acquisition would like Quebecers to see it the way they do: as an extraordinary gift.
The bilingual brain is faster, more focused and more flexible than the brain of someone who knows only one language. Learning a second language helps stave off the ravages of old age, in the form of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It can literally make students smarter, new research suggests. A U.S. study found that the effects of a bilingual education are so powerful they can overcome the negative impact of extreme poverty and deprivation on a child’s cognitive development, propelling those children into the top ranks of cognitive development.
These findings have been piling up on the plus side of the bilingualism ledger for the past several years, without, it seems, having much impact on how bilingualism is viewed by Quebec’s political leaders. The Parti Québécois continues to try to marginalize English, insisting on keeping its public visual presence smaller than French, resisting the demands of employers to advertise for it on the job and arguing with francophone parents who want their children to learn English about how much English is too much in French schools.
This spring, Education Minister Marie Malavoy rescinded the previous Liberal government’s requirement that French schools provide an intensive English immersion program in Grade 6, instead leaving the decision up to individual schools’ governing boards (which are made up of an equal number of parents and school staff). Because barely 12 per cent of French schools had the staff to introduce the English immersion program when it was supposedly mandatory, few boards are expected to introduce the program now that it’s optional.
Malavoy also questioned the need for English instruction in Grades 1 and 2 in French schools, saying that mastery of French was a priority. Since 2006, English classes have been offered in French schools beginning in Grade 1. The PQ has proposed shifting the start of English instruction back to Grade 4. Malavoy has asked Quebec’s École nationale d’administration publique (ÉNAP) to look into what impact learning English has on students’ mastery of other academic subjects. ÉNAP is to report on its findings this fall.
Rather than commission a new report, Malavoy could have turned to existing research, much of it conducted in Quebec. McGill psychology professor Fred Genesee is one of the world’s experts in the field of bilingualism and second-language acquisition. Bilingualism “is not a zero-sum game,” Genesee said. “You can promote these language skills without infringing on the kids’ academic development or their native-language development.”
Genesee thinks Quebec’s decision to make the Grade 6 English immersion program optional is a mistake. “The rest of the world is learning English,” he said. “I think Quebec children are going to be handicapped. The thing is lots of francophones do become bilingual, but my guess is that you’d find it’s stratified by social class, that a lot of people who become bilingual, they go to private schools, or they have advantages that allow them to learn English.”
Genesee is not alone in wanting more English immersion. Gaston Rioux, president of the Fédération des comités de parents du Québec, said parents committees are “not at all closed to learning a second language because we know that studying a second language helps in language learning.”
Rioux said parents are not sure current second-language teaching is the most effective. “The way the program has been implanted, with English instruction from Grade 1, we’re talking about what, an hour and a half of English a week? That’s just a sprinkling of language, that’s not learning it.”
Rioux said his group polled its members last year, finding more than 80 per cent of parents were favourable to English instruction, including the intensive English instruction in Grade 6. (On the English side, a 2013 EKOS poll found about 60 per cent of English-speaking parents were satisfied with the quality of French taught to their children in English schools.)
Anna-Maria Angarita’s three daughters, age 13, 11 and 9, have grown up with the kind of built-in advantage Genesee was talking about. Their mother has always spoken to them in English and their father, Claude Briand, in French. And when Angarita’s Spanish-speaking mother was still alive, the girls were also exposed to Spanish. The girls have all done their elementary schooling in French, with the oldest in an English school. It was not a decision based on language. She chose an English school because it had a sports concentration program she wanted.
Briand, who said he’s new to the world of bilingual and trilingual speakers — coming as he does from a totally francophone community near La Pocatière — noted he was originally nervous about his daughters not mastering French. But his daughters speak French fluently. “We have some rules,” he said. “I insist they use French words when we speak, not English ones when they can’t think of the right one. I find it’s a very Montreal thing to mix up both languages in the same sentence.”
Angarita said her only worry at this point is that the French in her daughter’s English high school is very basic and the English taught in her children’s French elementary school is also too easy. (The three girls were among only 12 per cent of children eligible to study in English who did at least part of their schooling in a French school — 114,642 in 2010.)
Roy Lyster, a professor at McGill University’s education faculty, is sympathetic to Quebec’s schools as they try to cope with their students’ various levels of French and English. He likes the idea of greater collaboration and flexibility in classrooms. “If you have kids in a class who are learning French as a first language and others who are learning it as a second language, the English and the French teacher can work together to create coherence to help students develop stronger literacy skills. Plus, kids can help each other.”
Lyster, whose research centres mainly on French immersion in the classroom and the professional development of teachers, said the real issue today in French immersion is to try to counteract “this idea that students are picking up language by osmosis, that they’re getting exposed to enough French through subject matter instruction.
“The initial idea,” Lyster said, “was that we don’t need to focus much on language instruction in immersion, they’re going to pick it up like they pick up their first language. What we know now is that that doesn’t really happen, they don’t just pick it up. What needs to happen in immersion programs is a more systematic focus on language.”
By that, Lyster said, he doesn’t mean old-fashioned, fill-in-the-blanks exercises, but finding a way for the history teacher, who doesn’t see teaching French as part of his history class, even though he’s teaching it in French, to collaborate with the French language-arts teacher, who tries to fill students’ knowledge gaps with syntactic drills. The problem with the current approach, Lyster said, is “that it just makes the learners keep everything separate from everything else. They might study grammar, but they’re not necessarily being pushed to use it.”
But cross-linguistic collaboration can pay big dividends, Lyster said. He described a project carried out by the Riverside School Board on the South Shore. Working with illustrated story books, Grade 2 English and French teachers used the English and French version of the same book so that there were would be thematic coherence to the exercise, Lyster said.
“At first, we thought maybe the kids would get bored or find this was really dumb. But they really liked it. What the teachers did was focus on derivational morphology — word formation, prefixes and suffixes and root words. That system works in similar ways across both French and English and so in the context of these stories, teachers were drawing students’ attention to word formation and how it’s different and similar across English and French. “The teachers themselves said these kids became like little linguistic detectives, finding little words in big words,” Lyster said.
The students’ awareness of word formation was then tested against that of a control group of students who had not been exposed to same instruction. The young linguistic detectives really improved in French, compared with the control group, Lyster said.
This kind of “awareness activity” is helpful to French-immersion students, Lyster said, pointing to the need for a systematic approach to learning — grammatical gender, for example, which is typically a difficult task for English-speakers. But in a 2006 paper, Lyster found that 81 per cent of all feminine nouns and 80 per cent of all masculine nouns in a children’s French dictionary were in fact rule-governed. Their endings, such as -age (masculine) or -ette (feminine) systematically predict their gender. Teachers would be helped by having educational materials to get that kind of knowledge across, he said.
But a school “cannot do it all,” Lyster said “For someone to come out really on top, they would be need to be complemented by something else, at home, reading books in French, playing basketball with friends in French. All of those things count.”
McGill’s Genesee pointed out that around the world, bilingualism has become the norm and monolingualism, the exception. “I think to some extent,” he said, “people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about bilingualism in a national context, because every one’s getting a bit tired of it.
“But the world has changed and it’s now about multilingualism and it’s about creating opportunities for Canadian children. It’s a global world.”
Unfortunately, there is a lack of leadership on language at the federal level and in most provinces, said Genesee. “It’s discouraging. The European Union has a policy called 1 + 2, which means that all children should learn their national language and as well two other languages, preferably another language from the EU and one other, usually English. In the Autonomous Community of Madrid, they have 55,000 children in immersion programs. They see this as an economic bootstrap that they need to pull themselves up and meanwhile in Canada we’ve fallen into the myth that if you wait long enough everybody will speak English and you won’t have to worry about all these other languages.
“But the reality is that yeah, if you wait long enough everybody will speak English, but they’ll also speak Chinese and Arabic and Russian and whatever, and so monolingual anglophones won’t have any advantage.”
But many Quebecers are not waiting for leadership in language learning. They already know from personal experience that bilingualism and trilingualism have enormous advantages. Nancy Matichuk, the English-speaking mother of an 11-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, wants her children to grow up with the same bilingual advantage she did. Her mother was French-speaking and her father, English-speaking. An auditor, she works easily in both languages.
Her Panamanian-born husband, Isaac Tejera, has added Spanish to the mix, mainly because he wants his children and his parents to be able to communicate, Matichuk said. The family makes sure they plan activities, such as summer camp in both languages and church instruction in French.
Olivia Chamandy, 13, has grown up knowing French, from her mother, and English, from her father. A Grade 8 student in a French school, she switches easily between the two languages. She likes being fluent in both, she said. She can always fit in. “I don’t have to struggle like some of my friends,” Chamandy said.
But even as individual Quebecers embrace bilingualism, the provincial government is sliding backward, said one of the foremost experts in the impact of bilingualism on the developing brain. Laura Ann Petitto, a cognitive neuroscientist and expert in the effects of early bilingual language exposure on the developing brain and its functions, was spurred on to research the effects while she was in Quebec years ago, outraged by the idea that learning English was harmful to learning French. She was startled to find Education Minister Malavoy saying essentially the same thing decades on.
“We have a new world facing us. We have a multilingual world facing us,” Petitto said. “If you want your child to have the best choices and possibilities, you wouldn’t have an educational system where you give them monolingual exposure for a very long time and then later introduce another language. You just wouldn’t do that. It’s not optimal for achieving.
“And not only that, you get the bilingual cognitive advantage on top of it: Faster at multi-tasking, faster at inhibiting irrelevant information, faster at making decisions, at switching among competing items for their attention, faster at selecting the right outcome. You’re getting spillover from the fact that you have two lexicons and two sets of grammar, both of them activated at the same time.
“And you have to remember: If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Personal note: Although officially I left The Gazette last month, this final article of mine is appearing today — and with it an opportunity to say farewell. More than anything else, I would like to thank the many people who helped me over the years, sharing their knowledge and their lives with me. I feel I have interviewed some of the most generous people on Earth, from social workers who took me deep within the world of abused children to let me and The Gazette’s readers see the devastation abuse causes, to the victims of the Lac-Mégantic disaster who, shell shocked, still told me of their ruined lives and the loss of people they loved.
In the more than 30 years that I have written about women’s struggle for equality, much and at the same time little has changed. If it’s hard to remember the time when the murder of women in their own homes was viewed as a romantic gesture, the underpayment of women in the workforce remains distressingly current.
To the readers who followed me on these adventures, I would like you to know that your interest and encouragement helped me more than you could imagine.
Due to a reporting error, a story in the Oct. 5 Gazette referred to Roy Lyster as a psychology professor at McGill University. In fact, he works in McGill’s education faculty. The Gazette regrets the error.