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Alberta Leads the Way in Second Languages

Kathryn Speck

On February 9, 2008, a National Post editor concerned about the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages wasting money on developing a new French fluency test wrote: “English is the language of a globalized world. Though it would be nice if most Canadian students were bilingual, it is hardly essential.” A few days later in Québec, writer Victor-Lévy Beaulieu attacked Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, as a traitor when she suggested that Québécois children should graduate bilingual. He stated that, “If all Québec becomes bilingual, what awaits us is slow genocide.” (Hamilton 2008) This elicited many letters to the editor. Some argued that bilingualism is a “pipe dream” and a “waste of money” for most Canadians, while others saw the advantages of knowing another language.

It is true that in Canada today, there are only pockets of genuine French/English bilingualism, primarily concentrated in Québec, New Brunswick and Ontario. However, just because that is what Canada is today, does that mean it must always remain that way? In fact, Madeleine Meilleur, Liberal MPP for Ottawa-Vanier, says that if Canada is not yet fully bilingual, it is “nothing to be ashamed of” because Canadian “society has only been working on it actively for 30 years.” (Office of the Commission on Official Languages 2008)

The latest research on language acquisition reveals that learning a second language not only benefits students by enhancing their job prospects, travel experiences and cross-cultural skills but also improves their cognitive abilities, resulting in improved grades in their first language and mathematics. Moreover, it seems that the brain stimulation that occurs when learning a second language increases divergent thinking, memory ability and attention span. Does that second language have to be English in Québec or French in the rest of Canada? No, but Marc Chevrier, a professor of political science at the Université du Québec, wonders why there should be a “lack of linguistic ambition.” He believes that “the debate should not be over whether or not we should learn English in school. It should be, ‘Do we learn not only English but Spanish, too, and maybe another?’” (Hamilton 2008) Children are capable of learning more than one language and even of learning multiple languages at the same time. Indeed, learning a second language makes it easier to learn additional languages as the brain’s sophistication for language learning grows.

The world has more multilingual than monolingual people, and in this global village, it is even more worthwhile to speak additional languages. English may be growing increasingly popular worldwide, but it is still not spoken by three quarters of the world population. Should Canadians be left behind by Europeans, who often easily speak at least two languages? And why would anyone argue that Canadian students should not have their brains better developed by learning a second language? Learning a second language opens so many doors—it’s a portal to a different culture and often leads to a better understanding of oneself. As Justin Trudeau said in 2008, at a second languages conference, it is “absolutely unconscionable” that some Canadians don’t encourage their children to learn a second language. (Howell 2008) Indeed, there is far too much research, not to mention common knowledge, that suggests that learning a second language is the way of the future, and wise parents are making sure their children benefit. Fortunately, in Alberta that choice is now truly supported by the educational system.

In December 2003, the Enhancing Second Language Learning Project was released to the public. The report was originally commissioned by Alberta Learning in 2000 because of concern over declining enrolments in second language classes and programs across the province. Stuart Wachowicz, director of Curriculum, Resource Development and Research Services for the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB), led a team seeking “to improve second language programs and retain students.” (Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages 2008) The recommendations of this second language education renewal project have already had considerable influence in Alberta.

Over the past five years, enrolment in second languages in Edmonton Public schools has increased by about 65 per cent. Edmonton Public offers bilingual programs in seven languages and second language courses in 10 languages. This is in addition to the French immersion program. “The district possesses one of the most comprehensive sets of policy and regulations in Canada governing how languages will be offered, ensuring quality learning and standards of language instruction. The standards govern not only what is being taught, but the language competence of the teacher, assessment processes and target levels of language proficiency in oral, written and signed communications,” according to Janice Aubry, supervisor of the Institute for Innovation in Second Language Education (IISLE) for EPSB. Furthermore, EPSB is now in the third year of phasing in the required study of a second language. Valérie Leclair, French language consultant for the IISLE, says that the “premise was to slowly introduce second language study one grade at a time, beginning in Grade 4 and eventually continuing until Grade 9, at which point students could choose whether they would continue with their second language or pick up a third language in high school.” Most elementary schools, though, began a year earlier in implementing mandatory second language learning. John D. Bracco Junior High School, in Edmonton, has jumped even further ahead, and in 2008/09 the school’s Grade 7, 8 and 9 students must take second language classes. Leclair adds that the “mandated time for second language instruction [at all grades] is 150 minutes per week, with the language being taught at least three times per week.” In other words, second language instruction is being accorded core subject status.

Edmonton is also at the forefront of promoting second language learning in the newly opened Institute for Innovation in Second Language Education, which supports the learning of American sign language, Arabic, Cree, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Mandarin (Chinese), Spanish and Ukrainian. IISLE also provides international language credentialling, training and support of teachers and administrators, access to resources and research information and various services to promote second language learning, such as help in arranging twinnings, pen pals, technology-based interactions and study/work/volunteer opportunities. In addition, IISLE provides information about cultural activities and hosts cultural events, such as film festivals and musical galas and has developed numerous agreements and partnerships with different international partners, such as China, France, Spain and Egypt. “All of these components and partner institutes brought together under one roof will provide new, innovative and exciting opportunities to Alberta schools, students and language stakeholders,” concludes Aubry. Yet another important event being organized by IISLE in conjunction with the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers is the National Conference for Second Language Educators, May 21–23, 2009, in Edmonton. All second language teachers will want to mark their calendars for this conference at the Mayfield Inn, which is expected to attract 500–1,000 delegates as well as publishers, exhibitors, educators and dignitaries from across Canada and abroad.

Furthermore, EPSB is the first jurisdiction in North America to implement the Common European Framework of Reference and the European Language Portfolio, an incredible self-assessment tool that allows language learners to start thinking about their language and cultural proficiencies rather than their deficiencies. Marnie Beaudoin, curriculum consultant for IISLE, says that the European Languages Portfolio is “truly exciting” because “it is a tool used to describe language proficiency across the European Union; it promotes plurilingualism and pluriculturalism [having several languages and cultures]; it aligns principles of assessment with learning practices; and it encourages students to enhance their communication skills in different languages as well as to take responsibility for their own learning.”

Edmonton has earned a reputation as having one of the best public school systems in the world because of its willingness to think outside the box. Alberta Education has decided that it is time for Albertans to be linguistically ambitious. There are so many intellectual, scholastic, economic and cultural advantages to learning a second language that it would be absurd not to encourage second language learning. Why would anyone want to be limited to one language, one culture and one tiny part of the world? Second language learning leads not only to the discovery of different parts of the world and one’s self, but also to greater perception of the connections between those different parts of the world and one’s self. Let the adventure/l’aventure/das Abenteuer/la aventura begin!

References

Alberta Education. 2006. The Impact of Second Language Education; Benefits of Second Language Learning. www.education.alberta.ca/teachers/resources/learnlang/benefits.aspx (accessed April 16, 2008).

Alberta Learning. 2003. Enhancing Second Language Learning. http://education.alberta.ca/media/348417/enhancesllearn.pdf(accessed May 6, 2008).

Alberta Teachers’ Association. 2003. Learning a Second language: A Challenge for Students and Schools. www.teachers.ab.ca/Quick+Links/Publications/ATA+News/Volume+38/Number+12/In+the+News/Learning+a+second+language+a+challenge+for+students+and+schools.htm (accessed April 21, 2008).

Archibald, J., S. Roy, S. Harmel, K. Jesnesy, E. Dewey. E. Moisik and P. Lessard. 2006. “A Review of the Literature on Second Language Learning.” 2nd edition. Calgary, Alta.: The Language Research Centre of the University of Calgary.

Edmonton Public Schools. 2006. Edmonton Public School Board Policies and Regulations: French Language Programs. epsb.ca/policy/hgaf.ar.shtml (accessed April 21, 2008).

Hamilton, G. 2008. “Why English Is Still the Enemy in Quebec.” National Post. February 16.

Howell, D. 2008. “Languages Open Doors in the Mind.” Edmonton Journal. February 12.

National Post. 2008. “Speaking of waste …” (editorial) February 9.

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages 2008. Report in the Symposium on Official Languages. Summary of Presentations: Launching Our Dialogue for Action. www.ocol-clo.gc.ca/html/app1_e.php (accessed April 21, 2008).


Kathryn Speck teaches Grade 7–9 FSL at Riverbend Junior High School, in Edmonton, and completed a Leadership in Languages course through EPSB.

The author wishes to thank Janice Aubry, Marnie Beaudoin and Valérie Leclair for their valuable contributions to this article.