Is French language instruction a “sacred cow” in BC schools?


The MoE has sparked some outrage with a document that seems to propose allowing children to choose to learn a second language other than French in BC public education, but is this really a big deal?

First of all, if our current practice of requiring children to take French classes is kid-focused-that is, truly in the best interest of kids–then I’m all for it. One hundred and ten percent. But, if the practice is more rooted in tradition, and not necessarily for the benefit of children, then it’s worth a look.

Secondly, I love that Quebec is part of Canada. The fact that our country has evolved as a mix of British and French influence is what makes us unique as a nation. The French influence on our Canadian culture, our legal system, and our arts/music scene has been the perfect counter balance to our uptight, stodgy British roots.

Is it possible, though, to talk practically about the value of kids in BC learning French without being labelled as something horrible? Probably not, but here I go…

Every school district is going to have something in their strategic plan or mission statement about preparing kids for the future, or enabling kids to succeed–something like that. So, is French the language that will give them the best chance in the future? Or, perhaps more importantly, should kids and their families decide that, or should it be mandated?

Certainly French instruction should be available, but there are valid reasons why BC families would choose a different language, the first of which being that their kids may not ever speak (or hear) French outside of the classroom. We all know that if you don’t practise languages your retention is pretty low. There are many languages that are much more relevant to BC communities.

What about travelling? How many BCers travel to French speaking places for holidays (or business?) I’m going to guess that Spanish would be more useful for most snowbirds.

Of course, there are currently jobs in Canada that require fluency in French and English, but how many strive to become federal bureaucrats? I sense that requirement softening anyway, and predict that it will continue to do so.

So what does trying to teach French to kids where French is rarely spoken really accomplish? Of course it doesn’t hurt, but aren’t there other languages that would better serve them in today’s world. How about Mandarin? With China poised to take over the world, our kids might be looked upon more favourably by the next superpower if they can speak the lingua franca.

Of course, how we do this is another issue entirely. It’s unlikely, for instance, that we will be offering Kazakhstani in our Sunshine Coast public schools anytime soon, regardless of the constant pleas to do so. It’s probably not feasible in smaller districts, at least not within our traditional methods of delivery. With online learning though…

But that’s getting into the how of the problem. Let’s focus on if.

Does this issue deserve a look? To answer you must first consider two questions:

Would children be better served through more language options?

Have you ever sang the third line of Frere Jacques as, “Sonya la Martinez! Sonya la Martinez!?”

Be honest. If the answer to either question is “yes” then we owe it to kids to revisit this custom.

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13 Comments

Filed under BC politics, Canadian politics, Education

13 responses to “Is French language instruction a “sacred cow” in BC schools?

  1. French still seems to be the best option in Canadian schools (even in the west) since it is relatively easy for an English speaker to learn, makes the learning of other languages (Spanish, Portuguese) easier later on, and gives an insight into the English language itself. Mandarin is valuable in and of itself for those that are interested, but as a gateway to other languages it isn’t that helpful – it helps with Japanese a bit, and Korean and Vietnamese to a lesser extent. French is also growing by about 7 million speakers a year thanks to Africa, so it’s in no danger of going anywhere.

    French needs to be seen in a non-political light. When we learned it back in elementary in Calgary the only impression we got was that this was the language they speak in Quebec and that’s why we should learn it, and no mention was made of where else it was spoken, its influence on English, or anything else that might have made it more interesting.

    • Jason Scott

      Mithridates, thanks for the informed comments. Maybe you’re right-maybe French is the best language for Canadian kids to learn but, if so, why does it need “privileged status”?

      I don’t think it’s a worthwhile argument to say that learning French will make it easier to learn Spanish/Portuguese later on–why not just start with Spanish if that’s the goal? You could just as easily insert Spanish into your argument and it would be just as valid.

      You’re right that French needs to be seen in a non-political light, I’m simply talking about a practical perspective.

      I guess this is the root of my question “What language will BC kids be most likely to need/want to speak later in life?” Surely there’s an expensive study on this out there. Anyone know?

      What’s Latino Sine Flexione? Where did it come from? This is what I know about it from your blog (thanks to Google translate):

      “Blog as Latin without bending. In this blog, write me, in the Latin and without bending for the monsters of the tongue of how this See, how the practical and for my language, and a.”

      • Latino (should be Latina) sine flexione … Latin without the noun endings. Latin is inflected, which means that the use of nouns in the sentence are based on their endings, not their place in the sentence (like English).

        Which means word order then becomes an artistic and stylistic device. Taking away the inflection makes it easier (and in my mind, dumbs it down), but it does not teach the language – language is about more than the grammar – it is about how the grammar is used to create art, to share a culture and a set of values. It’s why teaching grammar is so important in any language.

        I’ve never as a Latin teacher and Classicist heard of this “Latin” before, but I sure hope that it isn’t real. Because if it is, it would be very sad.

        • >I’ve never as a Latin teacher and Classicist heard of this “Latin” before, but I sure hope that it isn’t real. Because if it is, it would be very sad.

          There is no reason to be sad – the language is not Latin, but a separate language based on Latin. It was not invented in order to replace it. There’s no more reason to be sad about LsF being real than there is to be sad about Bislama or Tok Pisin.

          • You’ll forgive me if I am a purist :-). If it were for a purpose, or didn’t take away that which is the very essence and beauty of the Latin language, I might even understand it.

            Ah, well, different strokes for different folks! I’m happy that I learned something, at the very least! 🙂

        • Hi, I’m replying here since there doesn’t seem to be a reply button below your most recent comment. I’m a purist myself about Latin itself so I would not be supportive of any auxiliary language that wants to replace it.

          I’ve actually written a bit on why Latin revivalists should support (lukewarm support, that is) languages like Occidental / LsF since in a theoretical world where they are used as a second language, Latin itself would be almost immediately readable for everyone and from then it would take much less time to become proficient in Latin itself. I guess it’s kind of like a sitarist seeing banjo proficiency as a good thing – maybe not your favourite instrument but at least every banjo player will know how to tune a stringed instrument, read music, etc., and sitar proficiency will be that much easier to attain.

          • I’m not so sure that I agree with you that Latin would be easier if you learned this first – the inflection adds such a depth to the language, such an art, that only comes with analysis of it on multiple levels. If people are used to not seeing that depth, then it becomes a lot harder to learn. In fact, there is a debate raging now amongst Latin teachers about the trouble kids are having jumping from textbook Latin (VERY patterned) to unadulterated Latin (stylized), because they are taught to translate intuitively, and not analyze as they go on. It works for awhile, looking up the words and fitting them together without thought for endings, but then they get to harder sentences, and it doesn’t work anymore – if they don’t have those skills from the beginning, the jump is very frustrating to them.

            Your argument, though, can be applied to learning any language – grammar itself is universal, so if you learn one, all others are easier because you are familiar with the idea of structure in a language. That, I can support 🙂

            Which is why I am surprised that more schools do not offer linguistics as an introduction to language… yes, I am a language geek.

            Also, from what I understood (allbeit very basically) Occidental was a neo-Celtic language, with some basis in Latin?

        • Another reply to your most recent comment: that’s true what you say about the structure of a language vs. just understanding a lot of the vocabulary. I’ve actually often found Latvian to be most similar to classical Latin since it has a regular stress, is pronounced mostly as written, and has cases and vowel length. Even the locative is a lot like the Latin ablative where only the vowel length is different. I’ve noticed a lot of English Latin students tend to overemphasize this but Latvians are used to just the right amount of extra vowel length depending on the case.

          On the other hand, a background in something like Occidental would at least make Latin passively readable. It would make it feel a bit more familiar and friendly even if proper active use is still impossible.

          I wouldn’t call it a neo-Celtic language – it’s more of a streamlined Western European. Sometimes you’ll see some pure Latin words too when no common root can be found among existing modern languages. Oh, one aspect in which Occidental does help with Latin besides just passive vocabulary is De Wahl’s rule, which is used to form words in much the same way:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Wahl's_rule

      • Hi, sorry for not replying earlier but I only received notice of replies by email today.

        Privileged status – that term seems like it was made for controversy. I don’t think French should be studied first due to deserving a special status, but it is still one of the best languages for an English student to begin with. Afrikaans and Norwegian are actually much easier but I doubt Canadian schools are going to take them up. Spanish is not a bad option either, but French has had a much larger impact on English thanks to William the Conqueror and Norman rule, so Spanish doesn’t aid an in-depth understanding of English as much.

        For BC you could make the argument that Spanish would be a better option since California is just down the coast. I would still stick with French though since there are a few million Canadians that can teach it without needing visas and French is good for getting into public service jobs and even getting elected.

        Latino sine Flexione: Latin without inflexions. It was invented by an Italian mathmatician named Giuseppe Peano as an international auxiliary language, and it was quite popular while he was alive in the early 1900s. It’s basically Latin words in the ablative plus about as simple a grammar as you can get. The ablative is because that’s the form that resembles modern Romance languages the most. Nix (snow) becomes nive, rex (king) is rege, ferox (ferocious) is feroce, etc.

        If I was king of Canada though and was able to decide linguistic policy with a wave of the hand, I would make Occidental/Interlingue the country’s common language. It looks like this:

        Occidental is basically a simplified and streamlined western European language, and feels kind of like French/Italian vocabulary with a hint of Germanic on top of an English grammar, and entirely without exceptions. After learning Occidental one is easily able to read texts in French/Spanish/Italian/Portuguese, but it takes but a fraction of the time to learn.

        One example of Occidental:

        Li Europan lingues es membres del sam familie.
        The European languages are members of the same family.

        Lor separat existentie es un mite.
        Their separate existence is a myth.

        Por scientie, musica, sport etc, li tot Europa usa li sam vocabular.
        For science, music, sport, etc., all of Europe uses the same vocabulary.

        Li lingues differe solmen in li grammatica, li pronunciation e li plu commun vocabules.
        The languages differ solely in grammar, pronunciation, and the most common words.

        • Jason Scott

          Yes I can read Occidental quite well having never heard of it! Certainly demonstrates a point, I don’t think any of the languages that have been “made up”–that is based on logic and trying to tame the wild and beautiful mish mash of our evolved languages–will ever take hold, as brilliant as they are.

          I don’t know if English is the worst for having very few hard rules or a lot of exceptions, but it must be on the list. So illogical, but of course it seems like “the language” and perfectly sound in it’s reasoning if you don’t think about it (and it’s what you know.)

          SO subjective! Thanks for the grounding.

  2. What languages are offered depends on local and global demand. For example, Arabic and Chinese are gaining more prominence (we recently developed a Chinese language program in my district). These languages are important, to be sure, but to the history and culture of a country like Canada, French is important. Likewise, in America, a language like Latin (the Romans, after all, gave America the republican form of government), is important. Yes, I teach Latin.

    What I don’t like in terms of being a language educator is the CONSTANT numbers game that is played – like my job and my standing as a teacher is dependent on how many students sign up for a class. And, how my job depends on those numbers as well.

    I agree with you – many different languages should be offered, but all should be SUPPORTED. Instead of hiring 1 teacher for 1 class, perhaps bring in a local native speaker and pair them up with an experienced language teacher to “try” the program on for size. As long as all teachers, and all languages feel equally embraced and supported.

    So, keep the French, try the Chinese, and perhaps offer the option for students to take both at the same time?

  3. Jason Scott

    Great discussion here and a great example of how language, passion, and emotion are so intertwined.

    Thanks for the context from some serious lovers of language. I love Latin too, but I certainly don’t speak it–such a treat to have feedback from people passionate about it. I love word origins so that’s where my interest in Latin is rooted. I like French and Spanish too, so of course Latin is like a glimpse into the beginning of many languages.

  4. Dave Stoddart

    Interesting discussion, amigos.

    From a purely economic perspective, Spanish makes a lot of sense. Several people I have spoken to indicate that for doing business in China and elsewhere in Asia, English works quite well, but in Mexico and points south, the inability to speak Spanish is quite a handicap.

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