By Bev Schellenberg
I see the Parti Quebecois are once again hammering BC for our perceived lack of French inclusiveness at last year’s Winter Olympics. Boy, are they going to be mad when they hear about our new language curriculum.
If proposed changes go through, French is about to become just one among a number of language options for elementary and high school students in the province. School districts will be permitted to offer additional languages, such as Mandarin or Punjabi, as well as more immersion programs in languages other than French.
Predictably, this has lovers of la belle langue upset. The Greater Vancouver Language Educators’ Consortium, SFU’s office of francophone and francophiles affairs, and La Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique have all expressed their concern that French will no longer have pride of place. But as The Vancouver Sun‘s Pete McMartin points out, maybe it’s time we dealt with a few glaring facts — such as the fact that, while only 9300 people in Vancouver have French as their mother tongue, fully 19 schools here offer French Immersion. Or the fact that 51 per cent of Vancouver residents identify as a visible minority, largely from East and South Asia.
We run into this contradiction all the time out here, between Canada’s official reality and our real reality. News from BC RCMP detachments slowed to a trickle recently, after provincial headquarters announced that all media releases had to be provided in both English and French. This may have had something to do with the force’s failed experiment in using Google Translate on its website, but the fact is the local Mounties have only one full-time French translator, who’s swamped. And given that the 2006 census shows that 165,975 British Columbians speak Punjabi as their first language, 134,015 speak Cantonese, 89,885 German, 73,325 Mandarin, and 63,000 French, shouldn’t we be attempting to provide translation to the larger language groups anyway?
Which is more important: demonstrating in as many areas of our lives as possible that we are indeed a bilingual nation, or embracing the full range of languages spoken in our communities? I honestly don’t know the answer.
When my children were younger, we lived in North Surrey, BC, a centre of South Asian-Canadian life. My children spoke English to the neighbourhood kids and the neighbourhood kids answered in Punjabi. It became plain that my children needed to learn Punjabi in order to converse with their classmates, so I searched for a program they could enter, but only French Immersion was available in the neighbourhood schools. So we moved.
Now my grade eight daughter and her friends want to study Japanese in the biggest school of the biggest district in BC, and they can’t. Only French and Spanish are offered, and no online option is provided. My son and his best friend would like to study Spanish, but French is mandatory in grades five through seven. French is the language I studied in both elementary and high school, and later couldn’t speak, other than to say “bonjour” as I traveled through France. I can’t even read a cereal box. And I had good marks in French.
However, I also recall trekking through Europe and Africa in pre-baby days, proudly displaying my Canadian flag on my backpack, and having many a conversation with international admirers who expressed how wonderful it is that Canada is a bilingual country. So I’m proud that we’re multicultural and I’m proud that we’re bilingual. I want to continue to live in a bilingual country, but I also want our kids to have access to other languages in our public schools, and I want the government to spend our money to translate information into languages that are useful to those living in each part of Canada.
I want it all. How do you say that in French?