Archived - Report on the Manitoba forum on the continuum of second-language learning opportunities

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Follow-up to the study Two Languages, a World of Opportunities: Second-Language Learning in Canada’s Universities

Introduction

The Commissioner of Official Languages’ study entitled Two Languages, a World of Opportunities: Second-Language Learning in Canada’s Universities, published in October 2009, was the basis for a forum organized in collaboration with Canadian Parents for French – Manitoba. The forum followed a series of round-table discussions held in the four Atlantic provinces in March 2010. The goal of the forum was to discuss the issues raised in the study and to initiate a dialogue with participants to improve second-language learning opportunities in Manitoba universities.

The Study

In 2007, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages initiated a large-scale study to improve its knowledge of second-language learning opportunities available in Canadian universities and to determine current best practices, challenges and areas for improvement.

The study found that while the vast majority of institutions offer second-language programs, significant gaps remain. While the approaches taken by universities may vary based on their particular situation, the study identified the following priority areas for attention:

  • Increase opportunities for more intensive second-language learning;
  • Exploit the full potential of minority-language institutions;
  • Improve partnerships, collaboration and use of technology;
  • Increase exchanges and real-life opportunities to use one’s second official language.


In the study, the Commissioner also made a number of concrete recommendations for governments and universities, and offered suggestions for future studies. According to the Commissioner, creating a true second-language learning continuum—from elementary school to the labour market—is crucial. In order to create such a continuum, the Commissioner believes that universities must offer a broader range of learning opportunities that meet the diverse needs of their students.

Discussion Forum

The forum was held on November 17, 2010, at the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface. Some 40 participants attended the discussion, including:

  • representatives of the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg and Brandon University;
  • representatives of the Government of Manitoba, including the Department of Education and the Francophone Affairs Secretariat;
  • representatives of the Association manitobaine des directrices et directeurs des écoles d’immersion française;
  • representatives of Canadian Parents for French;
  • representatives of schools and school boards;
  • second-language teachers;
  • representatives of the Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers and the Canadian Association of Immersion Teachers;
  • a representative of the Department of Canadian Heritage;
  • a student representative of the Conseil jeunesse provincial;
  • a master’s student;
  • a representative of the Association des juristes d’expression française du Manitoba inc.;
  • a representative of the Société franco-manitobaine.


The discussion began with opening remarks by Paulette Vielfaure Dupuis, Vice-President of Canadian Parents for French – Manitoba. Michelle Freynet, the Commissioner’s representative for Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the discussion facilitator, presented the background and objectives of the forum:

  • To reflect on the issues raised in the study;
  • To pay particular attention to certain previously identified recommendations;
  • To initiate a dialogue with key stakeholders to determine how best to move forward on a provincial level to improve second-language learning opportunities in Manitoba universities.


The Commissioner of Official Languages then welcomed participants with a short speech on the important role Canadian universities must play in the continuum of second-language learning opportunities. This role becomes all the more important in difficult economic times and in a time of Canadian public service renewal, when more and more students are showing an interest in joining the federal public service. According to the Commissioner, this context and the limits of the federal public service’s language training model should encourage universities to better equip their students for a rewarding public service career.

Following the Commissioner’s speech, participants introduced themselves and described the reasons for their interest in the subject matter addressed in the study. This round-table introduction highlighted the diversity of the individuals and groups interested in both the topic and the various issues raised in the study. Introductions were followed by a presentation by Office of the Commissioner analyst Marie-Christine Monchalin on the study’s general conclusions. This presentation laid the groundwork for the discussions that followed.

The recommendations chosen for the discussion were as follows:

Recommendation 3: A new fund

The Commissioner of Official Languages recommends that the Government of Canada and the provincial and territorial governments establish a new fund to provide financial assistance to universities to develop and implement new initiatives to improve secondlanguage learning opportunities. This fund should not, however, diminish the existing support as well as the need for additional support of minority-language and bilingual institutions.

Recommendation 5: Taking action

The Commissioner of Official Languages recommends that individual institutions develop strategies and action plans to improve second-language learning opportunities in the context of each institution’s own situation and circumstances.

Recommendation 9: Furthur study

The Commissioner of Official Languages recommends that governments, universities, the private sector and other organizations undertake further research on second-language learning at the university level.

These recommendations did not dictate the course of the discussions; rather, they served as a starting point. In general, the discussions focused on various issues raised in the study, on participants’ own relevant experiences, and on possible approaches for improving secondlanguage learning opportunities in Manitoba universities.

Main Issues Raised in the Discussion

Why second-language learning?

Many participants agreed with the study’s finding that students pursue second-language studies mainly for personal growth. Given today’s increased international mobility, it is now normal for students to learn and master at least two languages. Many participants therefore felt that the discussion should not be strictly based on the utilitarian view of second-language learning as a professional asset, but rather should also focus on the personal satisfaction such an asset can bring.

Many agreed that the latter approach would also encourage students to use their acquired language skills in their daily lives. Other participants raised the Canadian identity aspect of learning a second official language and encouraged the various decision makers to promote this perspective.

The importance of training second-language teachers

The demand for second-language learning opportunities at the university level in Manitoba does not come solely from the federal and provincial public services. Throughout the province, schools are struggling to fill second-language teaching positions, and language skills vary greatly from teacher to teacher, in both core French programs and immersion.

According to participants, these issues demonstrate the need for quality university programs that train teachers who have good language skills. As much as possible, current and future teachers should also have every opportunity to perfect their language skills, including paid teaching internships.

A young person’s decision to continue second-language learning at university is often influenced by the teachers he or she meets throughout their schooling. As participants noted, if future teachers are given quality university programs, they will be more likely to create a learning environment for their students in which French is promoted from a very young age.

Exchange opportunities

Most participants said that second-language learning in the classroom should be combined with an immersion opportunity. According to participants, because language and culture go hand in hand, exchanges bring second-language learning to life. Exchanges, especially in the Canadian context, are also a great way to demystify second-language learning. According to some participants, the fear of failure must not be overlooked as a factor that can discourage students from pursuing second-language learning.

Several participants extolled the virtues of the federal Explore program, which offers participants an authentic second-language learning experience. Others were interested in the Commissioner’s recommendation to implement a program similar to the Erasmus programme, which promotes exchanges between European universities. Still others think that exchange opportunities should be offered not only at the university level, but also in high school, where they can instil in students a desire to pursue second-language learning in university.

However, some participants expressed concern about the vulnerability of programs like Explore. In recent years, the program was shortened from six weeks to five, a change that many people deplored. Everyone agreed that these types of programs are greatly appreciated by young people and should be strengthened to make them accessible to more students.

Should we bring back language requirements?

A contentious issue that was raised several times during the discussions concerned bringing back second-language requirements at the high school and university levels. According to some participants, in an officially bilingual country, a clear message must be sent throughout the entire school system that knowing both official languages is important. Participants agreed that current high school requirements in math and science send a clear message about the importance of those subjects. However, according to some participants, maintaining the status quo regarding second-language learning contributes to French becoming less of a priority for students.

Other participants claimed that similar requirements imposed in the past had not necessarily had the desired effect. They said that this type of requirement does not necessarily get young people interested in language learning nor does it teach them about the added value—both personal and professional—of learning Canada’s two official languages. Imposing the requirement could also raise concerns about fairness, given that the quality of and access to existing programs varies considerably across the country. According to these participants, the focus should instead be on raising awareness among young people of the advantages of learning the country’s other official language.

How to improve interuniversity collaboration?

University representatives at the forum seemed to be open to greater interuniversity collaboration, which could be achieved in a variety of ways. Increased collaboration could benefit from existing networks, such as the Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne and the Réseau des cégeps et des collèges francophones du Canada. These networks could prove to be an excellent platform for discussing common issues shared by members.

One interesting model mentioned during the discussions is the Consortium national de formation en santé. Although the model applies only to universities that offer health care studies in French, it is a good example of interuniversity collaboration and could serve as a model for creating a similar program for second-language learning.

Most participants agreed that collaboration should be improved in the area of legal studies. In Manitoba, access to French-language legal services is a major issue, and not all students want to move to Ottawa or Moncton to study common law in French.

A good example of collaboration in this area is the legal terminology course in French now offered at the University of Manitoba in cooperation with the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface. This is also a good example of collaboration between an English-language institution and a French-language institution. Manitoba is fortunate to have a French-language institution like the Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface, which has legal terminology expertise in French. According to some participants, this institution should be central to collaborative efforts in Manitoba.

Increased collaboration is needed within universities as well as between them. Some participants deplored the fact that second-language courses and other courses taught in the second language are often perceived as the sole responsibility of the arts or education faculties. As mentioned several times, proficiency in both official languages is an added value in many fields and should therefore be reflected in a wider range of programs.

How to move forward?

Participants seemed to be in consensus regarding the Commissioner’s recommendation to increase funding to improve second-language learning opportunities at the university level. However, this raised several questions about the best way to distribute the funds. Is it more efficient to fund universities that already have several second-language programs, or should the focus be more on the universities that have fewer programs?

Participants also agreed that, because students’ needs and language skills vary greatly, universities must offer a range of courses and programs to better meet those needs. While French-language and bilingual universities have a key role to play in this regard, they are not the only ones. Some students do not have the language skills or confidence needed to pursue their studies in a completely French environment. English-language universities must also be able to provide opportunities to students who want to continue learning. Some participants said that universities should focus on the potential of students who have gone through core French programs by giving them opportunities to develop their skills. Elementary and high school core programs should be promoted all the more because they have the most students.

Some universities, especially smaller ones, still have a problem with student demand for second-language learning. Brandon University, for example, which is located in southwestern Manitoba, has little demand. According to Brandon University’s representative, the government should find a way to promote the benefits of learning French in mostly English-speaking areas. This kind of promotion is likely to be different than what is done in more bilingual regions.

In the same vein, some participants mentioned the importance of using more positive and motivating language to counter negative perceptions about learning our two official languages. Language often has a direct impact on interpretation. Some participants criticized the use of the expression “French as a second language,” for example, which assumes a certain hierarchy in the languages and relegates French to the status of a second-class language. Some participants said that “French as an official language” would better reflect the equality of Canada’s two official languages and thereby encourage people to learn French.

Given the fact that the Protocol for Agreements for Minority-Language Education and Second- Language Instruction ends in 2013, it was suggested that greater pressure be applied at the next round of discussions to exploit universities’ full potential with respect to second-language learning. These discussions could be a good opportunity to convey many of the messages raised during the forum. Some participants noted that it would be advantageous for the initiative that replaces the Roadmap for Canada’s Linguistic Duality 2008-2013: Acting for the Future to include initiatives that directly involve universities.

Despite the many financial challenges facing Canadian universities, participants agreed that this forum should just be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. For example, university representatives agreed to report on the discussions to their presidents in order to keep them abreast of the latest developments. The dialogue should continue with key people at the elementary and high school levels as well as the university level to ensure a consistent continuum in second-language learning in Manitoba.

Conclusion

The Forum on the Continuum of Second-Language Learning Opportunities, organized in collaboration with Canadian Parents for French – Manitoba proved to be a very effective way to bring together an impressive number of participants with different perspectives to talk about second-language learning in Manitoba universities. Using the study Two Languages, a World of Opportunities: Second-Language Learning in Canada’s Universities as a backdrop, participants began a dialogue on improving the continuum of second-language learning opportunities in Manitoba.

The province has a rich history of linguistic duality. It is time to build on that history to give young people the opportunity to reap all the benefits from learning Canada’s two official languages. Despite the many challenges involved in second-language learning at the university level, participants were optimistic that concrete measures could be taken to improve the availability, accessibility and quality of learning opportunities.

Everyone present at the forum agreed that ongoing dialogue among all parties concerned is essential to move forward. They recognized that local progress can be made with the help of local decision makers. It is hoped that participants will continue to be agents of change, so that young Manitobans have access to a continuum of quality second-language learning opportunities from elementary school to university.