Language in Quebec Schools: It’s Time for a Rethink

A report on “linguistic indicators in the education sector” published this summer by Quebec’s Ministry of Education reveals that the decline in enrollment in English schools is continuing apace. Somewhere on the order of 15% of the children who received certificates of eligibility to attend English schools in Quebec have ended up in the French school system. The actual proportion of eligible children pursuing their studies in French in Quebec is of course higher. Many parents simply don’t bother to apply for these certificates. My wife was educated in English in Quebec, and so our kids are eligible for English instruction. We applied for a certificate for our eldest daughter, sort of on the “use it or lose it” principle, but we ended up placing her in a French school anyway. We never even considered applying for a certificate for either of our younger kids.

The reason is simple. There are no more really English schools left in Quebec. The vast majority of English elementary schools are immersion schools of one type or another. They seek to bring English-speaking kids to a high level of proficiency in French. Most subjects in schools in the English school system are actually taught in French.

From what I can tell from listening to the children of Anglophone friends speak French, these schools do a pretty good job. It is a well-documented fact that Anglophones living in Quebec are by far the most bilingual Canadians. Any child who has gone through a French immersion school in the English school system can hold his or her own in most contexts.

But here’s the problem: French schools do it better. Anglophone kids who go through the French school system are really immersed in the French language. Not only are classes taught in French, but French is the language of the institution as a whole. English kids who go to school in French are surrounded by French-speaking kids, and by French staff. They come out of French schools fluent, rather than merely proficient.

Many Anglophone parents have thus perfectly reasonably decided that if their goal is to have their kids prepared for life in the “new Quebec”, they had better send them to French schools. Anglophone kids will inevitably learn English at home, and through the hegemonic Anglophone culture of North America. English will take care of itself. The choice is really between good-enough French, and fluent French. No wonder enrollment is declining.

English parents are voting with their feet in Quebec because they can. The language laws that have been in place since 1977, and which aim to stabilize the language drift away from French that had been evident at least among immigrants in the years leading up to the Parti Québécois’ election in 1976, give only those children whose parents were educated in English in Canada the right to attend English schools. But they can choose whether or not to exercise that right. Everyone else – Francophones and immigrants – has not a right, but an obligation, to attend French schools.

English children in the English-school system are however not the only ones receiving linguistic instruction that is not as good as it could be. The teaching of English in French schools is actually far worse than the quite decent French-language training that English children receive in immersion schools. French schools only begin teaching English in the third grade, and when they do, it is only for a couple of hours a week. Unless is it supplemented in some way, this is hardly enough to give rise to English-language proficiency.

French-speaking parents have increasingly been voicing their discontent about this unsatisfactory state of affairs. Unlike Anglophone parents who satisfy the criteria for the eligibility certificate, and who can thereby ensure that their kids will master French by sending them to French schools, French parents have to rely entirely on French schools for their kids’ English-language training. Now, more affluent parents can always send their kids to summer camp in Ontario or Maine, or take family holidays in the US or the UK. But that’s obviously more difficult for lower income Francophone families.

Proposals have been floated about how to address the problem without a major overhaul of the school system. A prominent proposal, much talked about but yet to be implemented, would have children from French language schools go through an immersion year or half-year. But it has hit up against the opposition of language hard-liners, and by teachers’ unions who claim that the plan would raise insuperable practical difficulties.

There are reasons to think that such a proposal, if it were implemented, would not be as successful as its promoters have hoped. After all, the proposals would have French-speaking children attend school in the higher grades of elementary school, which is just a bit too late for the attainment of full fluency. What’s more, if they are surrounded in immersion programs by a cohort of other francophone children, it is likely that the benefit of immersion would be limited (just as it is for children who attend French immersion schools along with other Anglophone children).

An anecdote. My children all attended a small elementary school in the francophone public system in Western Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, a neighborhood that was almost entirely Anglophone when I was growing up, but which has become far more linguistically integrated of late, as middle-class Francophones started looking for more affordable housing in central Montreal than what they could find in swank Outremont. The proportion of English-speaking kids who attend the school is much higher than it is in French schools in more homogeneously Francophone neighborhoods. These kids would sometimes revert to English in hallways and in the playground, and would be remonstrated with by teachers and by hallway monitors when they did so. It became enough of an issue for the Director of the school to launch a (gentle and low-key) campaign affirming the “Français mur-à-mur” character of the school.

At a school assembly shortly thereafter, francophone parents rose, not to commend the school authorities for their valiant protection of the French language, but to ask them to allow Anglophone kids to continue speaking English outside of the classroom, in order for their own kids to receive a little bit more exposure to English. For those of us who grew up with the language wars of the 1970s, this was a stunning reversal. But it is indicative of the preoccupations of many of today’s francophone parents, who no longer see English as the language of the erstwhile occupier, but rather as a language of global communication and opportunity.

So English children are not receiving optimal training in the English school system, and French kids are not receiving adequate English instruction in the French school system.

How did we get into this mess? At least on the Island of Montreal, it should be the easiest thing in the world for children to achieve fluency in both English and French. Anglophone and Francophone children have everything they need to achieve such fluency, after all – they have each other. If Scandinavian school children are capable of achieving fluency in English without an actual Anglophone community in their midst, why can’t Quebec’s children become fully bilingual when they live cheek by jowl with one another?

It may be time to revisit the linguistic segregation of Quebec’s school system. It has in my view quite clearly led to a linguistically sub-optimal situation. In particular, linguistic school boards may have become a self-imposed prison for Anglophone children. Guarantees of English education, and of control over English-language education, were central to the precarious linguistic peace that has obtained in Quebec in recent decades, but it is far from clear that it serves the linguistic interests of Quebec’s schoolchildren particularly well anymore. English kids need to be able to break the “linguistic ceiling” that learning French in English institutions imposes upon them, and French children need to acquire greater proficiency in English than the French school system allows, and they need to be able to do so regardless of whether or not their parents are wealthy enough to send them to an English summer camp.

So here’s a radical idea: bilingual schools. Why not have schools in which kids mix across English/French lines, and in which children receive instruction in both languages? Children in such schools would receive the benefits of immersion in both languages, and they would be able to parlay the language instruction they receive in class into real fluency by being brought into daily contact with children from the “other” language group. What’s more, having Anglophone and Francophone kids mix from a very early age may do something to erode the “us and them” mentality that unfortunately still pervades the social fabric of Quebec.

There are myriad institutional obstacles to such a proposal. Not least among them is the importance that many in the English-speaking community ascribe to being able to control institutions. English school boards, it is claimed, are one of the only places (along with de-merged municipalities) where Anglophones get to exercise some degree of self-determination as a community.

Voting rates in English Montreal School Board elections are dismally low, however, which suggests that many Anglophones do not see the institution as central to their communal life. A small clique has run the school board for years now, benefiting from the general indifference of the Anglophone community toward this purportedly central institution. What’s more, Anglophones should be ready to abandon institutions, or at least to overhaul them radically, if they are demonstrably no longer serving the interests of Anglophone children.

The French-speaking community, or at least those who run its educational bureaucracies, would also have to abandon some of its linguistic sacred cows. In particular, it would have to overcome its attachment to the bogus science according to which children can really only have one mother tongue, and that keeping them from any contact with other languages is necessary for them to achieve mastery in their native language.

We need a radical rethink of the way in which our children learn languages in Quebec. If a few sacred cows are to fall by the wayside in the process, so be it.


Language in Quebec Schools: It’s Time for a Rethink — 9 Comments

  1. It sounds like you’re talking about a system like California’s two-way bilingual immersion program: I’ve heard that there’s a good deal of research showing benefits of this model, though I haven’t read it myself.

    By the way, it’s not at all clear that late elementary school is “too late for the attainment of full fluency.” Even in the strong version of the critical period hypothesis, the window is said to close around age 12. But older children have many advantages over younger children. In a taught environment, they typically learn vocabulary much faster. This can, therefore, be a more efficient use of the time, since the purpose of schools is not just to teach a second language.

    Perhaps the element most likely to suffer from a later start is phonology. Even highly proficient second language speakers often display a noticeable first-language accent if they start studying later in life.

  2. I know that this is blasphemous, but why do we even have English public schools in Québec? My kids also go to francophone schools which are dealing with similar challenges regarding growing numbers of anglophone kids attending (and parents who do not necessarily speak French), and you are quite correct that it is the francophone parents who want more English. When considering secondary school options, it was ironically the francophones who suggested that we consider EMSB options. According to them, the language education (both French and English) in the EMSB is far better than in most institutions in the CSDM. From my perspective, we need to start with the basics – language education is no longer considered an important area and this is a very serious problem.

  3. You’re reacting to Anne Lagace Dowson’s article in The Gazatte, but you’re wide of the mark in your claim that the French sector public schools represent such a vastly superior second-language learning experience for anglos, compared to the English sector’s French immersion schools. They are not.
    Overall this is a hugely important issue for anglos and for all Montrealers, because without an anglo commitment to French, Montreal cannot fulfill its promise as the world’s most bilingual city.
    Granted, because of restrictive busing policies designed to shore up enrolment at schools without early immersion, only one in five kids today actually has access to an early immersion program in the EMSB. The main obstacle to universal French immersion is fierce internal resistance by nostalgic decision makers – frequently, retired administrators who see their role as cultural guardians of the past.
    That’s a political problem that can be fixed in the upcoming elections, but the reality is that anglo kids who begin acquiring linguistic confidence in daycare or very early in their school careers, then learn exponentially, because they are much more likely to be bilingually active in social settings on the playground, on the ice or at ballet class. Learning and socialization doesn’t occur only in the classroom because the city’s linguistic communities are no longer segregated to the extent they were only 20 years ago.
    Meanwhile, francophone parents are themselves part of the mass exodus from the sclerotic and dysfunctional French public school sector, into the growing government-funded French private sector. Why? Because the French public system now boasts the highest drop-out rate in North America. Only 40 per cent graduate on time.
    Many proposals have been made for co-managed French sector/English sector schools in Montreal, but they are consistently vetoed by linguistic hardliners within the French public sector whose requests are typically conditional on complete physical segregation, with hallways separated with the addition of cinderblock walls!
    I kid you not!

  4. Parents at most non-immersion English public schools have lobbied furiously – but in vain – for immersion programs in their schools since at least 2000 – while the teachers union lobbied just as furiously against it. It’s now a matter of exasperation for parents and that’s why they’re marching into the French sector. The union leaders got their way, but it’s now obviously a Pyrrhic victory that’s cost hundreds of teaching jobs and has inflicted serious damage on the English public sector (any teacher will tell you that) as well as compromising job prospects for the community’s young people entering the workforce (talk to any young person).
    Immersion policy is subject to a vote by the council of commissioners and three years ago, progress was finally made when a serious recommendation for universal immersion was deposited for a vote by the administration. Minutes before the vote, however, the chairman sunk the entire effort by claiming to have received a legal opinion disallowing implementation of universal immersion. Once again, secret back-room dealing won the day.
    That’s why this election is quickly becoming a referendum on this critical issue. By making universal immersion the cornerstone of our bilingual community, anglo parents can move forward and make good decisions for their kids.

  5. Precisely. We should stop concentrating on The Question of *The Language* (for various reasons, both empirical and normative) and start asking instead questions about linguistic repertoires.

  6. You hit on everything here. The linguistic segregation of the school system(s) in QC is retrograde. The investments, protection and control of these institutions need to be called into question, broken down and torn apart. Pour en finir avec les ‘sacred cows.’

  7. Two caveats:
    1. “Anglophone kids will inevitably learn English at home.” Most kids, those whose parents are not professors, will learn what the CIA calls “kitchen” English, when what they need to get ahead is school English.
    2. The “us vs. them” is racial, not cultural — and essentially all immigrants’ children would ditch French for English if they could.

  8. My case is similar….we have the certificate, eldest kid went to English school for 5 years…however, English schools are so problematic…we ended up opting out of it.
    They are just going to disappear anyways because less and less anglos are afraid of education in French and EMSB does not do a good job keeping us interested in English schools anyways….so, kids go to French school…

  9. “Instead, Marshall called child psychologists and other experts to show that dividing children by race was “inherently unequal.”

    May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education

    Sixty years later, two five year olds stand waiting for their school buses on Levy Blvd. One child waves to the other as he enters the bus to be driven to his “French” School” The other waits with a sad look seeing his friend leaving while he waits for his bus to go to “English” school.

    It is time for all Quebecers to admit that segregation is segregation. The time has come to not only eliminate linguistic school boards but the segregation mentality that permits us to separate friends on the basis of language.