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Bridging Canada’s two solitudes through research

Our commitment to conduct a research network in two languages faced 
some predictable challenges – and offered some surprising rewards


The great secret of social science research in Canada is that work by our French-speaking colleagues in Quebec is some of the best social science in the country. International citation rates and research funding levels show this to be so. But most people in Canada – including most English-speaking social scientists – aren’t aware of the important and influential research that our francophone colleagues are doing in many areas.

In our own work in the field of education, a number of excellent publications have appeared in French, yet these have been largely ignored by anglophone researchers in Canada. These publications include important research on distance education (by France Henri and Andrew Kaye, 1985), games for learning (Lise Renaud and Louise Sauvé, 1990), cognitive psychology applied to teaching (Jacques Tardif, 1992) and medical education (Jacques E. Des Marchais et al, 1996). There are many more.

To us, this is more than unfortunate; it is a great loss and detrimental to all our work. Imagine how much richer our social science research findings would be if our “two solitudes” were able to collaborate and build on each other’s work.

This was the impetus for two bilingual professors in education (one of us at Simon Fraser University, the other at TÉLUQ, the distance-learning component of Université du Québec à Montréal) to decide to create a completely bilingual research network when we won an Initiative on the New Economy collaborative research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council five years ago. Our grant, worth almost $3 million over five years, was for a project on Simulation and Advanced Gaming Environments (SAGE) for Learning (see “Our research agenda” below).

We knew it would be difficult and costly to make the network bilingual. But we felt that the bilingual collaboration would be worth it, for several reasons. It would foster greater mutual understanding among researchers. It would build on the accomplishments of separate projects on different sides of the language divide. Ultimately, it would lead to better research. As well, we thought the bilingual commitment could give researchers broader access to research results, publications and tools as well as more opportunities to publish and present their work in new venues.

The obvious question is whether the costs, time and effort involved in making SAGE bilingual might have been better spent directly on research. We can’t answer this question without more comprehensive study. But based on a survey, we can say that researchers found the bilingual nature of the network rewarding from both a research and personal perspective (as we will explain). And network members were highly productive, publishing more than 125 articles, making 165 conference presentations and involving more than 80 graduate students in the research.

Creating a bilingual agency may be a routine affair for the federal government, but for most Canadian researchers it is a maiden voyage. We had no roadmap to guide us in our effort. Little or no research-based knowledge appears to exist on bilingualism in Canadian research groups – whether and in what contexts it is practised, how it is implemented, what it costs and what, if any, benefits are realized that might justify the extra time, effort and expense (see “Research lacuna” below).

We knew that truly bilingual research would be unlikely, but our vision was to support bilingualism in all internal and public communications. An executive committee made up of researchers, partners and staff drafted terms of reference and a bilingualism policy as a framework for network practices. Equality of languages was made official, eliminating possible tension around language choice in specific situations and sensitizing network members to the importance of bilingualism.

Our top priority

We recognized that research productivity, rather than bilingualism, was still the network’s top priority. So early in the project we considered which practices could be implemented, given time and cost constraints.

In writing our policy, we started with the 2006 Canadian Heritage guidelines (PDF), revised them extensively and eventually published them on the SAGE member website to guide the network’s language use and support.

We decided that members of the network could communicate with support offices in either language, while all administrative communications and documents would be in both English and French. Since the SAGE grant did not fund translation, interpretation or related staff time, we committed core funding to pay for interpretation at some meetings and for English-to-French translation at the Quebec office, and French-to-English translation at the Vancouver office.

Beyond these official commitments, many researchers embraced our attempts wholeheartedly and tried to make the network more bilingual. Researchers used various approaches to aim for bilingual presentations at conferences. For example, some would present in one language, but use slides showing the main points in the other language or both languages. Sometimes the presentation and slides were unilingual, but oral summaries in the other language were given periodically by another presenter.

In meetings where only summary translations were used, members who were not fluently bilingual often could not fully understand nor contribute to the interchange of ideas; they could not grasp subtleties in the discussions and only heard quick précis of key points. The most relaxed and successful meetings were our three national conferences, which used costly simultaneous translators and were held specifically to foster cross-team collaboration and communication.

Unexpected benefits

Our efforts avoided the use of English as a default choice. As we had hoped, people made new contacts and began research collaborations that would not have been likely or even possible. For example, Sauvé, Villardier, Kaufman, Probst, Boyd and Sanchez (in Mexico) obtained a grant from CANARIE for their ENJEUX project, which later was awarded the Prize for Excellence in Quebec.

Participants cited access to new research knowledge and collaborators as one of the main benefits. Another benefit they reported was more ease in communicating and expressing ideas in their preferred language. A third was access to new dissemination venues, which led to greater visibility for researchers in both languages. For example, some anglophone researchers presented at a major francophone annual conference (ACFAS) and Dr. Sauvé co-presented in New York at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

However, we hadn’t anticipated the number-one benefit reported by participants – the opportunity to strengthen second-language skills. Although this wasn’t directly related to their research, improved language skills helped SAGE researchers remain patient with the frustrations of working in two languages. Down the road, it should allow more of us to take part in and benefit from bilingual research groups.

Finally, researchers often reported another, more intangible, benefit – the opportunity to regularly encounter and interact with colleagues from another culture. We learned a lot about each others’ habits, styles and beliefs through language practice, travel and collaboration. Sometimes this heightened our resistance but often it led to new friendships, and it always enriched our experience.

Several participants praised us for sticking to the bilingualism commitment and creating a welcoming atmosphere for speakers of both official languages. “Bravo to every SAGE member to have made the effort to create this bilingualism experience, particularly to have maintained their determination up to the end,” said one researcher in the survey.

We, the two principle researchers, probably benefited the most. We learned to work, write and present comfortably in both languages, giving workshops at conferences in either language and sometimes translating for each other “on the go.” Most importantly, we are continuing our collaboration through a bilingual project on games for learning funded through a SSHRC standard research grant.

Some challenges

Our bilingualism policy made extra demands on network members’ time and funding. Members had to put up with limitations on communications. Even so, the policy didn’t fully integrate bilingualism into project work, leaving this as a choice for individual sub-project leaders.

Another challenge for researchers was the need to accommodate cultural differences in the way they worked. Anglophones quickly discovered that Quebec members, overall, had a greater desire and respect for clearly stated policies, structures and approval processes and more respect for reporting and accountability processes and deadlines. (These aspects also differed between the East and West Coast members and between people from social science and “harder” science.) The well-defined administrative policies and procedures contributed to smooth collaboration among a large and diverse set of members, even though establishing the procedures took more time than members might have liked.

Predictably, time and cost were the two major challenges in implementing bilingual communications in the network. We had planned to use graduate students in Vancouver and Quebec to translate research papers, but a long search and several trial translation exercises yielded few students who wanted to take on such a job, and scarcely any with sufficient writing and translation skills. In the end, only the abstracts and a few full research papers were translated, due to the substantial costs. So our team’s goal of finding new venues for our work was not fully realized.

One project member summarized this challenge as follows: “…what is hard is to make that [bilingualism] real, which would require actually integrating work in both languages into the heart and bones of the network, materially, intellectually, structurally, socially – and this requires a lot more than us translating what people say.”

Even within these narrower parameters, we had hoped to find separate funding to support translation and interpretation, but weren’t successful. Federal and provincial sources that had appeared promising turned out to have no programs for these activities, so translation was funded from the main SAGE grant at a lower level than was originally intended.

It seems clear that rigorous research is needed into both implementation and impact of bilingualism in research groups. Referring to the European Union, Josef Hochgerner and Irena Cornejova note that to function effectively in the long run, a team requires good interpersonal relationships based on common values, a genuine sense of togetherness and deep commitment to its mission of bringing new ideas to life. Good communication has proven to be crucial for identifying common goals and achieving results that contribute to science and its practical applications. But, they say, communication in international research cooperation remains under-researched and inappropriately addressed. (The book they edited, Communication in International R&D Projects (PDF), contains presentations from a 2007 workshop in Vienna.)

These comments also apply in a Canadian context. Our definition of and support for bilingualism must expand to consider the benefits of links that remove boundaries to cross-fertilize and strengthen our research in both official languages. In the words of one SAGE member, “this is part of Canada and of being Canadian.”


David M. Kaufman
is a professor in the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University who recently completed a seven-year term as director of the

Learning and Instructional Development Centre

Louise Sauvé
is a professor in educational technology at TÉLUQ (formerly Télé-université), in the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, and is director of the Centre of expertise and research in lifelong learning (SAVIE).


Our research agenda

The research agenda of the SAGE for Learning network was to test current theories of learning for their relevance and application to games and simulations. We focused on health-related learning for students of medicine and the health professions, including health system managers, teachers, students, patients, community health workers, and the public (see

The network was a large one, with 19 academic researchers as co-applicants, 34 partner organizations, 17 associate (non-funded) researchers, and more than 80 students employed as research assistants. The SAGE network supported five francophone research projects in Quebec and eight anglophone projects in other provinces. Two of the latter were discontinued early, so the number of research projects was almost equally divided between the two language groups after two years.

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Research lacuna

There’s virtually no public data on language use in Canadian research networks. To try to get a handle on the extent to which large Canadian research networks are bilingual, we visited websites for the 20 Networks of Centres of Excellence listed on the NCE website in July 2007. These are some of Canada’s largest research networks, funded for up to 14 years, with many industry partners and with a goal of “mobilizing research excellence for the benefit of Canadians.”

At that time, 13 of the 20 networks were fully bilingual, four claimed to be bilingual but were only partially translated or not translated, and three were unilingual. The bilingual sites translated publications intended for the public or media and presented any available research or specialist publications in the language of the authors, but the languages used in day-to-day communication and administration could not be determined.

Internationally, cross-language communication in research groups is beginning to be recognized as an issue affecting research success. Spearheaded by concerns about large European Union projects in multiple languages, a 2008 book in German (by Josef Hochgerner and Irena Cornejová) outlines communication issues and research themes relevant to the success of international scientific projects.

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David Kaufman + Louise Sauve
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