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The rise of the monoglots

Fewer and fewer universities require students to master a second language. Some think that’s a shame


When Professor Lorin Card surveyed his students’ opinions last year about the university’s second-language requirement, some in the class expressed only grudging acceptance of the policy – if that. “Students resent the fact that they have to ‘learn’ another language and many don’t take much out of the educational experience,” wrote student Julie Ferris. Several admitted they wouldn’t have taken Dr. Card’s French-language course if it hadn’t been mandatory.

The students are at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, which requires those enrolled in the bachelor of arts program to take four three-credit language courses if they didn’t study a second language at the Grade 12 level in high school. UBC’s main campus in Vancouver has a similar requirement for its BA program.

However, there is pressure from certain areas of UBC Okanagan, including within the office of student recruitment, to abolish the second-language requirement. “It is a constant discussion,” says Kenneth Phillips, the associate dean of the faculty of creative and critical studies, where Dr. Card teaches.

Students at UBC Okanagan can choose from a variety of languages to fulfill the requirement. As well, native speakers of a language other than English are exempt if they can prove proficiency in that language.

If the university eventually decides to drop the requirement, it will be in good company. Before universities began to revamp the curriculum in the 1950s and ’60s, learning another language was a common component of most degree programs, even in the sciences. However, by 1991 only 35 percent of universities required second-language proficiency for graduation, according to data from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. By 2000, just 12 percent of universities had such a requirement and in the latest AUCC survey, in 2006, it was down to nine percent.

Not all of Dr. Card’s students disapproved of the second-language requirement, and many acknowledged that knowing another language can be beneficial and lead to improved career prospects. One student, who recently travelled abroad, said she realized somewhat sheepishly that “being unilingual … is a uniquely North American convention.”

A few also remarked that in an ostensibly bilingual country, the least they could do is to learn the other official language. Student Steven Rendulic said that he would feel “less of a Canadian” not knowing French.

Dr. Phillips, the associate dean, is a strong supporter of the language requirement. In the faculty’s program of critical thinking, in particular, “it becomes important to understand that language, in a way, defines how we think,” he says. Plus, “there’s just such richness in other languages that I see this as a requirement for someone who is serious about exploring a liberal arts education.”

For his part, Dr. Card is unsure whether studying a second language should be mandatory. But, he says, “if we package it and market it correctly, the students will be interested.”

He also feels that learning another language fits with his university’s stated aim of producing “exceptional global citizens.” Most Canadian universities extol the virtues of internationalization, as revealed in a series of reports and surveys by AUCC. Among the reasons they cite: to prepare students “to be internationally knowledgeable and interculturally competent.” Surely knowing a second language is an integral part of that, observes Dr. Card.

Proponents of internationalization are aware of the contradiction. At a Scotiabank-AUCC conference held last September, some participants voiced their concerns about the decline in the number of universities requiring a second language, according to the AUCC report Internationalizing Canadian campuses (PDF). They attributed the decline to an issue of cost, “as these courses typically require small groups and have therefore been eliminated from the curriculum.”

Nevertheless, conference attendees said they “realize that the need for language training is greater than ever in the context of globalization.” And students may be listening: the same 2006 AUCC survey that found only nine percent of universities had a second-language requirement also found that in those universities with foreign-language programs, two-thirds reported that enrolment in these programs had increased compared to five years ago.

Official bilingualism

Canada’s official languages commissioner, Graham Fraser, has waded into the debate but from a different perspective: spurring official bilingualism. This leads to the separate but related topic of how Canada’s universities can help students to become more bilingual. Mr. Fraser, a well-known columnist and author of the 2006 book Sorry I Don’t Speak French, thinks universities aren’t doing enough.

“This is something I feel quite strongly about,” he says. Speaking both languages is “an essential capacity, an essential competence for leadership. Political parties understand that. The federal public service understands that. [But] universities have given very little indication that they have absorbed this as one of the new realities that their graduates have to face.”

Of course, there’s nothing to stop university students from taking language courses as an elective. But what Mr. Fraser has in mind is more than simple language instruction. Rather, he’d like universities to provide more opportunities for students to take all or part of their studies in the other language. There are currently 325,000 primary and secondary school students enrolled in French immersion programs in Canada, yet studies show that very few continue in French when they reach university.

Second-language learning opportunities do exist at Canadian universities, but Mr. Fraser says they appear to be mostly ad hoc, with students left largely “on their own” to find them. “Part of what the universities should be doing in my view is to be an agent, an organizer of opportunities,” he says.

Marc Arnal, dean of the University of Alberta’s French-language Campus Saint-Jean, gives some credence to Mr. Fraser’s assertions. Most of the courses offered at Saint-Jean are mirror images of the courses offered in English at U of A’s cross-town main campus and there is nothing stopping students from taking a few discipline courses in the other language.

What’s more, the majority of the 700 students at Campus Saint-Jean are in fact anglophones, many of whom are the product of immersion programs. “So, you know, it’s happening,” says Dr. Arnal.

On the other hand, “in all fairness, I think the university hasn’t very actively promoted this,” he says. In terms of attracting French-immersion grads to Saint-Jean, “we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg.”

The dynamic is somewhat similar at the officially bilingual Laurentian University. There are many identical courses in French and English, so students can take a few courses in their second language if they wish, provided they have the requisite language skills. “But people tend to stay in their language groups just the same,” says Harley d’Entremont, the university’s vice- president, academic (francophone affairs). Those who do cross the divide are more likely to be francophones, who tend to be more bilingual, he says.

Both Laurentian and Campus Saint-Jean, along with 11 other institutions, are members of the Association des universités de la francophonie canadienne. Guy Gélineau, until recently the association’s director general, says that before other universities contemplate developing new French-language programs, “let’s take advantage of what we already have.”

He notes that part of his association’s action plan is to attract more French-immersion graduates, perhaps through bursaries and scholarships. To increase the possibility of student exchanges, the association is also open to collaborating with universities that aren’t members. Universite de Moncton, for example, has already had talks with nearby Mount Allison University to deliver joint programs and facilitate student mobility.

What the francophone association’s members offer – and which is hard to recreate at other institutions – is a strong cultural and social milieu in French and in most cases a vibrant francophone community beyond campus, says Laurentian’s Dr. d’Entremont. “Being in a milieu that has some broader cultural programming in the language is important.”

As is often the case, the situation in Quebec is somewhat different from the rest of the country. Because English is the pre- dominant language in many fields and in research, some francophone universities require that students have intermediate-level English for certain programs – for example, nursing at Université Laval or business administration at Université du Québec à Montréal. Francophone students also seem more open to enrolling at an English-speaking university – one-quarter of McGill University’s undergraduate student body is francophone.

Perhaps surprisingly, one thing that is rare in Canada is truly bilingual programming, where it is mandatory for students to take courses in both official languages. York University’s Glendon College comes close – students must take, at a minimum, French-as-a-Second-Language courses and can earn a certificate of bilingualism if they complete three courses in French beyond the first-year level. This fall, York’s faculty of education launches a bilingual bachelor of education program at Glendon to prepare future immersion and core French teachers, and Glendon’s new school of public affairs offers a bilingual master’s program in public and international affairs.

But in terms of the sheer scope of bilingual opportunities and services, there is no equal to the University of Ottawa. The university actually dropped its second-language requirement in 1993, but continued to promote English and French through a variety of initiatives in its Second Language Institute. The Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute, opened in July 2007, has expanded on those activities.

The university also launched two years ago its novel French immersion stream modelled after high school immersion programs. This stream allows undergraduates to take regular content courses in French that are accompanied by language courses to help them with terminology and vocabulary – and the students receive credit for both.

“This is the first time there’s a total comprehensive immersion program at a university, where students can sign up for their regular program of study, and they take some of their courses in French,” says Marc Gobeil, director of the program. Students have access to mentors and can choose a pass-fail grade that doesn’t affect their grade point average. There were 525 students enrolled in the immersion stream this past academic year, and the university aims to double that by 2010.

Simon Fraser University also now offers programs aimed at francophones and French immersion students, and there are no doubt other examples. Official Languages commissioner Mr. Fraser, with the support of AUCC, has commissioned a study of Canadian universities to find out what opportunities there are for students to study in the other official language and to identify challenges and barriers.

“My suspicion is we will discover that some institutions are doing really interesting things and nobody knows about it,” he says. The surveys were sent out in May and the results will be analysed over the summer, with a final report expected by the end of the year.

“We want this to be available as soon as possible,” says Mr. Fraser, noting there is some urgency. The federal public service is going through a major renewal due to retirements and is hiring 3,000 to 4,000 people a year to full-time positions. If those new hires want to advance to the senior ranks, they’ll need to master both official languages.

Back at UBC Okanagan, Dr. Card makes a different case for learning a second language, pointing to his own experience. As part of his degree program at the University of Alberta in the early 1980s, he had to take a year of language instruction. He chose French, became a committed Francophile, ended up working in France for two years “and it just went on from there.”

He later completed a PhD in literary translation and French film studies. In 2006, he capped off the academic year with a trip to the Cannes Film Festival. Learning a second language “can change people’s lives,” he says.

Trilingual, trilingue, trilingüe

A marketing course in Spanish, a management course in French and a finance course in English – welcome to the trilingual bachelor’s of business administration program at Montreal’s École des Hautes Études Commerciales, which graduated its first cohort of 68 students in May.

While other Canadian universities debate the merits of bilingual programs, HEC Montréal took a gamble on trilingualism in 2005, and the program’s success has surprised even its director. “I have the impression we came up with the right offering at the right time,” says Federico Pasin. Each year, between 100 and 140 students enrol in the program, unique in North America.

It has attracted “exceptional” students, both francophone Quebecers and Europeans of mixed French and Spanish heritage, says Dr. Pasin. However, he laments that relatively few students enrolled so far have English as their mother tongue.

For the first three terms of the program, students take five courses each in French, English and Spanish. By the end of the second term, they study abroad in their second or third language as part of the school’s international exchange program, choosing among 87 partner institutions in 32 countries.

The bilingual brain

Speaking two languages is like going to “brain gym,” says Ellen Bialystok, a psychology professor at York University’s faculty of health and a leading researcher on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.

Dr. Bialystok’s early research on children found that, under certain conditions, bilingual children learn to read faster and score higher on cognitive tests than their monolingual counterparts. Her most recent work, at the other end of the age spectrum, has shown that lifelong bilingualism can delay symptoms of dementia.

“A bilingual person with dementia or Alzheimer’s can maintain better cognitive performance longer because bilingualism gives you a cognitive reserve, like a reserve fuel tank,” she says.

Bilingual individuals also think differently, says Richard Clément, a psychologist and director of the University of Ottawa’s Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute. “They have access to two systems. Not only two semantics systems, or two lexical systems, but actually two ways of thinking.”

This ability gives them “a repertoire of thinking modes” and a better capacity for adaptation, he says. As a result, they are “better adjusted, happier and less stressed” in intercultural situations.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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