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Margin Notes

Should Canadian universities promote bilingualism?

That was the vexing question addressed in a recent report by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages.


What role, if any, should Canadian universities play to promote official bilingualism? That was the vexing question addressed by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Official Languages in a report released last month.

The committee concludes, wisely, that in terms of official bilingualism the federal government “cannot tell postsecondary institutions what to do,” both because the government has no jurisdiction over these institutions and out of respect for academic independence.

Nevertheless, the committee did feel compelled to point out that the federal government needs to fill an estimated 5,000 bilingual positions annually as part of its efforts to renew the federal public service. The majority of these positions will require postsecondary education and it would be helpful, the committee suggests, if Canada’s colleges and universities could pitch in to promote bilingualism by offering more second-language learning opportunities.

Once upon a time, many universities did require students to learn another language as part of their degree programs. This requirement was slowly dropped.

In 1991, for example, 35 percent of universities required proficiency in a second language for graduation, according to a survey by 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.

Those stats come from a story I did last summer, “The rise of the monoglots,” which addresses many of the same issues touched upon by the Commons standing committee.

There are some excellent second-language programs in Canada, including University of Ottawa’s French immersion program, York University’s Glendon College and University of Alberta’s Faculté Saint-Jean. But, as a rule, it’s true that most universities don’t see this as a priority.

Graham Fraser, Canada’s official languages commissioner, acknowledges that second-language learning opportunities do exist at Canadian universities, but he says they appear to be mostly ad hoc, with students left largely on their own to find them. With the support of AUCC, he commissioned a study of Canadian universities in early 2008 to catalogue exactly what opportunities there are for students to study in the other official language and to identify challenges and barriers. (This section of the commissioner’s latest annual report gives the underlying context of the study, starting with section 4.3).

The results of that study are not yet public, although Mr. Fraser gave the Commons standing committee a summary of his findings, which are referenced in the standing committee’s report. I’ll be very interested to see what the final report concludes.

Robin Cantin, manager of media relations at the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages, says the plan is to release the report late this summer or early fall. I’ll follow up when the report is released.

In the meantime, what’s your view? Should universities be more proactive in promoting official bilingualism?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / July 7, 2009 at 12:54

    Maybe not “promote official bilingualism” but do more to ensure that grads have the skills necessary to work in a bilingual country.

    when I went to U of O in the 80s everyone had to pass a proficiency test in their 2nd official language to graduate. You took the test in first year and had compulsory FLS or ESL classes until you could pass it. That requirement seems to have gone, too.

    Second language requirements (perhaps not “official” languages) also seem to be just good education. Are grads offered other language options like Chinese, Japanese, and other languages useful in a globalized economy?

  2. Max / July 8, 2009 at 10:17

    Although the government has no right whatsoever in telling post-secondary institutions how to form their students, perhaps they are right; If many governmental jobs require bilingualism, and if it can be useful in the private sector as well, why not?

    I am a Francophone who studied at Bishop’s University, and I have had a lot of advantages over some of my fellow who could not speak french. Overmore, it is my belief that for Quebecers it is good to learn English, as it breaks the barriers between the two linguistic communities.

  3. Stephan / July 24, 2009 at 19:49

    Yes. Universities should be more proactive in promoting official bilingualism. If Canada plans on remaining competitive in the global market it should take advantage of ensuring that we stay ahead of the rest. In Europe many are fully multilingual due to proximity to each other. In the US many are bilingual (English/Spanish) due to their proximity in Latin America which gives them a huge advantage in the private sector south of the border. So where do Canadians stand? Are we simply a mere shadow of the U.S. or are we a potent power in the global arena. As Canadians we should appreciate our diversity and continue to cultivate our unique relationship with the French language. Being bilingual will only be an asset to any Canadian. This will give us more options in ventures and investment and help us dissolve our dependency on the already saturated anglophone market. Moreover, official bilingualism would only give us a linguistic comparative advantage. I know because I am a trilingual (english, french , and spanish) quebecois that has .had the option to work in Spain , Mexico France and the United States. If I were only a monolingual I would not have had this option. Globalization is the future. Will Canada be there ?

  4. Connie / October 29, 2009 at 13:36

    I think billingualism is wonderful, however, I think that at the university level it is too late for promoting billingualism. Our children take french from grade 5 until grade 10 and they still cannot speak the language after 5 years of study….what is wrong with the curriculum?? I see student cringe at having to take grade 11 french so they can go to university. Our kids should be billingual before university.

  5. No to bilingualism! / October 28, 2010 at 22:42

    No, universitities should stay away from promoting the French agenda. Official bilingualism was and still is a bad policy. It did not bring two solitudes together; on the contrary, it pulled us even further apart.

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