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Margin Notes

Universities must offer more second-language opportunities

That's the conclusion of Official Languages Commissioner Graham Fraser in a new report.


A long-awaited (by me, at least) study was released just this morning by Graham Fraser, the federal Commissioner of Official Languages. He was looking at second-language learning opportunities at universities and he concludes that they’re somewhat wanting.

He credits universities for offering some second-language courses – what we might call “service” courses that teach students the basics of another language (think conversational French). But, he finds there is a “definite lack” of what he calls “more intensive” course-specific second-language opportunities for students, or second-language courses tailored to different disciplines, such as engineering, business or nursing.

The study is entitled Two Languages, A World of Opportunities: Second-Language Learning in Canada’s Universities. Mr. Fraser commissioned the study in 2008 with the assistance of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

It includes a survey of 84 universities and identifies “important gaps that keep students from developing their second-language skills as they pursue higher education and prepare to enter the workforce.” In addition to the study, the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages has launched a nifty on-line interactive map to help students to locate universities that offer intensive second-language learning programs and opportunities.

The impetus for the study was the realization by Mr. Fraser and others that while French immersion programs are popular in primary and secondary school, few students go on to pursue second-language studies at university. “The opportunity to learn and perfect second-language skills must go beyond the elementary and high school levels,” says Mr. Fraser.

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.

It’s a topic I addressed in a 2008 story, “The rise of the monoglots.” (The second half of the article deals specifically with second-language learning and quotes Mr. Fraser at length.)

Here’s more from the press release accompanying today’s study:

“The federal government and Canada’s universities have a responsibility to prepare our youth to have the skills for a knowledge-based society and to compete in an increasingly global job market,” said the Commissioner. … “But for [second-language learning] initiatives to succeed, there must be broad-based mobilization as well as the necessary funding. This would make the post-secondary level the stepping stone – not the missing link – on the road to bilingualism for young Canadians.”

Mr. Fraser calls on the federal government, via the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, “to convene universities, educational organizations, language experts and governments to discuss how to improve second-language learning opportunities in universities and determine the investment that needs to be made so that Canadian youth can take full advantage of our country’s linguistic duality.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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