Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Learning to be different

The officially bilingual status of Canada results in a rather more entertaining education system than that in countries with more decisiveness. Outside Quebec, schools operate in English but offer a "French immersion" stream which apparently involves classes been taught in French, rather than the pupils being dipped in red wine and cheese. This is taken up by franco- and anglophone parents alike to allow their children the chance of being bilingual.

In Quebec, the situation is a little more complex, due to the mixed backgrounds of the population. The province has two publicly funded school boards that offer education in English and French. Originally, these were divided according to religion, with the English-speaking side being Protestant and the French, Catholic. However, this system was later renamed to better reflect the true nature of the split.

By default, a child in Quebec must attend a French-language public school but exceptions are made if you can prove your family has already defected to the dark side. For instance, you may go an English school board institute if you have previously attended an English-speaking school elsewhere in Canada, if you have a sibling being educated in English anywhere in Canada or if one parent did their elementary schooling in English.

When growing up in Montreal, my friend had a choice of school systems, since she had one officially francophone parent and one anglophone. Her school was selected based on academic merit and she joined the English school board stream.... and then promptly enrolled in French immersion.

"You decided not to go to a French-speaking school, but to go to an English school and be taught in French?" I asked, just to completely clarify the situation.

"Yes... but I had more classes in English than if I had gone to a French school," she attempted to justify this completely preposterous statement.

Apparently, the French immersion stream results in half the day being taught in French and half in English, giving a truly bilingual education. I admit, I was quite envious. Not that I think I would have enjoyed it at all at the time, but that is what adulthood is about: reaping the benefits of a tortured childhood.

While this system sounded highly beneficial to all and sundry, my friend warned of its pitfalls. The richer population of Quebec tend to be English speakers who have moved into the province. Because of this, the English school board is better supported by the parents which has resulted in the schools being generally of a higher standard than their French counterparts. Such a division increases the rift already present which is what caused this whole divide in the first place.

Catch 22: created by adults, maintained by 5 year olds.


  1. I never even tried a second language until high school and then struggled with 3 years of torture trying to learn german (the only subject offered)
    My kids at least learnt french from primary school and found it easier.
    It would be very interesting to have half the day in one language then have to switch to another.

    1. Mine was similar. I learnt French from 11-16 which ... well, it wasn't a total disaster since I did learn some, but I really only got the basics and I found it pretty hard. I often feel quite embarrassed when I meet people from elsewhere in Europe who speak multiple languages fluently. Still, attempt #2 with the Japanese!!

  2. It's interesting to read how other countries are trying to cope with multiple languages. South Africa has eleven official languages. That's a Gordian knot that's further aggravated by politics, poverty in rural areas and different educational standards in different racial groups. Anyway. Thanks for a good read!

    1. How does it work in South Africa? Is there a language all schools operate in or does it depend entirely on the school and area in which it is in? Is there one language which most people speak?

      In India, I was told you can pretty much get around speaking Hindi (at least in theory) although there are a gazillion languages spoken by the population.

    2. I'm oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but ...

      All kids in public primary schools have (or may/should have) all classes in their mother tongue. However, English dominates in public high schools, and you have to pass English in your final school exam if you want to go to university.

      Real-life ability remains limited, especially in rural areas, but you can communicate in English in most areas.

      PS That marriage post is so funny! :D

    3. Wow. So in the big cities, there must be primary schools operating in parallel in different languages? Or is it that language use is sufficiently regionalised that one town really only has to offer one or two languages?

      Glad you liked the marriage post! Kids are surprisingly amusing... after the fact, anyway.

    4. Yes to both questions. There are many parallel schools, and language use is quite regionalised. I attended a parallel medium (Afrikaans and English) primary and secondary school, but I took both languages as a FIRST language. That's allowed in certain cases.

      I like that marriage post so much that I think I'm going to mosey along in that direction to leave another comment. :)

    5. I find that both confusing and awesome at the same time. What does it mean to take both languages as a first language? Does that mean you have classes in both? Like a mixed set, some in one and some in the other?

      Um. If you get bored of answering all these questions, I won't be remotely put out.

      ... it just means Sarah will get them all later when I return to Sapporo!

    6. Oh, but you should ask Sarah anyway, because she belongs to a younger generation and completed her school years in the so-called new post-apartheid South Africa. I wrote my final school exam long before 1994 (when SA got a black government).

      I went to a white school, which meant only Afrikaans and English were taught as first and/or second language, and only European languages (German, French, Latin) were available as a third language. No black languages were taught in white schools.

      It meant, in my particular school, that I attended Afrikaans language lessons with Afrikaans kids and English language lessons with English kids. (If you were a native Afrikaans speaker who studied English as a second language, you did it with other Afrikaans kids and your lesson content was a heck of a lot easier. Does that make sense?)

      Afrikaans kids and English kids had their own separate lesson schedule, and studied all other subjects in their native language. Ne'er the twain did meet. Because I was the odd one out, I couldn't follow a purely Afrikaans or purely English track: I had to shuttle between both, depending on the lesson schedule. To this day I don't know whether the chemical element Na should be called sodium or natrium ... (+_+)

      PS: It was an unusual option that was chosen by very few pupils. I've always been a bit contrary. :D