Language education in British Columbia, Canada

There’s been some controversy in British Columbia lately, about the new proposed curriculum changes for teaching languages in public schools (available here in PDF: Additional Languages draft). The vast majority of the fuss revolves around the political ideology of nationalism, proponents of which believe that the country of Canada can only remain whole if everyone in the country has some education in both of the official languages, English and French. This ignores the reality of most peoples’ lives in BC, in which French is nonexistent, but languages such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Punjabi are everywhere, spoken by their neighbours and many other people in their cities.

First, let me relate some of my experience there. I grew up in a suburb of Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia. In elementary school, I had no foreign-language education. When I reached grade 8 at age 12 or so, I started attending the local high school and had to choose a foreign language course. All high schools had French available, and some had another language according to teacher availability. Our school offered German too, so I chose that instead of French, due to my family background.

Language education at this school was basically a very slow march through a textbook that focused on basic grammar rules and vocabulary. At the end of several years of German, I had approximately an A1 or maybe A2 ability in German, and had never heard any real German conversations other than the silly staged “dialogs” from our book. We did “listening practice” less than once per week, using some simple recordings based on the book.

As a result, I couldn’t have a German conversation (nor had I heard one), I couldn’t read a German book (nor had I ever seen an actual German book), I couldn’t watch German TV (and of course had never seen any). I had no real connection to the German language, only a collection of knowledge about the language, and how to do basic things like buy a banana or a train ticket. For those reading this who speak German, you’ll realize how little I knew when I say that at the time that I started teaching myself German using books and videos in 2009, I didn’t know the uses of the verb “werden”, and I was confused by the phrase “es gibt”. For those who don’t know German, that sound you hear now is the collective laughter of the Germans reading this.

This result was similar for my friends who did French courses instead, except that they had a little more opportunity for exposure if they chose, because there was a (seldom-used) French channel on everyone’s TV.

The language situation in the Vancouver area is quite different from what is reflected in the schools. There are very few native French speakers (IIRC, around 9000 out of 2 million or so), and if you walked around the city day and night for a month, you might be lucky to hear French being spoken once (and German was pretty much nonexistent except for the occasional tourist).

On the other hand, Vancouver is full of speakers of other languages besides English. There’s a rich variety of languages being spoken everywhere you go. Primarily, you’ll notice the prevalence of Mandarin and Cantonese. Most white English speakers can’t tell them apart, and don’t make any effort to try, but there are many tens of thousands of speakers of both languages.

In several neighbourhoods of Vancouver and the nearby cities of Richmond and Burnaby, there’s actually a higher percentage of native Chinese speakers than native English speakers! There are also several “Chinese malls”, where every shop has Cantonese or Mandarin speakers for staff, and one can do all of one’s shopping in a Chinese language without using English. Throughout the city there are many other shops with Chinese signs, and some areas have bilingual English/Chinese street signs. Truly a language-learner’s dream!

Also very prevalent is Punjabi, a language from northern India and Pakistan. There are 160000 Punjabi speakers in the province of BC, and the majority of them are in the Vancouver area. They tend to be more highly concentrated in certain areas of town, not as widely spread as Chinese, but there are still many restaurants and shops with Punjabi signs, especially in south Vancouver and nearby Surrey.

Besides these large language groups, there are many Spanish speakers, particularly from Central America. There are also certain areas of town where you can find a lot of speakers of Tagalog, Korean, Italian, Arabic, and various others. It’s common to hear people on public transit speaking many different languages besides English, and very very rare to hear French.

So, with that background in mind, what would be the logical choice for education in the schools? French is clearly useless in the local situation, since it’s nearly impossible to find French speakers. On the other hand, most kids who grow up speaking English at home will also have friends who speak Punjabi, Mandarin, and Cantonese at home and to each other.

In my mind, the languages taught at school should be the languages that would promote more dialogue and understanding between neighbours and between other people you’re likely to meet throughout your regular life in the city. There should also be some room for other prominent world languages that would be useful outside Vancouver as well.

Measured like this, the almost exclusive dominance of French makes little sense. Kids are being taught a language that has no relevance in their daily lives, and they come to view language learning as something boring and irrelevant. They also get the idea that immigrants to Canada should be forced to learn either English or French, since that’s all that they see prioritized in the schools.

This is easily countered by the long history of Cantonese and Punjabi in Vancouver, spanning multiple generations. Almost as long as there have been English speakers in the area, there have also been Cantonese and Punjabi speakers. They are just not given significant “official” status by government bureaucrats, which is historically and currently based in racism (see also the Chinese Head Tax, the Komagata Maru incident involving immigrants from India, the Continuous Journey regulation, Japanese Canadian internment camps, and of course the cultural genocide of native peoples through Residential Schools).

If kids were taught the languages of their neighbours and peers, then they would come to see those people as valuable resources for learning, and would be able to better understand their needs and desires, and their cultural traditions. Currently, a lot of Chinese-speaking kids tend to hang out with other Chinese-speaking kids, and similarly for Punjabi speakers, and the white anglo kids tend to have mostly white anglo friends. Language instruction based on the actual community makeup would make a big step towards breaking down these barriers.

In reality, the language instruction is based on a nationalist political project. In order to try and keep control of the French-speaking areas of the country, which are more than 3000 kilometers away from Vancouver, nationalists typically believe that all people in the country should be taught some French. Unfortunately they do it rather badly in practice, so while almost everyone receives some instruction in French, only a tiny percentage of them come out of school with the ability to have a real French conversation.

Even in the province of New Brunswick, with a high percentage of French speakers, English speakers who took 12 years of school instruction only resulted in something like 2% of them being fluent in French afterwards. We could contrast this, for example, with students in Germany, many of whom do English from grade 5 to grade 10, and are able to read newspapers and write summaries in English, many reaching B2 level. Those who continue to take English in grades 11 to 13 will learn how to analyze political speeches and literature, including Shakespeare. This out-paces even the French-immersion students in BC.

So, now we come to the new curriculum proposal in BC. In the proposal, schools would be able to focus on any of 6 different languages: French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Punjabi, and Japanese. This seems like a reasonable mix of international and local languages to me, although I wonder why Cantonese is absent. Schools will apparently be able to offer more immersion programs in these languages too, whereas right now I think there’s only 1 Mandarin immersion school in the entire Vancouver area. The only immersion programs that are generally available are in French.

So to me, this proposal of widening the language focus should be an obvious first step towards a sane language program. There are naturally some nationalists making noise about how the country will soon collapse because of the loss of French dominance in the system, but given that only a tiny percentage of people have come out of the school system with even basic conversational abilities in French, I doubt this will have any significant effect on their precious “national unity”.

Other changes need to be put in place, however, to ensure a quality language education. Students of any language need to have plentiful access to audio and written materials in that language, and the current system rarely provides that. The focus on textbook grammar study has horrible results in practice. Instead, every language classroom needs to have hundreds of books available in the language so that students can borrow those books and attempt to read. Reading a book or listening to audio is not a magic result of having already learned the language…exposure to the language is required in order for students to actually acquire it.

The mandatory portion of the new proposed BC language curriculum will be only up to the A1.2 level, ie very limited. Anything after A1.2 will be optional, and students who demonstrate an A1.2 level before finishing 4 years of classes will be allowed to skip the remainder of the classes if they want. In contrast, German students who do 4 years of English commonly achieve B2, which is quite good, and they are commonly able to have conversations with real English speakers that they encounter. It seems strange to me that we would set up the expectation that Canadian students will basically fail to learn that much at all, when other countries demonstrate some reasonable abilities in teaching languages in a classroom setting well beyond A1.2 in the same amount of time.

If the proponents of French really want to do something worthwhile for learners of their favourite language, they should ensure that students have exposure to real French-language books, movies, audio, etc. This might result in students who actually understand and appreciate the language instead of graduating with nonexistent abilities.

This should also happen for Punjabi and Mandarin and all the other languages in the proposal. Particularly for Punjabi and Mandarin, because of their community connection. Students should be connected to local people in real exposure to the language, and should have access to books, audio, and video. Stale classroom-only instruction based on textbooks will just stifle the students’ interest and motivation, and won’t result in real language abilities, just like we see now in the current French-dominant system.

So, overall I think this new curriculum is a step in the right direction, but we need a lot of further work. Our perceptions of language learning in Canada are hindered by our bias towards monolingualism, and the belief that everyone should just learn English (or sometimes French), and other languages don’t matter to us. French language teaching in BC is nearly irrelevant to everyday life, and exists almost entirely due to the political ideology of nationalism in a racist form that excludes the generations of speakers of other languages in Canada that aren’t English or French. If we want our children to be able to speak other languages, they should be languages that are locally and internationally relevant, and we should learn how to help them learn successfully instead of planning for their failure.

10 Responses to Language education in British Columbia, Canada

  1. Jordan Chark says:

    Great post, very insightful. As a Vancouverite and language learner, I’m almost ashamed that I have never studied Mandarin or Cantonese – this truly is a damn good place to do it.

  2. Vera Surkova says:

    Very interesting. You’ve described your experience with German at school and this is just exactly what happens with English in Russian schools unless they are language-oriented. The only difference is that you are surrounded by people who speak widespead languages (Chinese, Cantonese), and in Russia this exposure is limited to the local languages of Republics-parts of Russian Federation. People in those Republics speak their languages probably between 1% and 10% time of the day I have never seen books in Tatar or Barshkir languages, for example. So, even studying neighbours’ languages seems as useless as studying English.
    I myself started over my English studies in 2008 from pre-intermediate level, which is approximately A2: this is what I reached starting language “learning” at the age of 5 and finishing when I was 18. 13 years! Then there were two years of no language studies and here I am with C1 confirmed by Cambridge University.

    PS: Sorry for mistakes 🙂 They still tend to appear here and there!

  3. Bryan says:

    I grew up in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I never met a French speaking person until I moved to Korea, yet I still had to have French rammed down my throat (it was the only option, and one needed a second language to get into university). Most people ended up hating French because of that fact.

    If I could have learned Punjabi, I would have at least been able to speak to my grandmother and aunts and uncles. Korean, Chinese, or Japanese would have been better too.

  4. Tanja says:

    Thanks for the insight into the Canadian school system and the everyday life. This is so far from me, and i’m really happy to read your posts.

    Regarding your sayings about your knowledge back then and the verb “werden” and “es gibt”, i actually had to laugh! Imagine my surprise, when i read the next sentence 😉

    But concerning the English level in german schools, it is clear to me that you talk of “Gymnasien” (secondary schools? academic high schools?). I visited the Realschule, and our level would not reach to that. While visiting Ireland on our graduation trip, we where barely able to speak to the people. But i guess the main problem was that we hadn’t enough training in actual spoken conversation.
    Don’t ask for the level of English speakers of a Hauptschule 😉

  5. Claudie says:

    It’s interesting to read your post as I would have thought that the Canadian system is better than the American one… apparently not. (I’m not talking about the language choice, but just about how well you end up mastering the language.)
    There’s definitely a problem with the way those classes are taught if so little is learned. Of course, I think the situation in Europe vary too, depending on the school.
    In France, you’d have to start studying a first foreign language in your first year of high school — often English, and then a second one in the third. You might as well have an ancient language such as Latin or Ancient Greek, additionally. (At least, that’s what it used to be like about a dozen yeas ago. Now I think they might be starting earlier because I remember my nephews having some English already at 8…)
    In Bulgaria, you learn English even before high school now (if I’m not mistaken) and then depending on what school you go to, you might or might not learn yet another one. There are specialized high schools in English, Spanish, German, and French though where, apart from the regular school curriculum, you must master the specific language.
    The results in both France and Bulgaria depend on the school you attend and the student of course.

    Still, I think the easiest language to learn is English, simply because, 1) if you use technologies a lot (Bulgarians definitely do), there’s no way to go around learning it, 2) its grammar is quite easier than most others.(Of course, again, how well you learn it is another issue.)

    In any case, I personally think that children should start learning an additional language way before high school. It’d make it easier for them. And yes — having the resources you’ve listed would be great. The problem with that is that it will cost a lot of money and, having in mind how little money governments try to spend on edu anyway, I doubt that will happen, except perhaps in private schools.

  6. shawn says:

    I grew up in BC. In grade 6 I started french immersion. We never read grammar books. We never did verb drills. We sang songs, played games, gave presentations, and did school work. All in french. We learned french without trying because it was FUN! At the end of the year we could all speak okay french albeit with terrible accents. But it was a start!

    Sadly, grade 7 was in a new school with new teachers who did grammar and vocab drills. I learned very little french after that.

    • Tanja says:

      i think almost all of one’s success depends on the teacher. if they are willing to give excellent and funny teachings, then the students will make great progress.

      i took an optional french course once in the afternoon. the first half school year was just great and i loved the language. after that another teacher came and it was just awful. i chose to throw sickies every time.

  7. Andrew says:

    This is very similar to the situation in the U.S., very very very few students who “study” a language in school (high school OR even college, unless they major in it) get to the point where they can ever actually have a simple conversation in it with a native speaker. It’s all a joke, it’s simply paying lip service to people who insist that a foreign language be taught and it’s not the way to go about it.

    Honestly, that’s not the problem, it’s a symptom of the problem that is our entire educational system. Personally I think it’s totally ruined and needs to be completely burnt to the ground and rebuilt from scratch, I don’t think it can be fixed. This is part of the reason that I want to expatriate to another country, I don’t want my future children to go through what I did in school, I want them to get a good education, hence why I’m considering Norway, Sweden, Germany, maybe Czech Republic, something like that.


  8. Críostóir Ó hUigín says:

    Just wondering do you know any high schools middle schools that offer German in New Brunswick? I am looking to find one and i am sure there must be one in Moncton. I can’t seem to get any info though.

    Any idea?

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