Liberal leader journeys back to the future on language

 

It is bitterly ironic that the only province in Canada that considers itself officially bilingual has never quite figured out how to teach french to english-speaking kids. Of course, political pronouncements are easy to make. What’s hard is translating aspirations into action.

New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant is on the right side of whatever angels ennoble a candidate for elected office when he insists that we’ve got to nab our children young if we expect them to learn a second language well enough to wield it confidently in and out of the classroom. Otherwise, we may as well equip each of the province’s adult anglophones with a copy of Rosetta Stone, and wish them luck.     

“One of the things that I believe we have to do is change and bring back the former entry point that we had for french immersion,” he said in a speech to the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. “I will push as leader of the Liberal party for us to have an early entry point of Grade 1, if not even looking at kindergarten, to start teaching our children, giving the opportunity to pursue french immersion.”

All of which sounded very much like a mea culpa by proxy, as it was Mr. Gallant’s own Liberal predecessors who, while in office in 2008, pushed to end early immersion programs on the grounds that they weren’t working – at least according to one report authorized by the government of Shawn Graham.   

Among the many problems with the approach (lack of resources within the districted system was a crucial, if rarely mentioned, one) was the tendency towards streaming, in which well-off anglophone students disproportionately clustered in the immersion programs, leaving the poorer kids to languish in the truly ineffective core french classes. 

Still, Mr. Gallant insisted in his address, “There are ways to address that. We can ensure that we raise awareness, making sure that anyone from any socio-economic background that maybe less likely to pursue french immersion or have their children pursue french immersion are made aware of some of the benefits, what type of support they have, and exactly what the program means.”

What’s more, he added, “We have to ensure that we address all issues to ensure that all New Brunswickers and all children have the support they need in the classrooms no matter what program, no matter which school, no matter which region they’re from.”

It’s refreshing to hear a politician deploy a vernacular favored by neurobiologists and developmental psychologists, who talk about the urgent need for evidence-based policy in public school systems across the country. 

Among the many persistent myths they fight daily is the notion, still cherished by many, that people don’t require a structured, early start to their education to thrive academically, socially and economically. Hey teacher, Pink Floyd was right: Leave those kids alone. We’re all different. Vive la différence!    

It’s a nice idea, especially to those (including more than half of all members of parliament) who make it their business to mistrust anything they, themselves, have not been educated to understand. But cognitive biases do not sound arguments make.

The science is unequivocal. Children are virtual learning machines from the moment they are born (and even in the womb) to about age five or six. This is the optimal time to grab them and teach them, especially languages. About this, there can be no serious debate, and Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais’ determination to keep the current french immersion entry point at Grade 3 is more about political survival than anything else.

When early immersion programs fail to work, that says more about the weaknesses in the system, itself – a lack of pedagogical resources, conflicting curricular priorities, staffing shortages – than it does about a young child’s propensity to acquire a language. This was the lesson the previous government should have learned.

Mr. Gallant’s determination to restore the system is laudable. But if he is given the chance, he’ll have to do more than issue aspirational statements. 

He and his confreres will have to ensure that the educational apparatus in this province is sufficient to support the goal of producing a new generation of literate New Brunswickers, proficient in both official languages. 

 

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