When we lived in Montreal, we put Jacob in French school, which meant he didn’t understand a word of what his teacher or classmates said. I wanted Jacob to be bilingual, and I remember being quite cavalier about his full immersion experience. I thought, “He’s five. It is not like he can ask friends at the park if they understand their teacher at school. He just thinks that is what school is. He will catch on.”
But at the October parent-teacher interviews, his teacher reported that he didn’t speak at school. This disturbed us and we considered switching to an English school. Kevin worked at McGill at the time and asked his colleagues in the education department. Their advice was to leave him. His teacher also advised us not to worry. She said his language acquisition was progressing normally, especially for boys.
Sure enough, in mid-January his teacher called to say that not only was he speaking French, he was using full sentences.
So in St Catharines, we were excited to put both kids in the French Catholic board. Kathleen’s Junior Kindergarten experience was opposite to Jacob. She came home that first week convinced that she spoke French and would speak a combination of French and English. Not speaking French is one of my life regrets, and I believe all schools should give the gift of languages to children at a young age.
Around the world, second – and third! – language acquisition is a priority. In Europe, promotion of language learning is one of the main objectives of a Commission of Education and Training Strategy (ET 2020), and pupils are generally between 6 and 9 years old when they have to start learning a second language. Singapore views language proficiency as part of its “ambition to ride on the tide of globalization and excel in an era of knowledge-driven economic activities”. Here at home, according to Margaret Wente, “the demand for French has been soaring out of sight”.
Last week, a vision for the future of public schools in Canada was launched: Shifting Minds: A Vision and Framework for 21st Century Learning in Canada. It is exciting and the emphasis on skills and innovation is inspirational. Reading it made me think that our nimble CAIS schools can be positioned as leaders in this arena. But there is a second opportunity for CAIS schools as well. The vision for the public system does not include a focus on languages. I believe that all Canadians should be bilingual, and when I see CAIS schools that develop kids with three languages by age 12, I think there is no excuse for Canadians.
I’m reading Roger Martin’s Playing to Win and his thesis is that “Strategy is a set of choices about winning.” There are many reasons why the public system cannot be best at languages. So as I think about the competitive skills needed in the future and the intrinsic value that languages provide people, I have to ask:
Perhaps CAIS schools can provide superior value in this area of second and third languages?
p.s. Check out “Oui, Je parle francais,” a video that explores the benefits of learning French.