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Earl Kitchener

Four Reasons to Support French

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John Ralston Saul examines the benefits of French Immersion in this article he wrote for Canadian Parents for French National News, Issue No. 82, Winter 2000. Reproduced with permission from Canadian Parents for French.

While in the beginning parents may choose French Immersion schooling for their children, as the days and years go by, it is increasingly the students who do the choosing. They choose to stay in the program, step by step, every day, going to school, during every class, with every new word or idea or piece of knowledge.

As that process evolves, it is important for the parents to be clear in their own mind as to why they support, even encourage their children in these choices. I can think of four very good reasons.

First, French Immersion schooling is a continuation of the core theme of Canadian public schooling from its beginnings over a century and a half ago. Illiterate or barely literate parents—most of them farmers or fishermen or loggers—committed their support to reform movements led by men like Robert Baldwin, Louis LaFontaine, Charles Tupper and their disciples across the country, including most of the pro-confederation leaders in British Columbia.

What did they want? They wanted a solid education for their children. They wanted their children to know more—far more—than they the parents knew. That was their ambition.

Today, we often see this exact pattern repeated with new immigrants. French Immersion schooling is also part of the same process. Parents may be literate. They may even be well educated. But they want their children to know what they themselves do not know.

This is a natural and healthy part of the ambition of Canadian citizens throughout our history. We better ourselves. And then we better ourselves further through our children.

And what could be a more natural betterment than to be able to work in both of Canada’s official languages. These are tools of knowledge which open the full possibilities of the nation to the student.

Individuals Benefit

Second, it would be a terrible mistake to think of French Immersion as a romantic gesture towards Canadian unity or a form of citizen love for one another.

If you think of learning a second language as a romantic gesture then you fundamentally think of it as a personal sacrifice involving activity marginal to the mainstream of real life.

To the contrary, there is nothing romantic, sacrificial or patriotic about bilingualism. You could say that it shows respect for your fellow citizens—respect not love. But above all, it shows respect for yourself. After all, who is denying their own value if not the citizens who refuse to embrace the full richness of their own civilization.

The primary beneficiary of bilingualism is the one who becomes bilingual. That they may eventually make a contribution to enriching our national life is merely the natural outcome of young citizens engaging fully in developing their own talents and qualities.

English is Not Universal

Third, there is a cliché abroad in our streets. It claims that English is THE international language—that everyone speaks or soon will speak English.

People who believe that don’t travel or, if they do, don’t leave the beaten tracks of Anglophone tourism or the limited narrow circles of particular businesses.

I can assure you that most people don’t speak English. Yes, it is the world’s leading language. But it isn’t replacing other important languages. It isn’t replacing French in French-speaking Canada or elsewhere in the Francophone universe. Nor is it replacing German or Spanish (both of which strengthen every day around the world) nor dozens of other major and minor tongues.

What I can tell you is that the possession of a language and culture beyond English, gives anyone an invaluable added strength in their life. The size, shape, access of my own career—the penetration of my writing—has been at least doubled by my ability to work in English and French. In Canada, I spend a good part of my time with French-speaking readers, audiences and friends inside Quebec and out. But, because I don’t speak Spanish, I find that in Latin America half my work is done in French, as it is in Italy, Spain, even Germany. A language is a real currency. I have two. I wish I had three.

Globalization

Fourth, the word ‘Globalization’ ought to be self-explanatory. You may be for or against it. You may wish it could take another shape. Any way you look at it, it still means global. And global means many cultures; it means many languages in competition. It has never been so important to be able to use more than one language. Computer models will come and fade into obsolescence with ever greater speed. But an extra language will be a strength for a whole life.

Two is a strict minimum if you wish to engage in this ‘globalization’.

If you happen to come from a dominant nation, with an enormous population, army and entertainment force, well, you can afford to be a bit lazy, to enclose yourself in your own mono-culture.

But if you come from a small to medium sized country, then globalization, means working harder to appear smarter. And languages, along with their cultures, are key to those smarts.

Some people say: why learn French? Learn Chinese! Learn Spanish! What is this false moralism? Canada is lucky to have two of the world’s front line mainstream languages. If you possess both, you have full access to your own country. You also have a double strength at the global level.

But why stop there. Why not add Chinese, Spanish, German, Japanese? Who said we were so limited in intelligence and ambition that the possession of one language would be a big effort and two an extraordinary exertion? What is this pride in knowing less? How can any of us accept globalization without embracing bilingualism as a minimum? Central Europeans of all education levels, Scandinavians and many others work with three, four, even five languages. This is one of the ways in which these small countries gain such influence and break into foreign markets.

We have a great advantage over our neighbours. We have two languages, two cultures. And these are the basis for many more cultures within our society. We have the creative approach which comes with a complex society. And the French Immersion schooling system lies at the core of that creativity. It is already playing its role in preparing our students for the complicated decades which lie ahead both nationally and internationally.

Not everyone in our society will go down the Immersion road. Nor need they. But over 300,000 students this year is a good solid commitment to engaging in both these national and international complexities. And the work being done through Le Français pour l’Avenir (French for the Future) Conferences across the country will reinforce the work of Canadian Parents for French in helping to guide these students into their proper role in our society.

And yet, I repeat, the key is not that students are making grandiose commitments to great national and international challenges. The key is that through Immersion they are making their own lives more interesting. They are entering the room of their own lives and designing it with two doors instead of one; two doors leading to twice as many ideas, books, films, societies, indeed friends. It is a profound form of self-fulfilment.

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Updated on Thursday, May 15, 2014.
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