My Calgary Includes Both Official Languages in Schools

April 27, 2011

School girl on stairsI was astounded when I saw the headline tweet from the Calgary Herald: “French classes no longer mandatory in Calgary schools“. I read the article and astonishment turned to dismay.

It used to be that in Calgary, children in grades four to six had to learn French, Canada’s other official language. It seems that the Calgary Board of Education has now made it the choice of each individual school whether or not they choose to teach French to their students. The school may make its decision based on demand and interest. This decision comes just days after another announcement that the school board will cut hundreds of teaching jobs this year.

Is this a coincidence? I hardly think so.

While there is ample research that demonstrates the benefits of language learning on overall cognitive development, including math and problem solving skills, our local public school board has effectively said “if there’s no demand, there’s no reason to have these classes.” Just because I personally had no desire to take math in school, that didn’t make it optional.

Canada is a bilingual country. While many of us may never achieve full bilingual fluency, leaving cultural and linguistic exposure up to “school choice” and “student choice” won’t help us build a twenty-first century global citizenry. Nor will it help those children later in life if they ever want a job with the federal government. A job with the feds requires functional fluency… and our students won’t even get exposure to our country’s other official language.

The idea of making language learning choice-driven is akin to making it market driven. I’m all for marketing of language programs and promoting second language learning. I literally did a PhD thesis on marketing of language programs. In fact, I’m not even a huge proponent of mandatory language learning.

If it was really about “choice” or “market demand”, the board could have hired a market research firm to determine what classes would be among students’ first choice… Would the sciences be among most students’ favorites? Or phys ed? The answer is… no one knows. Because no one in Calgary has actually done any research to find out what students want now… and what skills they will need for their jobs later in life.

But this isn’t really about market demand or choice is it? This is about finding ways to cut programs, cut costs, cut jobs. It’s about balancing a budget in the short term… and doing it slyly and indirectly by making mandatory classes optional. No one’s thinking about making sciences optional here… just our country’s other official language.

And it’s gob-smackingly short sighted.

We don’t ask children if they’d like the choice to study math or English or science when they’re in grades four to six. It’s part of our job as responsible adults, parents and community leaders to provide them opportunities for learning that will serve as the foundation for more learning into the high school years… and later as the foundation for skills that will get them jobs and provide them with critical thinking skills as they then become the guardians of the next generation. It’s our job to get them excited about learning, keep their minds open and their motivation levels soaring so they engage in learning in new and innovative ways.

In Calgary, we seem to have forgotten that. Mon dieu…. Père, pardonne-leur car ils ne savent pas ce qu’ils font.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Interview with Meike Thomsen: Leading by Example Series

August 23, 2010

This series is dedicated to highlighting the impact made by exemplary literacy and language professionals who lead by example. They share their inspirational tips and stories. This week I’m delighted to showcase a teacher in a German bilingual program, who inspires young learners to study German, and also mentors her fellow teachers as part of her professional practice.

What is your name, affiliation, and connection to language learning?
My name is Meike Thomsen and I’m the learning leader for the first German Bilingual Junior High Program within the public Calgary Board of Education. The program welcomes its first students in September 2010. Previously, you could find me in the same capacity in the German Bilingual elementary school of the CBE. In a bilingual school, mathematics is taught in the target language. It is my luck (and the students’)  that I love mathematics and have been working with teachers on improving math pedagogy for the past 2 years before ‘rejoining’ the German Bilingual program at the Junior High level; ordering all their resources, library collection and determining which German Math book suits our Alberta curriculum best.

What are your thoughts about leadership and language learning?
It is my strong belief that every person should speak at least two languages and should have travelled at least once for an extended period of time to a country where the language is spoken. If we are looking at gaining world peace, we need to be able to understand each other. In order to understand another culture, we have to be able to communicate in their language and need to have lived within the culture for at least a year to truly understand it.

This is the reason why all European countries encouraged the exchange of youth between cities after World War II. The city I grew up in had a ‘sister city’ in England. Every year teenagers from my city went to visit there for 2 weeks and then the British youth would come and visit us for 2 weeks. The reasoning behind? You don’t fear what you know  You also don’t want to fight a war with a nation you have visited.

Here is an example that struck me when I learned of it: During World War II an American General was ordered to bomb one of the oldest German cities (Rothenburg op de Tauber). He couldn’t bring himself to do this, because he had visited this city as a young man and new of its historical importance. This city still has original parts dating back to the 11th century. Thanks to this general, this part of German history is alive today, because he had a personal connection to Rothenburg and knew what it would mean to destroy a city like that.

In your opinion, what’s the most important aspect of a language teacher’s job?
Engagement! People who learn a second language need to be engaged and they need to understand the importance of learning a second language. In the literature review of my thesis, I have a whole section on what the benefits of second language learning are.

While adult learners usually have a very specific reason for learning a second language, children and youth need to have fun doing it. Singing, puppet plays, watching German movies and having a German pen pal (email pal) are just a few things that will engage them in learning.

The second important aspect of a language teacher is the ability to teach the culture of the other country in a way that shows children/adults that our cultures do share some commonalities, but that there are distinct differences and… this is what they are. Personal space is a major one. Our personal bubble is much bigger here in Canada than in a lot of other countries. What is considered rude or polite? What is considered harassment? To teach cultural awareness is important and can be a lot of fun.

What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with that you would like to share?
The biggest project was my research in regards to my thesis: “The Sustainability of the German Bilingual Program in Calgary”. One of the most interesting (and frustrating) experiences was that parents had complained to me about not having a voice and not getting input … yet when I was looking for research participants (a survey and a focus group) not many were forthcoming. It took me 3 different attempts and approaches to get a sufficient numbers of parents to complete the initial survey.

What do you see as three new directions in language learning?
Thanks to the evolution in technology, the interactive part of language learning has become much easier. Teachers can find teachers in the target language’s country, connect, and then connect their students. Skype is free and kids can talk to each other, using the language they are learning. It makes the language come alive and removes it from the sterility of the classroom and the textbook. Using Skype also allows the students to use their hands, body and signs to help with communications – a phone call relies exclusively on words, which is much harder for beginners.

Today, we encourage students to speak – no matter how bad the grammar might be. This is a change in attitude and is still hard for the students to do. When I learned English, our instructors encouraged us to write down the sentence and ‘get it perfect’ before trying to speak … which resulted in very stilted and not natural conversations.


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