Commitments to bilingualism ring hollow

Published on July 8, 2013

For the next few weeks, my family will play host to an exchange student participating in the YMCA’s Youth Summer Work Exchange, a program that swaps high school students from French and English-speaking areas of Canada for six weeks over the summer.

As part of the program, we were lucky enough to receive Lisa, a Québécoise originally from Belgium, while my sister spends her summer in Montreal.

Lisa, 16, is fluently trilingual and speaks perfect English, handling our rapid-fire conversations with ease. In fact, I’ll admit to being kinda jealous of the effortlessness with which she expresses herself in English, her third language (French being her first and Spanish her second — her Venezuelan mother having taught it to her at a young age).

Lisa is at a huge advantage compared to most Canadians. Language is, after all, perhaps the most transferable skill, useful in any situation and always an asset, whether at home or abroad. Having three languages under her belt while many Canadians remain unilingual (and unwaveringly so throughout their lives) sets her apart from the rest.

Achieving fluency in a foreign language is challenging, but the opportunities afforded people who speak more than one language are astronomical. Learning a foreign language can have transformative effects that often reach beyond the positive consequences typically associated with multilingualism.

Speaking a second or third language beefs up a person’s CV by making him or her more marketable in the workplace, and means ease while travelling. But there are many frequently overlooked benefits to bilingualism.

An important part of learning a new language is gaining an understanding of the culture and history associated with it, and in doing so, making yourself more knowledgeable of the world. As a result, it is often said that when communicating in a foreign language, you take on a new character and a different outlook on life.

Also worth noting is the confidence and pride that accompany achieving fluency in a foreign language. Speaking in your second language requires self-assurance and commitment, and success at that first conversation with a stranger or a francophone can be a huge milestone. Furthermore, speaking a second language is a lifelong skill — an ability that is just as useful in your 20s as it will be in your 70s. Language, in short, is the gift that keeps on giving.

Keeping these tremendous opportunities in mind, why are so few Newfoundlanders and Labradorians bilingual? Most people are aware of the benefits, yet according to Statistics Canada, as of 2011, only 4.6 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were able to carry on a conversation in both English and French, the most accessible and practical second language to English-speaking Canadians.

Much of the problem is rooted in education. When my parents and grandparents were going to school, there was no such thing as French immersion, and hardly anyone graduated with any real fluency in the language. My parents can attest to that. Dad loves repeating the one unintelligible line he remembers having to repeat in high school French: “Tu connais Marcel Martin? Mais oui! Nous sommes de bons copains!”

Today things are better, with many young people availing of French immersion programs at school, but many schools don’t offer programming starting from kindergarten, and many students living outside of larger centres are forced to “learn” French by distance using computers and headsets, without ever having any face-to-face contact with a teacher in real time — a Herculean task if I’ve ever heard one.

The point is, while people in this province acknowledge the merits of learning a second language, we don’t act on this belief in practice. Somehow, we recognize the immense benefits afforded bilingual and multilingual Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, while at the same time French-English bilingualism rates have managed to stay stagnant, below five per cent, and not all students are given the same standard of education when it comes to French language instruction.


Patrick Butler plans to begin the journalism program at Carleton University in Ontario in the fall. He lives in Conception Bay South, and can be reached by email at