What Can Canada Learn From Other Bilingual Countries

Published November 13, 2013


Canada is currently going through an identity crisis of sorts. While on paper we are a bilingual country, bilingualism is slowly being removed from our culture on a large scale. There are, of course, linguistic holdouts like Quebec and many other areas, but as a whole, the country is slipping further and further into monolingualism.

While some argue this is progress, others wonder whether or not we are doing not only ourselves, but our children, a disservice by denying them the opportunity to speak both of the languages this great country was founded on.

In order to help answer this question, we can look around the world to other bilingual countries. Many other countries encourage the usage of second or heritage languages; the US with it’s mexican immigrant population speaking their own language as well as countries like Switzerland, India, and others that have massive populations of bilingual and multilingual speakers.

Canada can learn a lot from these other countries that have bilingual programs. Countries that put an emphasis on bilingual education have surprising results: students perform at the same level, if not better, than their monolingual peers. According to a study at the University of Haifa in Israel, bilingual students showed greater cognitive flexibility. The many benefits of bilingualism are well documented and there is no need to rehash that here. The problem is, how can a country effectively run a bilingual education system that allows both bilingual and monolingual students to excel.

One of the popular answers to this is question is bilingual immersion. Bilingual immersion is where schools utilize one language for half of the day and another language for the other half of the day. This equal use of both languages helps to develop balanced bilingual graduates that are proficient in both languages while allowing them to utilize both languages in a controlled setting. The majority language will still be the stronger language, but the minority language will be reinforced on a daily basis.

Another approach is to have these types of programs within a regular school setting. Therefore, bilingual children will have this type of setup, while the monolingual children will not. The downside to this type of schooling is the cost; separate teachers are needed for the bilingual and non-bilingual classes which has a greater overall cost for the system. With many governments struggling as it is, extra cost for education just isn’t feasible.

If we look at countries like India, it isn’t an intentional bilingualism; it’s out of necessity. Perhaps the best way to encourage bilingual education is to encourage bilingualism on a larger scale as more of a cultural shift. The best teachers are the parents, therefore parents would be the best influencers of their childrens language habits.

Naturally, encouraging more parents to put importance on bilingualism, perhaps learning other languages themselves to pass down to their children, or enrolling their children in extra-curricular classes, will help keep the flame of bilingualism burning for centuries to come in our great country.

In addition to cognitive benefits, bilingualism can have very practical benefits as well. In certain areas that deal with the population as a whole, like law or medicine, bilingualism is a must. The need exists to help people that don’t speak English… perhaps disproportionately so. Because of this, people who want to work in law or medicine, perhaps becoming a paralegal or getting a job as a physicians assistant, would be well-advised to speak another language at a high level.

Due to the technical nature of these fields, a passable level of the language isn’t as helpful as it may be in other areas; a high level of command and fluency are necessary to make an actual difference in the communication. The best way to become fluent in a second language is from birth.

If Canada can promote these many benefits, perhaps we can see a culture-shift that moves more towards bilingualism instead of away from it.

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