Saturday, September 4, 2010

La Plus Ca Change?

Hmm. The editorial in the Montreal Gazette, December 1, 1910 edition, is about the bilingual question.

And it makes me wonder.

It begins with ramblings about Gaelic and Celtic (of course the Nicholsons and McLeods of the Isle of Lewis came to Canada in circa 1850 speaking only Gaelic) and then seems to suggest that the language issue in Quebec would be solved if only teachers were bilingual - and well paid.

The article claims that there are many bilingual Quebecers in business, and elsewhere but not in the ranks of teachers.

"If the language issue is to be settled in Canada satisfactorily, it will have to be approached in a spirit of unity and good will and not in dissession (dissention?) and enmity." The editorialist wonders if any classes are being taught in French, for there are no statistics available to him.

So back then, in 1910, in the English sector, they felt that schools should be bilingual. And they felt that to do this required paying more for bilingual teachers. Who was to know?..

I'm a little surprised.

In my day, in the 60's and 70's, the school system was denominational, Protestant and Catholic, with most of the Anglos and Jewish kids enrolled in the Protestant Sector. French was taught for an hour a day and the teacher was usually an inept Anglo. Why? Because the only qualified French teachers were in the Catholic sector and not allowed, by union rules or whatever, to teach in the Protestant Sector. Also, quite a few teachers in the Protestant Board were hired out of the UK.

In my high school, they got around this problem by hiring Moroccan teachers, who were Jewish. My French teachers in high school were excellent.

Not that it helped. A huge chunk of students (the vast majority) in my graduating class moved to Ontario or elsewhere in Canada or to the US. And this was in large part because of our lack of preparedness to work in the new "French" reality.

Montreal's loss was Toronto's gain. Someone once said that the Parti Quebecois made Toronto, and I agree. Remember, in the 1960's the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal had perhaps the best record of any school board in any jurisdication in North America. Marion Nicholson, of my book in progress Flo in the City, based on the letters of likely had a hand in this. She was Union leader and fought for higher salaries for teachers. (She also spent her summers taking French courses.)

One hour a day of language instruction isn't enough to learn a language. (Indeed, I found a document from 1879 out of the Quebec Education Department, that unequivocally says that 'a language cannot be taught in a classroom.' The statement is even italicized!

In 1997 school boards in Quebec were divided linguistically, into the French and English Boards. My kids were in school then.

French Immersion, which had started as an advanced stream for elite students became the norm, in some part because parents didn't want their kids appearing to be 'in the dumb stream'.
And in some part because Anglo parents understood the new Quebec reality and their (diminished) place within it.

In those days, within the English Boards, some schools had 100 percent English instruction; some schools had 50-50 English and French and some schools had 70/30 immersion. Some schools began French immersion in the third grade and some in the first grade. My kids attended a 50 50 school where immersion began in grade three.

I wasn't impressed with French immersion. Textbooks to address the specific needs of immersion students didn't exist; it was up to the teacher to dumb down French sector texts so that the Anglo students could better understand them. I wasn't for this dumbing down of learning. (My son still asks "What were you thinking?" because I had him read Huckleberry Finn in the 3rd grade.) And that made your child's education a kind of crap shoot: If the teacher worked hard and spent her nights on lesson plans, he got a decent education.

(I recall that teachers were always complaining about how disorganized one of my sons was. (He is now a astrophysics graduate). But without textbooks the young kids had to keep bazillions of loose papers and bits and pieces of photocopied texts under control. The students had plastic bins to help them stay organized. Giant bins. Ridiculous! When I was in elementary school I was disorganized too and I had, say, 6 textbooks and 6 scribblers and a pencil box with 2 pencils and a one of those cartridge ink pens. )

My 2 sons did fine although neither now lives in Quebec. (One of my sons wants to move to France, however, or anywhere in the European Union.) Other people's kids, mostly boys, fell through the cracks. I suspect they might have succeeded had they been instructed only in their first tongue.

Today, in Quebec, there are no English language stream schools left, at least I think. It is all 70/30 immersion. Indeed, a nephew of my husband's just moved here from Paris, with his two tweenage kids. Since he was educated in the English Quebec system his kids are eligible to attend classes on the English side.. His daughter, a high achiever who knows no English, was afraid of entering the English system. But after one day her fears were allayed. The classes were in French!

She will likely learn English quickly, as the kids in the English sector speak English at play and in the halls. That is where a child learns to speak another language, not in the classroom.

Ironically, I am listening to cartoons in Italian on Rai Online this morning. I want to know some Italian for my trip to France and Italy. (It irked me to know no Greek when in Lesvos last week.)

I listen to free audio books online in French on a site called (I'm into Zola)and I also sometimes watch movies in French on DVD, sometimes with subtitles. It is easy to learn another language today. Although you simply cannot learn to speak a language unless you practice speaking it.

It's not really about that in Quebec. It's an equality issue - a political issue - and that's a whole other ball game.