Some 338,000 students across the country study in school-based French immersion programs and another 1.5 million are taking core courses, according to Canadian Parents for French .
While enrolment has jumped drastically since the 1970s, recent growth has been slow – not nearly fast enough to meet the ambitious target set by the Privy Council in 2003: to make 50 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 bilingual by 2013.
Most provinces have seen eligible enrolment in immersion increase by between 1 and 4 per cent since 1999, but the numbers enrolled are highest in Eastern Canada. In British Columbia, a rush to French immersion has been tempered by caps on available spaces, leading parents to camp overnight in cities such as Nanaimo for first-come-first-served signups.
The attraction is often pragmatic – the programs are seen as akin to private or gifted education, or as expanding a child’s job prospects later in life. But educators say a strain of nationalism is still an important reason why parents enrol their children to study both of Canada’s official languages.
“I’ve been quite surprised and moved,” said Robert Rothon, national executive director of CPF. “They really do believe in a bilingual and bicultural Canada.”
That sentiment is evident even in Alberta, where support for French-language instruction is generally considered weaker, but where the Calgary Catholic School District is reshuffling its French immersion programs, shuttering English streams in some locations to create new immersion-only schools.
“[Our parents] feel that creates a stronger community and culture, and a stronger dedication to the French language,” said Andra McGinn, the district’s superintendent for instructional services.
Meanwhile, classes teaching languages that some see as more relevant today – Spanish, Mandarin or Punjabi, for example – have been multiplying across Canada. Yet their ascent hasn’t noticeably eroded French instruction, and allophone parents show a keen interest in both English and French instruction for their children, despite a variety of policies that have historically excluded them from in-school French programs.
If anything, as multilingualism has become more institutionalized, enrolments in all languages have so far tended to rise in step with French.
Being bilingual is still considered a competitive edge in Canada’s job market, but where French was once the undisputed second language of choice among employers, others are gaining ground.
Some 84 per cent of Canadians believe speaking French and English offers a better chance of finding a good job, says a 2006 survey by the Commissioner of Official Languages. Some 89 per cent think those with any two languages will have more success “in today’s global economy.”
Although nearly 2.8-million Canadians said in the last census they use more than one language at work, most Canadian jobs outside the public service still don’t require bilingual fluency, said Jeff Aplin, president of the national recrui ting firm David Aplin Group. But more and more, standing out from other applicants comes down to “soft skills,” where languages rate highly.
“Employers want to hire people that are creative in their thinking and in their work,” Mr. Aplin said.
A growing body of research shows that those who learn another language do gain cognitive advantages. Areas of the brain controlling our ability to sort through conflicting information, or to retain memory later in life, are stronger in bilinguals, McGill University psychology professor Fred Genesee said.
“Acquiring and using two languages is a kind of mental exercise [and] has spinoff effects,” Prof. Genesee said.
French remains the second language most Canadian employers look for outside Quebec, especially in eastern provinces where official-language bilingualism is strongest. But the demand for people who can work comfortably in the world’s other powerhouse economies is rising fast, especially in “customer-facing” jobs in areas such as tourism, hotels, airlines and retail banking.
“Bilingualism is certainly going to extend beyond the official languages of our country. We do get requests for people who are bilingual with Spanish and English, as well as Mandarin or Cantonese and English,” Mr. Aplin said. “They’re catching up, for sure. I’d say they’re pretty close.”