Young parents who speak English are waning in their determination to make sure their children speak a second language, despite robust support for Canada’s 50-year-old policy of official bilingualism.
A poll conducted by Environics Institute for Survey Research found 69 per cent of anglophone adults under 35 outside of Quebec think it would be important for their children to learn a second language, down from 86 per cent when the same questions were asked in 2001. Other age groups also saw reduced levels of support, but not as steep.
In Quebec, 95 per cent said it was important children learn a second language, down three percentage points from 2001.
Experts say the decline of the Quebec independence movement helps explain the reduced importance found outside the province. “We’re not as immersed in the crisis-management part of the language issue. It could be we’ve stopped talking about it, and we’re at a little bit of risk of coasting,” said Andrew Parkin, director of the Mowat Centre at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, which commissioned the survey.
Mr. Parkin added that globalization and digital communication may be “reinforcing the sense you can get by in English.”
Graham Fraser, a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and the former official languages commissioner, pointed out that at the start of 2001, Canadians were fresh off the 1995 referendum and Lucien Bouchard headed a Parti Québécois government in Quebec. “There was an ongoing sense that the dissolution of the country was a continuing possibility. Young parents today probably have a hard time remembering the 1995 referendum,” he said. “Quebec independence is just not on anyone’s radar now.”
Mr. Fraser added other factors are also likely at play. He said Ottawa does little to promote bilingualism and there is a growing public emphasis on STEM education – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “When you think of a parent of a young child looking at changes in the digital economy and anxiety over finding a job, in some ways it’s impressive that three-quarters still say they want their child to learn a second language,” he said.
Mr. Fraser added that the overall picture is very encouraging. “It’s reassuring that after 50 years, support for the policy is so strong,” he said.
The Official Languages Act making English and French the official languages of Canada and requiring federal institutions to provide services in both languages came into force in September, 1969. Opposition to the law was fierce at the start, particularly in English-speaking Canada where many argued it was a waste of money. The Environics poll conducted early this year showed 78 per cent of anglophones and 93 per cent of francophones support official bilingualism. Eighty-two percent of immigrants expressed support for official bilingualism. The levels of support overall have remained constant since 2001.
Nicole Thibault, national executive director of Canadian Parents for French, said she is surprised to see the survey results showing a decrease in importance placed on bilingual education by young parents. Immersion programs remain extremely popular in English-speaking parts of Canada, particularly in British Columbia and Alberta, where enrolment has increased for 15 straight years.
Immigrant families are driving much of the popularity in the West, she said. “Newcomers have been sold on the idea Canada is a bilingual country, and they want their children enrolled in French immersion so they can fully participate and contribute to Canadian society,” she said. But, she added, “with well above 50 per cent of people thinking it’s important to learn another language, mainly French, the offer for French as a second language is far from catching up to parental demand.”
The Environics survey showed 35 per cent of Canadians whose mother tongue is neither French nor English say they believe their children should learn French, ahead of Chinese languages (18 per cent) Spanish (9 per cent) and English (6 per cent.) There was no comparable data for 2001.
Over all, 65 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec thought French was the more important second language, down from 75 per cent in 2001.
Environics conducted the survey online in the provinces and by telephone in the territories among 5,732 adult Canadians between Dec. 14 and Jan. 16. The comparison survey in 2001 was conducted entirely by telephone, so “don’t know” responses, which are higher in online surveys, were removed.