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PQ decision on English program is not another ‘pastagate’

McGill's Antonia Maioni

Is the Parti Québécois decision to review the existing intensive English program in French language schools the latest episode in Quebec's "language wars"?

Two arguments are making the rounds about this decision. The first is that is it is part of the radicalization of the PQ government's position to dilute the English language in a zero-sum effort to shore up French. The second is that the program, which has been under fire from school commissions and teachers' unions alike, is flawed to begin with, and needs to be overhauled.

There is some truth to both these of these arguments. The PQ government is under considerable pressure from its more radical partisans to promote the French language – as hassles at the Office de la Langue Française over "pastagate" showed – and review the former Liberal government's attempts to enhance English-language instruction in French schools. Part of the momentum behind the program was a frustration on the part of French-speaking parents that their children were not eligible for the kinds of "immersion" programs that English-speaking parents can avail themselves of for their children. The PQ shares an overall commitment that Quebec students graduating from public schools should have "proficiency" in English, but not necessarily the notion that all students be "bilingual," which would be a very tall order for any school system.

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The intensive English program itself is very recent, and obliged schools to offer an intensive program of sixth-grade instruction almost entirely in English. It was also considered to have been conceived and implemented in haste, without enough regard as to the impact on the rest of the sixth-grade curriculum, nor to whether school commissions had the proper resources to be able to carry it out effectively. Indeed, a previous Liberal initiative – to begin English language instruction in Grade 1 instead of waiting until Grade 3, as had been the case in the past – was already burdening schools across the province.

The PQ government is suggesting that the policy be reviewed – in this case by L'École Nationale d'Administration Publique. The government is now under heat from both its radical wing and the union sector – which would like to see the program abolished as a whole – and from proponents of English-language instruction in the Liberal opposition. Ironically, the only kudos are coming from the Coalition Avenir Québec, which would like to see schools given the autonomy to choose whether they want the intensive program as part of their individual curriculums.

There is no doubt that learning a second language is a precious gift and a laudable goal – all the more so for francophone children in Quebec who live in a larger North American environment. But it should be done in a coherent and feasible manner, with particular attention to the need for qualified teachers and the capacity to do so. My first-hand experience, as a parent of children enrolled in French-language schools, is that the most important criteria for language acquisition is the competence of the teacher at hand and the willingness to make English a language of interest and usefulness – not simply a grudging add-on to the curriculum.

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.

Quebeckers: Do you think students need an intensive English program? Weigh in here.

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