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McGill's Antonia Maioni

The big news in Quebec universities is not just about tuition fees. It's also about top-notch research.

This month, ACFAS – l'Association francophone pour le savoir – held its 80th annual scientific congress in Montreal. One of the highlights was a symposium on bilingualism and multilingualism, which asked: What determines the capacity of humans to learn more than one language, and how does this affect brain development?

There was plenty of discussion and debate, especially between two eminent McGill University colleagues. Psychology professor Fred Genesee has spearheaded decades of research on language acquisition, and along the way has challenged several myths. He's found that a child's brain is not unilingual but rather bilingual, and thus fully wired to learn two languages at once, coherently and effectively, without confusion. Meanwhile, Karsten Steinhauer, the Canada Research Chair in Neurocognition of Language, has discovered lent his expertise in new technologies such as electroencephalography (yes, it's a word!) to bust a few myths as well: namely, that only children have the capacity to learn a new language. It turns out that adult brains have similar capacities, but it's the method of training – specifically, immersion – that determines success. Like riding a bike or playing tennis, practice makes perfect.

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Beyond this, scientists have already figured out that bilingualism is actually good for the "little grey cells," as the famously smart and bilingual Hercule Poirot would say. People who learn two languages tend to have "thicker" brains, which leads to more positive outcomes in healthy aging and cognitive functions. More recently, Canadian neurologists found groundbreaking evidence that bilingualism may even delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

If bilingualism can improve our brains and keep us lucid longer, why haven't we been able to harness that opportunity in an officially bilingual country? As English becomes the global language of the 21st century, people all over the world are rapidly becoming bilingual and, presumably, smarter and healthier, boosting their global comparative advantage. Why can't Canadians do the same, learning both English and French as a matter of course and, at the same time, strengthening our national character?

This is not as much of a pipe dream as it sounds. The real reasons for our blockade against bilingualism in Canada have to do with institutional structures, cultural effects and political choices.

The institutional structures are obvious: Language education remains the purview of the provinces. The Constitution may set out guarantees for linguistic minorities, but the provinces call the tune in decisions about curriculum and funding. Even though second-language learning varies across and within provinces, the historical record is far from stellar. Still, even in the officially French province of Quebec, English is required as of the first grade in public schools, and many schools have opted to teach the sixth grade in English only. French immersion is one of the most popular alternatives for English-speaking parents. The most competitive public schools are the écoles internationales, where multilingual training is part of the curriculum.

But most Canadians live in a cultural space that remains resolutely unilingual, shaped by an Anglo-American view of language. The dominance of English in the United States has had a continental effect in Canada, leaving little room for the inclusion of other languages into mainstream learning.

And then there is the fear factor, reinforced by the way many politicians have made a bogeyman out of official bilingualism. We tend to treat language as a zero-sum game in Canada, as if encouraging French in Red Deer or English in Rimouski somehow diminishes the other. But what if we envision second-language acquisition for the benefits it provides rather than the fear it evokes? Science is now confirming that bilingualism can be good for us – so why not encourage a national strategy for language education? And while we're at it, we may end up not just as healthier Canadians but with a healthier sense of Canada as well.

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