‘We realize how precious it is to be fully bilingual’

The benefits of a bilingual education are numerous, and some say in this era of globalization, it’s never been more important. James Gordon explains why learning French might be the right choice for your child.

Most people in Ottawa are well aware of the benefits of having a French-language education.

Many jobs in the federal public service, for example, require at least some level of bilingualism, and being fluent in both official languages allows citizens to experience two distinct cultures.

But according to those who teach the French language and lobby for its expansion, it’s becoming more important than ever. Globalization brings with it a more advanced, mobile workforce, and with that comes an increased level of competition for good jobs.

“I think parents, and even students, recognize at this time that being bilingual is just a great opportunity for them,” says Édith Dumont, director of education for the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.

“I can see that, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, people were not very curious about what it means to be in a French school board, but now they want to know what the value is of it.”

Increased immigration has also helped more people to see the added value in being bilingual, Dumont says.

“Most (children of immigrants) speak sometimes four and five languages, so maybe it’s an opportunity for us, as Canadians, to see how it’s so important to be at least bilingual,” she explains, recounting how amazed she was after a recent conversation with some Grade 11 students from École secondaire publique De La Salle.

One was originally from Brazil, another from Somalia, and there were a few more, and they all had beautiful French accents.

“But they were speaking French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, so it says to me, at least we have to speak two languages in Canada and be fluent in both official languages,” Dumont adds.

“I think with the internationalization of our schools, of our programs, we have many opportunities now to travel with our students … being in the world, being open to the world, again, we realize how precious it is to be fully bilingual.”

There are certain requirements that must be met for a student to be accepted into the French board. A parent or guardian must either speak French as their first language, have studied in a French elementary or secondary school or have a member of the family who’s already studying in a French school.

In Ottawa, there are many options for bilingual or anglophone parents seeking French immersion education for their children, too.

That’s not true of everywhere in Canada, however, which is where the Canadian Parents for French comes in. The 40-year-old organization, with a membership of about 20,000, was founded by anglophone parents who didn’t have access to immersion programs.

Since then, it has expanded across the country to promote the benefits of knowing French and provide services like after-school programs and camps.

In Ottawa, projects and public affairs lead Shaunpal Jandu explains, the CPF isn’t preaching to the choir exactly, but people here are already pretty aware of those benefits. It’s a unique case.

In Ontario as a whole, however, there are issues ranging from teacher shortages to access to French schools in smaller communities.

There are many different benefits to knowing French, he says.

“Obviously, there’s the career aspect of it — more jobs, especially in the public service, are requiring some degree of bilingualism — managerial positions at a significantly higher level nowadays, or it’s at least in the process of being discussed,” Jandu says.

“Beyond that, being official-languages bilingual, you have access to two different cultures,” he explains. “In Canada, it’s not as widespread as one might think and one might wish it to be. But by opening that up, it’s always great to have that kind of access.”