Wouldn’t life be more comfortable if we all could glide from speaking English to French and back again, as easily as an automatic transmission changes gears?
Or shift smoothly between English, Mandarin Chinese and Cree, or one of the barely-surviving Coast Salish languages?
Millions of people in the world achieve this kind of language magic from infancy onward. Each language is a valuable gift because each has its own shape, colour and view of the universe.
In defiance of these benefits, however, we Canadians tie ourselves in emotional knots about language — a paralyzing disability for Anglophones who agonize over the French connection.
People in the U.S. have the same mental quirk. They fly into fits of temper about the Spanish language, even in the territory they stole from Mexicans, who in turn stole it from the original inhabitants.
But the 59 new NDP Quebec MPs may help us move toward the end of language hysteria in Canada. Most of them are young, and therefore hopefully more open to fresh ideas than old-timers who are set in their ways.
Well, the idea that I have in mind is 60 years old, but it hasn’t been much talked or written about: In the Philippines, United Nations fundamental-education researchers compared methods of teaching children whose mother tongue was Hiligaynon, one of several languages spoken in the Philippines.
One class was immersed from the start in English and taught all their school lessons in English. Another class learned all their lessons in their mother tongue, while learning English as a second language in separate sessions.
The mother-tongue class learned better and achieved higher examination results in regular school work than the immersion class; and within a year, that mother-tongue group caught up with the immersion group in their knowledge of English as well.
The clear conclusion — mother-tongue teaching works best runs counter to the bigotry and twisted political correctness that mark language policy in the English-speaking part of Canada. We push newcomer foreign children into English-language deep water and leave them to sink or swim.
We also dump English-speaking kids into French immersion schools without enabling them to have fun in French-speaking social settings outside the classroom. This policy looks like a recipe for failure.
The Quebec NDP voices in Ottawa may cite such findings as the Filipino mother-tongue teaching project when they suggest answers to Canada’s doublethink puzzle of language, culture and politics.
This puzzle arises because people want to achieve seemingly opposite, contrary things, and they get angry when someone shows them the contradiction.
Many Anglophone Canadians apparently want to keep Quebec in the federation while at the same time throwing it out or bullying that special province into surrender.
Many Quebecers seem to want to stay in Canada and get out, both at the same time, while gingering up the power of the French language and achieving people-friendly social-democratic goals.
The new strong-Quebec NDP caucus may be able to shortcut these psycho-political hang-ups, bypass the seeming contradictions, and drain off language-based hostility by supporting Quebec’s status as a special senior partner and also a laboratory and testing ground for social inventions that will be helpful to everyone.
Quebec has already succeeded in attracting skilled French-speaking immigrants to fill labour shortages, and ushering them into the workplace faster than the previous national procedure allowed.
Quebec could also be a pathfinder in sharpening the methods of teaching French as a second language. From Kindergarten upward, Quebec could enable Anglophones to become smoothly bilingual, and welcome them into French-speaking Canada by the methods that proved successful in the Philippines.
—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It appears every second week in the Gazette.