Are Ontario schools falling behind when it comes to teaching international languages?

If the province’s elementary schools want to teach languages other than English and French, they have to do so outside regular hours — and critics say that puts students at a disadvantage
By Priya Iyer - Published on Dec 10, 2018
Although Ontario is linguistically diverse, it hasn’t yet figured out what place international languages should have in schools. (iStock.com/ecep-bg)

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On Saturdays, Ryerson Community School, in the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown, transforms into a language school for kids from kindergarten to Grade 8. “We’ve occupied the whole school,” says Mona Eldardiry, the program’s coordinator.

These children are learning Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese on the weekends because they don’t have the option to study them as part of the regular curriculum. That’s because if Ontario elementary schools want to offer languages other than English or French, they have to extend the day by 30 minutes or provide instruction outside school hours. Although the province is linguistically diverse — in 2016, 3.5 million Ontarians had a mother tongue other than English or French — it hasn’t yet figured out what place international languages should have in schools. And that puts students at a disadvantage.

“At the policy level, the problem lies with Ontario’s Education Act,” says Jeff Bale, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The act permits only English- or French-language instruction during the school day.

As a result, 74 elementary schools — 10 in the Toronto District School Board and 64 in the Toronto and York Region Catholic boards — offer extended-day international-language programs. In Catholic schools, those usually involve Italian. Last year, 54 per cent of kids in an extended-day program in Toronto Catholic schools learned the language; in York Region, it’s the only one offered. Public-school students can learn various languages on evenings and weekends or in July. “The boards run great language programs, but they remain at the periphery of schooling,” Bale says.

They’ve also proven controversial. This summer, the Toronto Catholic District School Board proposed cancelling the extended-day language program — which, in 2016-17, served 18,268 students and employed 85 full-time language instructors — because of issues around compensation: teachers in extended-day-program schools work half an hour longer than teachers in other schools but receive no additional pay. The Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers Association filed a complaint with the board in June 2017 that was later backed by an arbitrator’s award.

Luciano Schipano, an instructor of Italian, launched an online petition in support of the program: it received more than 3,000 signatures. The board has since decided to work 30 minutes of language time, four days a week, into the regular ministry-mandated 300-hour curriculum, at least for this school year. (The TCDSB website says that it is exploring other options.) "The situation is volatile," says Luca Buiani, supervisor of international languages at the YCDSB and chair of Ontario's International Language Educators’ Association. "There are two hours missing in other subjects per week. I believe they will have to make a decision by the end of the year, when the pilot project ends, to keep it or let it go."

Funding presents another challenge — the TCDSB had a deficit of nearly $500,000 in 2017-18. Portugal’s Ministry of Education and Italy's Ministry of External Affairs (via Centro Scuola e Cultura Italiana, an organization that promotes Italian-language learning) help support the extended-day program, but the bulk of the funding comes from the province’s Ministry of Education. It isn’t enough, though, says Buiani, who notes that language instructors have the lowest salaries in continuing education.

ILEA's mandate, Buiani says, now also includes Indigenous languages. Since 1987, the curriculum from kindergarten to Grade 12 has included seven Indigenous languages, and students enrolled in one of these programs can be exempt from learning French as a second language. A 2017 survey on Indigenous education showed that 66 per cent of elementary schools in Ontario offer Indigenous-education opportunities, which can include language programs — up from 49 per cent in 2013. They’re offered by several school boards, including the Kenora Catholic District School Board and the Rainbow District School Board. (Parents in the TDSB have complained about the lack of options.) But there aren't many certified teachers fluent in Indigenous languages — this fall, KCDSB hired language facilitators to support teachers at two schools.

Out West, the approach to international languages is different — possibly because, as Bale says, “Historically, it had fewer francophones.” In Alberta, half the school day can be taught in a foreign language, and schools can teach math, health, and other subjects as part of partial immersion programs in eight languages, including Arabic and Ukrainian. Chinese-immersion programs have been offered in Edmonton for 35 years. Schools can also provide international-language and cultural classes outside of partial-immersion programs. In 2001, Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan developed a curriculum framework for bilingual education — the framework provides a common provincial curriculum for international-language courses by grade (English, French, and Indigenous languages are covered by a different framework).

In the 2017-18 school year, 19 per cent of students in Calgary were enrolled in a bilingual program not involving French. While 8,686 students participated in the city’s French-immersion programs, coming in second was its Spanish-English programs, which have seen a boost in elementary and secondary enrolment from 125 students in 2001-02 to 3,619 in 2017-18.

If Ontario doesn’t start welcoming different languages, critics say, there will be consequences — especially for multilingual children.

TDSB students speak more than 120 languages, and emphasizing only English and French in school puts them at risk of losing what aptitude they have, says Gail Prasad, an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Kids learn very quickly what is valued and what isn’t,” she says.

Prasad grew up in Toronto with parents who spoke five languages but spoke only English with her. Many immigrants to Canada — 76 per cent of whom speak more than one language — see few incentives to pass on their mother tongue. It’s still English that’s necessary for jobs and accessing health care.

Instead of relegating students’ home languages to after-school hours, Prasad says, they should be used in the classroom: that can help improve self-esteem and foster learning. For her doctoral dissertation at U of T, she worked with kids to design projects using multiple languages. Many told her, she recalls, that they finally felt a sense of pride in their own languages: “A parent told me this was the first time a school had affirmed the importance of their home language.”

Priya Iyer is a journalism fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

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