For decades, bilingualism has been official governnent policy in Canada, a goal of the educational system across the provinces. In pursuit of this, federal and provincial governments have spent lots of money on second language learning. All across the country, anglophone students take French as a Second Language (FSL) courses from early grades through to high school. These courses range from basic core French up to immersion and intensive.
And similarly, francophone students take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
However, despite all the cost and effort over decades, results are somewhat lackluster. Statistics indicate that only about 17% of Canadians however are bilingual English-French. (A reasonably impressive 35% of Canadians are bilingual, but this includes other languages)
Why is this so?
One of the challenges of second language learning for official languages in Canada is lack of opportunity to practice with speakers of the other language in an immersive fashion. Language, we must remember, is not some abstract skill. Language is a practical set of tools used to communicate with people. And these tools take regular practice to gain and maintain.
It is hard to acquire language skills in a vacuum, and harder to maintain them after the formal learning stops. These skills have to be practiced to gain them, and need to be regularly used to avoid the skills degrading.
The problem is that for much of the population in Canada, there is no regular access to speakers of the other official language. Imagine a French Québécois living in rural Quebec. The locals are almost 100% francophone. All normal conversation, outside of a school, are in French. English is only accessible passively through American TV and movies. Aside from tourists, there is little to no daily opportunity to try out English skills.
On the other hand, imagine an English speaking person in suburban Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary. French is something that exists only in a classroom. How many French speakers can be found out on the streets? Truth be told, it is probably easier to find a conversation partner in Hindi or Mandarin in these areas than French.
To practice speaking the second language, you either need to find a willing language partner in your community. Either that, or you need to travel to go immerse yourself, or live in a mixed area. Most people are not going to find the first. And as for the second, outside of southeastern New Brunswick, Montreal, and the Ottawa River valley, you don’t tend to see these highly mixed environments. Again, Canada’s cities are linguistically rich, but this is not widely so in terms of English-French. Ottawa, Montreal, and Moncton, are probably the richest urban environments in Canada for vibrant English-French bilingualism. There are also bands of bilingualism in Northern Ontario bordering Quebec, the Ottawa RIver valley, and Quebec’s Eastern Townships. These places are home to something like 5 million Canadians. What about the other 30-odd million?
So what is to be done? How can willing language learners get around these limitations?
One option would be to take advantage of advances in communication technology.
Video-conferencing software like Skype, Whatsapp, Lync, Google Hangouts, and Facetime combined with faster wired and wireless internet offer an opportunity to collapse the barriers of distance and bring together people in different places for face-to-face communication. These tools are already used every day for separated family members to keep in touch and for business associates to communicate.
What if this was applied to second language learning courses?
Penpal exchanges are a long running learning approachfor language classrooms. But what about using Internet audio or video chat to allow a voice or face to face connection? Any of the existing video conferencing tools could work as the medium of communication. The challenge then would be to help connect / pair up people with complementary needs for language exchanges.
I’m imagining some sort of web-based platform to help connect FSL classroom teachers and students from English Canada with ESL classroom teachers and students from French Canada. The platform would enable people to meet each other, at which point contact information could be exchanged and appointments set to do face to face exchanges. Then sessions could be set one on one between matched pairs of students.
Such a platform could target either students in grade school classrooms or older students pursuing second language learning on their own as two distinct markets. There could also be a third institutional market, for example for government hires to meet language requirements, or for a Canada-wide company looking to skill up its employees who need bilingualism.
This social platform could enable people to match up for video/audio-based conversational exchanges, as well as provide a platform (internet chat or discussion board) for text-based exchanges. The video and audio conferencing itself is probably best handled by the specialized platforms that deal with all the complexities of providing smooth video chatting. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel of video chat tools.
The service of this site would be focused on enabling appropriate pairings of classrooms and individuals. Learners could be matched on age, relative language level, gender, hobbies/interests or whatever other factors are appropriate. The key is that francophones get matched with anglophones to allow for a real exchange.
With better opportunities for regular real life practice, a lot of potential benefits appear:
- The use of the second language becomes necessary. In a dialogue with your local classmate who is also unilingual, it is tempting fior both to just slip back into their own first language, because it’s easily possible. However, if you’re talking with someone who is just as weak in English as you are in French, you both need to work your opposite language skills or else communication won’t happen.
- Cultural exchange. The “other” becomes less of an other. English Canadians have real first hand contact with French Canadians. They become more real to each other, no longer “Two Solitudes.”
- The motivation to learn the second language is raised because the practical benefits are made more concrete. It’s not just an artificial dialogue to pass an assessment. It’s not an abstract piece of learning to pass a test or course. It becomes a useful tool to communicate with real human beings you can see and interact with.
- Confidence in second language skills rises and hesitation to go out and practice in the real world falls. It’s often a lack of confidence that keeps people back from practice even when skills are there and opportunity is available.
All of this should serve to improve outcomes in learning in terms of transfer of learning and retention of learning.