A Roller Coaster of Questions: The Bi[Multi]lingualism Identity in French Second Language Education (by Jessica Irvine)

Jessica Irvine resides on Treaty 4 land – Home of the Nakota, Dakota, Lakota, Saulteaux, Nêhiyawak (Cree), and Métis. She completed her Bachelor of Education in French Education at the University of Regina. Currently she teaches grade 1 through 8 Core French with Regina Public Schools. She has also returned to the University of Regina and is completing her Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. Her research interests include curriculum development, language policy, identity theory, cultural, Indigenous language revitalization, creating curriculums based on one’s “place”, lifewriting, qualitative inquiry, Indigenous methodologies, bilingualism, and multilingualism. Jessica’s thesis will focus on the cultural outcomes of the Saskatchewan Core French curriculum from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives. When Jessica isn’t writing, reading, or researching, she is either out running or hiking with her 4-legged running partner, Ginny, or training for Spartan obstacle course races.

Every year in Saskatchewan, the Ministry of Education celebrates French Second Language (FSL) Education by hosting a contest for schools that offer French programs as a second language. Across the province, schools that offer Core French, French Immersion, Intensive and Post-Intensive French are invited to create videos or artwork that reflect the themes and submit them as part of the contest, usually to win resources for the school’s French program. This year, for 2018, the theme is “151 raisons pour choisir le bilinguisme!” or in English, “151 Reasons to Choose Bilingualism!” Many schools celebrate FSL Education Week by hosting assemblies, inviting guests, and planning activities that embodies the essence of learning French as a second language. 

I am a Core French elementary educator of ten years in Saskatchewan. The Core French program in Saskatchewan schools varies but generally, students receive basic French language instruction once or twice a week with allotted time varying throughout all schools. My students learn very basic conversational structures such as “Comment t’appelles-tu?” in Grade 1. By Grade 8, they can ask and answer multiple basic questions, write short paragraphs, and read short French texts all based on specific themes provided in our provincial curriculum. As soon as I read the 2018 theme for FSL Education Week, my immediate thought was “Do my students know what the word bilingualism means?”. Then I also thought “Can my students explain what bilingualism is?” In honour of the week’s theme, I decided lessons and conversations surrounding bilingualism and FSL Education would be beneficial for all my students, younger and older. 

It’s the Friday morning the week before French Second Language Education Week. I walk into the Grade 3 classroom prepared with picture books that talked about different places in the world, about how people look different, about how our ancestors travelled from overseas, and about moving to a new country and new school where you do not speak the language. I told them that next week is going to be FSL Education Week and I told them the theme. When I said the word “bilingualism”, one student immediately blurted out “What is that?” I told them that it meant that you can speak more than one language. Though my assumptions of their lack of knowledge to the topic were confirmed, the conversation went beyond what I had expected.  A student who was born in Greece asks, “Mme Irvine, I spoke Greek and English first. So does that mean I am bilingual? Or does only French and English mean bilingual?”. His question started a roller coaster of questions from students who had come from other countries. French was their third or fourth, or even fifth language. It brought up conversations of students whose parents are teaching them their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ languages, including Ukrainian and Russian. As we talked, I realized their confusion about whether they were bilingual or not came from the theme I had just discussed for FSL Week. I had just told them we were celebrating learning French and the theme was “151 Reasons to Be Bilingual”. By representing a theme for FSL Education Week, the word “bilingualism” to these younger students defined being bilingual as only speaking French and English. Before this class, I had anticipated one issue related to the FSL Education Week’s theme this year would be that my students did not know what the word bilingualism meant. By addressing that issue, we highlighted an unintentional assumption in the week’s theme that bilingualism meant only French and English, discrediting all other languages that my students spoke, are speaking, or are learning. 

Fast forward a few hours later and I am in now in the Grade 6 classroom continuing the same conversation. A eleven-year-old girl in Grade 6, from Brazil, expresses that she has been in our school for two years but has never been asked to share her language, Portuguese. Yet when she goes to visit her home in Brazil, all they do is ask her to teach them English words. She conveyed that she often feels that her language and culture do not matter in our school or in our country. She said if our theme next week was to celebrate reasons to be bilingual, then she would celebrate speaking Portuguese too. The class adamantly agreed, so we began to discuss ways we could include other languages that live in our school, not just French, in celebration of reasons to be bilingual.

For that whole day, and the week that followed, the lesson was similarly repeated in my thirteen other Core French classes ranging from grade 1 through grade 8. The voices of students aged 6 to 13 helped me see that when bilingualism is singled out uniquely to highlight FSL education programs, it inadvertently denies the other languages and cultures that exist in our bi[multi]lingual schools. I was born in Estevan, Saskatchewan as a Canadian and I grew up learning and speaking only English and French. I often forget about the diverse families who I teach and who go home to speak a language that is not French or English. More so, as a speaker and educator of the two dominant languages of our education system, the work force, government and Canadian society, I have taken for granted that bilingualism is inclusive and goes beyond our two official languages of Canada. French Second Language Education should be celebrated, but not by disregarding numerous other languages that struggle to co-exist in our bi[multi]lingual schools, province, and country. While I teach French language and culture, I have students yearning for their own unique language and culture, undeniably a large part of who they are, to also be recognized in the definition of Canada’s bi[multi]lingual identity. 

2 thoughts on “A Roller Coaster of Questions: The Bi[Multi]lingualism Identity in French Second Language Education (by Jessica Irvine)

  1. In the early days of settlement in western Canada people of similar cultures such as Polish, Ukranian, German, French etc. gathered together and spoke the home language. this worked well until the children started school.children spoke many languages and English became the common language when these children grew up and married they spoke their native language and English. their children grew up understanding home language but spoke English. the next generation spoke mostly English. I think that the present immigrants will follow a similar pattern.

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