More New Brunswickers need opportunities to learn English or French as a second language in order to prevent the province from being officially bilingual “in name only,” warned a new report released Wednesday.
The report by provincial court Judge Yvette Finn and former deputy education minister John McLaughlin makes 24 recommendations aimed at strengthening opportunities for people to become bilingual.
“Unless all New Brunswickers develop a comfort level in understanding and communicating in both English and French, we will be a bilingual province in name only,” the report stated. New Brunswick is the only province in Canada with English and French as official languages.
The authors said that many of the challenges and frustrations voiced by the province’s two linguistic communities can be alleviated if each New Brunswicker develops proficiency in both official languages.
They cited Statistics Canada’s 2016 census, which indicated that only 33.9 per cent of New Brunswickers considered themselves bilingual. That census found that while 73.2 per cent of francophones reported that they spoke both official languages, that was the case for only 15.7 per cent of anglophones.
“It seems clear to us that society as a whole must collectively support, champion, and participate actively in the complex process of becoming a truly bilingual province,” the authors said.
The report concluded that much of the current frustration stems from a lack of understanding of what it means to be bilingual, because of concerns over language proficiency levels – an issue it said creates “unnecessary confusion.”
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It recommended the province adopt the Common European Framework of Reference, a model that measures language proficiency on six levels, from beginner to master, in order to help people track their progress.
The authors also called for standardization around proficiency testing in schools, where the report said there is also a need for strong second language programming for all students, complete with realistic goals.
The report said there are different linguistic targets in anglophone schools for various French-language programs, while it said that in the francophone sector, there does not appear to be any second language targets for students.
As well, the authors said there is no standardized provincial assessment to collect data or trends on language proficiency for students.
McLaughlin told reporters Wednesday that students outside French immersion programs are not getting the same quality of instruction as schoolchildren in those programs – something he said has to change. However, he recommended a slow approach to changing the education system, adding that government has to consult first with teachers, parents and educational leaders.
“Make sure that you do your homework in finding the best way to approach a new program, but something has to happen,” McLaughlin said. “Everybody we spoke with who believes there are structural inadequacies in the system believes something has to happen.”
Meanwhile, the report said more training is needed to deal with the frustration caused by real or perceived linguistic barriers to employment in the provincial public service.
The authors said that a department of official languages – an idea they proposed in a review last December of the province’s Official Languages Act – should assume responsibility for language assessment and learning programs for adults.
The department, they said, would also lead the development of relevant language training programs for government and other front-line employees, including Service New Brunswick staff, ambulance personnel, health care workers, and nursing home staff.
Among the several other recommendations is a call to use existing facilities such as public libraries to expose children to both official languages in all communities across the province.
McLaughlin said an honest conversation is needed between the provincial government and New Brunswickers about the challenges and opportunities that exist in strengthening the two official languages.
“Set the table properly, get people on board and then create a movement that nobody will want to stop,” he said.
Finn added that the time for change has come.
“The issue of bilingualism in New Brunswick is part of our province and it’s time that we address it in a positive fashion,” she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2022.