HOW OUR CHILDREN LEARNED FRENCH IN SPITE OF THE SCHOOL SYSTEM
The best way to make an English-speaking child bilingual is to send him to a French-speaking school. At least so everyone agrees. This is the revealing story of the red tape and outright opposition one couple found in both Ontario and Quebec when they tried to practise what everyone preaches
ONE DAY TWO YEARS AGO, my wife and I began to believe that our experiment in bilingualism for our children was paying off. That was the day my daughter suddenly giggled at me and said: “Oh. Daddy, your accent's so fanny!" Accent is important in learning to speak a language, and Helen's amusement at my expense was encouraging. At seven years she knew enough French to laugh at mine.
Today my French has improved only slightly, but Helen, who is now nine, is fluently bilingual. Her sixyear-old brother. Gordon, is becoming so. This proves to us that a bilingual education can be obtained in Quebec and Ontario, but our experience also proves that parents have to fight to get it for their children. Our attempts have brought us face to face with many of the frustrations which have kept “English Canadians” from learning both Canadian languages.
Helen and Gordon were both both in Montreal, and their French education started there. My wife came from Nova Scotia and I came from Toronto. and neither of us had this advantage. When wc arrived in Montreal we both had high school French, and my wife had some university French, but in everyday speech this left us with little more than an embarrassed honjonr which wc couldn't follow up.
We decided that our children should learn French as early as possible. Dr. Wilder Penfield, the great neurologist, had pointed the way. "The brain,” he wrote, “specializes in learning languages before the ages of ten to fourteen. To meet its demands general schooling in secondary languages should begin between the ages of four and ten.” He cited the experience of his own family: “Our children heard only German in the nursery because they had a German governess. At the ages of three and four they entered a French nursery school. With their parents and others outside the school and outside the nursery, they heard English. There was no confusion.”
“Well,” my wife said, “we can't provide the German governess, but surely here in Montreal there should be some way to get an education in at least two languages with the help of public schooling.” We set out to try.
Today Helen has had four years of schooling entirely in the French language. from kindergarten through grade three. Wc speak English at home and wc have found that, essentially, the phonetic rules of reading which she was taught in French applied also to English, so with a little help from us she has been able to read as well in English.
Gordon, who was six last Christ-mas, finished a year in a bilingual kindergarten at Candiac, our Montreal suburb, and is currently attending grade one at the Toronto French School, a private institution.
Before this was accomplished.^ wc had to face an apparently immutable fact of Canadian life: Education is not established simply on linguistic lines. Its basic distinctions arc religious, and these differ from province to province. In Quebec, the basic divisions are Protestant and Catholic, not English and French, and in Ontario
where we now live they are public and separate.
For three years Fielen was one of a very few children from Englishspeaking families being educated entirely in French in the public school system of the province. Coming from a Protestant home she was an even rarer exception, for within the entire jurisdiction of the Montreal (Catholic) School Commission in 1961-1962, only two English Protestant children were enrolled in the French schools. French public schooling in Quebec is almost exclusively Roman Catholic.
During the twelve years we lived in Quebec my wife and 1 deeply felt this anomaly between English - speaking and French-speaking Canadians. The Montreal area, generally, provides a wonderful opportunity to learn two languages — naturally, as a child learns. But with relatively rare exceptions only French Canadians take advantage of it.
Our attempt to buck the system hasn't been easy, but we think — and so does Helen now — that it has been worthwhile. “I’ve got tudce as many friends as any other girl in town,” Helen said on one occasion. “There are all my English friends from Brownies and Sunday school — they don't know the French kids very well — and then there are all my French school friends.”
While a fair percentage of the French-Canadian children in Candiac did speak English, with one or two exceptions, none of the English-Canadian children spoke French.
“It won’t work, I tell you”
Helen first attended a private French maternelle, or kindergarten, in Notre Dame de Grâce, Montreal. We felt that her introduction to a “foreign" language would need some special attention.
“She's just the right age to learn,” the kindergarten teacher told us. “She'll have no trouble at all.” Basically she has been proven right. However, we moved during the year to the suburban development and such classes weren't available there at the time.
I he first difficulty arose the following September in trying to get Helen accepted as a student in grade one of the local Catholic French school.
"I vc heen teaching for seventeen years, and this is the first time I've ever met anyone like you," the principal told me. “It won't work. I tell you. It won't work.”
The Protestant school inspector had similar words for my wife: "It won't work. It only confuses the child, and we will have the same problem all over again when you bring her hack.“
After three days of difficulties at the school we decided to consult a lawyer. We were told that in general under the Quebec education laws, a parent may send his or her child to the school >of his choice. Armed with this knowledge, and the lawyer’s offer to write a Tetter, we again approached the school.
“Well, if you're that serious, we’ll give it a try," was the principal's retort. But again we were cautioned: “Within three months you'll be asking to have her transferred to the English school. By then she II be three months behind the others, and
Now, of course, he admits he was wrong. Helen ranked nicely within the top quarter of her class at the end of last year. The principal was pleased and told my w ife: “She’s coming along well. I would think you should keep her in French school now at least through grade five.”
Individually, virtually everyone (school officials included) has expressed sympathy for what we are trying to do. When we have run into problems they have been legal ones or
someone's conviction that what we are trying to do just wouldn't work.
The members of the school boards in our suburb were a big help. I doubt that we could have achieved what we did if either group, Protestant or Catholic, had been fundamentally opposed. Some were skeptical—“All right, now that you've made the big gesture, why don't you rejoin the fold?” Many entirely approved our action — "What you are doing is an example to us all." When the Catholic School Commis-
sion accepted our children, my school tax was transferred, in effect, from the Protestant administration to the Catholic.
The school situation in Quebec grants considerable autonomy to the local school boards or commissions. This was why our children, from a non-Catholic home, were allowed to be enrolled at a Catholic school and why my taxes could be transferred to its support. There have also been cases w here non-Catholic children have been
refused such accommodation, but there have been so few such applications that the department of education has no statistics on the subject.
Our example, however, was not without some local effect. This year, three other non-Catholic families applied to have their children follow Gordon’s footsteps into the bilingual kindergarten. They were accepted.
In Toronto the situation is entirely different. Helen has had to give up regular schooling in French and attend the local public school where all instruction is in English. To continue her French we have to pay for private lessons once a week. Gordon, who had a year of maternelle and was enrolled in the first gratie of a French school before we moved, is now receiving instruction in French — in a private school.
In Toronto there is a bilingual school operated by the Separate School Board but our children have been refused acceptance. The Separate School Board has told ns, in effect: “We sympathize with what you arc trying to do. but our hands arc tied. We can’t accept your children because we can’t get your taxes.”
But a letter from the secretary of the board, assuring us that there was nothing personal in the board’s refusal. noted — rather curiously, we thought — that: "... limitations must be imposed on the operation of a school of this type, otherwise the board would not be able to accommodate the great numbers who, for one reason or another, would be making application in order to have their children admitted for the prime purpose of learning French.”
In fairness, the board had no option in law. L’Ecole Sacré Cœur (on Sherbourne Street, just south of Wellesley) is a Roman Catholic Separate School. Under the laws of Ontario only Roman Catholics may pay taxes for its support, and the Metropolitan Separate School Board can legally collect taxes only from Roman Catholics who elect to support its schools.
There seemed one last resort, and we felt we might have an acceptable case. Canada has a shiny new Bill of Rights. Both our children had had their entire schooling in French, and French schooling was available in Toronto which had been denied to us because of religious differences. We were the victims of religious discrimination — against Protestants — in Ontario!
I telephoned the Ontario Human Rights Commission and was told that the commission, which works under the provincial labor department, can deal with discrimination in employment or housing but is specifically forbidden to operate in education.
But there is also an Ontario Association for Civil Liberties. I took our appeal there. Its legal counsel told me: “Yours is not really a civil rights matter. After all. Ontario law does make provision for minority education considerations. I understand what you are trying to do, but if you feel that strongly about French education . . . well there’s always Quebec.”
But we moved to Ontario because I was transferred to my firm's Toronto office, and to return now was out of the question. Private schooling was the only course left, hut private
schooling is expensive. We couldn't afford it for both children, so we decided to give Gordie his chance, send Helen to the public school, and arrange for Saturday classes to maintain her French.
The Toronto French School Inc. is the result of the efforts of a group of parents who. like ourselves, wanted to provide an education for their children in Canada’s two root cultures. Three years ago three Toronto couples decided their respective three-yearolds were ready for French schooling, so together they hired a French teacher for three mornings a week. The first year it was a nursery school only but kindergarten and grade one were added in turn, and this year the school gives education in French to thirty-one youngsters, aged three to six. Next year further grades are planned. with instruction in both languages.
The children come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Currently classes are held in facilities rented from St. Leonard's Anglican and Bedford Park United churches. Gordon was enrolled when we moved to Toronto last October, one of six pupils in grade one. They attend class for only half of each school day, because the teacher has to teach kindergarten during the other half. But we found that despite his previous schooling, the rest of his class was considerably ahead of Gordon and we had to arrange extra tuition to help him catch up.
Religion mixed with grammar
The cost, over and above my taxes to the public school system: thirty dollars a month to the Toronto French School; cost of transportation which my wife, with our car, shares with another mother; and three-fifty an hour for Helen's tuition.
People ask us: “Why do you
bother?” Part of the answer is in McGill University's brief to the Royal Commission on Education in Quebec: “When French and English are spoken in the same city, even in the same home, the two greatest cultural inheritances of the West arc in daily contact.”
We agree. Today our daughter has as many French as English books on the shelves beside her bed, and she turns to them as readily for reading entertainment.
“I like my French books,” Helen says. “I can sit in a corner with Sophie (heroine of the children's classic Les malheurs de Sophie) or Tintin (from an adventure series) and believe there’s nobody around but just us.” We hope to inspire Gordon to do likewise.
We expect further benefits for the children, too. As Wilder Pcnficld once wrote in a magazine article: “There is a good deal of evidence that he who has learned more than one language as a little child has greater facility foi the acquisition of additional languages in adult life.”
Why don't more people do what we have done? Many of our Protestant friends and acquaintances in Quebec, who said they admired the stand we are taking, said the religious difficulties were too great. Religion can’t be ignored. There is, for instance, a
sizeable French Protestant minorityin Montreal. Some twenty-three hundred French Protestant children — enough to fill several schools — attend the English schools of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. The parents of these students apparently place their Protestantism ahead of their French heritage, although there is a movement among them agitating for French Protestant schooling and some small concessions have been granted. But essentially as a Protestant you have to fight for French education in Quebec even it you are French Canadian.
All of the French Canadian textbooks. we found, are seeded with religious themes, some of them grossly so. One of Helen's books taught arithmetic, for example, through the use of religious objects, prayer beads, etc. Her grade four grammar. Mon Livre de Français, a standard text in Quebec, contained a full lesson around the funeral of a mother, complete with mourning children, an illustration of the body in the coffin, of the burial procession, and including an exercise on “un convoi funèbre,” a funeral procession. Her scribblers were stamped with images of the Virgin and the Sacred Heart as indications of good work.
We tried to offset this in the home, by encouraging regular attendance of the children at Sunday school and by our own example as active and regular participants in the work of our local United Church and its activities. (It led us, incidentally, to a fuller appreciation of our own faith.) We had help too. Religious studies at Helen's school (catechism and prayers) became sufficiently heavy in grade three that Helen was obliged to bring work home for extra study. Heretofore, we had been able largely to separate “school religion" from what we practised in the home. Now we found ourselves teaching Roman Catholic catechism to Helen at one hour of the day and Protestant studies at another.
1 went to Rev. Jacques Barclay, the local Roman Catholic parish priest, who had been helpful on other occasions. "The school authorities need a mark for her in religion,” he said. "But perhaps in Helen's case that can be provided by her Sunday school teacher." The school commission
raised no objections, nor did her teacher: Helen still sat in on religious studies at the school, but she was no longer examined in them. At Toronto French School, most of the texts have to be acquired in France, where the textbook industry has a much more academic approach than in Quebec.
Our children have encountered no real academic problems beyond the adjustment of the first few months, and even that didn't prove serious for either of them. Helen's transition to
English class in Toronto was made with barely a ruffle and her grades continue to be satisfactory. Gordon's extra tuition is now complete and he fits in with his new group as with friends.
But French public schooling seems a long way off for our children in Ontario. 1 can't help recalling the parting words of one of the Catholic school commissioners when we left for Toronto:
"You won't find it as easy dealing
with the Irish there as you did with the French here."
. . . and the words of a member of the Separate School Board in Toronto:
“We have m ore than enough troubles with those French. They think they have all the answers."
Still, with national and international affairs developing as they are. we feel we have set our children on a better road to understanding — or maybe even improving — them. ★