A tower of babel for the classroom

Andrew Nikiforuk February 1 1982

A tower of babel for the classroom

Andrew Nikiforuk February 1 1982

A tower of babel for the classroom


Andrew Nikiforuk

When the bell rings at Edmonton’s Hollyrood Public School, Cathy and Allison Storchuck yank off hats and mitts and enter two different solitudes: Allison, 9, goes to a French immersion classroom; Cathy, 11, a Ukrainian. In Cathy’s Grade 6 class students speak and write Ukrainian most of the day, even while calculating long divisions in mathematics or learning about the solar system in science.

Fox Mykyta, a collection of Ukrainian short stories, joins standard literature texts, and in physical education Cathy dons Ukrainian dress for folk dancing.

“The more languages we have the better,” announces the girls’ mother, Elizabeth Storchuck.

Each school day nearly 250,000 Canadian children study a language other than French or English—tongues as varied as Inuktituut, Spanish or Mandarin. It’s called third or heritage language instruction. And as an offshoot of the federal government’s 10-year-old multiculturalism policy, the programs have transformed some schools into veritable United Nations. With one in eight Canadians speaking languages other than French or English and immigration again on the rise (143,117 last year), demand has burgeoned. In Manitoba’s public schools, bilingual classrooms in Ukrainian and English have grown from three to 26 in the past three years. While 77,000 students attend Ontario’s Heritage Language Program (an enrichment course held after school), enrolment in Quebec’s smaller program has jumped from 118 to 1,000 in the past three years.

Across the country hundreds of communityrun “Saturday schools,” operating out of churches, schools and homes, warn students that though they may forget their mothers, they must never forget their mother tongue.

Such schools reflect the growing political power of secondand

third-generation Canadians. Alberto DiGiovanni, director of the Canadian Centre for Italian Culture and Education in Toronto, speaks to the heart of the matter: “To me the best Canadian is one who speaks the two official languages and the language of the neighborhood.” Catering to this surge of interest in heritage languages, provincial, federal and foreign governments vie, often with Machiavellian intent, to fund the programs.

Close on the heels of the highly charged debates on bilingualism, the spectre of multilingualism provokes similar bitterness. A host of exasperated critics now says enough is enough. Many parents fear third language teaching will segregate or balkanize the schools, while nationalists protest that it will threaten the country’s integrity and usurp tax dollars. Some educators charge that the programs will create second-class citizens unable to cope in any one language; others, equally opposed, forecast the birth of a new multilingual elite.

Linguistic storms are particularly fierce now in Toronto. Modest proposals by the city’s Armenian and Ukrainian communities for “alternative school” status have stirred controversy even though the mother tongues would be taught only as language courses. Cries of “ghettoization” and editorials on the tower of babel greeted the groups’ appeal to the Toronto Board of Education

in 1980. Undaunted, the city’s ethnic trustees, who represent more than half of Toronto’s school population, responded last fall with a draft report recommending that the board integrate the teaching of third languages into the regular school day, where numbers warrant. The board will make its decision this month. Institutionalizing such programs would radically alter the province’s much-criticized Heritage Language

Program —a political carrot dropped by the Conservative government to garner the ethnic vote days before the 1977 provincial election. So far, the program has funnelled $20 million to a third of the province’s school boards to help students representing 44 different linguistic groups learn languages as exotic as Urdu, Gujerati, Albanian and Vietnamese. But the courses run only 2'/2 hours every week either after school or on Saturdays—hardly long enough for compréhensive learning.

£ Advocates, mean-

while, take their cue from the West, where the third language teaching movement began almost nonchalantly in the early ’70s. On the Prairies, where names like Romanow, Kroeger and Tchorzewski crop up in the provincial cabinets, the issue is purely a matter of alternative education.

These provinces ingeniously defused resentment against the federal mandate on bilingualism by giving parents a choice. In a 1971 election move, Alberta’s Social Credit government answered the appeals of Edmonton’s Ukrainian Businessmen’s Association by changing the School Act so that any language could be taught up to 50 per cent of the time, depending on demand. The result: Edmonton’s public school board introduced a Ukrainian-English class before its French immersion program. Now in Alberta there are 1,200 students enrolled in Ukrainian-English classes, 500 in Hebrew and 200 in German, while many are expected to fill a proposed Chinese program. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where Canadians with neither English nor French backgrounds form the majority, similar legislation quickly followed.

Manitoba’s Ukrainian program underscores researchers’ claims that proficiency in the mother tongue can be promoted at school without impeding the development of English and general learning. With a comprehension rate of 70 per cent in reading and writing in Ukrainian, students are doing at least as well as their unilingual peers, boasts Terry Prychitko, president of Manitoba Parents for Ukrainian Education. Manitoba’s Ukrainian students, mainly from English-speaking homes, study from materials supplied by the province and occasionally carefully screened Soviet texts. Asks the province’s second language co-ordinator, Karl Fast: “Does it really matter in which language you learn about parts of your body or why it is snowing today?”

Indeed not, says Toronto’s expanding ethnic community. There, additional reasons such as getting a job or communicating with relatives are cited for the benefits of third language education. Declares Alberto DiGiovanni’s eightyear-old son, Carlo: “I like it. Whenever I go to Italy, I can talk Italian.” Claims Alec Economides, who delivers 10-yearold Aliki to a Toronto Greek school for five hours every Saturday, “It helps her communicate with her grandparents and understand me better.”

Such arguments do little to convince some members of the city’s Anglo establishment. Toronto trustee and lawyer David Moll insists he would vote

against Ontario’s Heritage Language Program tomorrow, let alone the idea of integrating it into the school day. “They can’t expect to put Kiev, Athens, Rome or Hong Kong in a little bottle on a shelf in the city of Toronto. I say it’s nonsense.” Even parents with children in the program think integration might be carrying the matter too far. “What are the safeguards to the future of Canada when you develop a multilingual country? After a while you forget you are Canadian,” says Pastor Walter Cebula of the First Ukrainian Pentecostal Church.

Many Toronto teachers are irked to see the language programs working at cross-purposes. Children may follow heritage language programs after school while studying English as a second language during the day. Teachers have even been known to sabotage the heritage classes by removing pencil sharpeners from their rooms. In many

Ontario boards, opposition to the existing program remains strong for both educational and monetary reasons. “Here in Canada you might as well become Canadianized,” contends Scarborough trustee Barbara Fava, whose

board has repeatedly voted down the program.

The nationalistic fervor evident in many programs also feeds the fears and prejudices of eastern critics. Most language texts used in the Ontario program and appearing in Saturday schools across the country readily betray their national origins. A Mandarin reader shows a family saluting the flag of Taiwan. Texts ¿ from India might be relevant to ' children born in India, but not to native Canadians, admits Jack I Berryman, a consultant for Ontario’s program. Program in-

structors, who range from high school students to qualified

teachers, are largely foreigntrained. So comprehensive is the Portuguese program that Portugal grants credits to students who pass exams that are also used in the mother country.

More worrisome is the role foreign governments play in language programs. The Japanese, Greek and Portuguese consulates, among others, aid their communities

by providing either funds, texts

or education officers. The Toronto school board has had to fend off the advances of foreign governments wanting to get involved in the Heritage Language Program, says a vigilant Miriam DiGiuseppe, the program’s co-ordinator.

Another sore point is the degree to which the federal multiculturalism ministry uses heritage language to promote the political ideology of multiculturalism in education, a provincial reserve. Through its Cultural Enrichment Program, it grants $1.5 million every year to develop texts and train teachers for community-run language schools that teach up to 85,000 children. Asked if his ministry wasn’t putting pressure on public school boards to generate programs, James Fleming replies, “If it washes into the education system, that’s good.”

To parents and trustees the federal initiative looks like a typical pork-barrel adventure to buy a few votes. Despite such machinations and the intrusion of politics into what some regard as a purely educational matter, advocates such as DiGiovanni have not lost their perspective. “I use multiculturalism for my needs, not the government’s needs. I turn it into a good thing.”

With files from Susan Pedwell.