Bilingualism wasn’t always perceived to be an advantage, says Johanne Paradis, a linguistics professor at the University of Alberta. She says that in the past, many new immigrants preferred to keep their heritage under wraps so their kids could assimilate more smoothly into Canadian culture.
In the UK many parents of new arrivals tell us teachers that we must make sure they only speak English. As you know from this blog I feel this is a shame because they have learnt previously just with another set of words and sounds. This not only happens with those from abroad but those from inside the UK i.e. like my daughter who moved from Wales to England having had her previous teaching and learning in English. They can then be taught really slowly so they get bored, not always the case I know but it happens more than we choose to admit. So it is really nice to read that bilingual programmes can work. It should give all of the bilingual converts hope.
Tsang, an immigrant from Hong Kong, has been living in Canada for the past three decades. He speaks mostly Cantonese Chinese and English. But his daughter Megan and his son Michael are trilingual, fluent in English and both Cantonese and Mandarin, two dialects of Chinese.
“I’m really content,” says Tsang, the vice-president of the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association, a parents’ group dedicated to bringing Mandarin into local public schools. “English is still their first tongue, and my kids still talk to each other in English, but … they can switch back and forth from Mandarin and Cantonese.”
Tsang’s children have been enrolled in a bilingual English and Mandarin program in the Edmonton public school system since they were in kindergarten. Megan, 16, is now in Grade 11 at Ross Sheppard High School, and Michael, 12, is in Grade 8 at Parkview School.
Although Tsang and his wife speak Cantonese Chinese, they didn’t hesitate to enrol their kids in the Mandarin program. Now, more than a decade later, Tsang says he doesn’t regret their choice because he’s confident his kids have retained something of their heritage.
“Our Chinese background is important to us,” he says. “Both my wife and I were educated in Hong Kong, so we studied classic literature. And there are translations, but some of the meaning is lost in translation … We wanted to be able to share something like (this) with our children.”
Between the three languages, the Tsangs usually stick to Cantonese at home, but Tsang says his kids know they’re about to get a lecture when he slips into English with them.
“When I talk to them in English, they know they’re in trouble,” says Tsang with a chuckle.
Families such as the Tsangs are becoming increasingly common, with more and more households giving their children a bilingual education in a language other than French.
The Edmonton public school system offers seven programs for students who want to learn Arabic, American Sign Language, Chinese, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Ukrainian, with about 4,100 students registered for these programs in 2011. The Catholic board also offers bilingual programs in Spanish, Ukrainian and Polish, with about 1,400 students.
The Mandarin bilingual program alone has spread to 12 public schools in Edmonton, making up roughly half of the public school’s bilingual student population. And delegates from as far away as Finland have come to visit and take pointers on setting up a similar system in their own country, says Peter Wong, the former president of the Chinese bilingual association.
Yet bilingualism wasn’t always perceived to be an advantage, says Johanne Paradis, a linguistics professor at the University of Alberta. She says that in the past, many new immigrants preferred to keep their heritage under wraps so their kids could assimilate more smoothly into Canadian culture.
“I do think the broader social and political shift … all began with the (Royal) Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism at the end of the 1960s. That set the stage for multiculturalism,” Paradis says.