The Value of Second Language Education

A brief presented to the
Selected Standing Committee on Education
Thursday, November 1, 2001
Sheraton Guildford Hotel, Surrey, B. C.

by Dennis Hazelton, Diane Tijman and Dinah Lewis, with supporting statements from students Eldar Sehic and Christopher McLean


We would like to start off by thanking the government for providing us with the opportunity to give direct input into change. In spite of being very proud of our school system, there are some changes we would like to see and this forum is most welcomed.

The goal of the BCATML, (B. C. Association of Teachers of Modern Languages), a provincial specialists' association, is to promote and advance the teaching of modern languages throughout the province. We represent approximately 450 active members specialized in the teaching of French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Punjabi, Spanish and other languages in B. C. Our mandate is to present the concerns of second language teachers to the BCTF. and through the BCTF to the government and outside agencies.

As language educators, we strongly believe in the value of second language learning. We, therefore, recommend that B. C. require second language studies not only at the elementary level, as is the current policy, but also at the secondary level where they have no current status as part of the Graduation program. This should be done for three benefits: intellectual, cultural, and economic.

The latest research shows that the study of a second language actually increases the elasticity of the brain. Students find that during their second language studies, their command of English improves as does their ability to acquire other languages more readily.

Culturally, what better way to broaden our understanding of the world, other people and their points of view but through another language. Second language study breaks down barriers and enhances cross-cultural understanding and appreciation not just in our multicultural province but most importantly in the global community which, of late, is clearly in need of much understanding.

Economically speaking, second languages are now becoming a vital part of the basic preparation for an increasing number of careers. Even in those cases where the knowledge of a second language does not help graduates obtain a first job, many report that their second language skills often enhance their mobility and improve their chances for promotion. Key business deals are often closed because of the cultural awareness gained through the study of a second language.

The latest research also shows that second language learning is best obtained by starting at a young age, and we believe that this learning requires proficient teachers and quality materials. To ensure success with second language programs at the elementary level, it is important that the teachers have the linguistic proficiency to deliver the program. Many of our elementary teachers are frustrated with their inability to speak French well, yet they are compelled to teach it. We recommend that funding be put in place to allow such teachers to participate in methodology courses and attend language proficiency courses, and provide them with appropriate teaching materials. For our elementary teachers in training, we also recommend that university education programs include a second language methodology course. This would help to alleviate the anxiety of many beginning teachers.

Currently, high school students are limited in their ability to take second languages because of the graduation requirements. Students tell us that they are left with few options and as a result, often do not enroll or continue their language study. Therefore, we ask what can the government do to give greater value and recognition to language education and give students more choice and flexibility in their options during their high school years?

In conclusion, language education is a vital part of the student's school experience. With some welcome changes as noted above, this education could be more powerful, beneficial, and enhance the opportunities of our young people and ultimately our province. We want to build world class leaders and second language education is an essential key to that goal.

And now we would like to introduce two recent graduates and success stories from the public school system, Eldar Sehic, now a first year student of economics at Simon Fraser University, and Chris McLean, a first year arts student at the University of British Columbia.

Student presentation #1

Eldar Sehic

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:

I stand here today, with a sense of faith and honour. Through my dear family, and my experiences, I've learned to seek knowledge. All the way from Bosnia, my dear homeland torn by genocide, by evil, I found myself living in this new home, Canada. Learning English was a new challenge. As every challenge has its upsets and its moments of glory, French is no exception. It was a valuable journey, and still is. Yet to be sincere and honest, I'd have to say that in the past, French never really grasped my learning ambition. All I saw in French was a bridge of many bridges, to get to university. Grade 11 French seemed enough for me. Yes, it's a shame that I was, like so many others, blind in seeing the value of learning a language at a young age.

But through it all, I was able to change my perspective. In the summer of 2000, encouraged by my family to go on a 5-week French program, I made my way to Quebec, expecting nothing more than some time to relax. Going there with no particular interest for French, I came back grateful, with great memories of an unforgettable summer, an increased knowledge of French and its culture, and of course this surprising new feeling towards learning this language. As a result of this positive experience, I took Grade 12 French, and completed it successfully with no regrets. In that year I had an opportunity to compete in the French public speaking competition. Once again, I found myself grateful for French. At the same time, it proved to me that what you learn can later benefit you, because you never know what the future holds.

And so as high school ended, as all those bridges were crossed, and the hunger for knowledge and success grew, I'm now taking French in the first semester of university. Keep in mind, French is neither my major, nor a requirement. It is merely a tool to enhance my education, and a doorway to more opportunities. To be truthful, learning French can really develop your mind, and yet some still wonder if knowing it is an asset. Perhaps we need to understand that we live in a country where French is an official language, not to mention its popularity all over the world. Its knowledge seems vital. Aside from the fact that not all students have the opportunity to go to a French-speaking region, many, sadly, can't see the value of knowing French. I hope that you can.

For students to have the necessary education, and to be better prepared for the future, making grade 12 French an essential, is a step forward. Their opportunities rely on family, excellent teachers, and the respected positions that you all hold. Your leadership is needed, your experience respected, and your efforts will be reflected. I believe that if people travel more, and learn more about the world, it will erase ignorance, it will defeat hate and evil, and it will allow people to seek further knowledge, resulting in, I hope, humble success.

I'm thankful for all I've gained, including French. With the doors open, and always challenges to overcome, the opportunities await. In reality, you can lose a lot in life, but you can never lose what you know. So let us keep in mind the importance and the power of communication and knowledge. Let us learn and understand that we'll never know everything. But every time we learn something, it makes a difference, and believe it or not, it can amazingly change the world.


Student presentation #2

Christopher McLean

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen:

My name is Christopher McLean, and I have been invited to speak before you today as a student sincerely interested in second language education. I am currently enrolled as a first-year student at the University of British Columbia, where I am taking the Arts 1 program, and studying Chinese language. I first began taking Mandarin in high school in grade 9, and I continued taking it through grade 12 and now in university.

I am interested in studying language, and to be blunt, I think it is fascinating. In my opinion, language is one of the most important skills we possess. To learn a language can be a frustrating, demanding and time-consuming process, but the rewards are immense. The process of learning Chinese started out difficult and is still a difficult task, but I have found it to have opened many doors for me, and has enabled me to be effective in situations where I would not necessarily have been. Moreover, learning another language, and one so vastly different from English, has allowed me to consider and approach problems, and indeed life, from a greater variety of angles. Languages express different ideas in different ways, and therefore facilitate different approaches to the same problems. This has been a benefit to me in many ways, from normal everyday situations, to writing essays in English.

Knowing a second language can be extremely useful and has a verisimilitude of applications. Therefore, it would be logical to label second language learning as a skill, specifically a skill with a variety of applications, or an "Applied Skill" if you will. This brings me to the second point of my presentation. While at high school, I was nearly unable to take Mandarin in grade 12 because of the necessity of having enough Applied Skills credits for graduation - for which second language courses do not count. Indeed, it was only through a small loophole in the definition of "Applied Skill" that enabled me to do some extra work in my band class and permit it to be both an applied skill and a fine arts course to satisfy graduation requirements.

Language, however, is nothing if not a skill - and a skill which by its very nature must be applied, for it is only in application that it exists at all. Indeed, second language study requires not one skill, but many disciplines: reading, writing, speaking, listening as well as culture, history, music, etc. In fact, second language learning embraces all disciplines.

In conclusion, second language courses are demanding, useful, and in my experience, they should most definitely be labeled as an Applied Skill as part of the Graduation Program.