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Learning French at the postsecondary level: Taking up the challenge

Chloé Le Mao, writer for La Liberté
Canadian Youth for French


Bilingualism in Canada appears to be on the decline, and in response, Canadian Youth for French (CYF) is committed to taking action. According to the organization, the hope for rekindling the movement lies in the postsecondary environment.

A troubling new trend

It's an undeniable fact: bilingualism is moving backwards in Canada. According to a recent study by Statistics Canada, over the last decade, the number of Canadians able to hold a conversation in English and in French has declined for the first time in 50 years.

During the past ten years, for the first time since 1961, the total population has actually increased faster than the bilingual population. The number of people who can express themselves in both English and French has therefore decreased from 17.7% to 17.5% over this period.

What's more, the situation within the country remains heterogeneous. Quebec differs from the rest of the country in being the only province to experience an increase in bilingualism: 42.6% of Quebec residents reported being able to hold a conversation in both languages in 2011, versus only 40.8% in 2001. In contrast, in other provinces, proportionately, we are seeing a progressive decline in bilingualism.

Two main factors explain this situation. The first is structural: an increase in the number of immigrants has contributed to an increase in the non‑bilingual population in Canada, with the exception of Quebec. The second factor is cultural: it involves the decrease in the number of elementary and high school students who are exposed to French as a second language.

Canadian Youth for French: Investing in the future

In light of this, CYF is committed to taking action. "For over 40 years, Canada has been investing in the promotion of bilingualism and linguistic duality," explains Justin Morrow, CYF's founder and executive director. "There is no reason why such a small proportion of the Canadian population should be bilingual today. It is definitely time to reverse the trend."

In the opinion of CYF, considerable progress can and must still be made. In fact, the organization has been working for the past four years to bolster the French language and help extend bilingualism to the largest possible portion of the Canadian population. "Many people are in favour of bilingualism and linguistic duality, but when it comes down to finding ways of implementing those ideals, they lack the resources to do so and can't find any solutions," says Justin Morrow. "In contrast, CYF says, 'We're ready to take up the challenge.'"

That being the case, to maintain bilingualism, what direction should we be taking? "We have to change strategies," explains Justin Morrow. "We can no longer focus solely on elementary and secondary school. We have to target the postsecondary environment."

It has been commonly accepted for years that young children learn a language more easily and that we must therefore focus our efforts at the elementary and secondary levels if we want to teach the greatest number of students to communicate in two official languages. Yet, according to CYF's research, only 5% of high school graduates know how to speak French, and only 5% of those (or 0.25% of graduates) continue to use French on a daily basis, 3 to 5 years after high school. So is teaching French solely to young children as useful as it seems?

Learning to be bilingual at the elementary and secondary levels is clearly insufficient. What are the potential solutions? CYF believes that the key to success lies at the postsecondary level. We must first realize that there is no set age to start learning a new language; then, we must guide those who want to deepen their learning toward the best opportunities to do so. It is at the postsecondary level that young people become fully aware of the professional, personal and academic advantages of speaking both official languages.

But becoming aware of the importance of bilingualism is only the first step; young people must also put into practice their desire to learn. While it is easy for Francophone Canadians to practice English, which is present all around them and in the popular culture, the same is not true for Anglophone Canadians who desire to learn French. The issue is simple, therefore: give all young people who are determined to learn French the means to fulfill their expectations.

"What we must understand is that there are an incredible number of opportunities. Learning French doesn't happen only in the classroom; we can also learn a language at work and in the community."

"We should not let our age or what we hear in the media discourage us," adds Justin Morrow. "For example, contrary to what we may believe, Anglophones eager to learn French are welcome in all Franco‑Canadian communities."

"The willingness to become bilingual is there," concludes Justin Morrow. "However, the process is slow because the postsecondary environment discourages many. CYF has given itself the mandate to ensure that all those wishing to learn or practice French in a postsecondary setting have the opportunity to do so and the support they need to achieve their linguistic goals. And we are very anxious to see what an increasingly bilingual youth will achieve for our common future."