Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Explaining Well-Meaning Failure -- NB Second Language Training Edition

The news that only 32 people took advantage of the government’s $1Million programme to provide free second language training to unemployed New Brunswickers last year has been met with surprise from some quarters.

In particular, the minister responsible seemed disappointed, stating “You can’t just stay there and complain that you can’t get a job opportunity because you don’t know the second language but you are not doing anything about it.”

Let me say at the outset that, while Don and I famously have our differences, I think his support for bilingualism is heartfelt, sincere, and admirable.  This is not a hit piece.

But his statement confirms what the numbers suggest – Don doesn’t understand, on a human level, what the reality is for unemployed people.  Or for Anglophones who have not mastered a second language.

Often, our second language training in New Brunswick is terrible.  And I think it is because we design programmes for their symbolic value rather than their educational value.  We ask “Will this show we support bilingualism?” rather than “Will this make more actual people bilingual?”.  And we should be mature enough to break that bad habit, because bilingualism is here to stay.  We have to stop fighting the ghosts of the 1960s.

To understand the failure of this program, we have to understand one fundamental thing about what it is to be unemployed.  If you want to know what path an unemployed adult will choose, first ask the question “What will most quickly get this person into a job?”

For example, if I offered free philosophy degree courses to unemployed New Brunswickers, there would be low take up.  Even though statistically people with arts degrees, even in Philosophy, earn more than those with no degree at all, it would be a tough sell.  It takes four years to learn enough philosophy to get a degree, and even then the skills are general – there is no automatic job afterwards.  Some doors open, but that is the most that can be said with certainty.

But isn’t that also true, for most, of second language training.

If your skills in French are minimal today, learning a second language is not a quick solution to needing a job.  Because you are not three, six or even twelve months away from speaking French at a level that opens up any jobs.  (I had access to Arabic language training for six months last year.  Do you think I will be applying for any jobs classified Arabic-essential?)  Basically, if you lack the ability to have a basic conversation today, you are years from the point where you will learn French well enough that you can actually use your new French skills to apply for jobs that require French.

It is a great thing, of course, to be able to have basic conversations in Caraquet in French.  But that doesn’t get you hired.

And many unemployed New Brunswickers do not have even minimal French to start with.  (Remember that before Intensive French was introduced in 2008, 98% of non-immersion graduates lacked the ability to use even one sentence spontaneously, and fewer than 10% of graduates completed Immersion).  

Also, that is a number of years needed for the average learner.  Statistically, there would be a higher number of people who struggle to learn languages among the unemployed than there are among the general population.  (There most certainly are high-skill unemployed here, but it is also true that a higher percentage of unemployed adults report having struggled in school than the percentage of employed adults).  That means that many unemployed New Brunswickers likely doubt that, even with time and effort, they will master a second language well enough to make it a certified, employment-related skill.  If you struggle with first language skills, how plausible is it that you will master a second before your EI runs out ( or social assistance rules force you to take the first job available).

So if we understand that unemployed people desperately need jobs because they have kids and mortgages and basic desires to work, and second language training takes years to help an unemployed person get a job, and the government doesn’t help with living expenses while you get “free” training -- why are we surprised that the programme tanked?

For most adult learners, that is the calculation that adult responsibilities force upon us.  The question we ask when deciding whether or not to learn French is not “Would I like to know French?”.  The question is “what professional benefit does that bestow compared to other things I could do with the same time and effort?”

If you are a unilingual worker at a private sector company, you could learn French in 2 to 3 years.  You could also get an MBA and qualify for jobs that don’t require French and pay more.  What will you do?

If you are a Grade 12 student who wants to be a doctor or scientist, you could take Advanced Math in French.  But if you know you go a bit slower in your second language, and you’ll be competing in university for scholarships and med school spots, don’t you have to choose mastering the Math over polishing your French?

If you’re on social assistance and you left school in Grade 10, should you do your high school equivalency first, or learn French?

See the problem?

Many francophones underestimate the struggle for Anglophones to learn French, just as Anglophones underestimate the risk of assimilation.  One group has the second language so present in their lives they need to create spaces away from it, the other struggles to find places to use it and learn it informally.  Neither completely gets the other, which I think is why we see Don Arsenault defaulting to blaming people without jobs for not jumping all over the chance to take a French course instead of asking questions about what these people need.

If we are serious about bilingualism, we wouldn’t do it the way Minister Arsenault did it.  Instead we would:

1.       Fund universities and colleges to offer co-curricular training in French for free while students are already forgoing income to learn.  Make these opportunities free and available outside the programme.


2.       Offer French training when it fits an employment plan, but commit to assist learners with student aid and income support to pursue the programme for the time it takes to gain actual certification.


3.       Don’t limit programmes to those with the urgency of being unemployed.  The people who will actually learn French are likely those who have the comfort of a paycheque and will take the course for the long-term benefit.  Waiting until someone is unemployed to offer free French training is like waiting until someone is having a heart attack to offer them a free gym membership.


4.       Of course, the best time to help as many people acquire a base in French is when they are young and already free to go to school all day.  If starting immersion in Grade 1 is leading to 10% who learn a lot of French and 90% who learn almost none, see if delaying the entry point will allow a broader cross-section of people to graduate knowing enough French that they can quickly get professional certification.  Like, maybe starting in Grade 3 would lead to higher immersion enrollment …..wait, what?....someone did that?  Well, I am sure that the government would build off that, since they want more bilingual people.  That’s here to stay!


In all seriousness, bilingualism is not helped if it is simply a way to create an Anglophone elite and it is not available to all in programmes that match reality.  Offering programmes symbolically without asking how learners actually can learn is a waste of time and money.

And blaming unemployed people for government’s failure to act strategically is not good.  Minister, a little more thought and a little less lecturing would be welcome.