Interested in improving performance in key subjects, preparing K-12 students for future careers, and growing Atlantic Canada’s economy? Start with learning a new language

By Ainslie Pierrynowski (AIMS On Campus Student Fellow)

In recent years, policymakers, educators, and parents in Atlantic Canada have grappled with a pressing question: how can the region’s schools provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to secure livelihoods and revitalize local economies? Moreover, what specific kind of knowledge and skills ought to be taught? Why? How? Much of the discourse surrounding these questions has focused on improving students’ performance in language arts, mathematics, and science—and understandably so. In fact, I pointed out in a previous op-ed that the 2015 results of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures student achievement at the national and sub-national level, showed that all four Atlantic provinces ranked below the Canadian average when it came to students’ reading comprehension, mathematics abilities, and understanding of science. While these skills are certainly instrumental to students’ success in further education and in the workplace, one further area of study has become increasingly important to Atlantic Canada’s survival in the larger global economy: learning additional languages.

Although this discipline may, for some, initially appear to be a beneficial (but optional) addition to one’s resume at best and a “bird course” at worst, the acquisition of other languages has a direct bearing the development of students’ human capital. For instance, a growing body of research suggests that individuals who speak multiple languages regularly tend to develop a variety of skills that transfer across several different fields. Multilingual individuals tend to be better able to retain information, multitask, and absorb information from their surroundings than their monolingual peers. In fact, language courses (and these cognitive benefits) need not detract from students’ study of English or French language arts, mathematics, science, and other key subjects. Rather, learning another language may actually improve students’ academic performance in these areas. Research suggests that studying another language tends to bolster students’ scores in mathematics, in part by pushing students to develop strong problem-solving and memorization skills. Further research indicates that learning a new language can push students to develop their grammar, vocabulary, reading, and communication skills, thus improving students’ knowledge of their first language. One study found that students who learn an additional language tend to attain higher grades in mathematics than students who do not, even when learning another language takes time away from studying mathematics. Another study observed that students who spent just one semester learning a language, with one 90 minute class per week, saw substantial improvement in their performance in language arts and mathematics. Therefore, although language learning should not be taken as a substitute for strong language arts and mathematics curricula, it could serve as a valuable complement to these subjects. In addition, multilingualism affords students even more human capital when they finish their studies and enter the workforce. Communicating with prospective clients and companies in their preferred language, for example, can help to forge lasting international business relationships. Health professionals may have more success with diagnosis and treatment if they can speak their patients’ first languages. A multilingual researcher can share their findings with other researchers around the globe more easily than their monolingual counterparts—the list goes on.

The time is ripe for Atlantic Canada’s K-12 education systems to become leaders in language education. After all, the small and medium-sized enterprises which predominate the area’s economy sorely need to find new international exports markets. Moreover, the shrinking region must improve its relatively low immigrant retention rates and draw more newcomers to the area. And with Canada becoming increasingly multilingual and ever-more enmeshed in the global economy, Atlantic Canada cannot afford to be left behind. K-12 education is the optimal starting point for such a renewed focus on language-learning. That is, children tend to be more receptive to language-learning than adults. A strong K-12 language-learning program also enables us to invest in the region’s future labour force and Atlantic Canada’s long-term economic success.

Implementing such an initiative, however, constitutes a formidable challenge. Despite the aforementioned academic, social, and economic benefits of learning multiple languages, course offerings at smaller and more isolated schools are frequently limited. Specialized language teachers can be scarce in many communities and may entail a prohibitive cost to cash-strapped school systems. Even existing language programs have no guarantee of fluency among their graduates. Or, as in the case of some French immersion programs, language-learning initiatives might be perceived as little more than a way to covertly filter out low-performing students and provide a hidden stream for high-achievers.

To confront these challenges, schools can take several steps. First of all, online teaching tools, like this language-learning app for young people designed by 13-year-old Hillary Yip, offer unprecedented access to conversations with native speakers, educational games, lesson plans, texts, audio recordings, videos, and many more curriculum resources. Schools can also tap into external learning opportunities, by say offering to host a local cultural organization’s language classes in the school building. E-learning, which is beginning to gain some traction in Atlantic Canada, can also enable educators in disparate locations to pool their resources and knowledge together. For older students, guidance offices can promote funded exchange programs—of which few Canadian students take advantage—especially those involving a language immersion component. Financial savings elsewhere, whether in the form of more efficient transportation or the sale of disused school buildings, could be allocated toward curriculum development, ongoing teacher training, or the hiring of staff. Regular monitoring of students’ language fluency, using an agreed-upon rubric similar to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, could help to identify potential areas for improvement and ensure that students are progressing in their studies. Overall, Atlantic Canada’s K-12 school systems cannot afford to think of language courses as mere “add-ons,” but must instead treat language learning as a crucial investment for the region’s future.


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